Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Every writer must have the NEED to write and the WILL to write and the ABILITY to write. A lot of people want to “be” a writer without writing. Forget it. But today “writing” can mean creating narrative or image or spoken words, or a mix -- not necessarily lines of print. Check out Tim Barrus on Facebook for examples. He has been a writer, a photographer, performer and voracious reader for many years. This is deliberately, consciously, short-form visual poetic narrative never possible to publish until recently. Not everyone has the chops for it. There were no major expenses except Tim’s time and talent. He owns the camera and downloads free music. They call it New Media.

To “publish” in the former print sense of the word takes investment capital (money) because it means actually making a big pile of the books. The publisher either thinks there is a way to market the product that will earn a profit or thinks the work is enough of a contribution to the world that it is worth funding as a gift. The printing cost of my book, “Bronze Inside and Out,” was paid by a grant from an organization that supports lifting up people who made a contribution to Alberta. The return on that investment will simply pay the staff’s wages and the expenses of the office. There will be little if any financial return for the writer, because this is an academic press where it is assumed that the author’s reward will be in terms of contributing to his or her career in the academic world. I did not understand any of this.

Facebook publishing does not provide advertising, promotion or any other active agenting. (The agent is the person who acts on behalf of the author to find connections that can lead to profit -- although lately there has been a shift to the agent who looks for writers on behalf of the publisher, almost exclusively from a commercial point of view. My book was suggested to the press by a woman who had a contract to find stories about outstanding people.) The University of Calgary Press listed my book in their catalog, made it available through a wholesaler, bought several ads in “Montana, the Magazine of Montana History,” and distributed many review copies which resulted in two or three reviews, a very nice interview with George Cole on Yellowstone Public Radio (you can find the interview if you Google), and a signing event at the Russell Auction with a dozen other authors. About half the edition of 750 has been sold.

The breakaway editors who have become “agents” have been followed by breakaway businesses that contract to promote books. Otherwise the writer must do it. Some writers with money will pay promoters in addition to what the publisher pays. A Montana publisher once told about an author, an older woman, who was determined to promote her book and was reading at an outdoor microphone on a cold rainy day, shaking with cold, determined to sell her book. He said he admired her so much. I should think so -- essentially she was making money for her publisher! But she thought she was doing what writers are supposed to do because they believe in their work.

Authors are now asked to submit a plan for promotion and an explanation of their platform, tasks previously performed by the publisher or possibly the agent. They are asked to submit an index, illustrations, the necessary permissions to quote, possibly even to format or pay for that specialized job to be done, and to round up flattering quotes for the cover. All of these were once part of the publishers task. Some publishers charge a “reading fee” for accepting manuscripts to their slush pile, usually about equivalent to what it used to cost to mail a paper manuscript. Now, of course, the slush pile is electronic.

Most writers are not very good at “publishing” because they throw every bit of strength and intelligence into the actual writing which is a different skill. It’s a bit like asking a dancer to make the costumes, play the music, and operate the lights as well as dancing. But most writers CAN manage to post their work on the Internet. They will simply have to make their living doing something else -- which means less time and energy for writing. Bob Scriver acted as his own foundry and gallery -- the equivalent of publishing -- which meant he could pay the bills but his work dwindled.

On the internet two immense streams of information and advice are now running in parallel. One is about the actual writing: all sorts of technical advice about how to develop plot, illustrate character, punctuate dialogue, think of images and so on. The other is advice for writers about marketing, either stuff about how to find a publisher (including the self-publishing alternatives) or find an agent or how to do the tasks oneself. The effort now is not to sell writing to the reader, but to sell advice to the WRITER -- because they are the ones with the greater craving.

The bright side of this is that all restrictions are gone. The passive restraints of scairdycat publishers or alleged potential commercial profits are gone. Experiments cost no more or less than tradition and writers doing their own “everything” are pressed into breakthroughs -- like Tim’s video-poems that are drawn from real life happening now. Are they journals, outcries, memoirs-of-just-yesterday, direct expressions of the heart, or something that doesn’t have a name yet? Since they come from the lives of a young multi-lingual community that lives with iPod earbuds dangling next to earrings, there is a lot of music and several languages. They travel so there is a lot of scenery.

People think of blogs as trivia or politics -- something mysterious and sort of dangerous. What I write is long-form daily essays, the same as I used to write as Sunday sermons. They are informal but often structured, sometimes researched, and occasionally illustrated with a photo from family albums or my own camera. It began as a way of organizing Blackfeet history for the tribe itself to read and then branched out into eulogies, theory, religious exploration, memoir, movie and book reviews, and natural history. I’ve made it a point to report on Valier, the village where I live. It’s interesting that people react to reading these blogs in a way they would not if they were in paper books or if the people were listening while sitting together as an audience.

Sometimes the reaction is not to the content at all, but simply to the fact that they exist, as though they were a product of some kind of privilege (being published) that is not justified. I think they are wondering what to think, afraid to have their own reaction, which is why they normally need a publisher, critics, and blurbs on the book jackets. They want to know why I have access and they don’t. (But they DO!) They need me to be authorized by someone. I hope the eventual result is the abandonment of authorization. Just AUTHOR. Why should someone be paid to set limits?

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