Friday, May 28, 2010

Ode to the Electronic Age of Publishing

Earlier this week, the Baltimore Sun ran an article by Garrison Keeler bemoaning the Decline and Fall of the Book Industry.

"Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea," Keeler warns.

Though we live in a literate society, says Mr. Woebegon, the demise of the book is due to an overabundance of electronic options that make things too easy.  Too readily available.  This, Keeler posits, encourages wanton writing. He foresees an immediate future where the Hack Writer flourishes.  It is a future devoid of literary content and entirely lacking in commitment.  His rationale:
  • No commitment to craft is needed on the writer's part because we now write with numerals in the place of words (as in "I <3 2 read what U write.") 
  • No commitment from a publisher is required because anyone who wishes can publish an e-book. 
  • No commitment to content is needed, so editors will vanish. (In Keeler's words: Poof!).
  • No commitment to readers is needed, so each writer will sell only a few books -- most to blood relatives.  And -- like dinosaurs, arrowheads, buggy whips, and walkmans -- the New York Times bestseller list will become a thing of the past.
  • Perhaps most concerning of all: no commitment to established writers is needed.  Because if upstart newcomers are allowed to just publish their stuff for all the world to read it, " will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries."
Ah, there's the rub, isn't it?

The electronic age of publishing no longer makes getting one's words into print a matter of wooing, bribing, or making an end-run past the gate keepers.  If no real expense is involved -- if no trees are killed and made into pulp, if no deals are made with foreign printers for cut-rate printing, if no warehouses are needed to store unsold copies, and if no wages must be paid to employees for "stripping" (the unconscionable bookseller practice of ripping the cover off a perfectly good book, sending the cover back to the publisher, and destroying the rest of the book) -- then the only people who have a real vested interest in the writing become... the writers and the readers.

Now, I like Mr. Keeler's radio show. My family (including my 7 year-old daughter, who calls him "the Funny Guy") listens to it whenever we're in the car and can find an NPR station broadcasting it. I like his Writer's Almanac series, and enjoy articles when I see them in magazines.

I've tried to read his books, though, and never end up finishing them. They're OK. But they never make a good enough case for me to put my life on hold to read them.

I'm just one reader.  I know he has many loyal fans out there who eagerly await his next novel.

But if, as he suggests, the demise of the book opens the floodgates to a slew of new writers, I'm inclined to rejoice.  That means new, untried writers who would previously have their work rejected so a publisher could publish the 96th Lake Woebegon novel will have the opportunity to find an outlet for their voice somewhere else.

The landscape of the publishing industry is changing so rapidly that even insiders require a GPS for navigation. 

For every established author who wails about the changes that are sweeping the World of Words, who see the new opportunities for writers as cause for alarm rather than cause for elation, I propose this:

Take your current novel.  Strip out everything that marks it as a sequel, that feeds upon past successes.  Change character and place names.  Make the manuscript able to stand on its own.

Then, write a synopsis of it.  Boil down the essence of the thing into a page or two.

Then, write a query.  Follow all the rules of getting the attention of an agent -- the one person who stands between you and a publisher. 

Submit that query to 10 agents under a pseudonym as if you were a first-time novelist.

Let me know how it goes.

Some writers with well-established fans might say, "I don't need to do that.  I've already paid my dues." 

I submit that the future of publishing -- with readily available new names and content -- will make "dues paying" less of an factor in a writer's success.  That may terrify the establishment.  I, however, find it an exhilarating thought.

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