Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reading, writing, and publishing as conversation

My previous post got me thinking about the place of books in the 21st century and it suddenly struck me that the central paradox of our age is that reading is in decline at the precise moment that writing (publishing) is undergoing explosive growth.

It's true that people read less these days...I certainly see that in my undergraduate students compared to when I started teaching here 20 years ago...but the other, largely overlooked, half of that picture is that of those readers who remain, a great many more are also writers. Phrased negatively, it is easy to complain that the only people left reading are the writers; the idea that we are just writing to ourselves seems to be spreading among many of my colleagues. But I think that has it backwards. True, more people are watching TV and playing on the Internet or gaming or whatever than buying books, and even those who still read regularly may be reading less thanks to these other distractions. But more of my undergraduates are also serious about writing. Facebook set that back briefly as the writers' urge for audience found it's outlet in social media, but more and more of my students are dropping out of Facebook and its ilk and starting work on their novels or epic poetry.

Admittedly, that's a good news bad news story: more people fully engaged in literacy -- as both consumer and producer -- is good; more very badly written books being produced is probably less good. The emergence of practical POD self-publishing has made publishing much more democratic and diverse, which is very, very good; open access may also mean no refereeing and often no editing at all, which is often very, very bad.

But I remain optimistic that that will quickly sort itself out. As I've predicted here before, as the number of new, and especially self-published titles proliferates, the role of reviewers and small press editors correspondingly gains in importance in helping readers sort out the pearls from the dross. As readers come to know and trust particular reviewers, editors, and imprints, they will give preference to books (whether paper or digital) that come with their quality guarantee. Indeed, we are already seeing Amazon and YouTube and Goodreads and the like setting up channels/communities to which consumers can subscribe to more efficiently follow such recommendations.

It is all very reminiscent of the pre-megacorporate days of publishing when imprints reflected the tastes and literary values of their editors. When you bought a story edited by John W. Campbell, you knew exactly what you would be getting, even if you had never heard of the author before. Same with, say, the Ace Specials edited by Wollheim and Terry Carr. You didn't have to worry that the author was unknown to you or the cover blurb sounded dubious, it was an Ace Special and so a very safe bet. The editor or the imprint was the guarantor of the product.

This reliance on editors has been lost as the large-scale corporate publishers have allowed marketing departments to dictate editorial policy. As editors have been pushed aside in favour of fixed marketing categories, the neverendingseries, and author name recognition -- all in search of predictable sales in an inherently unpredictable market -- 'safe' titles have overwhelmingly replaced 'good' ones. Legacy publishers often find it difficult to publish cutting edge titles because they cannot afford to stand on the edge, and marketing departments don't know how to market something they can't fit into their pre-existing categories. The result is a retreat into republishing essentially the same book over and over with only slight variations. The trend towards narrowly focusing on a known product in hopes of reliable sales results in a sameness that the industry itself refers to as 'processed cheese'.

[Its as if GM and Chrysler were still producing the same cars today as sold in 1960, as if there had been no advances in automotives in 40 years! Oh wait. They did that and had to be bailed out by governments when consumers refused to buy their products. The publishing industry would do well to take note of this precedent; except, there's no bailout coming for publishers and booksellers....]

So here's a thought: perhaps one reason readership is declining is because the publishers themselves have become so fixated on 'the winning formula' that they have reduced their offerings to overly predictable formulaic crap: after you've read five Honor Harrington novels, you start to feel like you've pretty much read them all, so why bother buying the next one? Why continue reading at all if one's experience is that most books just aren't that good? If all that the legacy publishers are offering readers is the same 40-50 tired series, what other reaction could they expect from the reading public? Maybe the real problem isn't competition from movies, games, and the Internet; maybe the more fundamental issue is that the legacy publishers have become so risk-adverse that they are no longer providing the quality and range of books people want to read.

As small press niche publishers (like Five Rivers) emerge to fill the gaps left by the legacy publishers, I think the legacy publishers increasingly risk being cut out of the conversation.

