Collaborative HOUSE Experiment — Preliminary Design Parameters

Fiction writers aren’t about to organize themselves into an extensive network of postcapitalist publishing houses, all of them collaborating with readers to make their books widely and freely available. In part that’s because writer-controlled houses don’t yet exist. Industry-published writers are consolidated into portfolios by their agents and publishers; self-published writers go it alone.

Is the writers’ house proposal feasible? Can the writers do it? Would they want to do it? Ficticities can serve as a laboratory for conducting experiments and simulations that would evaluate writers’ capabilities and preferences about collaborative publishing while incrementally enhancing their capabilities and preferences.

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Can fiction writers edit and review one another’s texts? Many fiction writers already do so. Some of these collaborative arrangements are formal and intensive but limited in duration — e.g., MFA programs — while others are ongoing but informal — e.g., writers’ groups. Most writers who collaborate hope to enhance the quality and publishability of their own writing; few collaborate with the intent of organizing their own publishing houses.

Would writers want to participate in a syndicated cooperative publishing venture in which the writers select and edit each others’ texts for publication? Some fiction writers have worked, often without pay, as editors for literary magazines. Scientific journals rely on unpaid peer review for revising and selecting articles for publication. However, in both cases the authors are not organizationally affiliated with the publications to which they have submitted their manuscripts for review. Some fiction writers teach writing, in which they evaluate, critique, and edit students’ manuscripts. Teacher and students share an organizational affiliation, but the relationship is hierarchically stratified rather than peer-to-peer.

Can fiction writers collaborate in ways that produce coherence of vision among their texts? It’s certainly possible to identify intertextual similarities of theme, style, influence, degree of realism, structure, linearity, complexity, and so on — similarities that may emerge independently of authorial intent or awareness.

Would writers want to produce collaborative coherence of vision? Writers of genre fiction intentionally share fictional orientations; writers of fan fiction, even more so. Even if not collaborating, fiction writers often prefer to have their work associated with a particular approach to the art and craft and with particular writers they deem exemplary.

*   *   *

An initial experiment could both explore and enhance incrementally the feasibility of writers assembling a postcapitalist syndicate of publishing houses by launching a collaborative fiction writing project in which writers:

  • edit one another’s manuscripts,
  • identify other writers who share a compatible approach to fiction, and
  • assemble the edited texts into publication-ready books.

Fiction writers aren’t about to submit full-length novels to a writer-run publishing house with no organizational structure, no track record, and no distribution outlet. There is, however, the long tradition of writing, without compensation, shorter pieces to be included in published compilations. It should be possible to design an experimental House project contoured to fit within those traditional parameters. At the same time, the postcapitalistic experimental context driving the project should be made explicit to all potential participants.

There are plenty of short story periodicals out there, many of which solicit manuscripts conforming to a specific house style or genre. Short story compilations that take book form tend to impose even tighter editorial constraints: “best-of” editions, or stories that have all been written by the same author. Similarly, nonfiction periodicals typically consolidate articles in the same “genre” 0r discipline: developmental psychology, for example, or biochemistry, or medieval history. Book-length nonfiction compilations tend to narrow the thematic focus within these disciplines; e.g., the development of problem-solving ability in early childhood. Perhaps increasingly, book-length nonfiction compilations cross disciplinary boundaries: the chemistry of synaptic pathways invoked in learning to solve long division problems, medieval practices of teaching mathematical skills.

The nonfictional cross-disciplinary model of book-length compilation suits the purposes of fictional House experimentation. Establish as the volume’s unifying premise a thematic element or thread that spans diverse genres and styles, inviting writers to contribute manuscripts that address the unifying thread in some way. Stand-alone stories, fragments of longer pieces, non-narrative fictions would all be fair game. Even short texts not typically regarded as fictional — theory, autobio, meta, abstract simulations — could be incorporated into the thematic compilation.

This sort of big-tent inclusiveness is compatible with the way fictions are already written, since arguably every novel incorporates non-fictional content. Incorporating a wide variety of texts into a thematically focused compilation could limn the intertextual architecture on which fictional universes are built. Cutting across genre boundaries could also link writers on collaborative trajectories that might not otherwise have been apparent.

Design specs from this treatment will be elaborated and detailed in the next post or two. Suggestions and critiques are more than welcome.

