Friday, September 01, 2006

Voting for Avatars, the real world again moves to a "real world"

News came yesterday that Former Virginia Governor and potential Democrat presidential nominee Mark Warner will be conducting an online interview - as a Second Life avatar. Wagner James Au will conduct the interview, sponsored by Warner's PAC Forward Together, and posted on his own non-partisan blog New World Notes.

The reason I bring this up on a blog about publishing? In this age of authors having their own or collective myspace pages, it's just a matter of time before authors will need to create avatars to interact with people online. I have no problem with this - a blogger friend of mine, also in publishing, just recently posted about his introduction to Second Life.

The fact is, we're in a new phase of marketing authors - especially novelists, who are working in such a crowded market, who realistically cannot rely on their literary skill alone to get them at least the initial attention they need to sell books. There are endless debates of course, and I for one admit that I'm a bit put off by people who embrace these publicity opportunities with so much relish. James Othmer wrote about his efforts, comparing himself to Mark Twain. Bold, indeed! He used the skills he learned in advertising for himself, as a novelist. But what else to do? As an irregular reader of fiction at best, I find books the old fashioned way: by browsing stores and finding a novel (always in paperback) that intrigues me, or by hearing about a classic novel that I've been meaning to read and then going out and finding it, oftentimes, I admit, used. I can't say I'd be won over by a myspace page, though I do appreciate a good author website - Steve Almond's, for example. But when I send my authors from editorial into marketing and publicity, I do all I can to prep them for self-promotion. If one of them had a background in advertising... wouldn't I coerce them into putting it to use? If Anderson Cooper came a'knocking, wouldn't I tell my author to shower up, dress pretty, and start selling books?

But I guess I still wonder whom this reader is, the reader convinced to buy a novel based on myspace or, soon if not already, a Second Life avatar. I suppose it's all about word of mouth, and getting your name as a writer in the place where people are communicating. And people are not communicating with each other, are not holding conversations like they used to, in newspapers. Instead, they are moving towards more immediately interactive sources - websites like myspace and virtual realities like Second Life. The line between "being told" and just "hearing" about things like books and authors is blurred. I frequently hear people complain about reviews, especially for movies: they don't read them b/c they don't like being told what to think. They might allow for Rotten Tomatoes because there are multiple posts, choices, an interactive element.

So we end up back at this fundamental debate, just where we were in discussing posting manuscripts online. People want works of art they can get their hands on, interact with, they can alter and personalize. A gatekeeper of any kind - an editor like me, a curator, even a reviewer - becomes a symbol of elitism. The individualist in me - I'm rarely a joiner - admires this concept, but in practice, it's shaky, and put into the hands of money-grubbing capitalists, it's terrifying. It seems we need to allow room for both - give people what they want, because they'll find a way, but provide for those that still respect the vision of artists and gatekeepers working together to create something unifying, consistent, expressing a certain voice that becomes an identity - as a single author or a publisher or a museum. If we were to make this political, I am still figuring out if this kind of individualist future, this handing over of art to the masses, this watery line between artist/art and spectator, is progressive. My sneaking suspicion is that it's sold to us as freeing, as empowering the artist, but is in fact a bit like the Virgin cell phones are liberating - just an advertising line used while corporations expand their markets. But I also mentioned the term "identity" up above, which suddenly sounds very corporate, like "branding." The corporations have co-opted this language and now it's untrustworthy. What do I want of these poor authors?!

And then we're back to Mr. Othmer, the ex-ad-exec, selling his wares using the skills of the trade, while comparing himself to Oscar Wilde while attempting to both get himself on the Daily Show and reviewed in the NY Review of Books. But I read that article, directly from the author, and I don't know the first thing about his novel. That's just plain creepy, no? Has his self-promotion overpowered his actual interest in his art? Do my pushing of an author to self-promote take away from their passion for the subject?

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