Dispatches | September 29, 2010
The Role of Literary Publishers in the Digital Age
The Wall Street Journal has recently published an interesting if somewhat conventionally hand-wringing article on the economic impact on authors of the burgeoning digital publishing business model and the accompanying decline of print publishing: “Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books.” The article is noteworthy of seriously considering the impact on writers of literary fiction, since it seems from my reading that a lot of the ink spilled over the economics of e-books tends to be about how it’s changing the dynamics of mass-market publishing.
But I thought I’d mention this article as a springboard for talking about two things not particularly addressed by it: the stigma of self-publishing and the future of short fiction publishing.
On the first point: it seems inevitable that digital self-publishing is going to be a more and more attractive and even sensible route for authors. There are certainly benefits that conventional publishers offer, such as the input of experienced editors and the skills of professional marketers (neither of which, however, is actually intrinsic to the act of producing a physical or digital edition). But as publishing houses seem to invest less and less in providing precisely these services for authors — particularly literary authors (and I’ve known several who have hired their own P.R. person because their publishers were doing inadequate jobs) — does it still make sense to let a publisher collect 75% of your e-book’s revenue just for the service of typesetting it and uploading it to Amazon’s Kindle store, when both of these tasks are things authors are generally capable of doing adequately on their own? (Professional typesetting is not to be underrated, but one could hire a graphic designer to do layouts for a one-time fee — and even then, depending on the e-book format, many of the benefits of professional design might be lost anyway, if the e-book reader isn’t displaying a straight PDF but rather rendering its own version of a glorified text file.) It seems to me that would-be mass-market or even niche-marker “genre” writers have a tendency to be fairly enthusiastic about such prospects: many of them are already accustomed to actively participating in niche fandoms and writing communities. They have a fairly strong conception of who their audience is and how to reach them, and the idea of directly and independently marketing their work to that audience is entrepreneurial and exciting. And there’s something appealing in the Protestant-work-ethicality of feeling that you have personal responsibility for your book’s success or failure, rather than being stuck waiting for editorial approval and endorsement from on high.
Therein, of course, lies the rub for many literary writers, whose practical income is based on academic positions or the ability to get prestige-based grants for their work. In institutionalized art (especially academia), we have not yet adapted our standards for success to encompass publication outside of conventional print entities, or online entities that closely ape print. We tend to live by the polite fiction that literary journal editors or publishing houses selecting a story or novel is equivalent to academic peer-review publication. But the current upheaval in the publishing industry shows how much it is a raw marketplace, where success is driven by market forces over any abstract measures of “quality.” Defining literary quality is itself highly problematic, but a quick survey of authors employed in higher education suggests that it’s not particularly based on straightforward market success. The assumption seems to be that we let literary editors determine merit for us by means of what they select to sell to an audience. The rationale remains fundamentally commercial, but we like to pretend it’s more high-minded than that. We trust in editors as gatekeepers, and have not developed good mechanisms for assigning value to works that are read and enjoyed without the imprint of a publisher. Does a print chapbook that has 500 copies printed and some fraction of that actually sold really have greater value than a collection distributed by the author freely (or cheaply) online that receives several thousand pageviews? Do we really only trust professional publishers (who are in a collapsing industry) to verify for us what has value? Will we be able to accept positive reviews from venerable institutions as evidence of merit for self-published work (assuming reviewers will elect to read self-published work) rather than relying on the fact that a publisher was willing to put a financial stake in releasing an author’s work through a distribution channel that no longer has a material rationale for keeping access to it limited?
I don’t propose that these are rhetorical questions. Indeed, I think that they are highly problematic. But I can admit my own personal anxiety at the prospect of having written a novel that I think is good, that I want to share, but not being able do anything with it until someone with privileged access to the means of production/distribution decides that they’re willing to risk an investment in that work, when, in fact, the means of production/distribution is right at my fingertips at any time. Of course, nothing is stopping me from self-publishing, other than the fact that if I would like patronage for my work through the auspices of an academic job, I have to have “real” publications on my C.V.
And this brings me to the question of short fiction, which is particularly interesting, because the electronic marketplace for it is still relatively underdeveloped (probably because the actual audience for short fiction is far from a significant commercial or cultural force). If we can envision a form of digital authorship that has been liberated from a reliance on “publishers” to make their work available, what then becomes of the literary magazine? If I don’t need your magazine to make my story physically available to readers, and if (eventually) I don’t necessarily need your magazine’s imprint to prove my artistic credibility, then what role does the idea of a magazine have?
My suggestion would be that we do still need gatekeepers, that we do need institutional organs that recognize merit and bestow prestige — but that these organs no longer need to be in the business of publishing the work they praise. I can see a future for literary magazines that much more closely resembles their past — as venues for review and criticism, as institutions that promote and recognize artistic achievement without having to be the means of accessing that achievement. This is, essentially, the role that film and music magazines, for example, already occupy. In some ways, I wonder if the general decline in the cultural significance of short fiction in particular might be related to the fact that most journals today present work to the public as though merely being in their magazine is testament enough to its merits. Does merely appearing in your magazine really do all that much to make a case for an author’s work to the reading public? I think lots of readers (and even writers) ask “Why should I subscribe to a literary journal?” (my writing students certainly ask this), and I’m not convinced that the journals have made a very good case for themselves — too often they assume the work makes its own case, and I think the market trends show that to be a flawed assumption. As more journals look for content to fill-out their online presence, we can already see a tendency to produce more and more commentary, in the form of podcasts and blog post pitches and author interviews/prefaces. It seems to me a natural further progression to drop the need of being the sole (initial) distributor of a work, and making the promotion of good work that is already out there, released by the author, the institutional function of a review. After all, isn’t that really all a slush-pile is, anyway, except that when we choose to publish something out of the slush-pile, far too often we don’t even bother to share with our reading public why we thought it was worthy of their interest and attention?
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