Aug 28, 2012

The Odd Insecurity of Tradition

It's strange, the things that randomly occur to you when you step out of the middle of an emotional conflict. For going on [redacted] years now of actively engaging in the delightful melee of publishing (I won't whip out my literary measuring stick, such activities seem so very pointless, don't they?), I've watched as the social tides of verbal battery have shifted thither and yon, with neither side giving - or gaining - much ground.

That is, if you analyze simply the intangible outcome of their philosophical campaigns. The reality - as it so often proves to be - is another tale altogether.

I've watched as industry insiders flocked to Amazon and left the occasional 1 star review with the critical comments: "Would've enjoyed this book more if it had only had a good editor. This is why I don't like picking up self-published books." Honestly. They really ought to figure out a better approach - if only they had access to people who could write creatively! But nevertheless, their efforts to corral all self-published authors into the descriptive of "young, brash, impatient writers who just need to learn a thing or two about the industry they claim to love so well" has done little to diminish the ground gained by self published authors. The number of authors successfully making a business of their efforts is increasing steadily, in spite of the general cursings from industry traditionalists.

At the same time, I've seen many attempts to demonize the mainstream old schoolers, with implications of finance over substance, heartless, cold wretches of kings choking on the crusts left by their once invulnerable processes of alchemical transformations. And to a certain degree, they've done precious little to prove these accusations false. Attempts to define themselves as Cultural Gatekeepers and Protectors of Artistic Purity don't do much to endear themselves to their reader base. Nor, truth be told, to their author base.

The criticisms of one group by the other have only escalated - the internet and ebooks have simplified the publishing process, and the economy has both given encouragement to writers to write as it has urged editors to edit, and artists to... well... do that art stuff. Possibility has met with desire to create spectacular work, and the efficiency of delivery has placed millions of books into the hands of a generous public.

Has traditional publishing been challenged by this? Well, yes. Of course it has. There a millions of new books out in the market, giving readers millions of new choices, and, yes, that means the "TradPub" industry has to now share the stage with thousands of independent publishers and previously unknown authors. For a previously struggling industry, this can only make their blood run cold. And what are they willing to do to keep their hands on the money coming in.... well, what wouldn't they be willing to do? People are dependent upon that revenue - distribution agreements, printing contracts, marketing, and on and on. It's a whole web of interacting money changing hands, and now, not only are they not making the money they once did, now they're losing more because so many new authors are getting in the way of them and their money.

Really now! The nerve of those independent authors!

So, they're scared. They're a big, bloaty wildebeest, trying to figure out why it's so hot on the savanna. A little twitchy, a little malnourished, and that oasis is looking a bit more like a mirage with every passing minute. Ooh, that piece of grass moved a little bit. Is that a lion? Oh my god, it's a Lion! AND IT'S GONNA EAT ME! RUN!! RUN!! STAMPEEEEDDDEEEE!!! Oh. Oh, wait, no. No, that was just a piece of grass. Stupid grass. I'd eat you but you're really dry and I'm really thirsty.  But this grass over here likes me. It wouldn't tease me by making me think it's a lion and freak me out so bad that I'd start a stampede and run over my best friend Terrence. (yes. Terrence the Wildebeest. Back off, dude.) See? You're much nicer grass. You look kind of tasty. Especially that bit near the bottom that looks like round, deep pools of amber, resting atop a row of sharp, glistening teeth OH MY GOD YOU'RE REALLY A LION AND NOW YOU HAVE ME BY THE THROAT AND I'M ONE DEAD WILDEBEEST DAMN IT...OH THE HUGE MANATEE... [dies]

Okay, Mutual of Omaha time is past, let's move on.

So, everyone's on edge. The American economy has as many issues as Sports Illustrated (sans Swimsuit Issue) and people are acting a bit like those drowny folks at the end of Titanic, thus it's a wee bit scary. Much nicer over here, watching from a safe distance. Just lots of well-dressed folks splashing about, trying to find a bit of flotsam to cling to, while the cold water slowly drives the warmth from their bones.

(Jeez, Ren, way to put a positive spin on that analogy.)

Okay, so here's a nicer uptick to wrap things up. Look, everyone, it's a really big industry. A lot of people are remembering - or discovering - how much they love books. A lot of people don't. Sales overall will continue - or may continue - to climb, but there are both new authors and new readers, so the gains may be only marginal. There are the added distractions and storytelling constructs of Supercable TV, the Internet, Video Games... so either the Gatekeepers of Creative Traditionalism and the Revolutionaries of the New Literary Frontier can find a way to work together, or they will continue to find new and delightful ways to tear one another apart, leaving only the most stubborn and flexible ones surviving.

You think it's going to end up another way? Then clearly you haven't been reading your history books. The inflexible mass always fails. Always. Dinosaurs? Rome? You cling too hard to "the way it's always been", and sooner or later, you're history as well. Then the little cavemen who invented tools and fire knock your playhouses down, steal all your toys, and a few million years later we're pumping you into our gas tanks or dressing up like your senators in our frat parties. Adapt or die.

Or, the alternative is to just hang out and keep clicking your heels, secure in the knowledge that the magic was in you the whole time.

And don't worry. I'm sure the next Emerald City will be a bit nicer.

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