Daily I wade through blogs and vids from the many websites trying to figure out what to do about the collapse of “English gentry” Manhattan-style publishing a la Bennett Cerf, which probably died about the same time he did, and then the corporation Hollywood mogul-style publishing that has slid along behind for the last decade or so until they realized there simply were not the profit-margins they expected. It’s strange that everyone got so excited about Detroit collapsing, but no one offered a government bail-out for publishing. Maybe it’s because entrepreneurs are unlikely to create automobile factories at home, but they CAN publish from the kitchen table. At first (like me) we printed pages at Kinko’s and bound them with some kind of clunky machine. Then came Print On Demand outfits like Lulu.com and via computer we could order professional quality books that arrived at the post office in a week.
But distribution and marketing remain huge and largely unsolved problems. Slowly the necessary concepts for renewal are appearing. I see three good ones so far: eyes, aggregators and curation.
Eyes means readers, which translates to buyers. Eyes are driven by interest, people looking for material they care about. They can be grouped into what we might call “niches” which is more specific than calling them “mailing lists.” So much of what Amazon, as well as mail-order gizmo merchants, does is to accumulate humonguous mailing lists either on paper or via email. The selling of tasty concentrated email lists is profitable enough to attract pirates. The best ones don’t include much spam, but are crammed with people who have a true interest in some topic. They might also include “hits” on a website: people coming to see what is there because of search engines like Google or because they picked it up from word of mouth. Facebook is pursuing something similar: the creation of webs of relationship that one can tap in one place to send vibes all over. The assumption is that friends might be interested in about the same things. (This doesn’t entirely work for me because I have quite separate “spheres of interest” who are not in sympathy with each other, as readers of this blog know.)
Once “eyes” are listed, the next step is “aggregation” which is simply the gathering of materials that go together. This is more slippery than one might think because it requires careful definition of the niche, as anyone knows from trying to get Google to cough up info you want. (I’ve been trying to make it give me an account of how and why frost comes out of the ground which I know is in there someplace because I got it once before. I just can’t remember what phrase I used to fish for it.)
Let’s assume “eyes” who are interested in traditional cowboy stories and lifeways -- not the glitzy sequin-studded New West crowd, but the old-fashioned real-life ranchers in their cozy kitchens, as served by a website called www.ropeandwire.com. I was looking for an online ezine that printed short stories in the Western mode. That’s exactly what this is and more.
If you like the whole category of authentic Western stuff -- stories, poetry, cooking, jokes, musicians and those classic old movies from just after WWII, not quite “Turner Classics,” then this is the website for you, “A gathering place for Western Writers, Cowboy Poets and Old Western Movie Buffs.” You can order eCards, watch those movies right online, and read what Scott Gese, the owner of this spread, calls a “barnful” of stories. Maybe send in a few of your own. It’s an “aggregation.” That’s a collection. You know, like your duck-hunting license says you can shoot so many ducks in the “aggregate,” which is not an organ but the total number. Amazon and other online book distributors are “aggregators” that list enormous alphabetized lists of available books.
The next step is curation. Right about now the self-aggregating artists who wish to participate in one of the March auctions of Western art in Great Falls are sending slides or maybe actual artwork to the committee in charge of sorting the works, deciding which should be included. They will probably also be doing a bit of active searching for authentic works by Charlie Russell, since the whole shindig is in his honor. This takes experts, people who know the range and who has what stock. Among book publishers, curators -- which is an art term -- are usually called “editors” who are the people who can identify quality and other considerations. People confuse editors with publishers, who are simply the providers of capital and might have no taste whatsoever -- just money.
Scott Gese, who has Western tastes, is his own curator for www.ropeandwire.com and puts his criteria for inclusion online. So far he has accepted some of my stories and turned down two: the one about the punk but artistic Blackfeet boy on a motorcycle who liked snakes and the one about the mail-order bride whose husband staggered in from a blizzard nearly dead of hypothermia. She was in a hot bath in front of the fire and simply pulled him in with her to warm him up, which also warmed up the marriage. It made Scott blush.
This is entirely legitimate. Scott neither pays nor charges for the stories he prints and he gives full credit and free publicity to writers. He is an aggregator and a curator, and his practices are above-board, though they don’t please commercial authors trying to sell the same sort of material. A smart publisher would simply keep on eye on this website and acquire some of Scott’s stock. In the meantime it is a way for an amateur like me to get started, to attract eyes.
We are in hard times when it comes to publishing. Too often hard times cause people to put up fences and hoard. The gatekeepers slam shut the access and load their guns. But smart people maintain their generosity, knowing that the way to get new ideas is to share the old ones. Ideas can be aggregated and curated as easily -- maybe MORE easily -- than actual objects. (No UPS charges.) In the end we all profit.