I’ve written previously about the move from paid journal subscriptions to open access journals, and about possible analogs to the publishing of fictions. Here’s an article summarizing the current situation.
A 1986 sculpture by Jeff Koons just sold for $91.1 million. Why is art so expensive? “The short answer,” Gaby Del Valle writes, “is that most art isn’t.”
The high-end art market is “driven by a small group of wealthy collectors who pay astronomical prices for works made by an even smaller group of artists, who are in turn represented by a small number of high-profile galleries.” A few newcomers break through, but first they’ve got to find a gallery to represent their work. Gallerists shop for promising new talent at MFA programs.
As Roberto Ferdman observes, “only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist. So spending, say, $120,000 on an art education is often more of an extended luxury than an investment in an adolescent’s future.” Galleries sell mostly to the ultra-rich, for whom spending a few million on a painting signals their good taste in luxury goods while also providing them with a potentially lucrative investment if the market goes up for the artist whose work they’ve acquired.
– So far this one-word tweet on @dril, dated 15 Sept 2008, has generated 55,675 retweets and 90,837 likes.
Eileen Chou summarizes her key research findings in the title of her 2018 journal article: “Naysaying and Negativity Promote Initial Power Establishment and Leadership Endorsement.” The rationale:
Humans evolved as social animals, reliant on power hierarchies to preserve order. Power is a means of influencing others through the control of rewards and punishments. Therefore it’s adaptive for humans to be attuned to cues that signal power; e.g. expansive posture, height, the tendency to spring into action. Naysaying seems to be another signifier of power. Why? For one thing, powerful people are perceived as primarily concerned with getting things done, so they focus more on identifying and correcting mistakes that hinder success than on making people feel good. Two, powerful people are regarded as less constrained by conventional norms that serve to preserve group solidarity through mutual agreeableness, in part because powerful people can reshape group norms.
Do people view naysayers as more powerful than cheerleaders? The participants in Chou’s experiments did. In the multivariate structural model derived from her empirical findings, people regard others’ negative judgments as indicative of their being free agents, able to express their true opinions unconstrained by social expectations. The free exercise of agency in turn implies the ability to wield social power over those whom they criticize. Consequently, people expect a naysayer to be a more effective leader than a cheerleader, even when the naysayer isn’t perceived as being more competent. People voluntarily follow the naysayers’ leadership, even if that means subjecting themselves to the naysayer’s negative judgment of themselves.
Chou’s experiments support the idea that people perceive naysayers as more powerful than cheerleaders. What about the naysayers themselves: do they feel more powerful? Chou conducted some additional studies in which participants were asked to invent arguments for or against some proposition about which they held no a priori opinions; e.g., positive or negative reviews for an imaginary restaurant. Afterward, the negative reviewers reported feeling more powerful than did the positive reviewers.
A positive feedback loop is activated here: Expressing a negative judgment not only makes you feel more powerful; it also causes other people to regard you as more powerful. Once you’ve been rewarded for your negativity, you’re more likely to repeat your performance, becoming a chronic naysayer and rising in the social power hierarchy.
Trump. Disagreeable workers who get higher-income and higher-status positions than their equally competent but more agreeable counterparts (Judge, Livingston, & Hurst, 2012). Publishers that reject 99% of submitted manuscripts without explanation and that are acknowledged as elite cultural tastemakers by the rejectees themselves…
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.
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…
In late December I wrote about having struck up an email correspondence with Jim, an old pal from high school I’d not heard from since forever ago. An environmental historian, Jim has long focused his research on African agriculture. As I worked my way through his book on the introduction and spread of maize, a New World plant, across the African continent, I learned quite a lot about something I didn’t even realize was a thing. At the same time I got a refresher course in how academic scholarship takes shape: incrementally, collaboratively, cumulatively, the work spanning vast swaths of space and time.
Typically the new ongoing work first appears in scholarly journal articles, researched and written by specialists, vetted and reviewed by specialists, read and interpreted by specialists, integrated by specialists into subsequent investigations. Audiences are sparse but intensely focused. The grand integrating narrative comes later, its author fully acknowledging that God and the devil are in the details. In the Acknowledgments section that follows his extensive End Notes and Bibliography, my friend Jim writes:
The historian’s task is the telling of a story that explains why and how, but the process is one that involves, in addition to inspiration, a great many people, institutions… This book had its genesis in farmers’ fields in Ethiopia, in research laboratories, around grain silos, in seminars, in libraries, and in dusty archives. Many people from all those settings — certainly even more than the few that I can mention here — deserve heartfelt thanks and acknowledgment.
The realm of academic scholarship spans the universe (that’s why they call it a university), an abstract N-dimensional matrix supporting thousands of disciplines and subdisciplines interacting and drifting apart in intermittent oscillations, scattered widely across an ever-expanding intellectual cosmos.
I’m not sure how literary magazines fit into that universe. Like a scholarly journal, a litmag aggregates into a single issue multiple short texts written by different authors. I get the sense that these magazines are read mostly by other writers, just as scholarly journals are read mostly by other scholars. A short story or poem, like a journal article, shines a narrow beam of illumination on a small fragment of the universe — or multiverse in the case of writers whose explorations aren’t bound by the parameters of the actually existing universe.
