Thursday, June 24, 2010

Before Book Publishing Slides Into the Sea

Not sure how I missed this piece in The Baltimore Sun by the wonderful, thoughtful Garrison Keillor but, despite a dateline nearly one month old, the story has held up very well.
Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn't work anymore, alas.
Interesting thoughts, as are many in the piece.
I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself. These are anti-elitist times, when mobs are calling for the downfall of pointy-head intellectuals who dare tell decent people what to think, but I admire the elite. I'm not one of them — I'm a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it — but I'm sorry about their downfall. And this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.
As much as I always adore Keillor’s wordplay and his dances with light and literacy, there are places here where he misses the mark.
Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it's all free, and you read freely, you're not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you're like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.
The thing is, text messaging, blogging and even tweeting all have their places in the modern world, it’s true. And Keillor’s point about the arrival -- in full -- of literacy for the masses is well made and taken. However comparing that type of reading with books is... well... silly. It’s like saying you don’t need apples because you already have cheese. Because, of course, not only are cheese and apples both delicious on their own, they’re also terrific together.

In this space I’ve often talked about the full immersion experience of reading. Reading a novel offers an entertainment experience absolutely not duplicable by other mediums. Like virtual reality -- better -- only without all the dumb-ass headgear. And kids today? They know this. It’s why they swallow up all those Twilight and Twilight-like books as quickly as they can be spat out. And, as almost anyone will tell you, once you’ve been seduced by a sexy vampire, you’re only a very few steps from reading of other kinds: just immerse me, dammit! Just... you know... literally take me away.

In a world where that kind of youthful vibrance is echoing through the stacks, the hummingbird and flower analogy simply doesn't hold up. Those of us who are passionate about reading fiction want our fully immersive reading experience. We want wonderful stories, properly told and text messages are never going to do that.

But where does the publishing machine fit into this picture of passionate readers reading immersively? They’ll do it by thinking brightly and lightly and by landing on their feet. They’ll do things differently and thoughtfully and give us -- in the end -- what we need. Will the future look the way the present does? Or, rather, will it even look like 2008? I doubt it. We’ve gone miles since then. And we’ve got miles to go before we’re done. The book publishing industry might look very different before we’ve got anything in hand that looks like a solution, but there will be books and someone will be publishing them. There’s no question about any of that. The only one is “how?”

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The drive for self publishing can stem from a variety of motives. First of all their is pure vanity - hey look at me, I wrote a book! Good for resumes I suppose, but really.

Self publishing can also be a responsible protest against the crass commercialism of publishing the bottom line translated into the most digestible literature, for the most people. Self publishing can respond to a variety of specialized needs and interests. If the writer is evocative, helpful or entertaining they will be available. Whether they will be able to make a living is another thing. Perhaps we need to consider some form of patronage for writers where groups of people set writers free to do what they do best. Regardless, this movement is democratizing, therefore scary, especially to invested elitists.

Friday, June 25, 2010 at 10:56:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Karen Kerschen said...

As someone who’s subsidy-published a book this year, I’d like to say that while writers like myself might not be able to whine into our wine about being unrecognized geniuses, we play an idealistic fool’s game anyway.
The book arrives -- now what? After you’ve sent copies to all your relatives, posted your efforts on your newly created website, blog, or FaceBook page, you’ve still got to figure out what to do with the rest of them.
Subsidy presses produce a good-looking product. But did you copy-edit your manuscript exhaustively enough? If not, prepare to cringe (as I do) at finding an embarrassment of typos, or repeated or omitted words -- the kind of errors editors spot, or you might have found if you’d read your own text aloud.
Regardless of how good the book looks -- and reads -- you face the skepticism that the book wasn’t good enough to merit publication by an established press willing to risk cold cash to bring your ideas to the public. Publishers no longer issue a few pro bono releases in the spirit of idealism. This quaint idealism was smothered by a bottom-line mentality governed by market constraints.
Getting reviewed -- now there’s a major challenge. Lacking the imprimatur of having been vetted by the industry, your precious book sits in a pile on a critic’s desk awaiting some reason to be noticed: My publisher told me to send out review copies, but what I’ve learned after doing so is that reviews of books by local authors are written to coincide with author events -- a signing, a reading, a radio interview. Otherwise, you might as well donate the book outright to a local library, because that’s where it’ll end up. It’s a dance of timing.
Then, there’s the issue of getting the book into bookstores. So many books are coming out through this new venue, stores are taking on consignment, and often charging a fee. Once again, the author pays.
I lost my initial contract for Violeta Parra: By the Whim of the Wind, when Violeta’s family threatened to sue, and the small press that would’ve issued backed out. I learned about this Latin American songstress of social justice while free-lancing as a photojournalist. I photographed the US-orchestrated Chilean coup d’etat of September 11, 1973, and the experience moved me to bring her story about the universality of the human condition to a broader public.
I’ve recently brought it out with ABQ Press and with a publicist’s help, I’m learning to target my marketing efforts. In Violeta Parra words, gracias a la vida -- I’m thankful for this opportunity in life. Yet looking at the bottom line, I’m funding my own idealism.
PS -- My website has links for purchase, as well as a sample chapter.

Friday, June 25, 2010 at 9:22:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a self-published writer, I can honestly say – in retrospect – it was an unmitigated ego trip. Not by design. You listen to all those nice people who liked your MS and then conveniently forget they are friends, associates or relatives. Armed with new found self-confidence you allow your work to be scrutinized by the world at large, entering literary contests or worse, sending your MS to a real publisher. The latter is a wake-up call.

Oh yes, you really do have to have a compelling but original premise for your book, supported by fully developed and endearing characters, whose only reason for being is to advance the plot. Gosh, all I wanted to do was tell my stories. lol

Shortly after reading the paragraphs of critique (especially the yellow highlighted and red-lined areas) followed by the editor’s all encompassing last comment – thank you but no thanks, or something to that effect – does it hit you. Until a writer receives vindication, convinces an editor to publish their MS, they will never be a real author. We can self-publish to our heart’s content. But what does it prove? Mr. Keillor has nothing to worry about. Writers will continue to act like writers of old, waiting for the day when a letter arrives from a publisher, a letter that doesn’t contain a notice of rejection. No one wants to be rejected, not even writers who have the option to self-publish what no one else wants to publish.

Sunday, June 27, 2010 at 11:07:00 AM PDT  

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