Saturday, June 28, 2008



Capitalism “invests” in what has succeeded in the past, with very little attention to gambles or minority constituencies. Their guides to success are simply statistics about selling. Some writers are just beginning to realize they have been reduced to “product” by publishers who want them to write minor variations ANNUALLY on one’s successful previous book. The Detroit model. This certainly accounts for the quality of many books in stores and airports and for the contempt best-sellers arouse in many readers. But the destruction to writers, reducing them to hacks pressured by the need to feed their families, is incalculable.

Many of the technological changes in the past few years have enormously reduced the capital necessary to publish. Even if one is so poor as to have access to a computer only through a library, one can write, design and post a book for sale without any money at all. The capital investment is all in the Internet providers and the POD businesses, who need no warehouses. The chief beneficiary aside from the readers and writers is the delivery system: the post office, UPS, FedEx, and so on. Their returns will diminish as Espresso machines (located in storefronts or libraries) prove capable of creating a physical book close to the buyer and as buyers become more used to reading on something like a Kindle, possibly not even archiving what they read but treating the text more like a lending library.

Since the bookstores and publishing houses are facing ever more difficult times, the middle men have turned their attention to the writer. No longer salaried editors at the publishers, educated people with contacts become agents, paid by the writer -- possibly by a percentage of sales or on a fee or contract basis. This means the former employed and “directed” person is now a hunter/gatherer and possibly a predator on writers. For instance, two agents have now advised me that my writing is not quite up to snuff, but they happen to have a “friend” who will rewrite it all for a small fee (several hundreds of dollars). Another gambit is a “competition” which costs money to enter and awards a prize of a $1,000. Since so many people want to be published and most can somehow squeeze out $20 by returning beer cans or something, there are enough entries to make a tidy profit AFTER the prize has been handed out. Small town lotteries for charity are no different in function. Writers are now also expected to subsidize research, a marketing plan, and actual promotion -- sometimes even travel and lodging on a tour being paid by themselves.

The problem is that quality is now catch-as-catch-can, except for agents that have developed a reputation for good taste and who are willing to recommend writers. But no agent can read everything that arrives on their doorstep, nor would they normally have enough money to hire the sort of people who sit by the slush pile, reading the first three pages. With computer printouts there is not even an obligation to return the precious manuscripts. So the way one now gets an agent is friendship networks, who are presumably at the same speed and quality as the agent. Now we don’t look for agents -- we look for the friends of agents. There are entities that list agents and tag the ones that are crooked or inept, but that tell a person little about the actual agent. Academic MFA programs create many of these networks. Teachers become agents.

Another strategy might be to publish in magazines, esp. those that specialize in a particular field like the environment or some demographic group. And another, which escapes editors altogether, is blogging. One blogs, one networks with other bloggers, one does a POD “blook” (an accumulation of blogs, hopefully re-edited), and sends it around to agents and publishers. We can only hope there are agents who can afford to pay someone to sit by the computer and cruise blogs, the way they formerly read slush pile manuscripts. But who wants blooks in physical print on paper? (That’s a serious question.)

Magazines still take a great deal of capital and are so dependent on advertising that they cannot afford to print controversial material. The rate at which mags are created and then dropped is simply amazing, because of the same unwillingness to spend capital without a monetory return. Not even prestige can keep the high end shelter mags (House & Garden, House Beautiful, et al) afloat. Anyway, they stick to the contributions of people they know who are willing to do piecework, not on salary.

The amount of capital has become less important than one’s skills as a hunter/gatherer FOR capital, but this sort of time-consuming work has to be deducted from the store of thinking and actual editing. I’m seeing that eJournals that start with great fanfare soon die of inanition (failure to thrive) because they eat away at those who produce them and are easily shrugged off as “soft” deadlines since no advertisers demand results.


The Internet allows “virtual” access to a huge “long tail” body of books whose costs of production have already been repaid. Used books, remainders or eBooks do not need to pay for printing. Anyway, paper, ink and binding for new printing have become a much more pricey investment. EBooks need not even be stored except in servers, possibly in cyberspace that costs nothing. Used books and remainders constitute “holdings” that must be housed, except in the case of personal collections for sale via eBay or Amazon. Again, it is the shipper who makes the most dependable money. But even the greenest book seller has access to market prices and outlets, as though selling slippers or Mexican jumping beans. (Selling coffee or oil successfully is much trickier because it is covert.)

The Espresso printing machine is more regional than a printing plant but less personal than a computer printer downloading in one’s back bedroom. Espresso is able to bind to industry standards, may eliminate POD as it exists today, and encourages regionalism in the kind of thing that is made available -- one no longer “makes” but “makes available.” Once again, the problem for the reader is how to find out what exists and what its quality might be. But it certainly returns much of the control of “publishing” to the reader, not even the writer. Writers must again romance their constituency, though I see an opportunity for specialty interface jobs, for instance, someone who advises clients about available books or Web designers who help authors. (There are already art consultants who keep track of what is a good investment and presumably try to advise buyers of what good art really IS.)

Passive Distribution

So distribution is likely to become far more focused on the reader. There’s a need for a website where people can say, “I’m looking for books about early churches in Montana.” And -- VOILA! Amazon, Abebooks, Alibris and Google all offer book searches by subject. There are ways to search through unpublished theses (why aren’t they all available through Print On Demand now? Or are they and I just don’t know?). There are ways to search through blogs by subject like Google. (Let’s hope not many people search for disgruntled people describing their inner state.) These are ACTIVE distribution but they still don’t indicate quality.

