A Very Dangerous Post

Post-punk publishing

This is one of the most thought-provoking writing/publishing posts I’ve read in a long time. Equating the current Internet/e/eBook writing scene with 1970s punk sets off all sorts of bells in my head.

Once you get into the statistics around publishing houses, they come to resemble the lottery. The odds are stacked hugely against the would-be author. Publishers, understandably, try to rig the game as much as they can, which is why they commission books by brand name celebrities and get professional ghost writers in to do the hard work. It’s why they pick a narrow band of titles each season and work with the media, wholesalers, TV book clubs and chain stores to market those authors within an inch of their lives. It’s the illusion of choice. And there are still no paths of certainty — even JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer can’t believe their luck. Faced with this, there are two options: despair or, as Joanna suggests, bypass the system altogether. It strikes me as the only sane option.

Christ, I’ve been in “the system.”

Never again. Not ever.

Both posts [cited within] reminded me of the late 70s/early 80s independent boom in music, the British post-punk movement catalogued in Simon Reynolds’ fine ’Rip It Up and Start Again‘. The impetus of punk and its DIY ethos splintered into hundreds of bands and labels across the country. Interestingly, this was also time of heavy social recession. The Pistols’ ‘No Future!’ slogan created a vacuum which was filled with an urgent sense of the present. You didn’t have to learn to play like Eric Clapton or wait to be signed by EMI. Suddenly anyone could do it. And they did. If you had something to say, you said it. Now.

Emphasis added by me.

The above post cites this other post — Punk Write! — which has this eye-opener:

When the people with the power to publish books set the standards of quality and when the people writing books internalise those standards to the extent that everyone involved even uses the same language to talk about it, it smacks of the kind of entrenched elitism that the punk rock movement was rebelling against. It feels like EMI and Sony and Warner telling musicians what is good and what is bad and musicians doing their best to live up to those judgements. It feels like we should be fighting it, taking a stand against it, starting a ‘punk write’ movement. Here’s a three-act plot, a website, and an iPhone. Now go and write a book.

The above post quotes from another post:

“There could be all sorts of reasons why good writing gets rejected. But if it’s good enough then it’s almost certainly going to be published eventually, so long as the writer (or his or her agent) persists.”

Unasked there: Will the writer be alive to see publication? A Confederacy of Dunces, anybody? Bueller? Bueller?

And what of writers who are “good enough” to actually be published by ink-on-paper publishers? Do you know how many I know who wonder if their current book is the final one their publisher will do?

You can be “good enough” — you can be downright excellent (and these writers I know are) — but be stuck with a publisher who does nothing but print a book and leave it at that. Or get trapped in a time — say now — when the economy is crap and the price of a book exceeds a McDonald’s Dollar Menu Survival Meal, so people just stop buying books.

Going back to the first post I cited:

A fortuitous chain reaction caused a number of elements to coincide. There were all these bands and labels, of course, but there were also sympathetic DJs on national radio. most notably John Peel. Furthermore, the record shop and label Rough Trade set up an independent distribution network, which channelled all these new records to the new record shops that were opening around the country. Taken together, there was an infrastructure which connected everything. The synergy enabled things to work that much faster with further reach. A band could have a record pressed, Peel would play it, Rough Trade would distribute it and thousands of late night listeners were able to go out and buy it. Records by the likes of Scritti Politti would have information printed on the sleeves breaking down the costs and details of recording and so on. When people bought the record, it empowered them to make their own.

This is what’s lacking.

What’s the equivalent of a DJ for a writer or book? A reviewer? Which reviewer and where?

Distribution? What, those cowards at Amazon or at Apple? Don’t cite any Print On Demand place to me. I won’t buy paper any more. And people won’t wait for a mail delivery in this Instant Internet Age.

There’s also a big difference between music and books: It takes longer than 3-5 minutes to experience a book (although, granted, most people should be able to tell on page one if a book is good or not — or at least whether or not it speaks to them).

There are still pieces missing before writers can be liberated from the existing system. These pieces need to be created by people who aren’t writers but who want writers to succeed.

Where are those people? Bueller? Bueller?

Update/additional:

I’d forgotten the lesson of comic book publishing.

Once upon a time, you would go to a neighborhood candy store or drug store and once or twice a week the racks would be filled with a new delivery of comics.

As circulations dropped, stores closed, and fandom matured, independent comic stores sprung up. This led to an explosion in comic books publishing divorced from the DC/ Marvel/ Archie/ Dell/ Gold Key/ Charlton and Comics Code Authority model. Suddenly artists and their friends could pool some money and launch a comic. New distributors sprung up to serve the new outlets. Even the mainstream comics jumped in with special editions to be sold “direct” (as it was called).

I’ve said it again and again: the Internet is like SF/comic book fandom. Most sites and blogs are equivalent to fanzines. Some of these online fanzines have become prozines and some have become “real” publications.

I’m just jotting notes here (thanks to Warren Ellis for that idea!), so not really running towards any conclusion right now.

3 Responses to A Very Dangerous Post

  1. Jason Weaver says:

    Mike, you’ve made my day! I was beginning to think I’d blown the post… I still don’t know what to do about it and maybe it’s idealistic b/s but it makes a difference to know someone thinks along the same lines. I’m sure we’ll be talking about this a lot more.

  2. TJ Deschler says:

    What you said about books really strikes home. A few times I’ve had (atleast what I thought) would be a good plot for a book, and I’d be set to write it, and I’d check about publishing and what not, and I’d be so daunted by the task of trying to get published, that I would think to myself, “Well, I doubt I’m nearly good enough as some of these people who are getting rejected.” So I would give up.

  3. David Nygren says:

    Alright, I’m feeling it. But I have to wonder whether the spirit of post-punk publishing will be reflected in the writing. Will it be just the same mediocre shit the big pub houses are sending out, but published under a different model? Or will writers’ newly found freedom actually inspire them to do something so damn good that the big pubs would be afraid to touch it?

    Re: the DJ, I agree that’s a big problem. The punk scene was relatively small. Musician’s today, of course can do the same thing…and they do! Therefore, there’s so much self-recorded/produced stuff that it’s hard for the good music to be discovered despite the fact that it only takes 3-5 minutes to listen to a song. Writing in this new world will just have to grab you by the groin from the first sentence.

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