It was my second-to-last semester when I heard the best advice of my entire writing program.
Normally, I wouldn’t be caught dead paying attention in class, but for some reason my iPad was taking forever to update the Phantasy Star II app, so I happened to hear it. But I also noticed that the woman who was saying it was a working writer who had broken into e-pub through blogging and was making enough in only five years to work very part time as a teacher and devote herself to writing.
And it wasn't the first time I'd heard such a thing either.
See, there’s a real changing of the guard going on in the business of creative writing right now. Publishing houses—even some small presses—have their heads buried in the sand; the sand that looks suspiciously like their own asses. They didn't seem to know what's going on with computers. That was 2011, and the interim decade has had a few of them catch up, but much like old generals fighting wars with the last generation's tactics, they're still having trouble.
The old guard and the new guard shift RIGHT about at people my age (maybe a little younger). This isn’t a small change either. This is a huge, nothing-will-ever-be-the-same, "It's a cookbook" change that is rocking the publishing world more than Lady Gaga and Beyoncé rocked Telephone. It is roughly analogous to the same change that hit the record industry in the early 2000s (and they still don't know exactly which way is up). Technology moves fast, and every shift is making new things possible, plausible, possibly even superior to prior versions of "The Way Things Are Simply Done™," yet some of these fossils are still insisting that fax machines are the antichrist and that e-mail will be the downfall of civilization.
|This or be told speculative fiction isn't "real art." |
Sure, your local bookshop is starting to be more Shakespeare-bust electric pencil sharpeners (where you stick the pencil into his left nostril) and Moleskine journals that lure in white people by the truckload, but there are still one or two shelves of actual books behind the coffee shop, the CD rack, and the Jane Austin tote bags.
The old guard’s world is a world of gatekeepers and status quo. It is a world where few have the power, and they lord it over the rest. A world where the only course to endgame is short story credits--->cover letter--->agent--->publisher--->book deal, and at every step someone is judging whether or not the work is of enough appeal to move up the chain.
This "someone" is almost always white, male, heterosexual, and middle class. Even in today's world where that is only statistically very likely (rather than universally true), they still maintain the aesthetics and values of those cultures. Some inroads from marginalized groups have been made into literary fiction, but they often have to be a sort of "marginalization porn" type of story to do so, and mainstream is still oftentimes much more difficult for such voices.
The old guard tend to love books as physical objects. They talk a lot about the smell of books—so much so, in fact, that you’d think they need to grind wood into a powder, mix it with glue and ink and rub that shit on their gums to test its quality. They channel fuddy-duddy Giles from first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and talk about computers as newfangled infernal contraptions. They seem confused, and I have to say maybe even a little befuddled, by the impact of e-readers and blogs on the readers market.
The old guard claim that the future of publishing is "totally up in the air," but they have "no way to know where the wind is blowing," and with every innovation and technology, they seem caught with their pants down, clinging to the vestiges of the old ways like ice cubes in clench fists that drip through their fingers in a horrifying melange of wind, pants, and ice cube metaphors. They disagree on the impact that e-readers and computers will have in the next decade, and some even insist their impact is nominal now—even though every single speaker not in publishing basically unanimously agrees that they have officially changed the game. The old guard claim they have absolutely no way to know where the industry is going.
And they are losing their jobs in droves.
They even (my hand to God) had not noticed by 2009, when I was in the Business of Writing class, that their 15% drop in book sales exactly matched the reports that e-readers now accounted for 15% of the market share. They just thought people were "reading less these days." Again––I'm not making that up. They stood in front of us, presented us with slides and....didn't see it.
With speakers and guests right around my age, something strange happened.
The new guard aren’t “unsure” of what is going on within the publishing industry. They are unanimous, loud, and very confident of their predictions. They don’t disagree with each other but rather have a spooky sort of consensus that you really don't see very often in writers. They can see the impact of e-readers, the trends, and the way the wind is blowing:
Paper books are on their way out, and computers are going to devastate the power of the gatekeeper model.
Not all paper books. Not completely. Never. We love them too much for that. And this process will not happen overnight, especially as long as there are people who fetishize physical books.
Not beloved copies or masterpieces. Not “vanity copies” that hipsters will insist on mail ordering to match their seventies-style Puma sneakers and will tuck conspicuously into their skull-covered tote bags. Not the mega-bestsellers who will always be financially viable to publish physically.
No, it will probably shift slowly overy the next few decades until it looks a little like Star Trek, where they read everything on their little pads, but still give each other real books as gifts and had a few titles in paper form in their quarters. But the books you gather up by the truckload and consume like jelly beans..... the books that my ex-roommate, Uberdude, has wall-to-wall, causing a fire hazard in one entire room of the house. The ones that can’t hit an increasingly high circulation number to make their publishing run "worth it".... They're gone. Thirty years...maybe forty.
The low-risk alternatives of print on demand and e-publishing are just making the old system not worth it anymore unless you're Rowling*, King, or Brown. (*Don't be Rowling; she's transphobic.)
But the thing is that the developments in these technologies are not just changing the publishing industry. They are also changing how a writer deals with that industry. Writers don’t even need agents anymore. Writers don’t need publishers anymore. They can take their work straight to the presses themselves. Fuck, they can hit a button and be published the same day electronically. It’s a major major game changer when the gatekeepers are being port rounded, and the artists can say, “Screw you guys; I’m going home,” in their very best Cartman voice. Suddenly, the artists have power again, and don't have to conform to a vision of either "what sells," or what a very narrow demographic of gatekeepers think has the literary worth to justify taking a loss on.
The old guard writers we met through my CW program were almost always professors, editors, publishers as well, or had some other day job. They made virtually no money off their writing. (Notable exception: Dan Handler. That was a fun evening.) Small presses can't really pay, and if they can, it's a pittance. The biggest royalty checks those writers got was when a class (usually a creative writing class) picked up one of their books to study, and it became a required text for the course—
.......aaaaaaaaaand if that kind of strikes you as a bit of a Ponzi scheme, you’re not alone.
By contrast, MOST of the younger writers were able to be working writers after a few years at it. They cobbled together ten different income streams from web content to freelance work, to erotica to be translated into Taiwanese, and some punched a part-time clock to shore up their defenses, but they were doing it. They were writing for a living, and not getting caught in 9-5 writing gigs that left them sapped and exhausted when facing their own fiction. They were getting their creative work out there with computers and technology. And a lot of them didn’t see agents and big publishing houses as the goal. A lot of them thought that was one way among a dozen to reach endgame, but the real money was in extremely cheap e-reader only versions of their work where they would pocket MOST of the retail price, marketed online.
And the most common advice the young guard gave us was this: “Control what people are going to see when they Google your name.”
We live in a world where some people sneer at online publishing. They think it is beneath them. They think it isn't "real." They have nothing published online, or if they do, it is their second- or third-tier work. That poem or short story they didn't think they could get published in a "real" venue.
Guess what comes up when you Google their name?
That's right. The crap.
What’s even more dangerous is stuff you don’t even know is out there. A mirror screenshot of your drunk text manifestos on how Nazi Germany wasn't SO bad because at least the trains ran on time that you put on Friendster back in 2002. You want to push that stuff onto page 23 by replacing it if you possibly can. If you don't, the first thing someone sees of you, when they look you up, is some poetry you tweeted during your “EE Cummings Punctuation Phase” about how hard it is to be a white, het, male in today’s world.
Unless you're Lynn Shepherd, you should be able to exert some control over what people see when they Google your name.
So part of my mission for this blog is to have fairly tight control of what someone is going to see when they do a search for my name–lest I end up with people knowing about the Great Spumoni Incident of Aught Two.