Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Special Piece

Something special is in store today for the blog. I'm going to share one of my favorite pieces on writing with you and give you my reasoning alongside it. This is how I view the world from my small spot; it's how I see authors, publishers, and readers. Spoiler alert, I can be not so nice.

The speech comes from China Miéville. And excuse me for sounding something of a fanboy, but I consider Miéville absolutely fantastic. It's a rare thing to listen to someone speak and agree with the points they are making; and it's an entirely different circumstance to listen and discover that those are your words and thoughts, except another person managed to string them along much better. I consider Miéville to be the latter.

This piece resonated with me when I first heard it. The focus isn't primarily on self-publishing, but terms like self-publishing, fan-fiction, and ebooks are used multiple times. I don't presume to know what his thoughts are on a general level. This is just how it speaks to me. I highly recommend listening or reading the entire transcript.

This amazing speech is from the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference from 2012 can be digested in its entirety in two forms, the written and the YouTube. The speech sections will be in bold, I'm the opposite. The section I'm focusing on appears on the video at the 20 minute mark.

"One of the problems, we often hear, about online piracy, ebooks and their ephemeral-seeming invisible files, is that they 'devalue writing', that our work is increasingly undervalued. Well, yes. Just like the work of nurses, teachers, public transport staff, cleaners, social workers, which has been undervalued a vast amount more for a whole lot longer. We live in a world that grossly and violently undervalues the great majority of people in it."

In 2012 the talking point of ebooks as devaluing writing was all the rage. Two years later it's dead in the water, mostly. Writers are of course undervalued. This doesn't just relate to self-publishing, it reaches to the lottery system of agent hunting and contract signing for anyone not a best-selling author. It's getting better out there, slowly changes in attitudes and perceptions are helping pave the way we can see.

And for anyone still harping on the stigma that self-published novels are worse off than the traditionally published kind, here's a quick excerpt from earlier in the article, "We piss and moan about the terrible quality of self-published books, as if slews of god-awful crap weren't professionally expensively published every year." (16:07) Two years changes a lot, huh? Don't get me wrong, this same complaint is still being echoed, just not as it once was.

"It's that hegemony of the market again. We've railed against it - as we should - for the last several days. There's a contingent relationship between book sales and literary merit, so we should totally break the pretence at a connection, because of our amplifying connection to everyone else, and orient future-ward with a demand."

We have countless stories of what are now well-respected and highly successful novels and series that were turned down at every opportunity before being published. Here is a link with a giant wall to scroll through showcasing this exact point. And nothing has changed much. Publishers and agents haven't learned from these mistakes, not really.

A publisher is still looking for what they think the market is hot for, and they still can't predict the future of what consumers want to read. Agents enjoy the simple things in life, like food and not living paycheck to paycheck, so they have certain boundaries of what they know is in demand and what is not. It's not ideal and I don't blame anyone for doing what they do, but it doesn't make it right to defend, let alone want to keep as is.

"What if novelists and poets were to get a salary, the wage of a skilled worker?"

I love this idea as it completely shatters the shackles of a metric ton of bullshit. Some very self-important authors wouldn't like to compare themselves to the average worker, so I don't think they would go for this line. No more equating high sales of a book with quality, and no longer are high selling authors are heralded as the best, by virtue of their name printed on more paper. A larger variety of stories for the ever growing diversity of readers. And I can't forget the best part, the ensuing years of agony and torture to the critics of indie and self-publishing who ask if the world truly needed that story to be published without a gate keeper. The kind of person who applauds all the writers of NaNoWriMo for getting out there and finishing that novel, but don't want them publish until it's verifiably good. Get fucked.

"For the great majority of people who write, it would mean an improvement in their situation, an ability to write full-time. For a few it would mean an income cut, but you know what? It was a good run. And surely it's easily worth it to undermine the marketisation of literature for some kind of collectivity."

This is my continued enjoyment to all the authors who'll make a decent living from their "slush pile" manuscripts and their passion projects, and the aversion and head-shaking of the well-to-do crowd. All at the cost of the great annual multi-millionaires to being lesser annual multi-millionaires.

What keeps your average aspiring writer from actually fulfilling the dream? Countless reasons, some bad and tired, but most are reasonable. A powerful need to eat, rent to pay, medical bills to take care of, family emergencies. All these are obstacles that can be removed or alleviated from their the path and doesn't strip them from being a real author.

Writers don't have to be marginalized. The path isn't what makes the author. And look at how authors treat other authors when the road becomes a little less grueling with self-publishing. They say the stories weren't worth publishing in the first place. The content was amateur. The cover is shit. No one will buy it. These books don't have the real vetting process of a regular novel, and if there's no real process to take care of it, they can't be a real author.

It goes to show how quickly some people want to rob others of a title, and if they can't steal it, they'll just have to demean it.

"But who decides who qualifies as a writer? Does it take one sonnet? Of what quality? Ten novels? 50,000 readers? Ten, but the right readers?"

A compelling question I think we should have had in 2012 when this was written/read, or at the very least yesterday. What makes a writer when we strip away the vanity and the shallow self-esteem, and the adoring fans, and the nice cars, and the big houses, and the stupid pieces of metal with their name written on them?

I don't imagine we'll be discussing this particular issue this year or the next. No, in fact I think we'll be talking about variations of what we talk about right now. Big publishers still won't figure out how to make a contract competitive to self-publishing without being a garbage contract. Successful authors will bemoan self-published titles while adding more exceptions to what's quality or what's selling, all while testing the waters themselves; because why not? More complaints of the Manchurian Candidate that is KDP as no other mainstream service (Nook, iBook, etc...) ever try to match features to appeal to authors.

What I am hopeful about is that some parts in all this post are being discussed right now. I want a more active push from these sections going forward. Kindle and self-publishing have changed the environment in a big way, and I don't see the momentum for the future. Everyone may very well get comfortable and today is the new normal for the next five years.

I want the future to be unrecognizable, because that means change was attempted.