The publishing industry is one way to make a living as long as you’re not a writer: most of the chosen few novelists who actually get published earn less than $10K per book. To make matters worse, there’s no compelling evidence that the published few, or the even fewer best-sellers, are actually better books than the ones flushed into the slush pile. Self-publishing is too fragmented an alternative, with little quality control and no systematic way of getting books in front of large numbers of potential readers. What about a third option?
Why don’t the writers become their own aggregators? Join forces, edit and critique and format one another’s work, assemble portfolios of novels, publicize and endorse the entire array of offerings. They’ve got the talent and the motivation, and from an income standpoint they’ve got little to lose. Writers already work from home so there’s no need to lease office space. With a firm commitment to publishing e-books there would be no upfront costs of printing and binding and warehousing and transport, eliminating the need for investment capital to get up and running.
Suppose a dozen novelists, brought together by shared aesthetic or geography or happenstance, were to form a small publishing shop. Would their combined efforts garner each of them more success than they would attain as solo practitioners? Or would each writer, oozing self-confidence, regard his or her own book as the winner, deeming the other eleven partners as parasites siphoning off more than their share of the take? And would each writer devote as much effort and enthusiasm to promoting the other eleven’s books as to his or her own? Maybe it’s the mythos blocking the way, the cultural image of the artist as solitary visionary and demiurgic creator of worlds, that’s so hard to shake. Or maybe fiction writers are just too socially awkward to strike up the necessary conversations with each other. I wonder if creators who spring up in traditionally polytheistic cultures exhibit a stronger tendency to assemble themselves into pantheons.
Manuscripts selected for publication by the industry pass through an extensive vetting process. Rigorous editing and formatting and printing, attractive cover art, alluring synopsis inside the front cover, flattering bio and exuberant blurbs on the back: each book gets the full professional treatment before it’s sent out the door to the retailers. Could a writer-controlled publishing house put out the same sort of finished product? I don’t know why not. And what about the vetting: could a writers’ syndicate establish and enforce a set of standards by which to select and edit one another’s texts? Writers’ standards could actually surpass the commercial publishers’, being more committed to excellence than to return on investment. In-group solidarity might override more objective appraisals of one another’s work, but perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Writers patting each other on the back: maybe that’s how tastes were shaped in the good old days of the professional storyteller. Writers might never have made much cash, but they did have cachet. When they agreed with each other they established standards and canons, while those who were not seated at the main table with the literary doyens organized themselves into avant-garde movements that challenged complacency. Writers weren’t trying to please their readers; they were trying to please one another. Readers were judged by writerly standards: if your tastes aligned with those promulgated by the writers, then you were a good reader. Not very democratic; not very capitalistic either. Writers were aristocrats who, like scholars, weren’t in it for the money because they already had plenty, through inheritance or marriage or patronage. Either that, or they were starving artists, aristocrats of the soul who would stomach no compromise in sating their hunger for excellence. Reading too was an aristocratic pastime indulged in by ladies and gentlemen of leisure or of decadence. The undistinguished and indistinguishable masses read – and wrote – what best suited them: trash, pulp, slush.
That all sounds kind of great to me. Even if it is a fantasized past, something like a neo-aristocracy could take shape in the not-too-distant future. When all of the jobs go away, outsourced to robots and offworld drones, only those who have already amassed wealth will be able to afford to buy books and will have time to read them. There won’t be enough wealthy readers to support writers by buying their books one at a time. Only those possessed of independent means or with ready access to it via patronage will write fictions. Highbrow culture will be restored in the midst of the late-capitalist plutocracy.
There is an imagined alternate future where the slush becomes the primordial soup in which new breeds of fiction will evolve. The rich, devoted to trendy dining and luxurious world touring and biogenetic self-enhancement, won’t bother to read fiction, or to write it either. Writers, who already don’t make enough money from book sales to live on, finally give up that fantasy. Everybody else, out of work and out of prospects, might have time on their hands but no money in their pockets. What they read they get for free from libraries and online piracy hacks. The industry collapses; the agents and publishers and bookstores all close up shop. But in this postcapitalistic world the writers are still writing, the readers are still reading. Will standards of excellence fall into the sewer when the middlemen aren’t there to enforce them? Or will different standards rise up from the slush, standards not predicated on running a profitable beauty pageant, not geared toward simulating and stimulating the tastes of the paying customers?
Once everyone is rendered economically superfluous and the publishing industry goes under for lack of revenue, the AIs that select fictional beauty pageant contestants will find themselves out of work too. What sort of chaos will emerge from the wreckage? Will the fictional multiverse devolve into the entropic decay of the slush pile, or will it self-organize into fractal complexity? Without the middlemen and the money to bridge the gap, will writers and readers diverge from one another, the writers patting one another on the back while the readers search in vain for something they like as much as the books published in the good old days when the industry was a vital force? Or, without the middlemen and the money keeping them apart, will writers and readers join forces, launching joint forays into as-yet unexplored sectors of the fictional multiverse?
A case can be made for fiction writers organizing themselves into houses for writing, editing, and promoting one another’s texts. Ficticities is envisioned not just as a theory shop but as a collaborative laboratory for conducting experiments and simulations and demos, designing and testing components that might be assembled together into postcapitalist fictional ecosystems. Now seems as good a time as any to get the lab up and running, moving on from rationale to initial project design…