Thursday, January 25, 2007

(Not Quite) The Final Word

When I started this blog, it was ostensibly for the purpose of making publishing better. Even the most optimistic individuals can see that publishing is in sad shape right now and it needs all the suggestions it can use, even half-assed ones from the likes of me. More importantly, like every other casually interested bystander, I had an opinion and I wanted to make sure it got heard.

Let me be the first to point out that my suggestions are heavily predicated on my viewpoint on the situation: I am a disgruntled writer, with my face pressed against the glass, looking in on a buyer’s market. As far as I’m concerned, there are rotting, diseased portions of the industry that are only surviving through sheer bloody-mindedness. Same as it ever was.

More pragmatically, it is increasingly obvious that there are major changes coming to the publishing industry and a large portion of the major players are completely unprepared – often to the point of denial. The source of change is not going to be the ongoing debate over self-publishing, nor is it going to be the creeping death of independent bookstores. The source of change is something far more insidious: indifference.

To illustrate my point, here's an article (one of many) about librarians and their increasing inability to convince young readers that books are worth reading. Think about that: librarians cannot give away their material for free. It is utterly depressing, but it is entirely believable; the internet has trained most readers to absorb their information in smaller, easier-to-digest doses. Books – sustained written narratives – are becoming an alien concept to all but a fringe group. If you read a book last year that wasn’t the Bible or the Koran, you are in the minority.

It is this inability to recognize the obvious that has hobbled the publishing industry as they continue to argue about how many science fiction movements can dance on the head of a ballpoint pen. In the meantime, a lot of the people producing the material that feeds the selective-but-continually-voracious engine are chasing the same dream that they’ve always chased: professional acceptance (which is really just a fancy way of saying “rich and famous”). Some are even so deluded as to believe that they can find it through other means: holes in the fence formed by cheap printing and even cheaper distribution.

Everyone’s chasing the same dream, but very few take the time to notice that the other people where they work don’t seem to be reading much. Readers tend to associate with other readers; more, readers tend to have a difficult time wrapping their heads around the idea of people who don’t read. It’s like a mental blind spot. But even as part of a fringe culture, it’s comforting to know that there are a lot of us. Walking into a Border’s is like walking into a safe place – a fragment of mainstream Western culture that still acknowledges the importance of books.

Even more comforting is the knowledge that books will never go away. It may be a fringe culture, but it’s a resilient one. Consider: the basic format of the book has endured for half a millennium. A bound tome is still the easiest way to read, store and transport written content above a certain size. Nobody reads books on the internet because it’s simply too difficult to read long passages of narrative on a monitor.

(Don’t believe me? Go to Project Gutenberg and resist the urge to hit print.)

At the same time, it will always be easier and more efficient to browse through books in person – which means that bookstores will always exist in one form or another. I’m waiting for the day that ten or twelve small publishers get together, buy an Espresso machine, rent a small storefront and print out their entire back catalogs. Any time someone buys a book, a new one gets printed and is put back on the shelf.

It’s a new twist on an old concept, but that’s what change brings. In fact, that’s the whole point of change: it does what it says on the tin. Of course, the worst part about change is that nobody really knows what happens after it arrives. That’s why people fear change – it is in our nature to fear that which we do not know. It’s a primal thing.

The people who fear change the most tend to be the ones with the most to lose. Institutions are usually right at the top of this list and, in our present purview, there is no institution within the industry larger than the massive publishing houses like Random House and Simon & Schuster. Intriguingly, those who should fear change the least are those with nothing to lose. In our idiom, these tend to be disenfranchised writers – those creative individuals who have been rejected, ignored or excised from the established order.

So the product will always exist and so will the marketplace. But will the market endure? Probably – as long as there are compulsive readers like me. It won’t look the way it does now, but that’s okay. As long as there are buyers and products, the internet will always find a way to bring them together. There will undoubtedly be relics of the current infrastructure scattered throughout the process, legacy structures that were too stubborn or valuable to disintegrate completely, but they may not have the same prominence they once held.

As with the current system, the most important part of the process will be the writer: the fuel that drives the rest of the supply chain. For all intents and purposes, the individual writer is the publishing industry. Lately, he has been conditioned to believe that he isn’t, but the facts are the facts. Publishing is simply the decision to bring a book to print. From that perspective, you can remove any individual from the publishing process and still get a book, except one. You cannot remove the writer and still have a book.

Someone will inevitably point out that the printer is pretty darned important, too, and I would agree. But publishing is not printing. Printing is printing. If publishing was printing, it would be called printing. That’s the way verbs work. More precisely, publishing is the decision to print. But you can very easily have a published work that is not printed, just as you can have works that are not marketed, edited or sold.

Publishers may offer marketing, editing and sales as benefits, but that does not make them integral parts of the decision to print. Ultimately, the decision to print comes from the individual writer, which is why I argue that writers are the publishing industry – or, at least, the only part that matters.

But as long as writers continue to follow the same well-worn path as the rest of the industry, they will always seek publication (or, failing consensus, publish themselves) for the same basic reasons. But fame and fortune are not merely a weak motivation for creating a final version of your work – they have become barely obtainable rewards.

And that’s where I came in. My goal was to offer the insights that I learned from my forays into publishing. The most important being the fact that I gave up on the dream of earning the same salary as a floor maintenance technician at Wal-Mart and now make over $50,000 a year as a government contractor. It was a largely pragmatic decision: I grew to enjoy having a roof over my head and the ability to eat when I got hungry.

But that doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped writing – far from it. In fact, one of the reasons I’m wrapping things up here is that I have other projects demanding my attention. My drive to produce new material has not diminished, but my motivations have undergone a major sea change. I simply write because I have no choice. The final product is variable (because I am a capricious man), but selling it is less important than making sure that I am happy with the result.
It’s a pie-in-the-sky message for the writers who are engaged in the arduous process of justifying their decision to self-publish their first novels, but I don’t really care. Something about my words were compelling enough to contain the prolonged attention of some of you, which means that I struck a nerve somewhere.

And, in the end, that’s all that matters. The writers among you have been provoked. You have been warned, threatened, ridiculed and dismissed. Now you should go forth and find your own path. Change is afoot and, if you are creative enough, you might be able to come out ahead. Just what that means depends on who you are – the age of cookie cutter solutions to writers is passing (if, indeed, it ever really existed in the first place).

Be a unique and delicate snowflake, even if that means you should be prepared to melt away at a moment’s notice. Just remember that lots of snowflakes together tend to effect change, whether they want to or not.