12 thoughts on “Collaborative HOUSE Experiment — Preliminary Design Parameters

  1. Serial fiction might be ideal, that is, publishing in installments that will eventually form a larger work. Each installment could be both published (to be enjoyed by readers for its own sake) but could be simultaneously analyzed and critiqued by readers and fellow writers, hence making the work collaborative.

    In the greater history of fiction writing, serial fiction has played a critical role. It was critically important in the 19th century, as fiction itself was becoming an art form. Less so in the last hundred years, but serial ficti may be an approach whose time has come back around, particularly in light of capitalism’s many failure (and hopefully its collapse).

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  2. This from Wikipedia:

    Serialized fiction surged in popularity during Britain’s Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution.[3]:34 Most Victorian novels first appeared as installments in monthly or weekly periodicals.[3]:13 The wild success of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, is widely considered to have established the viability and appeal of the serialized format within periodical literature. During that era, the line between “quality” and “commercial” literature was not distinct.[3]:31 Other famous writers who wrote serial literature for popular magazines were Wilkie Collins, inventor of the detective novel withThe Moonstone and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the Sherlock Holmes stories originally for serialization in The Strand magazine.

    While American periodicals first syndicated British writers, over time they drew from a growing base of domestic authors. The rise of the periodicals like Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly grew in symbiotic tandem with American literary talent. The magazines nurtured and provided an economic sustainability for writers, while the writers helped grow the periodicals’ circulation base. During the late 19th century, those that were considered the best American writers first published their work in serial form and then only later in a completed volume format.[4]:51 As a piece in Scribner’s Monthly explained in 1878, “Now it is the second or third rate novelist who cannot get publication in a magazine, and is obliged to publish in a volume, and it is in the magazine that the best novelist always appears first.”[4]:52 Among the American writers that wrote in serial form were Henry James and Herman Melville. A large part of the appeal for writers at the time was the broad audiences that serialization could reach, which would then grow their following for published works. One of the first significant American works to be released in serial format is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was published over a 40-week period by The National Era, an abolitionist periodical, starting with the June 5, 1851 issue.

    Serialization was so standard in American literature that authors from that era often built installment structure into their creative process. James, for example, often had his works divided into multi-part segments of similar length.[4]:30 The consumption of fiction during that time was different than in the 20th century. Instead of being read in a single volume, a novel would often be consumed by readers in installments over a period as long as a year, with the authors and periodicals often responding to audience reaction….

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  3. “Serialized fiction surged in popularity during Britain’s Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution…”

    Similar changes in economics and technology are currently changing the nature of publishing, writing, and the nature of the creative process itself. Is this a time for serial fiction to make a comeback?

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  4. “The consumption of fiction during that time was different than in the 20th century. Instead of being read in a single volume, a novel would often be consumed by readers in installments over a period as long as a year, with the authors and periodicals often responding to audience reaction….” (Wikipedia)

    I can’t help but notice that this sounds a lot like the direction Ficticities is going.

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    1. Good observation, Erdman — this website features installment fiction, writing about imaginary stuff that doesn’t exist in the real world. Certainly there’s a thematic coherence across the installments; you might even be able to trace a narrative thread, a kind of plot that’s gradually taking shape, building some forward momentum. It’s a pretty exclusive audience, I must say.

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  5. As a delivery vehicle the installment approach breaks down artificial barriers between writer and readers. The book as a physical object is one of those barriers — a commodity that’s bought and sold rather than a medium by which writer and reader are linked. Various middlemen then set up toll booths on the barrier: agents, publishers, printers, bookstores all charging a fee for what could be a transparent direct interaction between writer and reader. Electronic media should be able to dismantle the barriers, but the internet providers charge fees and the online distributors impose artificial barriers, both technical and legal, that restrict free exchange of words between writer and readers.

    The publishing industry also imposes a time barrier, with long delays between completion of the manuscript and its delivery in final form as a book. The longer the delay, the greater the alienation between writer and readers. Serial fiction shortens that barrier tremendously. Also a good thing.

    Another major concern, and the main focus of this proposed initial experiment, is the barriers erected between writers and other writers. Again you’ve got the middlemen — the agents and publishers and bookstores — purportedly aggregating the writers together, whereas in fact they’re keeping the writers apart, isolated as individual contract laborers, nearly all of whom work on spec for less than minimum wage while the middlemen make a living and a profit solely by performing their aggregating functions, without even writing the books that bring in the revenue.