There ought to be many more bloggers who do reviews or provide maps of the territory. University listservs come close. Ask the listservs to which I subscribe (environmental, animal study, Native American, writing in the American West) for a recommended list of books or a sample course of study and you will get a host of sifted suggestions. Not only that, you’ll have an idea of where the recommender is coming from: who is inclined to Marxist theory, who is an active participant in the field, who is just old-fashioned. But these work because the academic institutional base has already sorted these people and disciplined them in the highest sense.

My own reviewing is much more a matter of chance and much more likely to include off-the-wall material, even though what I say is informed especially by a 1960’s arts bias and a 1980’s theological bias -- to say nothing of my affinity for Blackfeet and Montana. Normally a person with my interests would dwell on a campus and be thin on the ground. But because of the Internet, I’m useful to a growing number of people -- though they might have to pick and choose which blogs they can use. This is ACTIVE distribution, hunter/gatherer distribution.

Bottom line:

The kind of capital that really matters now is technological capital: the ability of a writer to get print out for distribution and the ability of the reader to find what they are looking for. This is NOT the Manhattan notoriety fiction kind of publishing paradigm, which I see as irreparably broken, which is why it is so shrill -- we’re listening to death throes.

What WILL persist are:

1. Beautiful books as works of art.
2. Useful books, such a manuals for doing things, though the kind that need constant updating will stay online.
3. Nostalgic books, which upon reading become so dear that one wants the physical objects. (I still have fairytale books from my childhood.)
4. Compendiums like the Norton collections of this and that, though many of them probably ought to be online.
5. Information for reference in settings where a computer can’t go or there is no internet access without special technology.
6. Probably others that I can't think of or haven't encountered.

Since I know nothing about the new forms like vlogs (video blogs), I’ve asked Barrus for comments. The rest of this blog is his.

Comments from Tim Barrus of Cinematheque Films, Blip.TV

The video world is beset with wolves as well. All of them are financial and many of the various packs are the same corporate ones that infect publishing. But there is a difference. It is found in the sheer number of videos and thusly a ubiquitousness. No one entity could possibly control it all. And the Big Players are music companies who are today being totally restructured in how they make money. It would be not unlike a situation where publishing had really hit rock bottom. Example: they are finding that giving away (maybe one song on an album) is a way to reach an audience
(giving anything away is a revolutionary idea) that is now used to paying 99 cents at Itunes or file sharing. They have to rethink the whole paradigm. One Big Girl Music Company is laying off 66% of its staff.

They are reeling.

Because they can't connect with the consumer. Another Monstrosity Inc is beginning to employ 16-year-olds as consultants and they are finally beginning to pull out of their slump. There is more of an Art Element for me than there was in publishing. I get reinforced in relationships. Especially by equality in
relationships. I don't have to care if my guyz fuck up artistically and they do. My most pressing focus is to keep them out of media storms. Where they would be devoured. They make mistakes. One is assuming they can deal with whoever comes along. I am always fighting access to them. I reroute that and make the issue access to me. Access to them could destroy them. They do not always assume that the people who want to meet them would use them. Or rather hurt them. I ALWAYS assume this.

I simply make safe places. This keeps their eye on the art. A dynamic totally foreign in publishing. Where no one is equal. Where equality even as an idea does not exist. There is no safe place in publishing. Everyone uses everyone. The cultural crowd you know is usually close to home. Where in video the cultural crowd you know is literally everywhere. Uruguay comes immediately to mind. I have an audience in Morocco and another one in Oman. I think they are all le French (pretty sure of it). There is a reciprocity publishing cannot duplicate. So much of this has to do with how neurology is developed. Many people developed intellectual capacity through written symbols.
They "hear" the words they read. Which is a reinforcement. But a younger audience is far more used to the reinforcement they get from being exposed to and manipulating the symbols of visuals and usually visuals that move. These two dynamics are UTTERLY different and take place within different regions of the brain. The human brain does adapt to change. But it has addictive mechanisms that seek out the synaptic reinforcements that have come before simply because it takes less energy to send an electron between dendrites that are already there than build new ones.

AND about this new paradigm. In video. In music. But not as much in publishing as far as money is concerned. The artist is beginning to work for the artist and not the corporation. Example: Carol King now owns her own music company versus being pulled around like a puppet by Capitol Capital. Inc. She actually interacts with the people who buy her music. Something no corporation PR dept would ever allow. She is working for Carol King and taking her copyrights with her. Waving bye bye to the corporation. Going online. So it's not just us little people doing it. My Space has TONS of groups doing it. Handling their own stuff. Publishing is WAY behind this trend and they keep whining about the reality they're selling less and less books. They are becoming irrelevant for a reason and that reason is called control.


Whisky Prajer said...

"There is no safe place in publishing" is a sentiment that strikes very close to the truth. It is curious to see how the printed word brings out proprietary instincts in nearly everyone who engages it. As someone who plays with words, my biggest difficulty is letting go of my presumed "control" over the content I produce. So much of my creative impulse is directed by the half-baked notion that what I think and feel will somehow attain the actual clarity of black ink on white paper if I just get the right balance of creativity/editing. The writers and publishers who seem "safest" are the ones who throw it out and move on, and figure it's all good: lit-fic, fan-fic, dirty limericks and Zen koans. They seem to have some of that "share and share alike" attitude that Barrus attributes to the video generation. I'm not sure just how close I am to attaining that enlightenment, but I certainly strive for it.

Frank, Robin said...

Many of the technological changes in the past few years have enormously reduced the capital necessary to publish. Even if one is so poor as to have access to a computer only through a library, one can write, design and post a book for sale without any money at all.

prairie mary said...

Creating the physical object that a book is makes only one step in what PUBLISHING is. In some ways, the cheapest step. Editing (which really ought to be done by someone other than the author) and promoting still cost a lot. Without those two, one who does POD is only producing a very nice bound manuscript.

Prairie Mary