Indie/Trad Publishing

Lake Side Publishing House, by Lovejoy & Foster
Lake Side Publishing House, by Lovejoy & Foster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, Salon published an article in which Rob W. Hart opined on the situation between traditional and independent publishing. No neophyte in this debate, Hart self-published his novella, The Last Safe Place. He also serves as Associate Publisher for Mysterious Press, a digital publisher for classic and out-of-print crime and mystery novels. Given these credentials, and the supposed subject of his article, you would think Hart sits on the same sunny side of the self-publishing street with the likes of J. A. Konrath and Barry Eisler. And you’d be wrong.

For Hart specifies the reasons he self-published his work: a novella is too short to sell in a traditional deal, and, being on the one side of the eBook counter, he wanted the experience offered by the other side. Mostly, though, curiosity appears to have motivated Hart; he did not expect to get rich, find The New York Times Sunday Book Review breaking down his door, or have the world hail him as the Prophet of a New Digital Publishing Age. Instead, many, particularly those in the independent-publishing world (let’s dispense with the connotations of “self-publishing” right about here, okay?), hailed him as a pariah.

Hart can maybe blame himself for some of this keening. Calling anything a cult in the title of the article in which you examine said thing can cause that kind of a reaction. But, those readers going along with this gut reaction blind themselves with their own myopic view, and attempts to vilify him in the Comments section of the article pretty much just prove his point. And, anyway, shouldn’t authors worry about more pressing matters, like making sure the dog gets its flea medicine, or some other important activity, like writing?

Konrath himself is pretty clear about his position; if there’s to be any Prophet of The New Digital Publishing Age, he wants that title (if the proclamation doesn’t already hang from his wall). Weekly, he proclaims the efficacy of indie publishing, quoting his own considerable sales figures, inviting guest posts by indie authors or converts, all of whom have glowing things to say about either leaving the Big Bad Wolves behind in the dark forest of traditional publishing, or about how they found themselves listed among their heroes in the bestseller lists of traditional reporting media. Among his other proselytizing, Konrath makes clear that having success in independent publishing takes a lot of work and self-promotion, all of which he claims his traditional publishing deals left him responsible for in the first place, at least nominally. So, if he does the work, he should get all the dough. A hard position to argue.

Except that publishing houses do offer authors services, besides just selling the paper on which they print them. They either hire artists to create engaging cover art (or contract it out), hire a marketing department to pimp the books (or contract that out, too), and provide editors, sometimes very good, very talented editors, to help authors hone and polish their works into the diamond that each hopes lies at the bottom of the lump of coal with which they started.

However, plenty of people line up on the virtual corners of Main Street Internet and offer their services in precisely these areas. One can easily get into a chicken-and-the-egg argument concerning whether the indie publishing push took off before or after, with or without, the cottage industries of independent publishing support. However, that argument ignores the important point: a lot of people have found a way around the gate-keeper system. Sure, a lot of indie published work should have stayed half-digested in some corner of an author’s mind. But, do we need publishers to decide that for us anymore?

Look to Amanda Hocking, look to E. L. James (okay, maybe not). Most importantly, look to Hugh Howey. Starting as an independent, he parlayed the success of his work in the Kindle Direct Publishing system into print deals with Simon & Schuster, with one caveat, however — he kept his digital rights.

Mostly, that with which authors should concern themselves is control. But, this control entails more than just dreaming up fictions and arranging words on the page. Don’t think for a minute that the best of the best got there because they let everyone else do the work (outside of the real work of writing, of course; one must have a compelling story to tell and tell it well). We must have no doubt that the best understand that publishing is a business, which entails other kinds of responsibility, as well.

But, for now, the gates begin to open, and, ooh, baby, it’s a wide world. Hugh Howey and this concept of a hybrid author (aren’t labels such a joke, by the way? — but thanks to Chuck Wendig anyway) seem to be the real future of publishing, at least if any author worth his or her salt pays any attention to the other considerations, the other responsibilities. The last thing you want is to be the most celebrated novelist of your, or indeed of any time, and have a Sotheby’s auction of your paraphernalia come up relatively empty-handed.

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Slate-Type Devices

Once, in graduate school, I argued with a professor regarding books and technology. He had taken the line that, one day, we would all read books on computers, possibly some sort of slate-type device, which we would carry around with us. I thought his pronouncement preposterous. Cell phones still a luxury for most, pagers took up the ubiquitous spot on everyone’s belt, hooking us all into the security of the now nearly-extinct landline, and I could not imagine this slate-type device he described, nor could I imagine sitting at the gargantuan desktop computer in my apartment and reading off the cold, grey screen, which could not venture with me to the park, or even down the hall, for that matter.

