What does it mean to be published now?

Female deepsea diver

“Hi honey, I’m going to be e-published!”

I can’t believe that I’m publishing yet another post on publishing. But when David Ackley asked the question last week on Fictionaut, so many interesting, passionate,  even lyrical  responses poured forth that I couldn’t help it when I stumbled on the discussion today. It also felt relevant because I have lately engaged plenty with the alt lit crowd, who are positioned as anti-establishment and highly digitally enabled (not the only ones, of course) and who discuss a similar topic this weekend on Facebook.

While I’m affected (and saddened) by some of the experiences shared here, I don’t agree with the negative views on the demise (?) of either publishing or bookshops.

I just spend a couple of hours in an English bookstore 5 min. from our doorstep in Berlin. It’s a Sunday. In Germany this means everything is closed, or is supposed to be and I presume the bookstore gets to be open because they also sell coffee and muffins. The store was stuffed with people sitting in the comfortable chairs using it evidently as a place to meet, read and relax in the midst of books. This is not an established bookstore: it’s run by a Czech couple and was opened only a year ago. In our neighborhood, which used to be bohemian and has become affluent over the past 10 years, 3 bookstores have opened in the last 2 years alone. Small bookstores, sometimes specialized, but no chains, run by exactly the type of person that Darryl Price describes.

Kapp demo

Berlin street scenes: jolly and weird.

Now, this is Berlin, it’s a special place with a great influx of artists and young people from all over the world. It’s a trendy neighborhood within Berlin. But when I go to other parts of the city, the picture is similar. At the same time, the big book selling chains that supposedly choked all the small stores, are full, too. These are just observations but what else do we have it in the other day, especially with regard to contentious issues that no 2 people can agree upon?

Djuna Barnes - Joyce

“I lost an eye fighting publishing harpies!”

I could go on in a similar vein on the topic of publishing. Take a look at Gissing’s “Grub Street” for a taste of the ancient, traditional vampirism of publishers and the literary world—I found the description heart-wrenching when I recently read it more than 100 years later. To follow up on David’s story about Walt Whitman: who published Proust’s masterpiece? (Answer: the first volume, Swann’s Way, was vanity publishing, paid for by the author himself). Or take Joyce’s experiences with publishing “Dubliners” (not an example of experimental prose):

“Between 1905, when Joyce first sent a manuscript to a publisher, and 1914, when the book was finally published, Joyce submitted the book 18 times to a total of 15 publishers. The book’s publishing history is a harrowing tale of persistence in the face of frustration.” (Via Wikipedia)

At the same time most of the books that I see published in the literary fiction market are, while consistently technically better written than books for the mass market, of low quality. They are not good books to my mind: they do not lend wings to my imagination. The books in the market on average (the very few exceptions confirm my inference) do not cement my pride in the print-based publication industry. They make me hungry for change, which is coming as sure as eggs is eggs.

Seattle Engineering Department office Christmas party 1959 - 01

“Alt Lit knows how to party”

I spend a fair amount of time listening to, talking with and blogging for younger writers (even though many of them are less “beginning” then I am myself), who embrace the new e-publishing paradigm rather naturally – like the alt lit writers, perhaps with a tad more conceit for the old ways than necessary, but entirely not without respect either. Doing that has sharpened my understanding for things to come.

The replacement of one paradigm by another, of one world by another, never is a pleasant process. It isn’t pleasant for people on either side: those who are left behind feel left out and dismissed; and those who build the new world share all the discomforts, uncertainties and fears of the pioneer. One should think that Americans understand this more than any other people. Hence I am somewhat surprised at the (overall) negative tone of the discussion—facilitated in a medium and on a platform — Fictionaut — that did not exist 5 years ago.

Dornberger-Axter-von Braun

Dressed to kill? I’m meeting an agent.

I say all this while looking forward to another meeting with a literary agent next week. An agent of the aging publishing industry of printed books, I hasten to add. It’ll be the jolly meeting of two dinosaurs and I hope to meet someone I can drink with to the new age, to better books and more power for poets!