If you read a bunch of journal articles about the history of African farming — single-tine plowing in Kenya, sorghum harvesting in Tanzania, soil acidity in cleared tropical rainforests, the dispersion of maize varietals along the hajj routes, the impact of global warming on growing seasons and drought, the relationship between maize farming and malaria — you’d be able to assemble the architecture for a preliminary knowledge base, incomplete and tentatively held but cumulatively extensible, about the topic.
Does an assemblage of short stories written by a variety of authors allow the reader to assemble incrementally a tentative and incomplete yet extensible understanding of the multiverse in which those stories unfold? Arguably it does, but building the integrative constructs linking multiple fictional texts together is a task typically outsourced to the scholarly academy, the literary critics and cultural theorists for whom literary texts comprise a data set for their investigations. The novelists and short story writers aren’t regarded as interpretive experts for their own and one another’s work; instead the authors are subjected to the same sorts of outside scholarly analysis as are their fictional texts.
Theorists specializing in, say, the fictional oeuvre of J.G. Ballard might cluster together into a coherent interest group, reading and critiquing and building on one another’s work, organizing conferences and journal issues devoted to Ballardian studies. Fiction writers influenced by Ballard, not just stylistically but in the fictional worlds they explore, tend not to gravitate toward one another. Presumably the mandate to “find your voice” keeps authors ensconced in their splendid isolation. After all, they don’t want to be slotted as Ballard fan fiction writers, do they? Meanwhile these unique snowflakes tacitly cede to the theorists the task of — and the intellectual credit for — aggregating their fictional works together into an abstract neo-Ballardian category.
Intermittently over the years I’ve run across the “Ballardian” blog, hosted and mostly written by a guy who “explores tropes and motifs found in the work of J.G. Ballard.” A theory blog, in other words. Maybe not though — here’s an excerpt from the blog’s “About” page:
The site seeks to bind together a community of writers and artists who have been similarly inspired by the man and his writing. A key component of this project is to contextualise Ballard’s work, to analyse his sphere of influence beyond the stifling constraints of the literary realm and into the more expansive realms of music, film, visual art, fashion, cultural theory, architecture, even pornography.
Now I see that Simon Sellars, the guy responsible for this blog, has written a book — Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. From the book description on the website:
Plagued by obsessive fears, defeated by the tedium of academia, yet still certain that everything connects to Ballard, his academic thesis collapses into a series of delirious travelogues, deranged speculations and tormented meditations on time, memory, and loss. Abandoning literary interpretation and renouncing all scholarly distance, he finally accepts the deep assignment that has run throughout his entire life, and embarks on a rogue fieldwork project: Applied Ballardianism, a new discipline and a new ideal for living. Only the darkest impulses, the most morbid obsessions, and the most apocalyptic paranoia, can uncover the technological mutations of inner space.
A novel, evidently; autofiction, most likely. Does the book exemplify what the website attempted, or in fictionalizing the concept is the author acknowledging the impossibility of applied Ballardianism? I’m going to try tracking down this book via interlibrary loan.
As discussed in the last post, scholarly journals are moving actively and aggressively toward open access. The push is being orchestrated jointly by academic scholars who want their work distributed more widely, by scholars unaffiliated with first-world universities who lack access to published research, and by the research institutions that pay exorbitant subscription fees to the for-profit publishing industry. While open-access online journals have proliferated across all disciplines, the high-prestige journals — those with the lowest manuscript acceptance rates — still charge a hefty subscription fee, typically paid by university libraries. But the universities are actively renegotiating less expensive, more open arrangements with the journal publishers, while individual scholars increasingly post their own work on open-access internet “pirate” sites to circumvent publishers’ restrictions. Most scholars don’t really need the publishers to publicize their work, which appeals almost exclusively to small cadres of fellow specialists who often know about each others’ ongoing work even before it’s written up for publication and who are adept at using online search engines to track down the latest publications and pre-pubs.
Open-access literary magazines, like open-access scholarly journals, already proliferate. As with the journals, the most selective literary periodicals still charge subscription fees. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that academic libraries account for most of the litmags’ subscription revenues. Still, many subscription-only magazines make their back issues available for free online. I don’t think there’s been a concerted push by writers and readers to make litmags open access — my guess is that supply sufficiently outstrips demand that only relatively few of the magazines can generate any revenue.
So there are parallels between short scholarly and literary texts — what about open-access books? I don’t know how energetic the push is for making scholarly books open access, but that impetus can’t be lagging too far behind the journals. Granted, textbooks make a lot of money year after year, but for the most part the readers of scholarly books are the same as those who read the journals: mostly specialists occupying narrow niches, small markets that generate small revenues. As with the journals, it’s mostly academic libraries that buy scholarly books. The authors might make a bit of money from their scholarly books, but it’s only a small supplement to their salaries as teachers and researchers. For scholars in most disciplines, writing a book isn’t even a high priority. What’s $3K in book royalties when students pay $3K apiece to enroll in your classes? Which is the better use of your time: writing a grant proposal that pays you up front to do the project you want to do while also funding the grad students who’ll do most of the actual work, or writing a book on spec that might or might not get published, and even if it is published the proceeds will compensate you for only a fraction of the effort you put into writing it? Or you can have your cake and eat it too: include the writing of a book as a compensated task and a deliverable in your grant proposal. In all likelihood scholars would support open access to their published books, trading off a little bit of money for wider readership, wider recognition and influence, more leverage when applying for a job, coming up for tenure, negotiating a raise.
