Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Written in response to “Fifteen minutes of writer’s fame” by Zaynah Qutubuddin
Studying to be a professional writer feels like a hybrid of hard work and gambling.
Aesthetic impulses must somehow connect with a reader’s interest and pocketbook. Or, as a professor of mine once said, “Find that point where personal psychosis intersects with public interest.” Publishing is a business after all.
With that said, if the writer has a story he wants people to read, and if there are people who want to read (and pay for) that story, it may not even be necessary to seek the blessing of a publisher to accomplish that task.
The digital revolution has changed the lay of the land. Online content inundates us daily. Due to the decentralization of publishing, the rising popularity of ebooks, social networks, and a mushrooming blogosphere, it is now easier for professional and non-professional writers to distribute their work and gain a loyal readership. Self-publishing is shedding its old stigmas and transforming into a valid source of good literature. At the same time, readers still seem willing to spend money for books put on the market by legacy publishers.
Even with the arena becoming a frenzied plurality of legacy publishers, digital start-ups, and self-published authors, this is still an industry where quality control and branding impact consumer decisions.
David Moody, a writer who began as a self-published author before signing deals with Thomas Dunne Books (US) and Gollancz (UK) speaks about self-publishing in an interview with The Guardian:
“None of this matters a damn if you can’t deliver the goods. It doesn’t matter how tech savvy you are, or how well you can market, your book has to be readable if you want to survive,” says Moody, admitting that “the ease with which you can self-publish your own work (or set up as a publisher and publish other people’s) has had an unfortunate side-effect, and that’s to hugely increase the amount of poorly produced work which is available.”
Rather than begrudging all these changes, I believe writers should embrace the fact that there are now more options opening up to them. Current technological developments have placed in their hands the ability to be entrepreneurial with their craft. The publishing industry is diversifying and its major players have plunged headlong into the awkward territory between damage control and seizing the day.
One of the challenges publishing professionals face is discovering a way to organize literary content in each “production sphere” so that quality work is both acknowledged by the market and is readily accessible. Another important task is the creation of a sustainable system beneficial for content providers (authors), publishers, booksellers, end-user customers (readers). When I say “sustainable system,” I also refer to the creation of effective pricing schemes that appeal to the customer while at the same time preventing the tragic devaluation of an author’s published work.
Writers function as an integral source of culture, philosophy, new ideas, and critique. My fear here is when the general devaluation of books equates to the devaluation of the writer’s role in society. We understand that we have to sell books. The new world of publishing necessitates that writers have an eye for business, yes, but fully catering our art to the demands of the market undermines a large part of our existence as a profession. Many works with great cultural value will not be immediately popular, but it is still important for that material to be available. Equally important is the need to appropriately compensate the writers for their products.
Worthwhile cultural currency is difficult to come by, and I feel that publishers have recognized this long ago. They continue to fight the good fight. The digital revolution has given writers a new world to write their way into, but now the stakes are higher than ever. This is not a time to be selling ourselves short.