Then, a book’s physicality held as much responsibility for the impact of its text as the mere words on a page. I romanticized books as companions, fetishized the sandpaper feel of the pages in a dime-store paperback bought on-the-cheap in a second-hand bookstore. I loved the the dry, dusty musk of those old stores, of libraries, despite the havoc they wreaked on my allergies and sinuses. I lamented the problems faced by independent bookstores as they fought off the constrictor embrace of the Big Box stores  —  Borders, Barnes & Noble, the eponymous Books-a-million. The books, the physical objects themselves, stood for these things  —  a noble fight against the corporatization of our souls and the enshrining of independent thought in a world bent on making even its citizens homogenous commodities.

Ironically, nearly twenty years later, I myself have proven that professor right. I bought my wife one of these slate-type devices. E-readers having been around for awhile, I still insisted on the primacy of the printed word. However, my wife’s slate-type device fascinated me. She’d sit on the couch and surf the web while we watched TV. She’d use it to chat with friends on Facebook. It would prop itself up in the kitchen displaying whatever recipe she used that evening. Whenever I could, I stole it from her, sneaking so many moments of tablet time, it quickly became apparent that one device would not be enough for our household. So, on my birthday, she presented me with one of my own.

Like her, I spent the first few weeks surfing the web, or, ensconced on the deck within easy reach of our home’s wifi, I watched documentaries on Netflix. Then, I discovered reading on this device. I realized how many books I could store in it, my entire catalog with me at any time if I wished, but it took me awhile to revel in its true capabilities. Like my wife and I pausing a particular episode of Castle to research a guest star on IMDb, I could look up words, passages, or even characters of a particular book while reading. It possessed an internal dictionary, thesaurus, even web browser, with built-in options to search either Wikipedia or Google. Suddenly, I could see how many books one could dispense of while using such a device. I could even annotate passages, highlighted in one of many colors, and, with a little web magic, export those notes to Evernote for later use. Then, I remembered my undergraduate years and how just a few classes’ worth of English major paraphernalia could weigh one down.

I won’t lay claim to the title of Futurist; let’s just say I’m convinced. Too much the Romantic, I love pouring over pictures of the past, imagining the lives of people frozen in time crossing cobblestone or unpaved streets in the small towns and cities of my experience. However, I find no less interest, joy, and fascination in reading historical fiction, like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, off my slate-type device than I do from the printed page itself. Maybe I’m realizing the ultimate irony, re-living the past through a device hard to imagine within my own lifetime. Or, maybe I’m experiencing one of those Phillip K. Dick moments, where all of this information is right at my fingertips. Maybe the two are one and the same, and, sometimes, that scares me just a little bit.

Terrain

In 1998, I had the opportunity to interview the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa. I had met authors before — after standing in lines to get books signed by them; as visiting writers at university, where a healthy distance and a microphone separated student from author during the Q&A; or, when I was in graduate school, at the professor-house parties, where informality ruled, fueled by friendship between the visiting writer and the professor/host. This interview, though, represented the first time I would have direct, professional interaction with a celebrated author, one whom I had studied; I could not shake the intimidation and awe in which this interview blanketed me. Also, I could not shake my fear of appearing underprepared; being a student of literature and creative writing, I did not have the journalistic chops and had never performed an interview. I feared I would appear an amateur, so I prepared my list of questions based on the reading I’d done of his work. During the interview, I did not have the gut instincts to delve into the more important of his responses; I blindly turned to the next question on my list or allowed my own interests to lead me down some patently obvious lane. In my ignorance, I missed the chance to follow his thought down an alley which has become an important one to me as a writer.

A child of the South, I found it impossible not to read and study Southern literature and one of its most exposited characteristics — Place. It lay, posed in the works of Southern authors I read, like a frog in Biology class, something to dissect and tease apart but not to manipulate for its own ends. Aware that Komunyakaa hailed from Louisiana, I posed what seemed the obvious question — had he found that images and impressions from his youth in the South had insinuated their way into his work? He answered:

Yes, I think so, especially in the book, Magic City, because that’s really about my childhood-adolescent experiences. But also I think what happens is that we, as people, internalize terrains and, consequently, those internalized terrains become psychological overlays for whatever we experience or even dream about later on.

At the time, I had been writing a series of poems, a fictional, serialized account of love gone bad, captured in snapshots of image and word, moment and action. Unconsciously, I had myself internalized the terrain of the small Mississippi town to which I had recently moved — smoky bars with peanut shells on the floor; curbsides on the town square late at night, concrete parking blocks still warm in the humid Summer air; the snake-sweet smell of woods in summer and musty leaf of winter. I had used all of these images to give the protagonist and denizens of my poems a landscape. Komunyakaa’s insight galvanized me. Place was not something in which an author planted his characters. Rather, in using the term Terrain, Komunyakaa’s response suggests to me something I had missed in my studies; the by-ways and highways in which characters lived, not merely inhabited, could tell as much about them as their own actions, could be every bit as much a character as them.

