Feb 23, 2012

Moving Right Along

Putting the finishing touches on "Lost", the first part of a series of stories I and a co-author friend of mine will be launching over the course of the year, culminating next year in a related novel. Kind of an exciting project, and very much looking forward to it.

It seems like more and more of my time is spent now on various elements of the writing business - it really is rapidly shaking off the "gosh, I'd sure like to write" aspects (the word "Aspiring" has already long since lacked application) into a full-fledged "this is what I do"-ness. One of the reasons I'd originally begun keeping this blog was to track this process, and it really has turned into one of those things where I can pause, look back over my shoulder and truly mark how far I've come. I find it especially helpful when I don't otherwise perceive forward movement.

But I've been coming to realize that it's not so much that it feels - from time to time - like I'm not moving so much as it's the industry that doesn't move. At least, not very quickly nor well.

This point may have been driven home after watching the movie "Moneyball" last night, which is as much about modern American Corporate America as it is about baseball. Maybe more. I won't spoil it if you haven't seen it, but if you haven't seen it you really SHOULD see it, and I don't want to give you an excuse not to. So please suffice it to say that that at about 5 minutes in, I saw it as a very applicable metaphor for the publishing industry.

And then, this morning, while this thought was still buzzing about my thinking matter, I stumbled across a series of comments referring to the "literary gatekeeper" role of agencies and publishing houses. For those of you who may not be terribly familiar with this concept of Literary Gatekeeping, it's really little more than the belief that the current publishing industry is designed in such a way as to protect readers from being subjected to crap.  A noble concept, to be sure, regardless of its hubris.

Although, as a proud self-publisher, I am grateful for the people who also proudly bear the mantle of Literary Gatekeeper. No, truly.

See, not too long ago, people truly believed that unless you were published by a large industrial and corporate publishing house, then clearly you were a failed, imperfect and at best mediocre author writer. "You're not published? Oh, then you must not be any good," was the general expression. "Because if you were any good, then someone would have published you."

I'm not sure how many of those people are fluent in logical reasoning, but that falls right in line with the idea that "if all apples are fruit, then all fruit is an apple." It just doesn't equate, no matter how thin you slice it. No, not even all published books are brilliant, so you can't even equate those two criteria. "All published books are published." There. That's a statement you can bank on, I'm certain.

So let's erode away that failed premise. If not all published books are good and not all good books are published, then where's the literary gatekeeping? Really, it looks a lot more like a wall than a gate; and, frankly, with as much money as gets processed in that big industrial machine, sure. Guard it. Secure it. Keep your properties safe. If you want to publish an author, do it. It's fine. I hold no ill will against that process, nor do I from nearly any corporate behemoth. 

But at the same time, if you're going to go with a large company, there does exist a trade off, and it's not a necessary evil, no matter what people might have you believe. Let's start with the first part of that statement: there is a trade off for signing with a large publisher. And you may be okay with that. You do get a lot with the deal - marketing, covers, publishing schedule, access to editors and bookstores otherwise mostly beyond your reach, so on and so on. No, you may get an advance on your royalties, but this is going to be drawn back out of whatever royalties you eventually receive. But for many people, the validation of being carried by a major publisher is enough of a reward, so I can certainly see the allure. But be honest with yourself, here: you do give up a lot as well by turning your manuscript over to a publishing company.

And let's pause right there for a moment.

I know it's really a popular sentiment to presume that publishing companies are in this game solely for the maintenance of our cultural heritage, to ensure nothing but the pure and honest works of art to make their way out into the public mindset. And don't make that face. Yes, I'm sure there are individuals in the business who do possess that state of mind. HOWEVER. Corporations - in spite of how their legal rights seem wont to define them - are not people, and have no soul (and I won't believe they are until Texas executes one), thus have no desire to develop, maintain and protect the fragile seed of America's artistic integrity. No, corporations are designed to make money for their shareholders. Precisely that, and no more. Anything else they may by accident do is accidental or peripheral or geniune serendipity.

