Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Author, Author (2019-02-12)
Snoopy from Charles Schulz' comic strip Peanuts
prepares to write his next opus. Snippet dated october 2018, original circa 1972-1976
The latest article in my bag of procrastination tricks is the topic of "scribal publication" which so far I have read about only in the context of fifteenth to seventeenth century england. This sounds like it should be obscure, yet the models developed from various preconceptions about hand-written manuscript reproduction versus machine printing and what it means to be an author in the usual depictions of scribal publication are reproduced in almost all writing in english about writing and publishing I know of. Exceptions exist and are growing in number, in part because of the effect of the web and the ways in which it has been developed as a new means for what could be labelled "social publication." "Social" not in the lying marketing sense as in the term "social media," but actually social in that the writing is done and published as part of social relationships. And not just in the form of fanfic either. I think that comment sections at their best are part of the same phenomenon. Social publications troubles the waters of definition whenever we approach the water body labelled "author." Authorship, by which most pundits seem to really mean ownership, is a fraught concept now. Writers who publish with the expectation of being paid in money bewail that their works are pirated and they are unable to make a living. Writers who expect different sorts of return for publishing their writing are often denied the designation "author" and sneered at as amateurs or dilettantes, as if the only way to express a serious interest in the art and craft of writing is to be paid money for it. "Author" has echoes of that terrible word "authenticity" in it, and since that is one of the most fought over features in a capitalist venue because it is a pretext for raising prices, there can be no neutrality about its use, even if more people wanted it.
For those who have read David Graeber's most recent book, Bullshit Jobs, or anybody who works in a profession that involves care for others, which ranges from all forms of artist to the well-known and weirdly despised hard-working teachers and nurses, you already know that "authors" are better because they are paid. Furthermore they are despised even if they are as business-savvy and rich as a J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, because their work is about entertaining, teaching, and even consoling. All types of care for others, whether it is reflected in what we consider self-interested or unself-interested care. And in any place where patriarchy is in play, let alone capitalism, the default assumption we are told the "real people" make every day is that if we do those caring things, then we should feel rewarded enough by the gratitude of the people who receive our care. How dare we be so venal as to expect to be paid! This is unshakeably attached to contempt of course, contempt for not doing something "practical" that "pays the bills." Never mind without all that caring work, the world would stop.
Authors, whether published in the current marketing system or socially published on or offline, are sensibly opposed to this despicable attitude. Yet the market published authors are sometimes the most difficult to listen to when they begin talking about how unfair it is that they don't get paid, especially when they demand more of the currently broken copyright system. I have never understood this, because the system was founded by printers, not authors, and it meets their needs, not those of the authors except by dribs and drabs. A copyright system that better fit the needs of authors would look different. Of course, when an author manages to write a book that becomes a real and ongoing hit, then the current system seems to work just fine for them, because sheer economies of scale make their tiny royalties multiply so well, and they are able to take advantage of the phenomenon of tie-in products. Other authors are developing an approach to social publishing that effectively reinstates a subscription model to ensure they get a stable living and build a community of readers who are following more than the latest fad. Fads have their place, but not if you hope to make a steady living around making non-faddish products.
Copyright is part of the problem here, but a bigger one is the ways in which the ability to produce and disseminate what authors write is centralized, and in the case of social publication, where centralization is being imposed. Scribal publication on a wider scale held on so long in part because it was decentralized, and the author could exert more control over their own work, including managing how it was edited. The style of invasive editing typical of english and north american presses is I understand from Alberto Manguel, unique to those parts of the world. Authors engaged in scribal publication did edit and accept edits from others, in fact their circle of trusted critical readers were expected to provide suggestions and comments as well as works of their own. And indeed we see a similar phenomena in fandom via betareading, preliminary audience testing with mailing lists, and so on. Now that anyone can have a printing press in their living room, the new push by corporations that formally could expect to basically control all publishing has been to clamp down on distribution via various means. Egregious contracts, asinine copyright regime changes, and especially the longterm propaganda play that says there is no way to pay for art except by advertising or rich jerks patronizing artists. This simply isn't true unless we let it be made true. Before so-called "social media," word got around about new art, new writing and so on. Just like before the cell phone, we were able to cope with emergencies. It will take work to route around and away from the monopolistic tactics of corporations and authoritarian governments, and sometimes risky work. It will have to be done by all of us, including folks like me who are able to pay a modest amount each year to keep a website up and independent of the pseudo-free services, in part to help support the alternatives.
Way back, I was part of a mailing list – back in the internet stone age when "social media" was nobody's bright advertising idea – and the question of how to spread word about and distribute books and other writing outside of the current distribution systems came up. Never mind lots of that had been happening for years, frequently along transmission nets developed by yes, fans of various shows, books, and movies. Precarious at times, but fun, with a clear sense that some productions were by nature going to be short-lived, and that was okay. In the context of the conversation on the list, I suggested that maybe a sort of mail subscription system might be the way to go, thinking out loud, tossing an idea out there. One person in particular jumped on top of me and began pointedly informing me of how stupid the idea was, that it would be expensive and hard to manage, and what the hell was the matter with me, didn't I know there was no way to do this without the economies of scale of an actual company? Skepticism is fair enough, but the side order of personal attack was gratuitous. I also think this sort of hyper-skeptical attitude is self-defeating, and reflects that many authors got sucked in by the claims by various publishers that only by being published by them could a writer truly be an author. Only then could they be spared accusations of being a hack or an egomaniac, only then could they be sure they were working as true professionals and meeting true professional standards.
I can't agree. What makes you an author is that you took the time, care and effort to write something, polish it, and share it with the world, however you choose to do that. If you want to produce a bestseller, certainly your chances will be higher if you manage to attach yourself to a large publisher that is willing to support your book with heavy marketing support and sticking mentions of it in the right places. But that has a lot more to do with gaming a system in which what the author is competing for is celebrity. To sell that, each publisher needs a clearly differentiated product that they can flog the hell out of, and so they will have a "house style" and specialties. If you want to compete for celebrity as an author, then yes, you need to be part of a marketing machine, and a marketing machine only accepts whatever it's special fuel is, so you'd better produce the fuel. But that is far from the only way to share a book with the world, or make money from doing so. The other ways may work more slowly, or demand more ongoing work from the participating authors, which hardly makes them unrealistic or impossible. Or contemptuous.