To this day, the work that speaks most clearly to me provides its characters that necessary Terrain. Billy Lafitte, the anti-hero protagonist of Anthony Neil Smith’s Yellow Medicine and Hogdogging, stomps and blazes his way across the windswept reaches of Southwestern Minnesota, Southeastern South Dakota, and any number of locales in between and beyond, in many ways every bit as barren as the landscape suggests. Likewise, in Tom Franklin’s Hell At The Breach, the claustrophobic woods and weedy creeks enliven the tensions between its characters. In this novel of chaos and feud, a bulwark of forest, known as the Bear Thicket, serves as more than the metaphorical boundary between Town and County; it swallows characters whole in its voraciousness.

Much more than simply Place, as I had misunderstood it in my youth, Terrain becomes as much a character in a story or poem as those that wander through it, feeding on the narrative force it provides, sometimes falling prey to it themselves. It is. It lives, it breathes, and it speaks volumes as I wade through it in search of the story taking place across it. For now, as a writer, the terrain that surrounds me, that exists within me, seems at once immense and rapacious. Sometimes it’s a wonder I can leave the house at all.

Facebook: Aggregator not Aggravator

People readily share what they do not like about Facebook. The arbitrary changes to the privacy policy, the arbitrary changes to the newsfeed display, the arbitrary nature of the whole thing: Is this where I share recipes, pictures of my gourmet dinner, or do I just share everyone’s favorite E-card of the week? And, where are the cute cat videos? I demand more cute cat videos!

Ultimately, we all readily share the data that makes up Us. While everyone seems to worry about what Facebook does with all of the information we feed it, we scurry about, trying to keep as much of that information on Facebook held as privately as possible. Facebook, meanwhile, fights the dichotomy of our need to shared experience and our need to keep privatizing data by constantly shifting underfoot, giving us the option to make this post Public, or share it with Friends or Friends except Acquaintances, or the ever-so-lonely-on-a-social-networking-site Only Me. All the while, Facebook’s real move has taken place under our noses.

Facebook came to prominence with the ubiquitous “Like” button. Other social networking sites let us share our personalities, our likes and fascinations. However, what allowed Facebook to grow over the top of these other sites was something very simple — the ability to share with others the direct experience of our enjoyment, the web articles, the recipes (with pics), and the cute cat videos. It’s a rare person who doesn’t want to talk about him or herself. The “Like” button gave us the ability to do that without saying a word. And, it was everywhere, setting up Facebook for dominance in the fledgling world of Social Media and making it a force in the coming of the World Wide Web 2.0, where Social changed the nature of how information disseminated amongst users.

In short, Facebook took as much control of our information, our “Likes”, our photos, as it could, adding new features to counter those of other platforms — “Check-in” versus FourSquare, the out-right purchase of Instagram. Because, in the world of monetizing Social, the information you control or to which you have access takes precedence over all other considerations. Through the use of powerful algorithms, these bits of information provide the groundwork for the ads that Facebook and other social sites use as the basis of their capital. However, Facebook fought a losing battle, despite its preeminence; too many niche start-ups discovered too many divergent ways for people to share data, much as Facebook supplanted other social networking sites with the “Like” button.

To my memory, it started with Spotify. The depth of artists in its streaming music service, and integration with iTunes (the world’s largest music vendor), made it a natural to unseat Spotify and Last FM, to some degree. Then, subtly, it integrated with Facebook. With the “Like” button conspicuous in its absence, music played on Spotify automatically posts to Facebook profiles. Such convenience! Almost as quickly, another change took place — the integration of the Facebook login API. By the time I got to Spotify, logging in through my Facebook account remained the only method of joining.

Now, the ubiquitous “Like” button, still extant, next to all of the other social sharing buttons — Twitter, Pinterest, WordPress, etc. — has been supplanted in social media by the Facebook login API. Not necessarily an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach, Facebook simply allowed its dominance in the market do the work for it. Other platforms took the opportunity to deepen their integration with Facebook as a means of extending their own user bases.

Facebook, meanwhile, comes out the big winner here. In the social media world, Facebook figured out a way to convince the other platforms that, instead of being out to beat them, it was out to help them. And, in so doing, it’s collected more of our data than we originally may have wished. When we join a new social media platform, the Facebook login API represents such an easy way to cut-out the red tape of re-entering all of our demographic information yet again. The genius of Facebook’s new role is exactly that — through convenience, it has become the hub of our online lives, and it won the battle without firing a shot.

Or, to take the metaphor a little more seriously, after the battle and a brief period of armistice, as Facebook realized the tenuousness of remaining on top, it simply found a way to be elected Benevolent Dictator by its competitors.

Smooth move, Zuckerberg. Smooth move. All your base are now belong to Facebook.