Like scholars who publish books, fiction writers don’t make much money from their published novels. Would they trade off royalties for readers? The ones with full-time academic appointments might. I don’t doubt that many novels and compilations of stories or poems written by academics, like most scholarly books, circulate mostly among a small cadre of specialists whose acclaim is worth more to the authors career-wise than the small change they might earn from book sales.
The main difference between scholarly and literary texts is that, in most scholarly realms, articles rather than books are the primary work product and medium of communication, as well as the main metric for evaluating scholars’ excellence and influence in the field. In literary circles, on the other hand, the short piece is often regarded as a stepping-stone to the long form. From Chad Harbach in his 2010 article “MFA vs. NYC”:
“[E]veryone knows that no one reads short stories. And it’s true that the story, once such a reliable source of income for writers, has fallen out of mass favor, perhaps for reasons opposite to that of the poem: If in the public imagination poetry reeks suspiciously of high academia—the dry, impacted arcana of specialists addressing specialists—then the short story may have become subtly and pejoratively associated with low academia—the workaday drudgery of classroom exercises and assignments. The poet sublimates into the thin air of the overeducated Ph.D.; the story writer melts down into the slush of the composition department. Neither hits the cultural mark. A writer’s early short stories (as any New York editor will tell you) lead to a novel, or they lead nowhere at all.
Maybe writers of short fictions who don’t land paying jobs in academe should just quit writing fictions, devoting themselves more fully to whatever career path they land on next. That’s what most grad students in other scholarly disciplines do: they write or collaborate on a few journal articles, join the hordes of candidates fighting for a small and dwindling number of academic posts, then move on to other lines of work when they don’t get the gig.
Maybe the boutique publishers of long fictions are performing a public service by narrowing the bottleneck, letting only credentialed academic authors’ books squeeze through. Maybe other fiction writers, like scholars in other disciplines, should concentrate their efforts on producing masterful short pieces, distributing them freely among one another in open-access litmags. And maybe academic fiction writing programs should shift away from training students to practice a profession that no longer exists (if it ever did) to a more scholarly model of education — a discipline that values the finished work, be it short form or long, not as a crafted artifact to be put up for sale as a commodity in the shop window (or given away for free at the open-access website), but as the end result of an extended investigation, an incremental contribution to fiction as a field of research and design and speculation.
Academic publishing is moving toward a major overhaul.
Traditionally, scholars have submitted their manuscripts to journals. Submissions are evaluated for rigor, excellence, and potential impact; only those manuscripts that pass muster are published in the journals. Universities and other institutions subscribe to the journals, thereby purchasing access to the journals’ contents for anyone affiliated with the institution.
In the paper-and-ink era the academic publishers were saddled with the expenses of printing and warehousing and distributing the journals. By now though the printed journal has been rendered all but obsolete by online publication. Distribution is now nearly free and instantaneous. Access too: instead of traipsing to the library and poring through the archives hoping to find the volume you’re looking for, now you can read articles online from anywhere, any time.
The publishers don’t create journal content: that’s the work of the scholars, who get paid by the institutions with which they’re affiliated and by the granting agencies supporting their projects. The publishers don’t vet the submitted manuscripts either: that’s done by peer reviewers, who aren’t paid for their efforts. So: if variable costs are absorbed by the scholars, and if fixed costs are eliminated by e-publishing, and if reader access is no longer constrained by physical access to the printed journal, why not just make journals open-access, free for any and all to read regardless of institutional affiliation?
The publishers still incur some costs: they have to wrangle the talent, format and copy-edit the texts, and ensure that the online interfaces are working smoothly. But why pass those costs on to the readers? Authors of published articles don’t benefit from restricting access — the wider the distribution net, the the greater the potential readership, impact, recognition, reward. Equipped with online publishing tools, the authors already shoulder most of the editing and formatting load. Open-access journals are already changing the publishing ecologies of scholarly disciplines. to varying degrees — why not fully shift to that model, cutting out the added expenses and distribution bottlenecks imposed by for-profit publishing companies? Or, even more quickly and efficiently, why not have the authors self-publish their articles, submitting them to an independent peer review board whose findings are likewise published and open to public discussion? Whatever remaining administrative expenses are incurred in publishing and distributing online open access research can be covered by the institutions financing the authors’ work, which also benefit from widespread distribution.
**Here’s an article that came out today spotlighting some of the efforts that academic institutions and scholars (collectively and individually) are taking to circumvent the access paywalls and bottlenecks imposed by the academic publishing industry.**
So that’s the trajectory in scholarly publishing. Are there implications for the publication of fictional texts? Not surprisingly, I’ve got some thoughts… next time.