Ten Bold Predictions for 2014: An Analysis

Digital Book World has a list of ten bold predictions for ebooks digital publishing in 2014. Some of them delve into brave new world territory, but for those of us who have been around for a while, who can remember the days before you could carry a device in your pocket that can make phone calls, take pictures, and immediately provide the name of the closest Five Guys as well as the actor who played Joey Pants in the Sopranos – well, every year seems like a brave new world.

While the article is somewhat pitched toward folks in the industry who make a living off of these sorts of developments (or who are afraid of losing their jobs), I find myself drawn, as always, to the impact on readers and writers, the only two communities I really care about. (Sorry, investors and publishers and agents and distributors!)  And in that spirit, it’s prediction number six that interests me the most:

6. More publishers will endorse the subscription ebook model by doing business with Oyster, Scribd and other similar services.

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Inmates, Asylums, Etc.

Noreen Malone provides a fascinating look at Simon & Schuster’s Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, The King of Trash Publishing:

He was the very picture of civilized, a quality less abundant in the books he acquires. Ruby-Strauss had just come from the set of the “Today” show, where he’d shepherded three new authors, the young women behind the satirical website Betches Love This, through an appearance to promote their foray into publishing, Nice Is Just a Place in France. His editing portfolio also includes the literary efforts of the “Jersey Shore”‘s Snooki and a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills. The title that made his career was Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.

“It’s offensive, it’s gross, it’s mean, it’s scatological,” Ruby-Strauss said of that book, not unproudly. We were eating lunch at the Upper West Side apartment of Max’s agent, Byrd Leavell. Leavell, a thirtysomething University of Virginia grad of Winklevossian coloring and proportions, also represents such Internet-to-book sensations as Cat Marnell (this generation’s culturally savvy blonde drug addict) and the creators of a somewhat self-explanatory website called Total Frat Move. “Tucker Max is offensive because he broke though,” Leavell said, spooning out an impressive homemade pasta primavera while his baby slept in the other room. “It’s like the Snooki haters, too,” said Ruby-Strauss. “I got my MFA from wherever …”

But it doesn’t stop there…

Ruby-Strauss and Leavell brought up a University of Maryland student infamous for a viral e-mail in which she informed her sorority sisters that she was inclined to—in New York Times-ese—enact a fourth-down kick on their most private regions. (It rhymes. Someday, or at least in Phyllis Schlafly’s worst nightmares, it will be a crossword clue.) Leavell was shopping the Maryland student’s novel, to be co-written by the women responsible for a site called White Girl Problems, which sounded like a formidable partnership. “It’s a shit-ton of fun,” said Leavell. “There’s a number of books that have pubbed that just say, you know, I had too many drinks, I banged him, I kicked him out of bed, and I went to work. Like, it’s out there, but I think there’s room for more.”

Huh. Not exactly what the Laura Millers of the world have in mind when they defend the role of publishing houses in filtering books for their readers. And indeed, not everyone at the publishing house wants to engage in the cognitive dissonance that allows you to a) view yourself as a Great Arbiter of Taste, and b) recognize that in the end, you’re just as ruled by the roar of the mob and the temptation of filthy lucre as anyone else.

The higher-minded members of the publishing business keep their distance from the precincts Ruby-Strauss trawls. The president of Simon and Schuster’s title imprint, Jonathan Karp,* maintains a studied ignorance of his colleague’s portfolio: “I haven’t read many of these books. It’s entirely possible I haven’t read any of them,” he says. Random House President Gina Centrello is supposed to have declared that, as long as she’s in charge, no imprint of hers will go near anything written by Max. “I don’t do those sorts of trendy Internet books,” said a vice president at another major publishing house. “We do writers, professional writers.”

Hmmm. Is this the Gatekeeper we so long for? Is this the bulwark against the rise of the Slushpile? What’s going on over there?

Publishing has always depended on having smart people willing to do its down-market work; what’s changed is how those people go about it. Historically, even editors of tasteless books still played a taste-making role, relying on their guts to decide what self-help manual or true-crime thriller would be a hit, not unlike the way their colleagues specializing in debut literary fiction placed their bets. Today, the public has already indicated what interests it, via the Internet, and the editor just has to be savvy enough and shameless enough to give the rabble what it wants.

Okay, so they’re better at identifying what the rabble wants.  They don’t decide – the Internet does. And then they… try to give the public more of it? And take a cut for doing so? What kind of gatekeeper is this? Where’s the filtering mechanism?

If what you have is trash, who needs a king?

And what if the rabble gives itself what it wants – both trash and high-quality books alike? What if the public isn’t dependent on what the publishers pick out of the trash and force upon them? 

“It shouldn’t be about the book but the money you can make from the book,” said Ruby-Strauss’s boss, Jennifer Bergstrom.

What does a vampire drink on a sunny day?

