Monday, April 16, 2012

The World Has Changed

When I started my blog two and half years ago, it seemed like the publishing world was recovering. It had been under attack for decades by modern brick and mortar retail -- by the automated distribution systems of Barnes and Noble and Borders in particular.

About ten years ago, I had dropped out of the race, because all my favorite authors were struggling, and many had been dropped and blacklisted as mere "midlist" authors. I had a hard time finding books I wanted to read, except at Amazon, and then the books were mostly used. So I went and learned screenwriting and became a script analyst. Hey, screenplays might be even harder to sell than books, but at least you got paid an actual living wage when you sold one.

But one day I dropped by a bookstore, and I saw that the Mystery shelves had expanded again, and they were not all thrillers, or romcoms. There were actual, you know, mysteries there. Was the genre back? I didn't know, but I knew I wanted to get back to writing mysteries. I had been in the business long enough to know what I needed to do. I dusted off all my old plans, and formed them into a new plan of attack. I'd finish the first book on a new series, and then I'd have two books/series to start shopping around....

But as I worked on that new book, I discovered that the world had changed much more radically than I thought.

Oh, not the traditional publishing world. That turned out to have not changed at all: Booksellers were still treating writers as cannon fodder -- throwing them out there for a book or two and then blacklisting them. There was a surge in mystery titles, but that was just a rearrangement of shelves. Authors were still being treated horribly, and getting a book contract was still more nightmare than dream.

What had changed was that suddenly that book contract was not the only game in town.

Not only was self-publishing suddenly a viable option, but all sorts of internet and new technology related options were mature and available to the writer.

I don't know that anybody in publishing -- not the publishers, not even self-publishing gurus who argue with them endlessly on the internet -- quite realizes the depth to which the world has changed.

It's as though publishing was a tiny isolated town, where everybody had the same expectations and goals. There were many who lived on the wrong side of the tracks, but everybody was a part of the same culture. Those on the wrong side of the tracks all dreamed of moving to the good side of that small town.

Now suddenly the whole town has been moved to a big, cosmopolitan city. Suddenly we are thrust in with other people who have very different standards and goals. Different world views. Different everything. And we're all sharing the same space and there is nothing to draw a line between us and them.

The ironic thing is that this other world was always out there. It was always thriving. It's just that it wasn't visible to those in publishing before, because publishing had a barrier around itself. And I don't mean the "tracks" which divided the good side of town from the bad. I mean there was a wall which divided the publishing culture -- published and unpublished writers, and also academics and critics -- from the rest of the world.

Here is the irony:

The publishing industry only recognized the tracks themselves -- and they saw it as a way to keep the riff raff out. Even the riff raff itself only noticed those tracks, not the wall around the city. Those tracks were a citadel which protected what was good and glorious, and now that it's down, we hear a lot from those inside about protecting our standards from the vandal hordes who are storming the now nonexistent gates. And we hear the vandals shouting, "They can't keep us out any more!"

But that's like two ants fighting over a crumb. It's a small part of what has happened. It's not even the most important thing that happened to them, let alone the rest of the world.

The bigger deal, for publishing, is that there is no longer a barrier keeping anyone IN.

And suddenly those inside are not only rubbing elbows with people who wanted to get in, but also with people who never wanted to get in. People who were doing just fine at things like blogging or podcasting, or oral storytelling, or stand up comedy, or online comics, or publishing underground fanzines.

It's not that those inside the citadel are on equal ground with those who were outside and wanting to get in. We're all now on equal ground with Uncle Jim and his long memory of a million jokes, and with Mrs. Evers' third grade poetry group, and videos of cats riding Roombas, and cartoons drawn by that brilliant math geek who never got around to showing his art to anyone before having a blog.

Those opportunities were always there, as I said. And well before the ebook revolution, the internet was also making it easier and easier for those people to make a living at what they do. Not that they couldn't before, but it was harder.

So what has changed?

Suddenly, now, we never have to make the hard choices between passion and profession.

Actually, no, that's not true: suddenly now Passion Trumps All. If you have to make a choice, you must go for passion. You now have a million options -- some professional, some not -- and the best ones may be difficult. So those writers and artists with real passion are going to be the ones who get through the difficulties.

It is more critical than ever for you to find your bliss, and find the niche where you can thrive at it. You no longer have to conform your bliss to a few limited opportunities.

That's what I have learned in the past two years of this blog.

See you in the funny papers.


Laura Lee said...

Great article. While I would have to agree in theory that passion trumps all and that I would idealistically like to believe that quality and unique voices will win out whether championed by traditional publishers or on their own, I would have to say that writers to also have to pay bills and eat. While there are many more opportunities to reach readers directly and to make available the results of your passion, it seems to be more difficult to do that and also to pay bills and eat. I know this has always been a problem for writers, and for those who were completely shut out in the past it is a false choice-- it wasn't publish and be fed or self-publish and not, it was either starve and have your book available or starve without your book available. Still, it does seem like a great time for creative expression and a poor time for getting fed in this current era. I figure that as things change the arts that need to be supported generally find a way to be, so I am optimistic, but this period of transition is daunting.

The Daring Novelist said...

Laura, you're still thinking of the old model. That you have to write a book, publish it via the old channels, and get paid by customers of those old channels one book at a time.

But that's a small part of your options now. (And yes, if that's all you know, then it's a much easier path -- but that doesn't mean it's the best path.)

And very often the alternative paths -- blogging, serialized podcasts, other things too alien to most writers to go into in a comment -- are actually quicker and more lucrative... depending on WHAT you write.

That's where passion comes in. The kind of writing which would succeed in a blog may not be an option at all in regular publishing. So if that's the kind of writing your passion leads you to do, you shouldn't even be thinking about traditional publication.

Tom Simon said...

Excellently said. Rem acu tetigisti, in fact.

But perhaps I’m just saying that because the analogy with city walls is also one that has occurred to me. If you’ll pardon a self-serving link, you can find that same metaphor in a short squib that I called The Publisher’s Tale.

The Daring Novelist said...

Hey, Tom, thanks for posting!

I don't mind a non-spam link, related to the topic at hand. If it adds to the conversation, that's a good thing.

Nicole Pyles said...

I'm so glad to see this too! What a wonderful direction that the publishing world is taking!

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Nicole -- it's exciting.