Postcapitalist Fictions Reconsidered

A.  Inferences from my recent string of posts

1.  Fiction writers earn next to nothing from their writings. The economic situation has gone from bad to worse, with today’s typical writer making half what the typical writer of ten years ago made. Self-publishing proliferates, but the self-published author earns even less than the traditionally published author. Fiction writers also earn next to nothing from writing-related work like editing, teaching, and reviewing; these supplemental revenue sources have likewise declined over the last decade.

2.  Texts published electronically can be distributed for free, instantaneously and without limit. Restrictions on duplication and distribution are often imposed artificially on e-texts, typically in order to charge a fee to readers.

3.  Most literary magazines pay their writers nothing or next to nothing. Nonetheless, there is an ample and burgeoning supply of manuscripts being submitted to these magazines. Many litmags publish as open-access websites, granting readers free access to their content. Nonetheless, literary magazines that charge a subscription fee and that pay their writers are deemed more prestigious than their free counterparts.

4.  Publishers that charge a subscription fee are motivated to publicize their offerings widely in order to lure more potential paying customers. Open-access publishers have no financial incentive to publicize; to the contrary, publicity costs time and money that the publisher cannot recoup via sales revenue.

5.  Like most writers of short fictions, writers of scholarly articles typically aren’t paid by the journals that publish their texts. Unlike most fiction writers, writers of scholarly articles are typically paid to do work related to their writing; e.g., teaching and research. Financially, scholars are more likely to benefit indirectly from wider distribution of their published work than from getting paid directly for their publications.

6.  As with litmags, open-access scholarly journals proliferate, while journals that charge a subscription fee are deemed higher-status publications. Generally speaking, free scholarly journals need not publicize because the potential readers of their articles typically use online search engines to seek out new texts that meet their interests. In contrast, few readers of open-access short fictions can rely on search criteria to identify specific texts of potential interest to them.

B.  What could be done

1.  It seems inevitable that free open-access fiction publishing will scale up from short stories to novels. Writers already edit and format their own texts. It costs no more to download an e-book than it does to read a web page or a .pdf file. There are plenty of unpublished novels out there, and even the published ones don’t earn much money for the authors. Writers of fiction merely have to abandon the fantasy that getting their short stories published is the pathway toward their becoming financially self-sustaining novelists. A few make it; a few win the lottery too.

2.  Open-access publishing needs to disconnect money from status. The disconnect is already happening in literary magazines and scholarly journals, where peer  and editorial review uphold selection criteria based more on excellence than on marketability. Open-access e-books need to overcome the widespread perception that you get what you pay for — that the professional publishers select only the best manuscripts, so that any book you buy as a commodity is probably better than any book you could get for free. Some means of vetting novels would need to be installed if open-access e-books as a category are to be deemed worth reading.

3.  Fiction writers derive no direct or indirect financial benefits from the publication or the distribution of their short stories in open-access compilations. Still, they keep on writing and submitting their texts for publication. Maybe they like seeing their work in print, or value the editorial judgment that deems their work worth publishing, or feel like they’re part of a larger fictional universe populated by other stories written by other authors. All of these benefits would be available to the authors of open-access novels if an adequately selective vetting process were installed, and if enough writers submitted their novels to the open-access publishing houses to achieve critical mass.

4.  Do the writers of fiction value having their work widely read, even if the readers don’t have to pay for the privilege? I’d say they probably do. Stories published in literary magazines are read mostly by other writers; most readers of fiction read novels rather than short stories. If adequate selection criteria were established for open-access novels, and if enough authors and texts could be assembled into a viable and visible multitude, then readers of fiction might gravitate toward free open-access novels. Other popularity-based metrics of excellence — numbers of downloads, reader ratings — as well as data-driven selection criteria — “people who liked X also liked A, B, C…” — could still prove effective if enough open-access books are downloaded by enough readers. But a rigorous up-front selection process would be needed in order to focus readers’ attention on open-access books already deemed worthy by recognized experts.

5.  If open-access books become popular among readers, it’s possible that some sort of scheme could be implemented for compensating authors financially. However, this scheme could not rely on selling books one at a time, nor would it likely turn into a way for authors to make a living from their writings. It seems more likely that widespread free access — a race to the bottom of writer remuneration — will prove difficult if not impossible to reverse. Keep your day job, marry into money, agitate collectively for increased grant funding in the arts, anticipate the arrival of guaranteed universal income or luxury communism…

6.  Even if free open-access novels become a thing, Amazon could easily co-opt the movement. They already hold a nearly monopolistic stranglehold over book distribution, squeezing authors and publishers alike. They already offer nearly unlimited access to their inventory via a monthly subscription program. If they wanted to, Amazon could drop the subscription fee to zero, making their money from mining readers’ data and selling it to vendors of products worth way more money than books; e.g., readers of these books tend to buy luxury domestic SUVs, tour packages to the Far East, SAT prep courses for their kids, etc. Breaking up Amazon wouldn’t be enough; you’d need to break up capitalism, or at least shift books into a non-capitalistic sector of goods and services.

C.  Conclusions

1.  When I started this website I deemed it necessary to conduct a series of experiments exploring the possibilities of building an anarcho-collectivist alternative to traditional publishing. The “collaborative laboratory” never took shape here. Maybe after all it wasn’t even necessary, since most of the R&D has already been done out there in the real world. Much of what needs to be demonstrated has already been accomplished; various systemic forces will facilitate or force certain radical changes while hindering or preventing others.

2.  It could be argued from observing transformations in the publishing industry over recent decades that intentional intervention is an obsolete model of social change, that emergence and spontaneous self-organization are the way things really happen. On the other hand, the publishing companies and distribution platforms that control the book business continue to impose order the industry from the top down. It might be possible for those controlled by the system — the writers and readers — either to exert strategic leverage at stress points or to slip out the back door.

3.  Somebody somewhere has probably argued that modern capitalism began with Gutenberg’s printing press, making possible the rapid production and wide distribution of virtually identical copies of a crafted artifact. It’d be ironic if books were among the first commodities to make the shift into a postcapitalistic economy.

D.  Next steps?

Maybe next post…

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