This week, San Francisco Grotto and Authors Guild member T.J. Stiles published a vitriolic open letter to authors that argued anyone who joined the Authors Alliance, a competing author’s organization, would harm professional writers. The brouhaha is great deal of inside baseball for those who aren’t trying to make their way in the world as authors.
However, the fight between the two organizations illustrates the very question everyone is asking these days: What is my place in the new, digital world? Where people fall on the answer spectrum – embrace the change or hold on to the past – says a great deal about how they look at the world
The Way Things Were
There was a time (I’m told) when the careers of authors and long-form writers were cultivated. Editors at publishing houses would work with promising writers, help them hone their craft, find an audience, and (if all went well) become successful. As I came out of the Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism in 2000, that world was going away.
Writers weren’t shepherded along. They were expected to shape their own “growth” period, which included such things as writing without a contract, paying a professional editor, and developing a loyal audience of readers without any promotional help. In other words, you were expected to come to the publishing party with more than just a book. For many writers, this pathway to publishing at a major house was both daunting and depressing. The further I’ve moved away from the traditional publishing world, the more I’ve talked with writers who are adrift in this new world.
Making matters worse: Established writers already entrenched and successful in the traditional publishing system are telling these aspiring writers that while they must develop their early-stage careers on their own and they must build a loyal following to a publisher, they shouldn’t embrace the digital publishing tools available to them as it might undermine the traditional business.
If my anecdotal experience is any indicator, despair is now the default setting for these early- and mid-career writers and much of that attitude is traceable to professional writers decrying the end of literature..
A Pithy Interlude, or a Straw Man for Victory
“You can’t eat fame,” is a saying I’ve been reading quite a bit from members of the Authors Guild in response to the Authors Alliance. It’s a cute, catchy saying, but its use is exactly why the Authors Guild is misrepresenting the new business paradigm. Nobody has made the argument that you can eat fame or pay bills with fame (although its much better to be famous than anonymous when the check comes), but you’re not likely to get a great publishing deal without it.
Mark Cuban, who made is fortune through Broadcast.com, had an equally witty saying: “If you can’t compete with free, then you don’t have a business.”
Fear of a File-Trading Planet
We’ve seen a version of Stiles’ Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) argument before. Napster, an early file-trading service, was one of the first stories I covered when I worked at Wired. A few months after my first story on the subject, I left the magaine and went to Wired.com where I continued to write about the convergence of copyright, technology, society, and artists (which broadly meant musicians, game designers, filmmakers, and writers).
For the next three years I interviewed hundreds of people about these issues, from Congress on down to the truly independent artist. In many respects, I had a front row seat to one of the biggest issues facing artists today. Always, I’ve tried to weight the legitimate concerns between companies that hold copyrights, the artists creating the works, the audience that is purchasing and interacting with the art, and the Constitution.
As you might imagine, these are complicated issues. When somebody represents these issues as anything other than that, I grow concerned. While I have never been comfortable with copyrighted works being traded and shared across these networks, I have also found that anyone who said there was nothing positive that could be done through social networks generally has an agenda beyond helping early- and mid-career artists.*
Since the time of Napster, I have watched these discussions get hijacked by alarmists who run to the edges of sanity and cry wolf. Instead of reasoned debated about how to deploy these social technologies in a way that allows anyone to build an audience (in the way that open protocols let anyone, including Stiles, publish to the Web without a gatekeeper), I found that traditionalists were unable to grok any way in which emerging technologies and loosening copyright restrictions might aid in both the distribution and selling of work, and the creation of new work.
The arguments against embracing new models were so often deeply rooted in fear. Loosening copyright restrictions (or “change”) was equated with the destruction of the industry. There was absolutely nothing to be gained by reworking copyright as it transitioned from a world of physical scarcity into a world of digital limitlessness. The inability to conceptualize anything other than an absolutist approach to the digital landscape seemed no different than a Creationist arguing against science.
The Unstoppable Force, The Immovable Object
This isn’t to say that the conflict’s genesis is illogical. When I worked as the Senior Web Producer for MIT’s Technology Review, I experienced first-hand what change within a business can do to people. When we shifted our digital business model, we eliminated positions within the company.
People who had been with us for years were suddenly out of a job. I’ve been on both sides of that experience, and it’s a gut-wrenching, terrible experience. Once you’ve gone through it, you will do anything to avoid that happening. There’s a similarity in the publishing world. The ground is shifting underneath everyone, and we’re already seeing friends and colleagues getting swallowed.
It’s heartbreaking, and you will do anything — anything — to make it stop. It makes sense that everyone wouldn’t just embrace change without questioning the implications on existing markets. We can’t just abandon those who have achieved success within an industry just because the new paradigm requires a new skillset. This back-and-forth between innovation and tradition creates a natural conflict.
Rapid and constant change means organizations never have the chance to get solid footing before the rumble begins again. Companies and artists are in a constant state of questioning — When to change, How to change, and If to change — that creates a state of unrest and conflict.
The Root of the Question: Where is my DIY?
This brings me back to the original issue, which has nothing to do with the Authors Guild fight with the Authors Alliance. Instead, the problem is how to formulate a solution that enables early- and mid-stage career building that no longer exists within publishing industry.
For that, the Authors Alliance seems more inline with what those writers need. Even without knowing it, I’d already started moving in that direction. In April, I launched The Geeky Press, a loosely affiliated writers collective meant to serve a singular purpose: create a community around words and help promote early- and mid-stage writers.
We work in a space I call “professional amateurism,” which means we gravitate towards open copyright and multiple distribution paths. However, we hire professional editors and designers when we publish, and our editorial process is not that dissimilar from major houses and large magazine companies.
All our work is sold through all the major outlets, but it has multiple price points that begin at free on up through $10.99.The flexibility we have extends to each author’s desire, and we have the ability to change what we do in just minutes since we control the distribution channels. I’ve yet to find a writer or organization that didn’t want to work with us.
Many have asked for instructional seminars on how to navigate the digital publishing landscape, even more want to know the best practices for building an audience, and everyone is happy that we’re not charging them anything to do this. These early- and mid-stage writers aren’t trying to upset the publishing world. They are just trying to do what’s required of them: write well and develop an audience. And that can’t happen if they are afraid of the future.
*While Stiles and others have swung the term “academic” as a negative, 30-plus years of “Strength of Weak Ties” research would indicate that social network theory is one of the keys to successfully building an audience.