On Digitization, Democracy, and Dignity

Several times now we’ve referred to the dignity of small audiences in arguing for self-publishing as a worthy endeavor, which should be celebrated rather than stigmatized. I’m glad to see the great Jeremy Waldron (incidentally a former professor of mine, and one of my favorites) has come out with a new book on the subject. As Samuel Moyn of The Nation summarizes:

In Dignity, Rank, and Rights, Jeremy Waldron—perhaps the leading legal and political philosopher of our day—argues that the notion of human dignity originated in the democratization of the high social status once reserved for the well-born.

Here we go! Self-publishing is not discussed in Moyn’s long article tracing the origins and development of dignity, but it’s easy to draw the parallel, especially when you connect dignity with democracy. In citing a particularly rousing passage from Moby-Dick, Moyn gets a little tangled up in his arguments and, in my opinion, misses Melville’s point:

Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces, but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes…. [T]his august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. [It is] that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

Moyn finds these references to kings and God as “strange,” since Ishmael has previously mocked the godly dignity of kings and their coronations.

But as someone who has gone on the record taking the side of the slushpile against the smelling-salts crowd, the contradiction does not strike me as strange at all. Publishing books is a great thing. That’s why it should be more widespread.

(Too bad for Melville I read this a few weeks too late. Might have given him a plus two in the Great Novella Tournament of Champions.)

Independent Publishing: What Would Stéphane Mallarmé Do?

Steve Moyer provides a fascinating look at the intersection of technology and publishing in nineteenth-century France. As Moyer observes, Stéphane Mallarmé not only excelled in poetry, essays, and translations, but in reconceptualizing the nature of the book:

He was given to imagining new possibilities for the book, and in the 1870s and 1880s, he worked to define what a book was and, in a utopian world, what it might become. He is known now as one of the innovators, along with Manet, of the livre de peintre, or artist’s book, in which an original text by a poet appeared on a facing page with an original print—often an etching—by a contemporary painter. This may sound fairly tame (especially in an age when books rarely have pictures and “looking at the pictures” is a standard description for reading that is childish), but there was nothing tame about how Mallarmé thought about publishing. He once described the book as “the Orphic explanation of the Earth.”

As we might expect, someone trying to explain the Earth Orphicly would have some opinions about how it should be done, conventional publishing ideas be damned. And here’s where he crashed against technology and the can’t-do spirit of commercial publishers. It was an era when even the great Flaubert needed to fight against publisher control for something as simple as not wanting to have pictures in his books:

From 1820 to 1850 rapid advances in the technology of illustrating books made such work as Paul et Virginie and Grandville’s album possible and increasingly the norm. Publishers continued to exert near total control over the use and selection of illustrations throughout the century. Gustave Flaubert, who had begun publishing during the Romantic era, had to firmly resist publishers’ efforts to illustrate his work.

Enter Mallarmé, whose “bibliophilic fantasies” led to his taking great care in putting out his product:

He involved himself in the minutiae of the publishing process of his own work, choosing the paper and fussing over the typography, which “celebrated the sheer pleasure of reading a beautifully crafted book and the private reveries that such an experience might induce.”

 It’s hard to read passages like this one and not think that Mallarmé might have found some resonance in the ongoing transformation today, as blogs and podcasts and e-books emerge, giving individual authors and artists control over their products that may be at odds with what commercial publishers, voting with their pocketbooks, might be willing to put out:

Manet and Mallarmé collaborated on Le Corbeau (The Raven), by Poe, translated by Mallarmé, and accompanied by Manet’s distinctive etchings. For both Mallarmé and Manet, their collaboration was a way of sidestepping traditional publishers and juries. It was their attempt to reach the public directly. 

While the book was a commercial failure, it served Mallarmé’s ends.

What would he make of today’s publishing scene? His view of the book was largely informed by his reaction to newspapers, and I tend to think he may have continued to find solace in books as a bulwark against the chaos of blogs and the rest of the Internet. Would he have extended this to e-books as well as the printed page? That’s not clear. But I do think part of him at least would have seen the benefits of digitization – not just for writers, but for readers:

Nineteenth-century critics and authors had seen the public in relation to literature as passive admirers, while Mallarmé’s idea was that [as technology advanced], society would become peopled with empowered readers.

Image Credit: Sketch of Stéphane Mallarmé, nineteenth century (pen and ink on paper), Verlaine, Paul (1844–1896) / Private Collection / Archives Charmet / The Bridgeman Art Library (via http://www.neh.gov).

Independent Publishing: What Would Dr. Johnson Do?

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Okay, let’s see. What do agents and publishers have to offer a new author?

Free editing? Nope.

Marketing, surely? Not much of that either.

So… you edit everything yourself, before it gets to the publisher. Maybe you even hire someone to help.

Then the book comes out and you are left to your own devices to get the thing in the hands of readers.

And in exchange? You now have a lot of people who are entitled to a cut. And who get to decide what to do with your book. Forever.

One is reminded of the great Dr. Johnson’s letter to his “patron“:

Seven years, my lord, have now past since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before. . . . Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it.

Ah yes. Imagining Dr. Johnson with access to the Internet is a sweet, sweet thing (Best… Blogger… Ever…).

