The Death of Publishing Part M: This Time, It's Electric!

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Caption: They shot Publishing on the Causeway

The publishing industry is dying—so I’ve heard. The new era is here—I think. E-books, E-readers and E-distribution: it all spells “freedom” for the writer or, perhaps, the unlocking of those pesky gates separating the beautiful ones (aka published) from the ugly bastards (aka everyone else). The writer and the reader: chuck the middleman’s carcass to the side and let the literary symbiosis prosper. It’s all very utopian, quite idyllic with its blue sky, resplendent sun and bountiful royalties, to say nothing of artistic growth. The rallying cry—death to traditional pub!—is a popular stance to take, positioning oneself with the angels as that devilish Goliath falls to its knees. Are we there yet? Have we arrived?

Artistic failure begets a bitterness potent enough to ruin lives. It’s why rejection hurts: with each form letter, each “pass” from publishers, as years appear in the rear-view mirror like a mountain of trash, it’s difficult to remain strong and optimistic. Rejection is torture: everyone has a limit before he breaks, lets it all spill from his eyes, and says, “No mas. No mas.” Writers want to be read; the thought of being life-long diarists angers some of them beyond explanation. Self-publishing, if nothing else, is the last bastion of expression, of mass communication, for the rejected, the failures.

Failure, of course, is a matter of perspective, making rejection worse. It’s not just that you failed to publish; you failed to have a shot with readers, a chance to be lauded, panned or altogether ignored by the reading populace. And though I know there are unreadable, unpublished books in the world, I can see the ugly bastards’ point: get out of the way, publisher, and let readers decide for themselves.

A democratic philosophy, no doubt, that could make good books that much harder to find. But would it be any worse than the music industry? Right now, thousands of bands and performers offer their songs on iTunes and many of them will see few, if any, sales. That they decide to take a shot, to reach out to potential listeners, independent of the music’s quality or accessibility, and in lieu of a label’s seal of approval, gives rise to a small hope to writers, an optimism that helps to generate the current “down with traditional publishing” fervor.

This would be a good time to posit the following: even amid unfettered publishing, failures and inequities will remain. I’m no fool. While a writer will be free to disseminate his “Lord of The Rings-meets-Soul Plane” e-novel, there’s no guarantee that people buy it, read it or even know its title. Literary works of wonder, exquisite prose detailing the inner-sanctum of our hearts, will flounder; what some may call “mass market drivel” will dominate sales and readership.

Or vice versa. How the hell would I know? Point is, writing for publication is nothing more than a crap-shoot, an opportunity for readers to buy into your work or say “pass” as they continue their Amazon search. Going to a traditional publisher, whether you value its services or not, is asking for the chance to fail. Asking for a chance. That writers are beginning to say, “I’m not asking for a damn thing” should surprise no one. It should be encouraged.

It’s too soon to say that the publishing industry is dead, dying or ripe for assassination. It is in flux; this is one of those “tipping point” moments that’ll shape the industry—or send it careening off a cliff. If the latter occurs, it’ll be mostly self-induced; writers opting to self-publish never threatened traditional publishers before and they won’t now or in the near future. Publishers will have to adapt—if the agendas for various conferences and lit festivals are any indication, they know this.

And even with iTunes and such, musicians continue to shop demos to record labels; both industries, however, are aware of the incongruence between the times and their current, yet decreasing value to artists. Meanwhile, writers will continue to find agents; agents will find publishers; publishers will determine the book’s return on investment; readers will still enjoy books, paper or electronic; unpublished writers will seethe and sprint to Lulu. Or quit the race altogether.

As for me–

I think of my own literary dreams, those that keep me up at night these days. My utter lack of confidence in my work is, to say the least, a personal problem. “Rejection is torture”: for me, these words extend beyond publication; it encroaches upon self-deprecation and creative suicide. I try to write prose that matters to me, that might matter to you—that might give me permission to say, as a writer, “I matter.” And to do all this work, to overcome fears and depression (clinical) and craft something that somewhat resembles the nonsense in my brain—to grind, in short—just for a publisher to tell me no? That was in style decades ago, but it’s the new era—unsettled and gaseous as it is—and I’m not sure if I need a publisher. That is, of course, unless a publisher says yes–

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