Okay, so suppose this…
I keep reading online open-access short fictions and interacting with them here. Maybe I shorten up my textual responses: instead of the 500 word average of my recent output I aim for something more like 150. At the same time I amp up my posting frequency, from 5 per week to 15 or so. I focus my attention on texts to which I experience a personal resonance and whose authors I can readily contact via social media. I continue to notify authors directly about my online interactions with their texts; this time I also follow them on Twitter etc., anticipating that at least some will reciprocate.
When the authors arrive here to read my posts, I won’t attempt to lure them into participating in online discussions or surveys. Instead I’ll invite them to consider joining forces in building an alternative fiction publishing house that’s owned and operated by fiction writers themselves.
The authors of fictions published in literary magazines can certainly generate the product. They’ve responded to publishers’ requests for submission, written and edited their own texts, formatted them in conformance with the litmags’ specs, had their work deemed worthy of publication by acquisition editors. It’s at the back end of the publication cycle that the authors’ co-op might falter.
As a cooperative can writers exercise quality control over their own collective output, ensuring that the texts have been thoroughly vetted, honed to excellence, and formatted professionally in the house style before being published? A traditionally published book gets blurbed on the back cover by other published authors, heightening the book’s attractiveness to the potential reader. Mutual blurbing probably also enhances the sense of camaraderie among blurbers and blurbees. But can fellow writers exercise editorial judgment with respect to one another’s manuscripts — a responsibility from which they’ve traditionally been buffered by agents and publishers?
I believe they can. Academic journals have historically relied on peer review in accepting and rejecting manuscripts for publication. Blind review is the usual procedure, avoiding cronyism on the one hand and vendetta on the other. With enough fiction writers in the peer network, blind review would be practicable and swift. Can fiction writers exercise reliable and valid judgment about the merits of other writers’ fictional texts? With practice they could. Many literary magazines already rely on blind peer reviewers to make a first pass through the pool of submissions. Through experience and conversation a set of house standards would surely take shape.
What about money? If the writers are doing most of the work, and if only e-books are published, then overhead costs are reduced nearly to zero. Advances and royalties? For now let’s assume that the novels published by the writers’ co-op are open access, generating no revenue from sales. Many litmags operate that way; many if not most don’t pay their authors. While many writers of short fictions hope to have a novel or compilation of their own published, often as not they expect the publisher to be a small independent operation that pays only a small advance with no additional royalties generated from sales. But a small-press publication conveys prestige on its author. The book might serve as a stepping stone to a bigger and more lucrative book deal with a commercial press; it also might enhance the writer’s credentials for securing paid work as an editor or a teacher. If the writers’ co-op publishing house can attract excellent submissions, and if the editorial selection process is rigorous, then it could convey the same sort of prestige on its authors as would the small independent publishers. In addition to the pragmatics, there are also the aesthetics and the egoistics that come into play. Being published by a well-respected outfit offers validation of the author’s art and craft; it also gives the author something to talk about at parties.
Could the authors publicize not just their own books but the co-op’s entire portfolio of literary offerings in order to attract broad readership? If the co-op publishes open-access e-books, then it wouldn’t make use of bookstores or Amazon, which generate their revenues as percentages of book sales. Online literary magazines cultivate readership through online promotion and social media; the co-op could pursue a similar strategy. Rather than relying exclusively on the publishing house’s online presence to build readership for the books, the writers themselves would take an active role in announcing book releases through their own social networks. The authors of short fictions on which I recently wrote posts generated quite a bit of traffic through their Facebook friends. If the writers were to make social media announcements not solely for their own individual works but for all of the books in the co-op’s portfolio, reader awareness could expand exponentially.
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On the other hand…
Of the 14 randomly selected short fictions I wrote blog posts about, only one author engaged in an ongoing discussion, going beyond the specifics of her own story into the larger societal contexts of education, ecology, empirical evidence, and personal agency in which her story is embedded. Three other writers offered a single comment, focusing exclusively on their own texts, without pursuing further conversation. The other writers never engaged, never even acknowledged that I’d written a post about their stories. None of the 14 authors commented on any of my other posts in the series, or on any of the recently published short fictions written by other authors on which those posts were based. None asked me why I’d read and written about their stories, nor did they offer any reaction to my larger agenda as outlined in other fairly visible places on the website. In short, based on the limited evidence available, with one exception the authors were interested exclusively in the attention I gave to their own stories, or else they were entirely indifferent.
