Tuesday, November 8, 2011

eBook as Artifact, William Morris and Me

Recently, Mike Shatzkin wrote a blog post about "True do-it-yourself publishing successes" (which he thought would become more and more rare in future). As a long-time publishing guru, he is focused on best sellers, which, imho are irrelevant to the new world of indie publishing. (See Passive Guy's excellent response as to why he's wrong even if you do focus on best sellers.)

But the phrase "true do-it-yourself publishing" went ker-boing! in my head, because it brought to mind a book we had when I was a kid. It was a collection of tales by Nathaniel Hawthorn: hand-bound in red suede with interesting, rustic typesetting and illustration.

I never got into the stories, but the book itself was just plain COOL.

It was an artifact. A product of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which came to a head a little over a hundred years ago. (Think Tiffany glass, and those gorgeous bungalows in Pasadena, like the Gamble House.)

Now, the Arts and Crafts Movement doesn't seem like it would have anything to do with ebooks or indie publishing. It was anti-modern, anti-technology, anti-industrial. And they were all about hand-made craftsmanship. Weaving, glass cutting, carpentry, metalwork...and bookbinding.

For them, a book was an artifact, a work of art. Every detail of binding, paper, and printing took as much care -- and was as individual -- as the writing of it.

When I see things like Shatzkin's article, I stop and think what William Morris would have thought about this idea that an artist would have to put work into an industry system to succeed.

It's true, the Arts and Crafts Movement did not bring down industrialization. That wasn't their goal. Their goal was to promote something they saw as lost in the modern society -- human artistry in every day things. And both industrialization AND the Arts and Crafts folks thrived.

As a matter of fact, if you draw a comparison between the situation in publishing and the effect of industrialization on handmade crafts, it makes for a really great analogy:

Personal craftsmanship was first destroyed by industrialization, and then revived and blossomed when William Morris and a few other Pre-Raphaelites got together and realized they can do without modernism in the ordinary decorative arts as well as in high art. And now, publishing was hurt by the consolidation of the industry, but an awful lot of writers are getting together and realizing they can do without the publishing industry. That doesn't mean all of them will, just that all of them can.

That's the irony of modern technology, the internet, and of ebook publishing in particular: everything is possible. The field has widened so far beyond what it was, I don't even want to use the word "industry." We're well beyond the industry. As with the artists of the A&C movement, we don't have to limit our artwork to a canvas. Their art is on doorknobs and wallpaper and staircases and posters and rooftops and clothing....

I think Steampunk is an early indicator of our version of this kind of movement: it's not just a literary genre, it's a style. It's music and clothing and artwork. It's blogging and social events.

A lot of indies started out in completely different ways: via audio podcasts, via blog or even newsletter. For many of us, our blogs are a part of our art. There are people selling handmade books on Etsy.

And a few of us even see ebooks as artifacts. Virtual artifacts, but still something to fuss over, something to perfect as more than a collection of words. It's cover, it's layout, it's copy editing choices. And they are choices, not rigid perfection of manufactured goods, but true individual expression. Warts and all.

For me, the handmade love and care, by me, is important. The art, the blog, all of it. If I want to hit a best seller list, I would have to sacrifice that. Why would I consider that to be "success"?

I have the feeling that the reason Mike Shatzkin thinks "true do-it-yourself publishing success" is so unlikely in future is because he doesn't get what true do-it-yourself artisan success is.

See you in the funny papers.


Unknown said...

I think you've really hit on a great point here. Most books published in the past were true DIY publishing successes. Look at Jane Austen. One thing is for sure, it will be interesting to see how things change in the future.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I totally agree. I think Shatzkin isn't completely seeing the big picture here. Thanks for this interesting post, Camille!

jnfr said...

I love this analogy a lot.

The Daring Novelist said...

Clarissa: True. The past is full of great self-publishing examples -- but actually, that isn't my point. Jane Austen was a success by Shatzkin's criteria. She didn't set her own type, or bind her own books.