I can’t really say what “publication” means, but I do know that it’s changing fast, and not to the worse, just to something more acclimated to the current weather. I also don’t know where the balance lies between, say, digital and nondigital publishing for a writer, but I doubt that it was ever easy for a writer to straddle the fences that crisscross the reality of writing or to find the right way to talk to everyone who has staked a claim in the land of story-making.

VirginiaWoolf

“Fear mingles with pleasure”

In more than one respect, digital literature in digital publishing is alien to established readers and writers. This alienness may breed repulsion and it may breed respect. I’m reminded of what Virginia Woolf said beautifully, mysteriously about “The Russian Point of View”:

“… the mind takes its bias from the place of its birth, and no doubt, when it strikes upon a literature so alien as the Russian, flies off at a tangent far from the truth.”

Perhaps the mind is not the best companion when it comes to appreciating current changes in publishing. Mine certainly “flies off at a tangent far from the truth.”

Just write.

16 thoughts on “What does it mean to be published now?

  1. I know nothing about publishing. I only know how to make books my self. But drawing on your comment on independent bookstores – last year a completely independent English language only book shop open in my neighbourhood called Bookish Store (http://bookishstore.net/) They seem to do quite (certainly out of me whenever I go there). There is another very famous bookstore in Istanbul called Robinson Cursoe. I hope to always have such places exist. Whenever I go, I see a lot of people (as you described) enjoying the company of books.

    Books, like any object, are and can be fetishistic. I don’t mean that in a negative way, rather those who love books (I am sure there are a couple of hundreds millions of us) will always seek the comfort of touching a page as we read. That is not to say we cannot enjoy the fruits of digital publishing. Aside from the big bosses of the “establishment”, how is anyone losing out? Perhaps that is a very naive question.

    • I love hearing about bookstores anywhere, Sera. Someone should start a Tumblr blog only about new bookstores. Probably already exists. I also fail to see how anyone is losing out! It’s the right time to ask so-called “naive” questions…

  2. I read thru the F’naut discussion. Many povs. But this question has been giving me a headache since the turn of the century when I began publishing online (after publishing fairly often in papery journals for years and being rejected even more often by the big name papery things) and my writerly academicky colleagues were horrified (with a capital H, in fact, cap it all). So I just don’t think too much about it, except, of course, when I’m trying to woo an agent :) Mostly I write, or not, publish however & wherever, or not . . . you know. It’s just part of what writers do. It isn’t everything.

  3. Ah, that Darryl Price (the Fictionaut link), he has a way with words, wonderful.

    On “publication”, I’m bemused by the panic about the “changes” — it’s clear that e-publishing is going to be a giant part of the future reading experience, but is this really so different to our past? It used to be that stories were told around a fire — maybe even before fire — and this continues. Then we wrote things down, and the words were painted on walls where everyone (everyone!) could see them — or scribbled onto smaller things and passed around. Tablets, boards and books. Nothing has changed. Is it true to say that the internet provides a wider audience? A more accessible audience, and we can publish ourselves…?
    Writers could always get stories out there, with or without big publishers – look at Dickens (Wiki has an interesting piece on the Victorian penchant for serialised fiction) — and stories have long been shared via group storytelling in local pubs or on village stages, or letters written, read and passed around… Now we can publish on the internet and immediately, the whole world can see our words and this has created a stir — look! Any old arse can write a book and publish to The Whole World! But in truth it’s no different to the man with a tale who takes it to the pub and wets a few palates before beginning because on the internet like any other stage or place or piece of paper, it’s all about storytelling, and all about the people who hear or watch us – and people haven’t changed.

    When you first publish on the internet, you publish to yourself and your mum. Is all. Until you’ve said the hellos, your blog stats will read “0001” every sad day, and if you don’t engage with people you may as well shove your manuscript down a rabbit hole as put it on Lulu/Createspace/Amazon etc. Until you’ve turned a few heads with a good story, and begged your mum to bloody well listen. And you have to listen to her story first, and everyone else’s story, and make a few comments and join in and show that you’re worth the time and attention of a listening ear. (Listening eye?)

