Guest Post: Dreaming Well: Does the Future of Publishing Need More Imagination?

by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeerFor the past three or four years, the book world has been inundated with advice, predictions, and knowing winks about the next phase of what it means to be a writer. We’re told to exploit social media, to cater to our fans, to turn to self-publishing through e-books, to eschew copyright in favor of giving readers material for free. But what value does any of this actually have? What actual results, and at what cost? Is the salvation for writers the same thing that will wind up killing off good books? Who is rendered invisible by all of this, and what does it mean for the future of literary quality?

Just for those who don’t know me, I’ve been a writer for over 25 years, with novels out from major and indie publishers, as well as self-published titles. I’ve got multiple awards nominations, and wins, and write-ups in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. I’ve run an award-winning publishing company. I help run a teen writing camp and write book reviews for major national newspapers. I’m also the author of what is still the only internet/new media-based book on what it means to be a writer in the modern era, Booklife, which has such spin-off sites as Booklifenow. I’m not at all shy about using social media, and getting my hands dirty with promotion and all of the other things that we are increasingly told we must do.

But I feel passionately that some of the information we are getting is increasingly wrong and motivated by selfishness and, yes, to some degree, a form of hyperbolic illogic. We are so hung up on predicting the next big thing, on getting in on the next gold rush when it comes to ways for authors to promote themselves and market their work that we often seem to be active participants in our own destruction. We are voluntarily committed at times to dismantling those elements of traditional publishing that actually work and adopting the new simply because it’s shiny and seems to offer an easy way out. We may talk now about accessibility and visibility instead of distribution and publicity, and the delivery system and format of books may be changing, but those are just matters of terminology and translation. At the same time, we’re not able to truly dream well about what e-books might mean beyond things like making them look more like videogames or annotating them. Honestly, who cares? That’s pretty much dressing something up, not dreaming well.

The problem right now really isn’t the “tyranny” of big NYC commercial publishers or an Amazon monopoly. The problem is the virus of mediocre and received ideas coursing through the collective brains of the book world, infecting too many of its writers, commentators, reviewers. It’s a kind of fundamentalism at its heart, and we want to believe in it because it’s easy to do so. Then we don’t have to think for ourselves and we can also worship at the altar of a God of E-Plenty.

Just a few prominent examples, although there are more, and more subtle, cases…

War on copyright and the fervent belief that content should be free. This belief isn’t based on any scientific facts showing that this will benefit the majority of writers (the midlist, which often is the bedrock of literary quality) but often based on anecdotal experience from gatekeepers who mistake their own immense personal power for signal boost as distributing evenly across the book culture.* When it most assuredly does not. The idea, meanwhile, that non-US/British Commonwealth writers do not in fact want some form of international copyright in place is just plain wrong for the most part, not to mention insulting to the wealth of diverging opinions across countries, regions, and traditions. (This is leaving aside the ridiculous length of copyright in the US/UK right now; it is too long.)

Mega-selling self-published authors war on traditional publishing, specifically the Mighty Konrath. This belief, again, isn’t based on scientific fact—note the recent study showing less than 10 percent of self-published authors make any kind of money at all—but on anecdotal evidence related to a unique situation in already having an audience built up through traditional publishing. Any crusade against traditional publishing is selfish to the extreme—it wants to replace diverse ways to publication with One True Way. The same call is often taken up by budding writers, because it can be very seductive to think publication is so very, very much closer than ever before…even if time put into getting rejected can be extremely important to developing writers. Self-publishing is a tool and like any other tool it can be used well or poorly. Putting it on a pedestal is a pointless exercise. I AM BOLDING THIS STATEMENT SO I DON’T GET ANY COMMENTS ABOUT HOW I HATE SELF-PUBLISHING, BECAUSE I DON’T. (Any such comments will be deleted.)

Advocating against the use of an agent. I’ve seen more than one experienced writer who should know better rail against the use of an agent in the new publishing atmosphere. All I can say is, if you think agents are evil sycophants who want to suck all of your money out of you and cheat you, feel free. I’ll be over in this corner getting a lot more done for more money because of my agent.

No one at New York publishing houses edits books any more. This is something I really find to be propaganda in the worst sense, in the context of bolstering the case for self-publishing (the case for which doesn’t need bolstering, depending on the context). All I can say is that everywhere I’ve been published in NY, I have had amazing editors who rolled up their sleeves and suggested, in some cases, major changes that had a big impact on the quality of the book in question. And many of my friends who also publish with NY publishers will tell you the same thing. This little inaccuracy used to be relatively benign back in the day, but it now more and more harmful, since it also suggests that since writers with big houses don’t get edits, editing in general really isn’t necessary. Not true.

Claiming you know how things are going to look five years down the road and recommending strategies based on your Sacred Knowledge. There are a lot of different elements in play right now in a market in flux. No one can really be sure of what book publishing will look like in five years except that e-books will be a hugely important part of it. But one thing you can be sure of: that future will have built-in tumors and cysts due to your promulgation of shit-ass ideas now, infecting the mind-stream of the internet and taking hold when they needn’t have.

