Sunday, March 02, 2014

Publishing is dead. Long live the new publishing! A response to Robert McCrum

I read this unintentionally funny, lazy Observer piece about the incredible suffering being endured by today’s cash-strapped, loft-converting authors (having to ‘commission a builder’, which is what you do in London, apparently, rather than ‘head to B&Q’) with increasing frustration and rage.

Why? first, it made it into the columns of the Observer, despite its lack of insight, research, knowledge or perspective. Presumably because Robert McCrum is an associate editor and thus Beyond Criticism. Second, it reflects a London-centric, blinkered, middle class sense of entitlement. Third, it reminded me how I felt when the British Phonographic Institute began its moronic legal actions against poor wee pop music downloaders, back in the day: it illustrated how fear and misunderstanding of technological change can lead the privileged beneficiaries of redundant systems into the errors that shape their inevitable doom. Dinosaurs? Waddle this way.

Publishing is about five years behind the record industry in its reaction to digital technology, and even now, there are those involved in music who think their salvation lies in ‘the comeback of vinyl’ or that the best idea is to get a deal with a major label which will sell CDs and make everyone shedloads of money.

But the record industry is essentially a twitching corpse with a ghastly smile on its stiffening face. ‘Copyright’ as it has for years been understood regarding music is terminally ill. New models of working have been evolving, artists understand that they must retain control of themselves and their art, and that indeed, no-one is offering to buy their souls anymore. If you’re a full-time musician, unless you’re cruising on old contracts, prepared to hack it with the corporate song machines or very, very lucky, you’re a ‘portfolio freelance’, making a living from performance, record and merchandise sales at gigs, selling special, luxurious souvenir editions of your work to fans, teaching, workshopping, consulting, hustling for synch and advertising (selling your music for evil corporate purposes) , pitching for grants and community project funding,and probably seeking any other work on the side that fits with your priorities. Or living off your partner.

Most of all, you’re doing it yourself. You’ve honed your social media skills, you update your own website or blog daily, and you give your music away, most of it, in Mp3 quality, harvesting those who become committed fans as a result and encouraging them to support you by owning those fancy limited edition CDs or collectible cassettes with real fox fur slip cases.

Sorry, authors. That’s the future for you. Just as creative musicians have learned that, if they want to live by their art, they have to let the old maintenance models die, so must you. Publishers don’t want you anymore. Publish yourself. It’s straightforward. It’s cheap. It can even be free.

Oh, but wait a minute. You’re saying you don’t want to do that as (a) it’s too time consuming and your muse will be pissed off? (b) No-one will organise launches or buy you lunch? (c) deep in your heart of hearts, you know your publisher’s been subsidising you and the truth is, you don’t have an audience big enough to support you in the style to which you’ve become accustomed?

Listen, people who make music do it for the love of making music. They will do it for nothing. And as far as I’m concerned, writers write for the love of it too. They seek to communicate, to connect. And you don’t need a publisher to do that. And time? As my student son commented, scornfully: what are evenings and weekends for? And you delicate flowers with your tender, fragile creativity and your need to rent an office where you can swoon over a MacBook Pro running Scrivener, without distractions: sorry, the fantasy is over. There’s the kitchen table, there’s the Tesco Toshiba, there’s next door’s wifi. Get going.

I write as someone who has had six ‘proper’ books published by Mainstream, latterly owned by Random House, now essentially out of business. It was fun. It was even, for a short while decades ago, quite lucrative, though never enough to live on. But I never stopped crofting, reporting for newspapers and magazines, writing columns, doing workshops, whisky tasting, gigs, copywriting or broadcasting. I’ve had two books put out by a small local publisher (owned by my local, and successful, newspaper, for whom I edit a monthly print/digital magazine). I have published other people, locally in print and using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. I have the digital rights to my own out-of-print Mainstream books and have begun the process of moving them onto Kindle. I have published (using Blurb - not recommended) a travel book and (using Amazon's Createspace - recommended) ‘the world’s first interactive whisky thriller’. I’m in the process of setting up a small digital-and-print publishing operation which will, I hope, help other authors to begin the process of connecting with a readership.

Perhaps they’ll make some money. But they won’t be sitting in their luxury converted attics, the ones with the carefully-matched Timorous Beasties wallpaper and the designer pram in the designer hall, sipping buck’s fizz while dreaming of lunch at the Ubiquitous Chip. They’ll be the ones running their own websites, working social media with verve and style, making videos and mounting guerilla-lit tours of the remote English wastelands.

And they’ll be doing that because they can write. Because they want to write. Because they’ve got something to say.


Simon Sylvester said...

I read that article with exactly your incredulity. It's wallowing in nostalgia and snobbery, utterly convinced in the integrity of a failing model. I'm an emerging writer - I've just self-published a flash fiction collection, and I squeezed in the door with a novel to be published by Quercus in June. It seems to me that there's still value in traditional publishing, but it is tied ever closer to engagement with audiences. The self-pity in McCrum's article beggars belief. Lamenting the loss of a South Bank studio? Unbelievable.

Unknown said...

Well said. Besides, in this digital age, a writer needs a publicist, not a publisher. That can be done efficiently and professionally without hassle.

The connection with readers is direct, and with social networks, no need to go expensive luncheons and dinners flooded by people in search of a spotlight.

Not only that, the query process will fade away, too. Writers write and readers read. If an agent of publicist wants to join and team up they can search for the writer online. Only, don't bother contacting those Indies who sell thousands books every day 'cause you'll have very little to offer and that 6 digits advance on a 20% royalties is passé.
Look instead for those who sell tens of books everyday, they're your target because you can make them sell thousands and enjoy your 15%.

Mark Chadbourn said...

Great comeback to that weirdly out-of-touch article.

Dave Morris said...

I love the idea that the typical author ever enjoyed luxury attic conversions or designer prams. (Not of course that anyone would actually enjoy designer prams, if indeed they exist.) My merchant banker friends could indulge such Fouquetian tastes, but even in a bestselling year I never came close to that kind of income. I do have a 10-year-old Toyota, though (bought second hand), and I will admit to shopping at Waitrose, so maybe the tumbrils will roll out for me come the revolution.

Unknown said...

After reading the original article, I mostly just felt bad for them. While it is hard to have pity, (and while I feel bad for them, pity is not the same thing), it is clear that these folks are lost at sea in a new ocean.

Mostly, I just want to shake them a bit and show them how to do it themselves. Are they really so locked up in non-compete clauses that they can't? Are they really so slow at writing that they are unable to publish on a regular schedule? Are they really so bad at self-editing that they can't put out a readable work without the machine of trad publishing behind them?

The days of navel-gazing while struggling for weeks to make a single sentence the *perfect* sentence are gone. Now it is about creating a work that people want to read and getting it to them without a great deal of drama.

I sure hope they get it soon so they aren't left behind forever.

Danny Adams said...

I didn't just share your incredulity when I read that article too, but I also thought "Where have those folks been the last few years?" Publishing in general may be five years behind the times, but I know full-time authors who saw the writing on the wall in the 1990s, long before e-books, when the big publishers began gobbling up the smaller ones in earnest. They shifted in the ways you describe yourself doing, and most are now still full-time writers - who don't have luxury attics, granted, but are still able to make a living doing what they love.