Postcapitalist Fictions: Outline for an Experimental Agenda

Overview: Readers and writers of fiction organize themselves into an alternate reality that:

  • places them in direct control over publishing and distribution,
  • lets readers download e-books for free,
  • compensates writers through collective purchasing,
  • establishes distinctive schools of fiction, and
  • transforms fictions from commodities into cultural resources.

The Experimental Agenda: Readers and writers collaborate in designing, building, and testing prototypes for an alternative postcapitalist fictional reality. Experimentation will focus on five key components:

  • Writers Form HOUSES. Fiction writers organize themselves into houses for writing, editing, and promoting one another’s texts.
  • Houses Publish BOOKS. The writers’ Houses publish their texts as e-books, making them available to readers not as commodities but as cultural resources.
  • Readers Establish Cooperative LIBRARIES for Copying and Distributing Syndicates’ E-Books. Readers self-organize a network of virtual local libraries that purchase e-books from writers’ syndicates and distribute free copies to their members.
  • Writers and Readers Run SCHOOLS of Fiction. Fictionalists self-organize schools, at low or no cost to students, that emphasize the creation, exploration, mutation, and propagation of fictional worlds.
  • Fictions Extend Themselves into Alternate REALITIES. Fictions, long regarded as distractions from or means of coping with the real world, emerge as powerful reality-building forces.

Postcapitalist Houses

The Proposition: Writers Form HOUSES. Fiction writers organize themselves into houses for writing, editing, and promoting one another’s texts.

  • Each house is responsible for writing, selecting, editing, formatting, reviewing, releasing, and promoting its own portfolio of fictions.
  • All publications are e-books, thereby minimizing both time and cost of production compared to traditional publishing.
  • Collectively the writer-owners ensure the quality and coherence of vision of their offerings, avoiding the scattershot approach of self-publishing on the one hand and the overemphasis on commercial criteria imposed by the for-profit publishing industry on the other.
  • All revenues are distributed among the writer-owners of the publishing houses.

Rationale

Writers in the e-book era have all the abilities required to take a book from initial idea to finished product. They are confronted with two options, neither of which is satisfactory:

  • Traditional publishing takes on responsibility for performing many of the non-writerly tasks, but the writers cede a great degree of control over to the industry.
  • The self-publisher exerts control but loses the benefits of organized collaboration.

By forming collective publishing houses, writers retain control over their work while gaining organizational efficiencies and collaborative synergies. The collaboratives combine the benefits of small and large organizations:

  • Small boutique operations give shape to distinct house styles and editorial standards.
  • Affiliations between boutiques build a critical mass of book offerings and extend reach into the world of readers, while also creating possibilities for spawning hybrid collaborative projects.

Challenges and Opportunities

Finding the writers. Writers tend to be solo practitioners, relying on agents and publishers to bring them together. However, writers do cluster together in creative writing programs at universities and in local writers’ groups. These already-existing collectives could form the basis for boutique publishing houses.

Finding the readers. The traditional publishing industry has access to a widespread distribution network of bookstores, selling books one at a time to readers. Because there is no cost to copy or distribute e-books, alternative economic models can be explored in cooperation with readers, treating books not as commodities but as cultural assets.

Finding the worth. Writing fiction is not a reliable way to make a living. The syndicate of boutiques likely won’t change that situation. However, in asserting collective control over their own work, writers can prioritize other sources of value: autonomy and collaboration, art and meaning, excellence and distinctiveness.

Postcapitalist Books

The Proposition: Syndicates Publish BOOKS. The writers’ Houses publish their texts as e-books, making them available to readers not as commodities but as cultural resources.

  • Writers format their books for e-reading devices, eliminating the cost of printing and distribution.
  • An online central repository acquires and curates a cultural archive of e-books from among those offered by writers and makes them freely available for downloading.

Rationale

E-books no longer function as economic commodities, to be bought and sold one at a time:

  • E-books cost nothing to print, warehouse, ship, or shelve.
  • Efforts to limit supply – e.g., by charging readers a price for each e-copy, by enforcing intellectual property laws against so-called pirates – are artificial barriers to free duplication and distribution.

E-books can become societal resources, made freely available to any and all.

  • In the traditional book industry, agents and publishers and retailers select which books are to be made available to consumers as economically valuable commodities.
  • With e-books decommodified, readers and writers select which books are to be made available to readers as culturally valuable works.

Challenges and Opportunities

Compensating the writers. Free distribution of e-books eliminates writers’ royalties from book sales. However, the percentages and the dollar amounts paid to writers is very small. In transforming e-books into societal resources, alternative means could arise for readers collectively to support writers in a more direct, less costly way than through royalties.

Activating the readers. An elegantly designed object that you pay for, hold in your hands, display on a shelf in your home: how important to readers is the fetish value of a physical book? Instead of being passive consumers of books as commodities, can readers become active disseminators of books as culturally valuable creations?

Postcapitalist Libraries

The Proposition: Readers Establish Cooperative LIBRARIES for Copying and Distributing Syndicates’ E-Books. Readers self-organize a network of virtual local libraries that purchase e-books from writers’ syndicates and distribute free copies to their members.

