Monday, April 14, 2008



These reflections are somewhat prompted by Stephen Bodio at Querencia</a> ( who is contemplating how an aging but perfectly viable writer can survive in the face of the disintegration of the publishing industry.

1. Publishing as we have known in for the last century or so is a form of capitalism
. That is, a publishing house is a business based on capital, usually the capital supplied by a PERSON, often someone with deep pockets and equally deep interests and (one hopes) discrimination. This person has presumably sought out or invited writing of distinction, NOT “what will sell.” The point of the enterprise was not money but discernment. The motivation was not from the author but from the publisher, who might have to persuade or even commission writers.

In some quarters, organizations with principles may take the place of the publishing gentleperson with pockets by making grants or commissioning writing. Academic presses, the Sierra Club, “Green” bodies of one sort or another, and so on. But the corporations who now own publishing houses are pure capitalists -- no other motives.

Now that capitalism comes from investment money, the key idea is to turn a profit. The main way conservative investors can see to turn a profit is to stick to what worked last time, no matter what it was or what it’s quality. Also, they expect a return of ten percent or more. Otherwise, they will look for other investments.

2. Publishing has been traditionally seen as a way for a talented writer to (eventually) make money from his or her passions, working alone and then being “discovered” by the deep pockets publisher. This story is emphasized over and over and over in movies and books. But it is like a lot of other assumptions: no evidence is ever submitted about the talented person who worked passionately alone and died penniless -- totally unrecognized by definition. Unrecorded. Undefended.

But publishers have realized that this potent myth about “how it works” will cause talented persons to subsidize their own writing. So now, the writer not only has to pay rent and groceries, but also must pay the publisher. The publisher, who once employed a staff of editors to interface with the writers, now had laid off all the editors -- who have redefined themselves as agents who do the same filtering and locating. Now agents also require the writer rather than the publisher to pay them.

3. The technical part of publishing -- getting ink onto paper, editing in the larger sense of organization and content, proofing for accuracy and clarity, formatting, illustrating, printing and binding, and finally distributing -- have never been easier. If you have the money, the machinery is all there. In fact, it takes less money than ever before because printing can be done one copy at a time instead of in mass lots that must be stored until sale (and taxed as property) and distributing can be handled online.

4. There are more customers out there than ever before.
But they read less. And no one is quite sure what they DO read, in spite of all the demographic studies. But there are technical ways to find readers for any genre or discipline -- just takes time, effort and maybe money. Rather like locating voters. Or consumers of any kind. Amazon uses the technique of the publishers: sell them what they bought last time. (If you liked X, buy X2.) But writing the same thing over and over is not good for authors.

5. The major problem is sorting and evaluating.
Everyone wants to be an author, even if they have to pay to do it. Critics are less eager. “Branding” is how some publishers do -- one publishes thrillers, another publishes chick lit, etc. (Agents also “brand.”) See for a fascinating analysis of the market. McMillan sells to high-end readers of thrillers. His books are fine objects but he gives no attention to editing and proofing, depending on the writers for that. He’s got a “chimney” relationship going: readers who are like the writers in tastes and assumptions. The result is that a few years after publication, the individual copies, the actual books, can be worth a lot of money, introducing the element of speculation that is characteristic of the arts these days.

6. This means that the reader who chooses his or her books carefully AS OBJECTS can actually MAKE money rather than only being a consumer. Originally, the readers were the ultimate source of money for everyone. This practice also moves the profit to the second-hand (“antique” or “collector” market if you think “second-hand” implies downscale) rather than the original publisher.

7. Since many of the “readers” now consume “writing” aurally, it is possible to sell podcasts or “books on tape”
and so on, esp. for people who spend a lot of time driving. Not many writers have figured this out and adapted. Whiskey Prajer is one who has. The problem is that these are transmissable with no object at all. They travel untraceably on the Internet. And Google et al will find the downloadable original.

8. I persist in thinking there is an aural market for foreign languages.
If kids and day labor have mp3 players, they can listen to writing whether or not they are literate. I haven’t the faintest idea what to do about it. But I do know that is as happy to duplicate DVD’s and so on as they are to “make books.” Video cameras are simple and easy. They also produce “texts.”

9. Probably no one writer can produce enough stuff (unless they have a backlog) to keep a website supplied, but “bundling” by genre or quality or some other criteria ought to work. It wasn’t until the Cowboy Artists of America banded together as a “bundle” that they began to make an impression on the public. The genres that corporate bookstores use to “bundle” their shelves are not very useful. Powells probably comes the closest to something new, hiring a person who is a kind of “concierge” for each section, which might be by subject matter. This person, who has some expertise, can find things, make suggestions, ask buyers helpful questions, and so on. In short, this is a person who serves some of the purposes critics once supplied. There is also an element of status: the person who does this at Powells makes you his friend and confidante, as though you belonged to a status confirming club.

10. On the other end, the author end, there needs to be some sort of coach for writing. Originally an editor and now normally an agent gives feedback, unless one is enrolled in a university course. Increasingly impatient testimony about the quality and usefulness of an MFA is accumulating. They seem to have assumed the role of the mail order course called “Famous Writers” that I once began -- along with thousands of others -- which gave a person (at considerable expense) a series of assignments to be mailed in to “teachers” whose job it was to insult you so severely that you would never complete another assigment but would be so humiliated that you would never ask for your money back. They made a LOT of money.

Hmmmmm. But, as an old English teacher, I know what the catch is: the bad writing sticks to you. Coaching writing is not the best thing for a producing author to do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is an adventure ahead
for us writers. Let's get
on the horse and ride it long
and hard.

Terry Finley