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Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Revolution Will Be Published

I just caught Garrison Keillor's new op-ed in the New York Times, "The End of an Era in Publishing," which you can read here. Here's a brief excerpt which gives you the gist, and certainly the tone, of the piece:

Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a Web site. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

He goes on a little longer, talking about the Good Old Days of publishing where an author made it into print--like gaining entrance into a Secret Society--through the "laying on of hands," through anointing by editors and powerful publishers, the people you needed to know, and then you were one of the people people needed to know. The club you'd just joined was exclusive, which served as quality control, unlike today, where anyone with access to the internet (or, say, a goofy blog) can be "published." Where everybody has an opportunity to join the club. And once everybody's joined the club, you no longer have a club at all. Just a very large gathering of everybody and his cousin...those "18 million authors" Keillor groans about.

I admit, I would've loved to have come up in those "simpler" times...not because I really think they were simpler or better, but because I'm blinded by the same weird nostalgia about them Keillor is. I would've loved for a crusty but benign old New York editor to take me to a three-martini lunch where we could discuss my book and chain smoke cigarettes like on Mad Men. I would've loved to have gone to a cocktail party on the Upper West Side and been punched in the face by Norman Mailer.

I would love, upon the signing of a book contract, for Telly Savalas to step out from the shadows, hand me a brandy and offer me a cigarette from his silver cigarette case, and say, "Membership has its privileges, baby."

But those days are done, and not because of technology or the internet or txtspk, but because the industry changed. As those old stalwarts of publishing retired, or died slumped over their manuscripts, they were replaced by, and I'm speaking broadly here, corporatists who were no longer concerned with putting out superior products but with turning a buck...with turning, in fact, as many bucks as they could. And thus those old Gatekeepers, as my friend Michael Griffith calls them, were succeeded by businesspeople whose seeming sole criterion for publishing a book--for publishing anything--was not "Is it good?' but "Will it sell?"

Admittedly, I find something uncomfortable about the idea of Gatekeepers and annointings in the first place, and something quite democratic about what technology currently allows authors to do for themselves that, previously, they were dependent upon publishers for. Though I'm not anti-elitist (I teach in a university, for God's sake), and I do prefer my books coming to me the old fashioned way, bound as a nice-looking physical product I can bring up to my nose and smell.

Still, the idea of publishing-as-velvet-rope fundamentally rubs me the wrong way. And when a few people have say over what goes out into the world's bookshelves, and when their sole motivating factor for populating those shelves has to do with what will turn a quick profit...well, that seems to demand revolution. Democracy doesn't spring up randomly, just because people are bored. It springs up in response to oppression, real or perceived. And when it seems the system is stacked against you, when the system cannot be changed from the inside, you have to change it from the outside.

When you know have have an actual revolution, rather than just a fringe movement, is when people within the establishment start looking at what's going on outside and start joining in.

Such is the case with PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author John Edgar Wideman, who self-published his most recent book, Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind, with, of all places, Lulu. The book features 100 shorts--or "micro-stories," as Wideman calls them--which automatically sounds like big publishing death. But the book has received positive reviews, as in this review from NPR, which felt obliged to end with a mention of the book's path to publication: "one has to notice...what a sign of the times this is that it comes to us from a small, print-for-hire outfit that advertises online."

Another good example is Steve Almond's new book, This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey, which Almond self-published in an even more direct way: through the Harvard Book Store's Espresso Book Machine and taking the copies to sell himself.

This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey, like Wideman's Briefs, is populated by very short pieces...making the project not exactly a mainstream, big-house publisher's dream. Almond writes about the experience of trying to sell the book idea to his editor in a wonderful piece in the current print issue of Poets & Writers
:
Then I made the mistake of looking up at the editor. Her expression was one I'll never forget, a rictus of polite horror. It was as if, every time I opened my mouth, a tapeworm squirmed out. I am not blaming this particular editor--she was merely doing her thankless job, which consists of figuring out how she might extract a profit from my meager talents given the prevailing market--but gazing at her face, it was instantly clear to me that my brilliant idea stood no hope at all in the realm of commercial publishing.
Almond also wrote about the experience of pitching the book, then taking matters into his own hands, in a blog over at The Rumpus...and the comments the blog received were full of optimism and support and passion that Steve had shown people something of the future, shown them the way.

But let's be honest: Almond's book is receiving attention because he's Steve Almond. And John Edgar Wideman's Lulu book got reviewed by NPR because he's John Edgar Wideman. This isn't yet the way; most of us, if we wanted to self-publish a book on Lulu, would put the book up, wait for the reception, and would find ourselves in the position Keillor warns of: an author with 14 readers, half of whom were family.

The publishing industry spends much of its book budgets on advertising, placement on shelves, getting the word out, and it does this very well. Individuals don't have the resources of time and money to compete with that. Anyone can now publish a book, true, but that doesn't mean anyone will notice or care, much less ever see a copy or read it. What's more, big-house publishing isn't going anywhere. The industry is going through big changes right now, but it's not going to "slide into the sea" like Keillor predicts. What it will have to do is rethink the models (of business, of production, and of the value of the product beyond the price tag on the cover) that got it here in the first place, adapting to a marketplace which suddenly harbors competition the industry hasn't had to face before. And the industry, if it's actually paying attention to what the upheaval means rather than simply reacting to it or cowering in the basement afraid of the pitchforks, will almost certainly come out better in the end.

Viva la revolucion.

2 comments:

  1. I was glad to see this response, because I read the Keillor article too, and it just seems like another in a long line of aging doomsayers who are afraid of new technologies whose implications they don't fully grasp. As a member of the generation everyone is writing about, too, I'm personally insulted to hear Keillor and others constantly talk about my total disregard for books or language. For Keillor to look at text messages and declare them an indicator of my generation's literary sensibilities is about as intellectually deep and mature as those people who tell me, "I bet you don't even know what a record player is!" har har.

    The truth is that, even if we live in a world where publishing is completely democratized, there will always be people who will seek and enjoy art that is imaginative and of high quality -- in other words, there will always be elitists. There'll always be people who read and write well, and there will always be a culture of literary and scholarly criticism around them. Not to mention the fact that, as you alluded to, literature as an art has become (and I don't mean this pejoratively) institutionalized in the English departments housed at every university, meaning that there will always be (at the very least) a profitable niche market for books.

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  2. And to piggy-back on Steven's comments, that work that is imaginative and high quality, even if it starts as having an audience of 14 as Keillor notes, will be passed around and shared until the audience grows and it becomes well-known, not just by elitists but by everyone who recognizes its stellar qualities, not all that unlike the pamphlets and serials that gained fame and recognition for early authors when the masses (which we comprise) were awed by excellence. It isn't an either/or, it's a new addition, a new form, a continuance in new clothing, and that clothing is the metal-framed Mac on which I'm writing, instead of the paper-based legal pad next to it.

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