Nor am I saying that indie writers should do it all themselves, or even that he's wrong about the tiny fraction of the now enormous publishing field which interests him. What I'm saying is that there is a way bigger world out there, bigger than the best seller lists, bigger than Jane Austen. Bigger, even, than publishing as a discrete activity.

And one fragment that he utterly misses is the "arts and crafts" of ebooks -- people who enjoy the activity of "publishing" for its own sake: the covers, the editing, the _making_ of it. People for whom a book is an artifact, even when it's virtual.

Elizabeth: thanks for tweeting it!

jnfr: Thanks. It isn't an analogy that takes in the whole of what's going on in publishing, but then Arts and Crafts did not cover the whole of what was going on in building or manufacturing, either.

Cora said...

I think your Arts and Crafts analogy is spot on. Besides, what Shatzkin completely missed IMO is that there are many people who not just make every aspect of their e-books themselves but actually enjoy doing it and don't want to outsource. And many self-publishers, even those that do outsource some of the work, strive to make an e-book look as possible and are proud of the results.

ModWitch said...

Huh. You've just hit the nail on the head for why I'm so loath to give up my made-by-me covers. Because they were made my me. It helps that they're working well enough, but I've always had a protective kind of fondness for them. That's exactly why - they may not be the best covers ever, but they're part of my crafting.

The Daring Novelist said...

Cora: right, you don't have to do it completely yourself. Hand-made is not for everybody. But the option is now fully viable.

Modwitch: you are one of the proofs of this concept. You are doing something out of joy of doing it, and you are succeeding at it.

ModWitch said...

Artisan writer. Okay, I really, really like that. Much better than "indie". Handmade love and care. This one's been sticking with me all day...

The Daring Novelist said...

We'll start our own movement!

Sarah McCabe said...

What a great observation. I really like the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement and the designs of William Morris were just lovely. (Pity I couldn't stand reading his prose.) I think it would be amazing if somehow indie publishing allowed authors to make the kinds of works of art that his press made through ebooks and POD. Perhaps with time.

Also, I LOVE the term Artisan Writer. That's what I'd like to be.

The Daring Novelist said...

Indie publishing does allow that. It requires skill. And if you are talking about a beautiful bound book, it requires money (which, frankly, most of the products of the Arts and Crafts Movement did): that hasn't changed, and Etsy, eBay and Amazon would be happy to offer the books for sale.

For ebook as artifact -- i.e. virtual artifact -- that's already here. It's in play.

Deniz Bevan said...

What a beautiful idea, to follow in the footsteps of the Arts and Crafts movement! The only trouble for me is that I have no sense of design. Still, my sister's the artist - if I wrote and she painted... Oh the possibilities!

The Daring Novelist said...

Here's the thing: the Arts and Crafts Movement was about physical things -- taking care with them, respecting them, letting them be individual.

eBooks are not physical things. We can certainly create beautiful editions by hiring craftsmen -- as the architects of the movement did. They did not do everything themselves.

What we can have in common with them is the personal touch. Individuality. We can take pride in ourselves and our work, and not try to hide our uniqueness under a mask. Not try to blend in with the "manufactured goods" of the NYT bestseller list.

If you hook up with an artist who suits your uniqueness, cool. But if you don't... well, I live in an Arts and Crafts period house. It's not a fancy one, there are no tiffany lamps or cut glass windows. There is no ornamentation.

I'm looking right now across the room at the hardwood timbers, just plain and solid. The only ornamentation is the wood grain itself. But they're so frickin' stylish, just in their simplicity. They make the mood of the room so graceful and homey.

It isn't that somebody said "oh, let's put a lot of wood here to make it look cool" it's that when the built it, they wanted to let the house itself show itself off. The beauty and grace come from the parts of the house itself.

The parts of an ebook aren't necessarily going to be illustration. It's a virtual, almost social thing -- so, imho, the way of the Artisan is to look to what the book is in every thing related to it. Where you touch it, let it shine, and where you hire out, hire out with the idea of letting the book shine.

Deniz Bevan said...

You're right, eBooks aren't tangible things. But yes, we could all make sure that everything we do has the stamp of our individual style in it. I really like the idea of thinking of novels in this way.