On the Inside, Looking Down

The December 2014 issue of Vanity Fair contains an article by Michael Kinsley about the battles between Amazon and Hachette over e-book pricing – and thus, quite possibly, the future of publishing.  Amid many entertaining anecdotes and some useful insights, Kinsley inserts own prejudices towards that future.

Speaking of “Amazon’s self-published authors’ books…” Kinsely blithely dismisses them as universally “genre” work (his quotes not mine), then goes on to characterize these authors as taking their revenues from those on the print publishers’ side: “biographers, historians, midlist novelists… the authors of books that sometimes took a decade to write…”  In other words, self-published authors are hacks, who are stealing the bread from the mouths of real writers.

This is, to put it in decidedly non-literary terms – bullshit.

First off, the financially-successful self-published authors  who so frighten Kinsley are a teeny, tiny, infinitesimal fraction of self-publishing authors (for convenience, let’s adopt the acronym SPAs), the vast majority of whom will spend considerable time and money creating, self-packaging, self-listing, self-printing and attempting to self-distribute their work, and make very little or no money for their efforts.

Second, while some of those SPAs may indeed crank out work quickly, so do plenty of paper authors – perhaps Mr. Kinsley is aware of one James Patterson, profiled in the very next issue of the same mag.?  For every crank-it-out SPA, there are far more who have spent years or even decades on their works too, many with no support from the “Universities and foundations” to whom Kinsley worries his more-worthy paper-bound scribes must turn for support when advance and royalty checks are not available.  Truth is, most authors, paper or print, will never make a living wage from their work (just like most actors, most musicians, dancers, visual artists and mimes), and whether or not a writer gets an agent or publisher depends on far more than either the quality of their work or the amount of effort which went into writing it.  That Mr. Kinsley seems to think otherwise, suggests that he – being an industry-insider, is ignorant of – or perhaps has just forgotten – the obstacles which most authors must surmount in order to achieve the elevated viewpoint.

A little farther along in the article, Kinsley recounts a visit to his agent’s palatial offices, where “I sat in the waiting room with Picasso’s grand-daughter – it’s that kind of place.”  Apparently Kinsley is so besotted with rubbing those surnamed elbows that he does not realize he’s just admitted one of the reasons the SPA movement is not only not evil but necessary: one’s admittance to the offices of today’s agents and print publishers is far more contingent upon having a famous name than having a great book, whether it took months, years or decades, to write.

This condition exists for a good reason; the limited capacity of the print-publishing marketplace .  Publishers daily face an onslaught of written work, not all of which they can possibly print and sell at a profit.  To deal with this, the industry has spawned exclusionist mechanisms; a complex and effective filtering system (of which agents are the first line of defense) to weed out all works other than those most likely to be commercially successful at the scale required by industrialized print publishing.  Add to that a celebrity-crazed culture, and it is growing more and more difficult for any work, regardless of merits, to be hard-published unless its author has a ‘platform’ – a pre-existing public identity to serve as advertisement without reference to the work’s merits.  Thus it is easier for a reality-TV supporting actor, minor pro-athlete or painter’s granddaughter to get an agent and a print deal than a previously-un-published biographer, historian, novelist or academic.

And yes, I am taking it as a given that print-publishers are less than perfectly-efficient; that they do not actually locate and publish every worthwhile work that has been created.  Trusting that Mr. Kinsley would not argue that point, I will in fact go farther; I believe there are large numbers of worthwhile writings that will never be seen by any but their authors unless those authors take upon themselves the financial burden and risk.  Fortunately, many of them are willing to do that, which is the real reason SPAs abound, not some rapacious desire to steal out of the mouths of their betters’ babes without doing the work of ‘real’ writers.

The true value of electronic- and self-publishing is this: no longer must an author convince first an agent and then a publisher that her work will appeal to a wide-enough segment of the hard-copy market to justify a five- or six-figure investment of someone else’s capital for printing, promoting and distributing hard copies. It is now possible for a work of value with (perhaps) more limited appeal to be brought to light, albeit usually for a much smaller audience.  This, Mr. Kinsley, is not a bad thing; for writers, for readers, for the general culture.  And it does not come about because SPAs are stealing the legitimate paychecks of paper-authors.  It comes about because the times they are a-changin’.

I am reminded of another famous inside-down-looker, Rousseau’s un-named “great princess.”

SPAs are not settling for cake either.

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