First, as more and more real readers -- those interested in literature and fresh ideas and approaches, rather than just the latest movie novelization -- begin to turn to particular niche imprints, editors, and reviewers for their reading fix, the impersonal, marketing-driven publishers will begin to lose market share. Of course this won't happen over night and the trend won't be immediately obvious because the legacy publishers will continue to churn out processed cheese, and frankly, there will always be a market for processed cheese. I myself don't mind a slice of processed Cheddar on my burgers, but it's not, you know, to be confused with real Cheddar. Same with books. There will be a market for cheese slices and Dan Brown, but somewhere, someone will be reading Matt Hughes and eating a nice piece of brie.

Second, megacorporate publishing is a one-way street: the publishers produce books and we consume them. That was true for music and TV too, up until MP3 and YouTube, when consumers could suddenly also become producers. Just as the emergence of those new technologies turned consumers into sometimes producers, POD and digital make it possible for many more individuals to enter the print conversation. Yes, that raises the noise to signal ratio at first; but in the long run, I foresee authors and readers forming channels/communities where readers are reading the books by people who've read and are reacting to the books they themselves have written.

That may sound crazy, but there are plenty of historical precedents. I once undertook a study on the Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, for example, which flourished in the 17-1800s and was exactly that sort of mutual reading and contributing community, covering the full range of literacy from scientific advances to poetry. The expectation was not only that the subscribers would be interested in everything they published, but that the readers would also themselves be regular contributors on a diverse range of subjects.

Or take Bali, for example. It's a culture where everyone is an artist -- everyone is supposed to create at least one work of art in their lifetime to contribute to the temple. Sure, some of the sculpture is better than others, and some people produce more art than others, but everyone appreciates art and craftsmanship and everyone participates. The division between producers and consumers that is so embedded in our capitalist culture that it is literally unthinkable for us not to speak in those terms, doesn't exist there to nearly the same extent.

I would therefore like to argue that the division between readers and writers that has emerged in our culture under conditions of monopoly capitalism is a false dichotomy, and one which cannot persist in the face of new technologies (i.e., the emergence of new, more inherently democratic means of production). Just as we have gotten used to not singing outside of the shower because singing is something that professionals do on the radio, we have become conditioned to thinking that writing is something that a few professionals do for publishers, not something average human beings should attempt.

But that's rubbish. Anyone reading this prepared to argue that Dan Brown is a particularly good writer? That there are not thousands of unpublished works as good or better? Mass appeal does not translate out to literary value in anyway we have ever been able to demonstrate. Big publishers, driven by the need for profit -- and the even more immediate need of servicing their stupidly high debt loads -- have to look for best sellers. They are not, cannot be, interested in whether the book is any good; just in whether it will sell. So a perfectly wonderful novel set in Alberta which might easily become a best seller in Alberta can be of no interest to the legacy publishers because the population of Alberta simply isn't big enough to produce the economies of scale the mega publishers require to make money on a book. Consequently, much excellent Canadian literature goes begging because, unless the megapublishers believe they can sell it to the Americans or the British, they just can't make a Canadian book profitable on that scale. Same goes for genre and niche fiction. But economies of scale should not fool us into thinking that 'bigger' is necessarily 'better'.

So, just as we can't allow ourselves to stop singing just because we can't get into the top ten of American Idol, I don't think we should stop thinking of ourselves as writers, or potential writers, just because we can't break into mass market publishing.

We need a whole new vocabulary here. Just as reading novels is not the same act as reading an instructional manual or a tax form, reading legacy-published novelizations of Avatar or Alice in Wonderland is not the same as reading a novel from Chi Press or the actual novel of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I think legacy publishers will continue churning out Honor Harrington novels and Dan Brown books, but we have to stop thinking of that as reading and instead add it -- along with the Internet, gaming, TV and movies -- to the list of distractions from true reading. Perhaps 'real reading', the true definition of literacy, is what happens when one reads books that are not mass produced processed-cheese but hand-craft works by local or niche artisans.

Initially, I expect to see a great flowering of Canadian literature as more Canadians have the opportunity to self-publish or publish through small POD presses then would ever have had a chance through the bloated legacy publishers. Okay, admittedly -- going to be a lot more weeds. But as we do weed out the crap, we're going to discover a hell of a lot of previously overlooked, ignored, or silenced voices that deserve to be heard.

