A while ago, I planned a course for a British adult-education organisation. The course was to be given in the city of Liverpool – about forty minutes in train from where I lived then and now. The title of the course was “Introduction to Publishing”.
In 2003 I had been awarded my Spanish Master in Publishing. It had provided me with a massive overview of the history and practice of publishing throughout the ages. At the time, Spanish editors wondered if e-books were just round the corner. They were terrified of what they might lead to; how they could turn an industry of careful and patient professionals awfully upside down.
A decade later the sensation I get, with Kindle’s recent arrival in the Spanish market, is that fear and unknowing continue to dominate most mindsets. And maybe they’re right to feel that way. Kindle and its ancillary services are great for self-publishing, but does that mean they are good for publishing itself – for the industry (and I here when I say industry I mean the labour) of those professionals who through the ages have produced such wonderful objects?
Do our self-published books go through the paused and gentle processes that in the past created excellence – the interplay between complementary roles which ensured that a good book became a better book, and was always questioned right to the line?
And if they don’t, what does that mean for the physical and intellectual quality of our content; of our writing; of our theses; of our assumptions?
Leave to one side the dangers of concentrating industry (and here when I say industry I mean business models) in two or three players – that is to say, in two or three virtual distributors. We’ve been through the issues time and time again in other areas: IBM versus Microsoft; Yahoo versus Google; Microsoft versus Apple; Apple versus Samsung …
In a sense, all these humongous companies fly over us in their bitter patent disputes like battling pterodactyls from a different age. For small and insignificant mammals like ourselves their business appears of little relevance to what we are. Yet, if we accept we are social beings with a responsibility to those around us, we need to consider not only what we do but also how. And the implications.
This posted is titled: “Some thoughts on writers?” And still I’ve had little opportunity to discuss the very object, cause and driver of all publishing: the writer him- or herself. Perhaps this is significant. In all the projects that are publishing out there, selling seems far more important than either the art of writing or the art of creating the physical object that is the book.
Self-publishing doesn’t appear to have removed that instinct. It has just displaced its main actors.
The pterodactyls still flock over our mammalian impulses.
From that “Introduction to Publishing” course I mentioned at the top of this post, here are a couple of quotes I included – relevant, I think, to today’s discussion:
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. [I write] because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention. GEORGE ORWELL, Why I Write, 1946
In America only the successful writer is important, in France all writers are important, in England no writer is important, in Australia you have to explain what a writer is. GEOFFREY COTTERELL
A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. RICHARD BACH
Three very different quotes. Three very different ways of looking at the art and practice of writing. Orwell’s is as uncompromising as you might expect. Cotterell’s is clearly sarcastic – yet there is a certain truth in at least the first three of his statements. Bach, meanwhile, is about as accurate as one can care to get.
Persistence is vision, after all.
Which is why I think we can – we should – now forge a different way. A way where technology and people together are employed to lead readers to content they might never have stumbled across via traditional sales methods. A kind of Last.fm for writing. New stuff you wouldn’t choose for yourself and yet which is capable of fitting into your broadening interests. (As well as earning you a micro-payment living out of automated billing and invoicing systems.)
Just as your favourite bookshop always did, in fact – knowing its clients so very well that intuition allowed an assistant to cleverly anticipate your wants even before you knew how to verbalise them.
Perhaps, in countries like Spain, those times are not yet gone. The book as a physical object is still so very important – the Spanish love to touch and feel their culture. Perhaps, even now, the e-book has not quite sorted out all its obstacles.
The rather more techie stuff I’ve mentioned above already exists of course. Kindle does much of this to a certain extent. Blog aggregators and syndication networks, even more. But wouldn’t it make the job of concentrating on the book itself so much easier if we could actually forget about the sales side altogether? All that incessant tweeting of our content; all that keyword SEO; all that AdWord ingenuity; all those tears and uncertainties and leaps of marketing faith.
Rid ourselves of the need to take on the uncomfortable role of salespeople – once and for all.
Just occupy that universal space of writers of well-fashioned content – and creators of beautiful books.
And as we attempt to reverse the tendencies of decades – where the professionalism of real-life editing eventually lost out to supermarket hotspots – let the clever algorithms take care of all the dirty rest.