Monday, December 20, 2010


I have written about Cory Doctorow before - I mean, anyone who writes about publishing / media / anything even vaguely related to the internet has written about the man. He's whipsmart and very visible and has done a lot of great work. In the latest article from him that's getting attention, in last Friday's Guardian, he is discussing the problem of abundance online, using his own new experience as a publisher to make his point. I find it troubling.

I actually agree with his larger "problem" of the internet offering too much, as practical considerations that limited one's consumption of media - namely, availability - disappear. But then he gets into the kind of case study: he had enough short stories to put together into a book, but he decided to forgo the traditional publisher route and publish the collection himself, using readily available tools. I can pinpoint just where the red flags go up in my reading:
I'd reached the point where I had enough short fiction for another reprint collection. I'd done two before with small, reputable New York houses, and they had sold well. But, having looked around at the tools for publishing – print-on-demand presses like, automated ebook workflow tools like SiSu, and tools for publicising work like Twitter and blogs – I decided I could readily produce a collection myself with comparable reach and even more income.
What bothers me is his blase way of referring to his past experience, and his flattening of these publishing options. I know I'm overly defensive here, but all of those publishers put work into publishing his collections. From a quick glance, it looks like he's published with Tor Books (part of Macmillan), Running Press (part of Perseus), and someplace called Tachyon Publications, which looks to be an independent sci-fi publisher out of San Francisco.

A lot of great writers - including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Kurt Vonnegut - have gone with small independent publishers for collections, knowing it would boost the bottom line for said publishers and help those publishers stick around to nurture new voices. (Forgive the all-white-male list - they jumped to mind.) They had a collective mentality, which is what I maintain is needed in publishing, and is something this mentality being put forth by Doctorow lacks.

In fact, Doctorow brags about making more money by self-publishing:

I'm not sorry I decided to become a publisher. For one thing, it's been incredibly lucrative thus far: I've made more in two days' worth of the experiment than I made off both of my previous short story collections' entire commercial lives.
I know we can't fault writers much for making money, because there is so little to be made in this profession. This still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's just too simple. Why is it, one must ask, that "formerly expensive action can now be had merely for the time it takes to seize on the opportunity"? It's the reaction I'm increasingly having to excited reports of cheap consumer goods. There are sacrifices being made elsewhere for you to get that t-shirt for $4.99.

Likewise, crafts are being diminished so that publishing can be made available so readily. It's unclear to me how other people involved in this project - most notably, the "artist friends" Doctorow is using to design various covers - are being compensated, or the "voice-actor pals." It's all a big fun game with buddies "in three countries." But traditionally, those have been employees, with health insurance and stable jobs, who work for publishing companies that pay them to do that labor. I don't mean to get all Norma Rae here, but when we skip over financial compensation and employment stability and have a "let's just let people be artists" attitude, I always worry that we're screwing the working class and poor creative types who cannot take such risks, while the wealthy creative types can wait around for these jobs to fall into their laps, from friends, and not worry about the compensation.

I feel I have been the skunk at the proverbial garden party a few times around here, and that's too bad. I love fun as much as the next editor! But I sometimes worry that just as we were starting to build in ways of getting more voices heard from both sides of publishing - writers and employees - we are now blowing up the whole operation, and leaving the parts right back in the hands of the privileged few who can enjoy publishing, the career, as publishing, the hobby.


doctorow said...

My last independent press short fiction publisher (Thunder's Mouth, who bought Four Walls, who did my first collection) was gobbled up in a furious round of mergers and acquisitions following the PGW bankruptcy. I don't even have an editor there any more.

When Drexel College tried to order 3,000 copies of the last collection in order to give one to every undergrad in the school, the publisher told them "we just don't have that many" (this was with six months' notice). It was only my agent threatening to revert the rights to the book that got them to do a print-run and earn me the $7K worth of royalties they were willing to forego.

When I set out to publish my most recent collection, not one independent publisher with substantial retail distribution was interested in buying such a work. My only choices were the very small presses that did almost all their business through direct sales or Amazon. There's nothing wrong with those presses -- they've published some great works -- but there's no sensible case to be made for giving 90% of my cover price to a company that has no sales-force and can't get my books onto shelves where readers browse.

I like indie presses just fine, but they're hardly paragons of virtue. I dealt with one press that refused to run new cover film for a second or even third printing to incorporate a *killer* quote from Neil Gaiman (the same press did virtually no proofing on the book and never incorporated the typos that my readers reported after publication into subsequent printings).

What's more, indie presses in my experience are even more of a pain in the ass about free ebooks than the congloms. When I can get a better Creative Commons package to distribute from Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins than I can from the groovy folks at some NYC boutique press, there's something really, really wrong.

doctorow said...

Regarding the compensation for my friends; you'll see from the financial reports that the artists involved were compensated. When the voice actors asked for money, they got it too.

But the arts are and always have been about friends helping each other. I spend at least as much time working to help other writer friends as I do composing new fiction on any given day, and I'm not the only one.

It's normal for a writer to expect -- for example -- a scholar to sit down with her for a day to explain something she's trying to get right in a novel. It's normal for writers to ask each other to read their books for cover quotes or criticism. It's normal for writers to ask each other for introductions to agents or juries. It's normal for writers to stop work to teach other writers. It's normal for writers to donate their time and material goods (manuscripts, etc) to raise money for other writers. It's normal for writers to give each other free or nearly-free reprints for various anthology projects.

Every single stage of my writing life -- from the day I finished my first story and brought it down to Bakka Books so Tanya Huff could read it for me to the day I donated my entire teach fee to Clarion West to replace the laptops the students there had had stolen -- has been characterized by this mutual exchange of gifts and favors.

Writers calling on their peers to help them produce or promote a work is not abnormal, it's not a repudiation of the need for professionals to earn a living. It's part of the normal course by which artists conduct their financial and artistic lives and has been so for generations.

Imagine if writers expected to get compensated (like an academic peer-review jury) for the time necessary to read another's works for a quote, or if writers shopped around paid mentions of one another's works in end-of-year roundups or public appearances -- these things have a cost to writers, but their value is in that they are given away for free.

It's no break with history for a writer to ask another writer for a small favor. Rather, it's historically unprecendented to suggest that artists who seek and give favors are subverting the ability of artists to earn a living.

Brian said...

There is no excuse for indie presses not to be willing to hear their authors, of course. But when thinking collectively instead of just about one's self and one's own art, there are challenges. This doesn't excuse bad practices on the part of those indie presses, but I would hope we can keep these challenges in context so as to not turn other authors off of indie presses, which can in turn offer support for other new authors, especially experimental or overtly political authors marginalized by commercial houses. I'm all for calling on indie presses to act fairly - there is no excuse for lack of cooperation or communication with an author.

And of course artists help one another out. I understand that. But the ultimate mentality is that the best will sell. It's raw capitalism. I don't buy that. This means there is a danger in publishing of the writer with the most friends in the industry selling the best - back to the ol' boys club. Of course authors give blurbs and read each other's work. But the artist friends here were doing labor often done by workers in the field - voiceovers, cover design. At least if artists want to help one another in this way (and here is where I become a real stinker, I realize, souring the conversation), why not set up a co-op to formalize the relationship so that wealth earned can be distributed?

I fully realize that as an editor at a publishing house, I'm getting overly defensive, despite there being ways of incorporating editors into new publishing arrangements. I just worry when people strike out on their own boldly without a collective sense of improving things for the next group of authors, or for other authors facing similar or worse challenges to finding readers.

doctorow said...

To be clear, none of my criticism of indie presses above applies to Tachyon, who've been great all along.