And I don't expect the weeding-out process to take that long. After picking up a few unedited, badly-written, self-published disasters, readers will stop buying books that haven't been properly edited or vetted. Self-published authors will quickly learn to approach known writers and editors for introductions, the simplest form of vetting. As the pool of Robert Sawyers available to write introductions to Canadian SF novels is rather small, however, and as such authors won't write intros for weak books, the self-published author will have to turn to something else.

One possibility could be the emergence of an army of freelance editors who contract with authors to edit their books. As certain editors become associated with successful books, their name on the backcover becomes a quality guarantee, especially in contrast to books that provide no evidence of having been edited. As the editor's reputation grows, so does the demand for that editor's services and the corresponding ability of the editor to turn down inferior work and to enforce changes the author might otherwise be reluctant to make -- thus further enhancing the editor's ability to improve and guarantee the quality of product, which in turn enhances the editor's reputation. In theory, such editors could wield considerable influence, even within a freelance market.

(Of course, this vision of the freelance editor may be influenced by my intention to become one upon my retirement from academia, so I concede that I may be indulging in pure wishful thinking here.)

More likely, authors will choose to go through small press POD houses that can offer not only editing, but cover art, book design (the least appreciated and understood aspect of publishing, but nonetheless a crucial one) and marketing as well as act as a significant guarantor of quality.

In the longer term, however, I see the emergence of literary communities. As more readers turn writer and write their own books in response to what they are reading, tight knit communities could emerge based around a particular subgenre, regional literature, or otherwise mutually familiar literary cannon. This again has many historical precedents, such as the Amateur Press Associations of the turn of (last) century; or more recently, SF or comic fandoms. (See my essay on the history of fandom or discussion of amateur Press Associations) Both fandom and apas were briefly superceded by the emergence of the Internet, since chat rooms and web pages were cheaper, easier and faster technologies than print; but I think the emergence of POD could lead to a new, more professional and sophisticated print version of these earlier social phenomenon: Not fandom, but prodom; not zines but books. Indeed, the parallels here are intended only as illustrative of the sort of social relations I envisage evolving, and are by no means an exact parallel.

And that is about paper-books. Digital books add entirely new possibilities. It is only a matter of moments until someone figures out how to network ebooks with social media, so that reviews and reader commentary automatically accumulates with your copy of the book, creating whole new dimensions of book club/literary criticism and networking. We already see something of the sort in GoodReads and similar, but that is only scratching the surface of what we are likely to see in the next couple of years....

So what we may be witnessing is the re-emergence of a literate culture similar to that of the educated landed aristocracy, where literacy didn't just mean reading, but also carried the expectation of writing. Instead of readers being passive consumers, I foresee those still engaged with print as a medium using it productively to become themselves part of the conversation. With POD houses and Espresso machines in every Starbucks, there is now no reason why everyone should not have a shot at developing and contributing their talent to the pool of cultural objects available to everyone.

I think Clay Shirky's (Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.) may be onto something. His central thesis is that Web 2.0 etc has created an environment that allows people to pool their 'cognitive surplus' -- leisure time. Although each of us has only a couple of hours to spare here or there, multiplied by the entire population, this cognitive surplus becomes a vast resource of personhours. Whereas previously our options for putting this time to productive use were limited (the occasional community project or carpentry hobby, but mostly frittered away in front of the TV), the Internet makes massive undertakings such as Wikipedia possible. For all its weaknesses, Wikipedia is a vast cultural resource which is growing and improving by the second. It is a perfect example of what I am talking about: instead of sitting back and waiting for experts to publish an encyclopedia -- with all the advantages of vetting and all the disadvantages of control and restrictions on what is to be considered worthwhile knowledge -- consumers have themselves become contributors and editors. They have become part of the conversation.

It does not take a great deal of extrapolation to suggest that the same sort of ongoing dialog, the same contentious arguing and vetting and occasional vandalism and correction that ultimately results in fairly reliable entries on Wikipedia can create a conversation that results in the publication of an equally vast and quality body of literature.

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