    In the old days of serialization the periodic fictional installments were typically published in a newspaper. There Dickens would be aggregated with all of the reporters and columnists who worked for that same newspaper, building a critical mass of talent and content all within the same publication, diversifying the portfolio. Readers probably wouldn’t go through the daily paper cover to cover, but there would be enough varied content to satisfy a wide variety of interests and tastes. Again though, the aggregator was the publisher rather than the writers themselves. The journalists were typically unionized, which did provide them a united voice in negotiations with the publisher, but it was still the publisher calling the shots. And of course now the daily papers are dwindling, the unions are busted, the journalists are typically freelancers who get paid little or, for most internet news outlets, nothing at all.

    So a big part of this experiment is to see if writers can be their own aggregators. Instead of each writer pushing his or her own book exclusively, writers would join forces to create a wide array of offerings to a diverse readership. Periodic installment doesn’t resolve this issue: it’s still the solo author trying to drum up readership for his or her own texts exclusively.

    These days television networks are the primary aggregators of installment content. The same network offers a wide array of series, satisfying a wide variety of viewers’ tastes. Even though few viewers are going to watch every show the network puts out, the critical mass of an extensive diversified portfolio generates large viewership. Again, it’s the aggregator who makes the profit as the “publisher” of its programming, rather than the writers and actors and directors and camera operators.

    Installment fiction might work. What you’d want to see take shape is a whole “network” of fictional “shows,” with the whole network owned and controlled by all of the writers collectively.

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  6. The other side of the coin is the commodification issue. It costs money to print, warehouse, and distribute each single copy of a book or newspaper, so charging a per-unit price makes sense. But electronic publication is virtually cost-free. At your place you’re writing about making the Internet a public utility; the same rationale should hold for e-books. Whether distributed as finished texts or as periodic installments, e-texts incur no incremental cost per copy to the publisher, so why should there be an incremental fee paid by the reader? Local governments or consumer co-ops could negotiate a fixed price for free distribution to all of the readers within their jurisdiction. There’s already a precedent for this arrangement: the local public library. But instead of lending out books, the libraries would offer downloading of unlimited free copies. Decommodification of fictional texts: that hopefully will be the focus of later experiments…

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  7. The experiment of compiling a book of texts written by several contributing authors is intended primarily for the writers rather than the readers. Can they edit; can they impose mutual standards of excellence; can they be drawn together in mutual interests and tastes? If so, then maybe the project can serve as a kind of incubator for spawning one or more writer-run boutique publishing houses among the participants. Distribution of the compiled volume might also function as a sampler — a way for writers to get in front of potential readers of their longer works. Even if the writers don’t continue down the postcapitalist syndicate path, they would still benefit from the editorial feedback they receive from fellow writers. Plus they can add the finished, published piece to their résumés.

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  8. “So a big part of this experiment is to see if writers can be their own aggregators. Instead of each writer pushing his or her own book exclusively, writers would join forces to create a wide array of offerings to a diverse readership….

    “Even if the writers don’t continue down the postcapitalist syndicate path, they would still benefit from the editorial feedback they receive from fellow writers. Plus they can add the finished, published piece to their résumés….”

    The failure of capitalism is already pushing writers in this direction. Many publishers are pulling back on editing, and writers are now expected to do much if their own editing. At this point you have to be one of the big name, franchise writers to get good in-house editing. Otherwise there’s no money for good editing. Editors themselves have been pushed out of permanent jobs and now primarily work as contractors or subcontractors. All of this is in the name of “efficiency” and maximizing the bottom line, i.e., it is the increasing exploitation of labor, squeezing the worker so as to pay less money and get more work in return.

    In short, writers, I would say, are ready for something new. In a greater sense, socialism is an idea whose time has come, here in the States. I’m not saying that it is inevitable and I’m not being prophetic. I’m only suggesting that the conditions are conducive to change.