Participants in a writers’ collective publishing company would doubtless need to be motivated by self-interest — the collective can advance my career, or increase my readership, or make me money. A sense of outrage with the status quo would also help: the traditional publishing industry is a racket, a pyramid scheme, a false hope, a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many. But wouldn’t there also have to be a sense of authorial collegiality, or at least an awareness of a shared fate, of swimming or sinking together? Even better, wouldn’t the prospects of success be enhanced if the writers’ collegiality extend to the readers, who collectively are exploited by the same industry that exploits the writers, whose own interests could be served by joining forces with each other and with the writers?
I’m not much of a rhetorician; my expectation is that, once the evidence is laid out on the table, the advantages of anarcho-syndicalism speak for themselves. In an earlier iteration of this website I marshalled evidence indicting the status quo and outlined the parameters of an alternative system predicated on collective pursuit of mutual interests. Those posts and pamphlets went nowhere, largely because so few people showed up to read them. Maybe I shouldn’t take the rejection personally: if you google “postcapitalist fiction,” Ficticities shows up on the first page of the results. The fact that so few people clicked through to my postcapitalist content tells me that very few people give much thought to the topic. It’s hard to know whether that’s because most writers and readers are satisfied with the status quo, or because they’ve not given serious consideration to alternatives.
I could perhaps launch a fiction publishing house that wasn’t collectively owned and managed. It would operate similarly to to the open-source literary magazines, specializing not in online periodicals but in e-books, mostly novels. The writers wouldn’t get paid, but then neither would I. Instead of trying to reach consensus on manuscript selection, house style, distribution, and so on, I’d decide unilaterally. My publishing house would still rely heavily on the writers for editing, formatting, and promotion, but so do other publishers. With minimal overhead costs, the house could expand its offerings more rapidly than do many of the small independent presses. I suspect that, like most publishing houses, my operation would draw a lot of interest from authors. But why would I do it? Running such an operation would be a full-time job, for no pay — a do-gooder project. Besides, I’m a novelist myself, dammit! I don’t just want to help other fiction writers to get their novels read; I want them to return the favor.
You could say that I’ve already got my own publishing company, just like every other self-published author. Mine is an open-source e-book operation: anyone can download any of my books for free. I could expand, inviting other novelists to submit their manuscripts. But doesn’t that look like precisely what it is — an expanded self-publishing endeavor? Besides, a prospective author might well ask, just how many readers have taken you up on your personal open-access postcapitalist publishing house’s free book offer?
I could set aside the publishing house idea for now, focusing instead on affiliating with a cohort of fiction writers, and maybe readers too, linked not so much on economic considerations — on explicitly pursuing alternatives to commodity capitalism in the world of fiction — but on aesthetic ones. A decided advantage offered by open-source literary magazines is that they can feature good work that doesn’t necessarily generate commercial potential for either the writer or the publisher. There are compensatory dangers: on the one hand a suspicion that the no-pay outlet is a lower-status venue best suited for mediocrities and novices; on the other, a whiff of esoteric preciousness wafting from the self-appointed literary elite who through academic appointment are able to buffer themselves from crass commercialism and popular tastes. These are the risks intrinsic to decommodified publishing — the same risks that a writers’ syndicate would face in publishing one another’s longer fictions. Open source literary magazines provide an ongoing source of market research for postcapitalistic fiction.
Of the 14 short fictions I recently read, 3 or 4 struck me as unusually good — not far better than usual, but good in an unusual way. I could allow myself to be drawn selectively to the unusual short fictions — the same pull I rely follow when looking at novels on the New Releases shelves at the public library. I could write about each of these unusual short fictions, notify the author, perhaps strike up a discussion, maybe even a correspondence. We might converge onto some form of collective collaboration founded on a shared appreciation for the unusual. Or, as seems equally likely, I would find that those who cultivate the unusual diverge not only from the norm but from one another. I could give this project some time — considerably longer than the 3 weeks of my latest experiment — to see what develops. Meanwhile I will have read some alluring short fictions, will have let those fictions inflect some idiosyncratic textual engagements of my own, will possibly have initiated some stimulating conversations.