Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Legitimacy is Overrated - Thoughts on Konrath, Literature and the Future

Joe Konrath posted a little screenplay the other day that takes a critical look at what traditional publishing has to offer a writer now and in the future. This, of course, prompted a lot of discussion. (More than 200 comments - very interesting. I recommended reading it all.) One thing that keeps coming up in discussions of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing is that traditional publishers offer a legitimacy that you just don't get with any form of self-publishing.

And that is true. But here is a little story to illustrate why I don't think all that much of legitimacy.

When I was in grad school, back in the 1980s, I had a creative writing professor who was something of a minor literary star. He'd won prizes and been given fellowships in Europe and stuff like that. He was a bit of a jerk, but he was definitely legit.

It happened that I made my first professional sale the term I was in his class. I wrote for children in those days and the sale was to Highlights for Children, and I was paid $100 for a tiny story of about 400 words. Nothing to sneeze at, even today.

When I told my professor about it, he made it very clear to me that such a sale was not a legitimate publication. It was not to be mentioned, even. Like I said, he was a jerk. Maybe more than a bit of a jerk. But he was legitimate. Nobody could argue that.

Over the span of the semester, though, I discovered a few things. Such as the fact that he couldn't sell books to save his life. He required his award-winning novels as texts for his classes to force students to buy them. (This, of course, and should have got him fired, but he was SUCH an admired artiste that people gave him a bye on it.)

My little story, in the meantime, was probably enjoyed by a great many more readers on its first run through Highlights than any of his books (perhaps all combined). And over the years, the magazine has resold the rights over and over and over again - and sent me a share of the proceeds. I just got a check this week for $138. I'm quite certain that the total proceeds are now more than the advance on the novel he forced us to buy.

I've come to realize that legitimacy is something that professor needed. He didn't have much else for his books. And that's not just because he was a jerk. Literary and academic writers all need it - even the ones who weren't jerks. Literary fiction just doesn't pay, it doesn't get distribution, so you've got to go with prestige to make it worth the cost and trouble.

I learned early that legitimacy was never something I needed.

But now, on recalling this, I am twice as excited about the future. I realize now that even literary writers are no longer dependent on legitimacy. (Not unless they wanna be, or they want to go into academia.) The thing that forced literary writers - even the ones who were not jerks - to be so dependent on legitimacy was the fact that it's so darned expensive to be published. You needed some kind of justification for the powers that be to spend the money to grant you access to readers.

And that was also the problem for self-publishers, who didn't even have legitimacy - so no access to readers.

Well, now everyone has access to readers. And that includes the poets and literary writers and delusional dreamers.

I am grateful to Highlights for the access they have granted me over the years, and I hope they will continue to make connections with readers for me forever. I am grateful to all the publishers out there who made these connections possible for all writers.

Legitimacy was a ticket to those connections. But it has less and less importance and figures in smaller and more specialized audiences all the time. Publishers still have a lot to offer, imho, but legitimacy is the weakest of the bunch.

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