    But there are still those who peddle the American Dream. Because of my renewed blogging energy I’ve been doing more research into the state of the blogosphere, and I must say that the say tate of the blogosphere, Mr. Speaker, is not good. It’s overwhelming geared toward blogging on commercialized themes (food blogs, travel blogs, fashion blogs, gaming blogs). One blogs so as to “monetize” and to monetize as quickly as possible. The idea of “the starving artist” writes one successful blogger, is for suckers who don’t have the courage to really put themselves put themselves out there – and oh yes, if you pay $19.99 you can buy the video, get the book, etc.

    It all reminds me of the Christian “name it and claim it” prosperity Gospel. Have faith in capitalism, we are told. As capitalism fails more and more people, we are all told it’s our fault – we aren’t working hard enough, we don’t have enough faith, etc.

    So to repeat, I think many are ready for alternatives. It’s just a matter of connecting with such writers. So Ficticities has the right vision, what’s the next step, in terms of connecting with the writers and readers who could benefit from this important alternative???

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  9. Anne too has scoured the internet looking at writers’ blogs and websites, and she came to the same conclusion. It seems that a lot of fiction writers make more money — or attempt to, anyhow — from their “how to make money by writing” self-help products than from their own fictions. Everybody’s trying to make a buck off of writers who are trying to make a buck — a Ponzi scheme.

    Mid-list novelists so often offer seemingly heartfelt thanks to their agents and editors in the Acknowledgments page — I wonder if they’re grateful for any sort of help no matter how meager, or if they feel like they have to suck up to the Man in order to maintain their tenuous foothold inside the System. It does make me envy them though, wishing I had these wonderful professionals working on my books. So even though the publisher’s editing role has been stripped to nearly nothing, shifting responsibility to the writer, the percentage the publisher pays out to the writer hasn’t gone up. So now the meager revenue stream going to the writer has to be shared not only with the agent but also with the editor? Pretty soon commercial publishers will be assuming the role of vanity press, with the writer paying out of pocket for the privilege of being published.

    Is it possible to find those frustrated writers out there? Inundated with variants of the American dream, will they even recognize an attractive alternative when they see it? How much propagandizing must be done before there’s any movement?

    I’m trying to sneak up on it by putting forward some projects that move incrementally from status quo toward the more anarcho-socialist alternative outlined here on Ficticities. In the next post I’m proposing to launch a direct-email campaign to recruit possible participants in these projects. Have a look and see whether you think it’s got a snowball’s chance, and if other ideas come to mind that might be tried. I’ve also got another project idea I’m working on that I’ll probably write up soon.

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  10. I do think that the writers are out there. And one thing that we haven’t mentioned either is that the publishing industry has a very high rejection rate, I’ve heard that the rejection rate is somewhere between 99% and 99.9%.

    So, the odds are stacked against you. Assuming you’re of the 1% that make the cut and get published, the odds are against you that you’ll be able to make enough money even to provide a substantial supplement to your income, especially in light of the fact that as a new author you’ll be expected to be able to edit your own work and do a good bit of the marketing.

    Even so, people love to write. There’s an army of writers out there, who have either been rejected or have learned that getting published doesn’t earn a living wage. [cut to Tyler’s “Middle Children of History” speech in the Fight Club basement]

    The writers are out there. There’s no doubt about it. You just have to find them, Tyler. =)

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  11. Agreed. I did write a bit about the low odds of publication in the 21 November post Follow the Money or Follow the Bliss:

    Obviously commercial publishing is a ripoff for the writer, but just as obviously the publishing industry offers a higher return than going it alone on the self-publishing route. Or does it? What percentage of novels submitted to agents and publishers actually get accepted for publication? Ten percent? Five? Most sources say that it’s less than one percent. So, if you write a novel and you get it published you might hit the average of $11K, but multiply that dollar figure by the 1% chance of getting published and you get an expected return of around $110 from the publishing industry. Now self-publishing looks like a better deal — five times better. Still, $600 for all that work you put into writing and editing and formatting and selling — is it really worth it?

    As you say, people love to write, probably more now than ever, despite the bleak prospects. And people still love to read, though maybe not as much as they used to, partly because the industry’s profit motive makes the new offerings so predictable, so geared toward the least common denominator. Time for a shake-up. Staged brawls between writers in Walmart parking lots? I understand that once in Key West Ernest Hemingway engaged in a boxing match with poet Wallace Stevens, with F. Scott Fitzgerald as referee. Hemingway won with a knockout. Rule number one of Write Club….

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