An Open Letter to Laura Miller

Dear Ms. Miller,

We have not always seen eye-to-eye in the past. And my tone was perhaps inappropriate. However, I will try to do better. I think your heart is in the right place and I have long appreciated your devotion to good writing and good literature. I am a fan of yours when you’re not being condescending! (Sorry, tone again. Mea culpa.)

I was interested by your statement that you are working on a series of articles on the changing literary landscape. I myself have come to view these changes as a great positive force for good. If that is too optimistic, then perhaps we can agree that change is inevitable; what we can hope for is that each of the constituent groups affected by the change will benefit to the appropriate extent.

I think the key main groups that will be affected are publishers, writers, and readers. (There may be others, such as bookstores, critics, teachers, and librarians, but I think these are the core three.) The key questions as I see them are these: Which of these groups do we want to see prosper? And how do we measure this?

Frankly, I expect publishers (and agents to the extent they are allied with them) to fend for themselves. They’ll figure out a way to make money or they’ll do something else. I do not care if at the end of the day Company A is ahead of Company B. Or if Grand Poobah C retires early while Grand Poobah D is forced to keep slaving away. We need to fight for the interests of writers and readers. I’m willing to base the success of publishers on how well they’ve served these two groups.

Moving on, while I’ve mocked the Great Fear of the Almighty Slushpile in the past, I do think there are ways in which readers can lose. Certainly if writers stopped writing, readers would lose. If books became more expensive than they are now, that would be a setback for readers. So too would reduced formatting options – if printed books disappeared altogether, for example, that would be a great blow for most readers.

The last group, and the one I want to focus on here, is writers. And the problem of measurement looks hopelessly formidable. What’s better – a thousand writers finding a way to publish for the first time? Or an established writer who is able to quit her job and write only what she wants? (And if that’s our goal, the patronage system might defeat anything currently on the horizon.) What are we trying to achieve here: A Nobel Prize winner? An all-time classic novel? A hundred really good books a year? Or a broadened field of a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million books out of which great art may arise (or may not). If we take publishers and agents out of the picture, do we think great art won’t happen at all? Or that we won’t be able to recognize it?

The problem is that any analysis of writers slides into an analysis of which writers you want to privilege. Do you believe there are a small number of people – the Great Authors of Our Generation – we should be looking out for? Do we open the doors completely and give everyone a shot? Opinions will no doubt differ.

What I would like to propose is a framework for a utilitarian analysis of the impacts of change on writers as a category, without privileging one type of author over another. In fact, I’ve already done so, with my Levels of Financial Success for Writers. I would hope that your forthcoming articles will not be limited to a few anecdotes but will instead look at the big picture. How will changes move writers up and down these rungs? How much do we value each of these categories? We all have opinions about what kind of books we want. What kind of world do we envision for writers?

Best,

Jacke

Marketing Self-Published Literary Fiction

So much to agree with in this James Campbell post from 2012:

A quick summation: yes, there is a difference between genre fiction
and literary fiction; no, genre fiction is not necessarily ‘lower’
than literary fiction or mere escapism; yes, literary fiction has just
as many cliches and tropes as genre fiction; and yes, there are many
examples of top quality work and utter crap in both categories, and
people shouldn’t pigeon-hole their reading habits to solely one or the
other.

As Campbell recognizes, the issue is not about defining literary fiction or pitting it against genre fiction (sinkhole arguments which unfortunately bog down a lot of these discussions). Most literary fiction authors I know don’t really view their fiction as better or more purposeful than other types of fiction. They recognize the value of genres and like reading them. They didn’t set out to write “literary fiction” per se, they just set out to write a story that wasn’t in a genre. No detectives, no cowboys, no zombies, no mummies, nothing set in the future, no characters who can read minds, no gun play, no car chases… if you create a long enough list you realize you’re left without a clear genre home. and yet we know that people do write and read books without any of those things. The category of “literary fiction” fills that gap.

As Campbell identifies, the main problem for a book that doesn’t fit well in any category other than “literary fiction,” is that it’s hard to find its audience:

whereas it’s fairly straight-forward to tell someone your book is
fantasy or sci-fi or erotica and give them a pretty good idea of what
to expect, describing it as ‘literary fiction’ does absolutely nothing
for you, and so makes it much more difficult to market.

This is particularly true for indie publishers, who can’t count on marketing campaigns or the imprimatur of a traditional publisher. (Note: there are an awful lot of traditionally published midlist authors who don’t get much marketing support these days either.)

Campbell has landed on a couple of solutions. 1) Build an author brand, and 2) go to the readers rather than expect them to find you.

One approach may be starting up a blog like this one, which focuses on issues of self-publishing and literary fiction. I’m not
convinced, however, that marketing to fellow writers is the best way to go.

Other ideas for finding readers: focus on groups of people who share common interests with your characters. Is your protagonist a dog lover? A fisherman? Racecar driver? Ethnographer? Latin expert? There may be online forums with potential readers. You don’t want to jump in with a spam post demanding people buy your book, but participating in
the forum – demonstrating some expertise and enthusiasm that people care about – may lead others toward giving your book a try.

I’ll post some other ideas in future posts – and Campbell has promised to update his Facebook page with news of his efforts, which will be worth tracking as well.