  • All library holdings are e-books, eliminating the need for physical locations.
  • Instead of lending books, each local library enables members to download their own copies of any books in its holdings, for free and without limit.
  • Each local library acquires the right to distribute e-books freely to its members by purchasing a single copy of the e-book from the writer/publisher.
  • Collectively, the network of local libraries establishes standards by which books are deemed worthy of inclusion in the libraries’ archives.
  • Each local library is responsible for curating and acquiring its own collection of e-books.

Rationale

E-books cost nothing to print, warehouse, ship, or shelve, making it possible to distribute copies freely to any and all. No longer burdened by financial obstacles, readers can take an active role in widely disseminating e-books they deem worthwhile. Only the writers of e-books incur costs. Instead of buying books one at a time as commodities, of which the writers receive a small percentage as royalties, reader-controlled libraries collectively and directly become patrons for writers, buying from them the right to distribute copies of e-books freely in local areas.

Challenges and Opportunities

Acquisitions. Some sort of system must be established for evaluating and selecting books deemed worthy of archiving in the libraries. Instead of every reader buying a copy of a book, each local library must pay for only one copy, which it can then freely distribute to members. In the aggregate, the overall cost to readers is reduced significantly. However, the local libraries must find the money to buy its holdings. Membership dues can be cumbersome to administer. Perhaps individual members can become library “patrons” by buying one or more books for the local library collection.

Writer compensation. Without the middlemen taking the lion’s share of revenues, writers receive a greater percentage of each library’s purchase of e-books. However, only the libraries purchase books; their members can obtain their own copies for free. Matching even the current low levels of writer compensation can be attained only if a fairly large number of local duplicating libraries acquire holdings.

Postcapitalist Schools

The Proposition: Writers and Readers Run SCHOOLS of Fiction. Fictionalists self-organize schools, at low or no cost to students, that emphasize the creation, exploration, mutation, and propagation of fictional worlds.

  • Schools of fiction serve not as means of training and accrediting paid professionals, but as laboratories for inventing and investigating fictional realities.
  • Operating independently of formal educational institutions, schools of fiction are organized and run by readers and writers of fiction.
  • The schools emphasize not just the writing of fictional texts but the imaginary worlds that the texts describe.
  • Schools are integrated with the process of publishing and distributing written fictions.

Rationale

Formal educational programs in fiction writing are professional schools, with students paying tens of thousands of dollars learning to practice paid professions that don’t exist except for a small and dwindling percentage of writers who make a living from their art and craft. Instead of training students to write publish works and to teach, schools of fiction would incorporate students as apprentices into the publishing and teaching process. Schools would focus not solely on writerly craft but on designing, experimenting with, and creating fictional worlds. Each school would be affiliated with an anarcho-syndicalist publishing houses, its master writers and readers cultivating the house’s shared aesthetic among those who would join them.

Challenges and Opportunities

Accreditation and Credentialing. Unaffiliated with universities, cooperative schools of fiction would not receive formal accreditation and so would be unable to bestow academic credentials on its graduates. Schools would need to ensure educational excellence through mutual agreement on curriculum, process, and criteria for evaluation.

Expectations. Students expect that earning – and paying for – an advanced degree will advance their career prospects and their financial earnings, both as writers and as teachers. Fiction writers would need to acknowledge that these expectations are unlikely to be realized, reframing their understanding of the writing profession less as a job than as a calling.

Postcapitalist Realities

Fictions Extend Themselves into Alternate REALITIES. Fictions, long regarded as distractions from or means of coping with the real world, emerge as powerful reality-building forces.

  • Integral to human understanding and invention, fiction plays an essential role in imagining alternatives to reality, in shaping reality, in disguising reality, and in providing avenues of escape from reality.
  • Fictional narratives are more than entertaining stories; they are simulations of worlds, not unlike scientific experiments, algorithms, and AIs.
  • Realizing that they are trapped in an artificial world invented to serve commercial interests, writers and readers of fictional texts can escape together into an alternative world of their own invention.

Rationale

Fiction has been rendered impotent. Political leaders dismiss controversial scientific findings and intelligence leaks as fictions while at the same time crafting and promoting their own fictional accounts of how things really are. Entertaining stories function as anodynes, distracting readers/viewers from the staged unrealities of the real world and from their own inability to change it. Fiction publishing is itself an invented reality, relegated to a relatively minor segment of the entertainment industry. Recognizing the fictionality of the publishing status quo, imagining alternatives, building and running simulations of these alternate realities, re-imagining fiction as a potent force: fiction writers and readers are well equipped for the task.

Challenges and Opportunities

Reforming Habits. People adapt to environments, even artificial ones. Adaptations become habits, hard to break even when moving into an alternative environment where those habits are no longer adaptive. Freed from the constraints of the traditional publishing world, would readers and writers of fictions remain locked into their habitual ways of reading and writing? Or would the alternate reality of writers’ syndicates and readers’ duplicating libraries establish a different ecology, calling for different adaptations from which different habits take shape?

Revaluing Fictions. The criteria by which fictions are judged are themselves fictional, derived from invention and reified by convention. Is it necessary to renounce contemporary genre and middlebrow commercial standards only to champion a nostalgic return to a fantasized golden age of elitist literary artistry? Or are the fictions generated in the post-capitalistic precarity to be judged by unprecedented standards of value?

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