    The internet has made publishing mechanisms accessible… if you know how to do it all yourself, you can “make a book” alone – but if not, you’ll want people to help. The people with the technical abilities, proofreaders, editors and networks used to be called agents and publishers; maybe they still will be. It doesn’t really matter because the mechanism does not make the audience.

    Publishing is just setting a story down. Doesn’t matter how you do it, I reckon it’s going to stay the same as it ever was. — you have to say hello, there has to be a tale to tell, and people have to want to hear it. I hope so.

    • I know I have enjoyed your take on the story! This “When you first publish on the internet, you publish to yourself and your mum.” can be discouraging, can’t it. This process you describing is probably not unlike the traditional process except the cave setting has changed. But it’s still storytelling in the cave…

    • I also noticed this trend to repackaging in order to…appeal to a sense of “small is beautiful” or perhaps to a changed clientele (buyers who are looking for niche and ‘personalization’ while they still want mainstream literature)? I don’t know…I rarely buy books for their package or publisher though I notice that I am drifting towards beautifully made books and books that look special. Your conclusion after shop walking, “it’s all vanity publishing—and always has been—as authors have always been willing to surrender too much to get their books out there.” is most interesting; I’ve never looked at it this way. I have never really understood the case against vanity publishing. It seems to me that as soon as a book crosses the line from the workshop into the market it enters a different world with different laws. A writer’s vanity is a more private affair, but I need to think about this some more. Even without being Proust: if I’d reach many readers with my work it wouldn’t matter to me how I began. I think “surrender” really is an important keyword here: systemically speaking think authors must surrender themselves to the market. Because art and market are such different worlds this may contaminate and compromise the writer’s vision at the core less then most people assume. But since I’m not in the market (yet!) I can’t really say anything yet (which apparently doesn’t stop me ;-)…

  4. One of the things I would LOVE to see being slapped into the garbage can is this idea of “vanity” publishing. Technology has given us all the tools to put out, truly INDEPENDENTLY, a brilliantly made (and hopefully written) project, if one is willing to work hard. I see it analogous to what the Big Labels in music publishing have had to withstand and adapt to: an influx of talented, independently minded musicians who choose to circumvent stifling contracts, which take advantage of their creativity, and instead write, record, and produce their “products” independently. And then tour, to promote them. The stigma of “vanity” needs to be defeated. With a small, loyal team consisting of 2 editors (copy & developmental), and a graphic artist, a writer can easily produce his/her book using tech tools from Amazon or Lulu, and distribute it via Amazon or any other channel. Indie publishers expect their authors to do as much legwork promoting as an independent writer who has worked on his/her book himself/herself. The beauty is in the profit sharing; sometimes as high at 70% royalties go to the independently published writer. Nowhere will you find that staggering split; and if one works hard to write, produce, and promote his/her book, one can expect to be quite pleased. The 21st century is here; yes, we might very well see a flooding of the market with mediocre, self-published books, but I believe the good material will find its place within the community.

    I must say conversely (and I won’t name any names), I have bought books from indie publishers which looked horrendous, or were typeset crookedly. A more recent one I spent $15 to purchase had its entire back of the jacket in blurry writing, thus making the blurbs and any other information illegible.

    • I’m with you on all of this, especially you believe that “the good material will find its place within the community”, which is a good way to put it. Somehow the community is the central paradigm from which all else will follow. Regarding the quality of indie productions I have mostly been positively surprised. If I’m not mistaken, one of my publishers works with a print on demand provider for my book and am interested to see how this pans out. As for the royalties split, I haven’t been too keen on beautiful numbers so far because it’s early days and I am mostly keen to get anywhere with this publishing thing rather than get wealthy… I do feel rather naïve and surrendering about it all, but as I said above in my comment on Joseph’s post, I believe surrendering is generally not a bad start. It seems therapeutically appropriate.

      • My on-demand printer (is actually a division of Amazon) has been amazing both in quality and speed filling orders. I have nothing but accolades for POD from my own experience.

    • Very interesting Stephen! You’ll notice, when reading through the comments, that others have also drawn this parallel to music making and indeed we live in an age of hybridization: all the arts are moving closer together, which redefines both output and operation for every single art.

  5. Pingback: How do you manage your inner critic? «

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