So for a corporation to sign an author - well, it has less to do with Artistic Gatekeeping, and more to do with Financial Planning. Any gatekeeping that generates actual quality of art.... well, I'd be more inclined to suspect that it's more a happy afterthought.  Or were you going to argue that no sub-par books get published by the Industrial Publishing Complex?

No, seriously. Make that argument so I can google for 30 seconds and get you a list of crap in a slip cover tall enough to choke the New York City skyline. Or, I can just remind you about this.

Do I believe corporations are evil? No, I don't. But I also don't believe that they're good, either. Again, they're merely corporations, they're not people, and I think I already engage in sufficently inappropriate anthropomorphization, thank you very much.

What I'd really like to see is for the mass of signed authors, agents, editors and publishers stop attempting to demonize, diminish or ridicule self-publishers. This is a big enough sandbox for many people to play in, and I think it's long since time everyone stopped trying to engage in the preemptory book burning that has been going on for so long. If people don't like a book, it won't sell. If people like a book, it will.

And this is one place where I think capitalism works nicely in that if you were a writer and you publish a book and no one ever guys it, after a while you're going to stop writing books. At least, that's the general rule here.

Or is the concern that, with so many books, the real quality books won't be discovered? That they'll be outshined by the mass and clutter which exists in the book-buying world? Is the fear that all those polished gems will remain dormant - undiscovered, unseen, unread - while so much rubbish and mediocrity blinds the almighty consumer optical nerve?

I'd like to say for the record that this is not so much a problem. It's the information age, and we're no longer so rigidly beholden to the Dewey Decimal system; now we get along fine with keyword searches, and so forth. We can look up a book in a dozen different ways, most of which don't even need us to know the book's title nor the name of its author.

Furthermore, there's an increasingly large number of the population who is unplugging from brick and mortar stores and are desentizied to the present marketing cacophony - - so clearly, as authors (or musicians, or whatever it is you do for a living), you need to find new ways to reach out.

I had a few thousand people pick up my books last month. I haven't spent a dime on marketing. I did my own books, and aside from hiring out for a solid editing process, did the rest of the book myself. Writing, design, covers, formatting, uploading, site maintenance and so on. I wrote on this blog, I tweeted, I facebooked. And people read my books. People liked them. People bought more. It's not rocket science, it's not the Wizard of Oz, it's not human sacrifice or deals for my eternal soul.

Oh, I sent a few queries out in the past; had some great response from most of the people I sent queries to, and the average response was "I loved the book, I loved the characters and your writing style, but I just don't know much about your genre, nor how exactly to pitch this..." Now, sure, a rejection is a rejection, but as rejections go, that isn't so painful. It's actually quite complimentary. But in the end, I realized that, yes, my first book series is a bit cross-genriffic. Is it sci fi? Yes. Fantasy? Yes also. Steampunk? Sure, a bit. Young Adult? Mostly. Grownup? That too. Female main protagonist, but not a substantial romantic interest. Anime-inspired. Oh, the list goes on. Yes, I knew it was a long shot - it doesn't fit neatly into any one genre, but works as well across several. So, in a brick-and-mortar store, where bookshelf real estate is the coin of the realm, where would they put my books? You can't very well put them on 4 or 5 different sections, so that's a problem.

But Brick and Mortar stores are no longer the pinacle of publishing nirvana. Not when there are stores like Amazon and Barnes and Noble who will have space for every single book ever written, with room to spare.

So it's a different landscape, and because it's a different landscape, a new approach has to be considered when looking to scale that mountain. In fact, there are about as many new approaches - all with relative degrees of success (all of which are, of course, dependent upon the writer and their own particular aspirations) - many of which can be found in a variety of levels of maturity.

It's a new world, folks. And I'm almost sorry for the people who are on those large and powerful ships, chugging across the ocean blue at full throttle with a rudder the size of a postage stamp, thinking that the past will always determine the future... Because they honestly believe that. And, yes, maybe the Titanic reference was a bit below the belt, but I do think it's functionally accurate.

Seriously, "literary gatekeepers"? Just stop. Honestly, you're embarassing yourselves.

* sigh *

Okay, as the title say, moving right along. I've got more to work on, and I've ranted enough for one day. Thanks for bearing along with the tirade.


No comments: