Wednesday, December 20, 2006

How Very Meta of Me

The attentive readers in the audience (and I know that all of my readers are attentive) have probably started wondering why I haven’t been pinging the publishing industry much lately. After all, the ostensible point of this blog is to work towards the betterment of publishing, right?

Well, yes. I mean, I have a lot of things to say about what the industry could be doing – to improve itself, to improve its business practices, to improve its relationship with writers, to improve its profits. But before I can get to any of those things, I feel that it is more important to point out that writers (especially unpublished writers) have just as much room for improvement as the rest of the industry.

Self-improvement among the writing community serves two purposes. First, it demonstrates that writers are able to be professional, serious people who don’t throw temper tantrums because their unreasonable expectations were not met. Second, it offers writers a stable, easily-travelled, toned-down path towards reasonable credibility.

Exuberant claims that any author can be financially successful if he just sets his mind to it simply don’t help anyone. These kinds of pronouncements merely offer yet more false hope and set up yet another generation of disenfranchised writers. A more measured and reasonable message will, with any hope, produce a crop of writers who know what they want, know how to get it and are happy to eschew the pitfalls of the industry entirely.

And that’s the key to improving the industry: by creating a cost-effective alternative to the current standards and practices. There must be an incentive to change. Given that most of us are not part of the decision-making apparatus of a major publishing house, our only option is to start acting like we care about our collective futures. We are not disposable commodities. At the same time, we are not delicate and unique snowflakes. We are something far more robust and far weirder: we are writers.

But until we are willing to act like adults first and leave the temperamental artist persona on the page, we will remain disenfranchised.

Military officers have a saying: "Amateurs talk about strategy, dilettantes talk about tactics, and professionals talk about logistics." I hate to say it, but the paragraphs you have just read are strategy. There is almost nothing logistical in there at all. To correct that, I want to give you some homework: how publishing costs are calculated. There will be a quiz on this later.

As much as I hate to admit it, there is a tactic that industry professionals have taken up that works very effectively. The phrase vanity press is often used when people talk about self-publishing. In fact, this phrase is so ubiquitous that you can often tell what side of the debate a person is on by whether they use it.

While it’s true that most self-publishing firms are merely gateways that allow anyone to publish, I’m not sure that vanity press is the best phrase to describe them. The reason for that is that vanity press is a weasel word. We’re all writers here, so it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that language can be used to shape our perception of things; that’s the whole point of language. And, when it comes to an abstract concept that has forced the industry to acknowledge it, it’s hardly surprising that a pre-existing negative connotation got picked up and put back in place.

The truth is, though, that if self-publishing can be fairly described as vanity press, then traditional publishing could be fairly described as validation press. After all, all art is vanity and anything that has to be vetted is merely validating the author’s ego. I wouldn’t be so petty as to suggest that you start using this phrase when you’re out and about, but it is a clever bit of wordplay and serves as a nice transition.

Speaking of validation (see what I did there?), a post from this blog was recently mentioned in the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT, which "is a partnership between thinkers and researchers from/affiliated with the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, and companies with a keen interest in deciphering convergence culture and the implications it can have for their business. Members of the consortium gain new insights and ideas about a very intractable and urgent set of questions that they are already grappling with in the current business environment. We aim to expand the role of industrial leaders by informing them of dynamic humanistic scholarship while providing them with early access to the cutting-edge ideas that emerge through the consortium."

Another set of articles for you to check out are The Myth of Publishing and The New Publishing Paradigm. Like post-modernism, I often feel that the word paradigm means absolutely nothing, but should be used as often as possible. Despite this, I am very impressed to find more and more people who are open to the idea of doing it yourself.

I’ll have more material over the next few weeks, so sit tight. If you feel the need to do something while you wait, feel free to let people know that I’m still reviewing science fiction. For some reason, the trickle of submissions has dried up.