I’ve been on vacation for the past month and decided to go on hiatus from this blog during that time. (I did continue to blog at www.thediscerningtravelers.com because that’s my writing practice for fun – and did seem relevant since I was in LA and Hawaii!). This pause did give me a chance to reflect on the future of publishing in general and on my continuing participation in it in particular.
In early 2009 Time published an article by Lev Grossman titled “Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature.” In that article, he recounted the now-familiar story of neuroscientist Lisa Genova who couldn’t get her novel published after pursuing all the traditional approaches: agents, queries, submissions etc. Blah, blah, blah – those of us who write books of any kind have been there. Done that. Sick of it.
Well, most of you will already know the rest of the story. She took matters into her own hands and went to iUniverse, published the book herself and was subsequently offered half a million dollars from Simon and Shuster. And you’ve probably all read Still Alice (I have not). That’s becoming like an urban myth. And it does speak to our continuing need to be validated by “real” publishers as opposed to those do-it-yourself approaches. I think that most aspiring novelists would welcome this kind of outcome in any case. I’m probably among them: traditional (aka “real”) publishers seem to want only my non-fiction. But what is so different about fiction and what lies in the future for how those stories get from writer’s head into reader’s hands?
Grossman put it this way in his article: “We think of the novel as a transcendent, timeless thing, but it was shaped by the forces of money and technology just as much as by creative genius.” There is likely no doubt in your mind that money and technology are important in publishing – I submit that they are also part of the good, the bad and the really ugly.
Obviously writers need money to be able to continue with their habit. How much money seems moot since most writers these days do it for love rather than money. Making a living at it is a whole different issue, and that’s what makes money a good part of publishing. Publishers are clearly in business to make money – that’s good for their employees, but bad for writers, since writers are typically the worst paid contributors to the process. Full stop. That’s when the money part gets really ugly.
Technology is a really good part of publishing. It first started with the word processor back in the dark ages. I remember when I had to make corrections on hard copy page proofs and any changes after that were very costly indeed. Technology has changed all that. That’s a good thing. Further, technology has advanced to the point where books are more accessible than ever (of course you might need to revisit the definition of a book – but I digress). Technology has also allowed all of us to be publishers (to wit: you’re reading this blog now, aren’t you?). This is good? Maybe. But it is also bad, since there are no editors, no filters, no quality control. And that’s where it gets downright ugly.
You might have the best possible piece of literature and if a “real” publisher takes it on, it gains credibility. If you publish it yourself, it is suspect in some, perhaps many, circles. That’s ugly, since the number of poorly written, unedited, crappily designed self-published books gives everyone a bad name. And there are some truly bad pieces of work around. We live in an age where everyone seems to think they’re really good, even when they’re not. Just take a look of some of those so-called reality talent contests on television and you’ll see the negative reactions of people who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, yet are personally insulted to be told this; whereas others who are truly talented are the most modest. (See the interview with Martin Short in this months’ issue of Toronto Life Magazine.).
So, where does all of this ranting leave me? It leaves me questioning the direction of my future writing. I know I write well – at least I know that I write some things well based on external review (Huh, see the Martin Short reference above). Objectively, I have a good command of the English language; I have a track record in traditional and non-traditional publishing; I’ve been reviewed positively for several different kinds of work. But I’m pragmatic enough to understand that it is much more difficult to get fiction than non-fiction published, both in general for everyone and in particular for me.
Maybe it’s time to suck it up and stick to what I know I’m good at. Or maybe I’ll just surf on over to Pinterest and start a pin-board of writing ideas. Want to join me?