Worlds & Time

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Patronage and Publishing

Via Neil Gaiman's blog I discovered this today, which quotes a very small section of this longer interesting piece.

I dutifully read the longer Dewitt piece and have to say that she makes a good point that I agree with: the current publishing model is extremely hard on the author in many respects, when they're delivering the product that is sold.

The best analogy that springs to mind to describe the situation of writers is that of growing drugs (marijuana, I guess) in the United States. Both authors and marijuana growers have to spend a long time producing their product without revealing it to anyone. Then they furtively cast around looking to secure a buyer, who will then go out and deal the product of the authors and the marijuana growers to the people. At most, both the author and the marijuana growers probably make a few dollars on each street level transaction.

I'm sure the first reaction to that analogy is "Growing marijuana is illegal! Writing a book isn't against the law!" That's true but to defend the integrity of my comparison I'll point out that authors like Dewitt fear the interruption of their work for lack of money just as much as marijuana dealers fear interruption by the cops. Both interruptions will shut down operations. Granted, in the case of the writer, that just means going out and getting a job instead of going to jail, but the loss or delay of the product is similar.

No analogy is perfect anyway.

There's a very obvious observation about patronage here that seems to have escaped Gough and Dewitt even though she's the one that brought up Virigina Woolf first. In a discussion of what writers need to write, Woolf is the fundamental source. "Money, and a room of one's own," does not just apply to women any longer.

And patronage, as Dewitt and Gough point out, would solve those issues. It's not like we're lacking in millionaires and multi-millionaries. According to wikipedia, one of every 176 people in the U.S. has a net worth of a million dollars. If a few of the richer ones decided to hire writers to take care of their summer homes in the winter, or lend out a room that they're not using in their town houses during the winter, there would be a lot more good writing from some upcoming authors.

Of course, as the internet has shown, mirco or collective patronage is possible as well, but I doubt that the collective as a total has a lot of summer homes to let out. In this case, it's probably better to approach the millionaires as individuals about it.


While I'm talking about publishing, let me just say that I've been thinking a lot about the future of publishing since most people, even some people in the publishing world, think that book publishing is dead. Or at least in serious need of change.

Publishing isn't going to die like the VHS tape has. Books, even ones that never get opened or read, are still a status symbol in certain parts of our society. To others, they're the ultimate repository of ideas.

But the traditional model of publishing (writing the book, getting an agent, getting accepted for publication, having the book go through the editing process, typesetting it, printing it en masse in quantities of at least 8k and then shipping it all over the U.S. to sell in bookstores) is probably dead.

Traditional models just don't have the alacrity to deal with the ever increasingly digital era. They're unresponsive and they don't know how to market aggressively or find their audience (see the criticisms leveled by Richard Laermer via the link embedded in the word "think" above).

But what is going to replace it? (see the link to the NY Mag embedded in the word "that" for some of their speculation.)

I don't know the answer yet and I'm looking for it, but if I had to point to something right at this very moment as the future of publishing, I would point at Scalzi's Your Hatemail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever 1998-2008.

That book is a collection of his blog entries, things that did not go through the traditional model of publishing. Instead it's almost all available for free, if you want to go through Scalzi's archives. Yet, people will pay for it because now it's gone through a bit of that process and ended up as a book, and that book offers both things that I mentioned that will keep book publishing from dying: it's a status symbol (to certain geeks) and it contains special ideas and memories that are worth having.

If it gets nominated for a Hugo, and I suspect that it might, that will only be further proof that it's probably worth looking at alternative models of publishing fiction in which the traditional model is avoided.

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  • Interesting comparison between authors and marijuana growers. I guess one difference would be that the marijuana grower presumably wants to remain anonymous as such, where the author very much wants to become known as such...

    By OpenID, at 11:18 PM  

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