Telling writers to establish some social media presence well in advance of finishing or selling a novel or other type of book. Another one-size-fits-all approach that isn’t useful for all writers or all kinds of books. For some writers, depending on their personality, it is downright destructive. For others, it is like being a hamster in a wheel trying to power your career, and expending lots of energy for little gain. Writers over-extending themselves, losing track of their art, all concerned that otherwise they’ll be rendered invisible.

This invisibility concerns me the most, especially in the context of those who scoff at traditional publishing these days. Trad publishing offers something to the shy writer, the introverted writer, the writer who will *always* trip over themselves trying to yank at the levers of social media. And that thing is advocacy and support. Is the advice we’re being given actually coming with the subtext that “if you’re not good at social media and selling yourself, don’t become a writer”? If so, fuck that. Some of my favorite writers wouldn’t know a facebook from an effing hole in the wall and yet, gasp, somehow manage to have careers.

Taken together, advocates for the wholesale dismantling of the current system and, to a lesser extent (lesser because it’s not as prevalent) other advocates who too frequently defend the inadequacies of the current system represent the biggest threat to the majority of writers. By spreading a more-or-less ideological virus that is then repeated by ever-growing numbers of people who do not stop to analyze what they then put out there as gospel, a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs that may do long-term damage to the ability of writers to survive in this new age of publishing.

As noted, I’m no luddite. I use social media strategically and well. I write very surreal books that reach a larger audience than they otherwise would because of these tools. But I also know what doesn’t work, and that old-fashioned word-of-mouth and many of the traditional ways still hold true. I am not at all interested in being complicit in the impoverishment of the literary community by adopting new ways without thinking them through thoroughly first. I also am not at all interested in some becoming more visible at the expense of making others into ghosts.

Now, of course, you’ll ask if I have the answers. Well, I don’t. I’m smart enough to know I don’t, but also savvy enough to know bullshit solutions when I see them, and not to promulgate them to new writers. We live in an exciting age for books, but the jury’s out on whether we’ll have enough imagination to make it a Renaissance or a Dying Fall. And lest anyone misunderstand, I am as at-fault as anyone in not yet having been able to see clearly on this issue. I just know there must be better ideas out there, better ways of doing things. Before we become Locked In to just One Idea or Two Ideas.

* In other cases, artists coming in from other media suggest ludicrous things like “all you have to do is have your own popular band and then you can write a novel that easily reaches people.” Yes. Form your own musical group. Then use that popularity to write a novel. Next idea, please.

•••

The Weird CoverJeff VanderMeer has had novels published in fifteen languages, won multiple awards, and made the best-of-year lists of Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Weekly, and many others. His award-winning short fiction has been featured on Wired.com’s GeekDad and Tor.com, as well as in many anthologies and magazines, including ConjunctionsBlack Clock, and in American Fantastic Tales (Library of America). His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington PostThe Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon.com.

With his wife Ann, he launched WeirdFictionReview.com, which has become one of the world’s most robust sources for fiction and nonfiction related to the weird. Their latest offering is The Weird, a 750,000-word anthology covering 100 years of weird fiction.

This post first appeared on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog, Ecstatic Days.  Author photo by Keyan Bowes.

20 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Guizzetti

    Loved this post. My debut novel was published by a small press and it’s amazing how many people tell me I did it wrong because I didn’t just self publish.

    I am also not a hater of the self-publication route. I have a small comic book which is self-published and I know a few successful self-published authors, it just isn’t for me in regards to my novels. It’s frustrating when self-published authors hold up their way as the only way. (I find it just as frustrating when traditional published authors do it too!)

    Personally I appreciate all the time and effort my publisher put into my book–editing, cover design, etc. I learned so much from working with their editors.

    Thanks for the great post!

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  3. Bonnie Doran

    I appreciate your insights, Jeff.

    I used to be leary of self-publishing as a way to get your not-quite-ready or quite-awful book in print. Now I have friends who have self-published quality stories. I used to turn up my nose at e-publishers. Since I mostly read e-books now, that’s a ridiculous attitude. And now two friends co-wrote and self-published a book as an e-book.

    Publishing methods are constantly changing. We’re not using chisels anymore. But the bottom line is still to write the best story you can.

  4. rushmc

    note the recent study showing less than 10 percent of self-published authors make any kind of money at all

    What is the percentage of traditionally-published authors who make any kind of money at all? 10 percent sounds like an EXCELLENT number to me, considering that we’re talking about work much of which has never been vetted or edited by anyone other than the author. If self-publishing is truly producing interesting work (as judged by “making money”) in line with Sturgeon’s Law, then I’d say that was both unexpected and a validation of the model.

  5. Jeff VanderMeer

    Dear RushMC: The part of my essay you cite is meant to support the idea that ebooks are no more get-rich-quick than any other part of publishing.

    I don’t equate making money off of your writing as necessarily producing anything interesting, btw.

    JeffV

  6. A.M.Burns

    Excellent post. A great contrast to the lemming mentality that we see so often in our world today. Not just authors but the whole world. I do self publishing and it’s being slow to take off. I hear constantly from people that I need to be putting out more on twitter and facebook, but I hate constantly spamming people. That’s just not who I am. I recently sent through a novel to a small press and will see how that goes. I think a lot of folks need to break out of a black and white mentality and look how everything has pluses and minuses and you have to figure out what works for you. Thanks for sharing your views in the vast sea of information that is out there right now.

  7. tom lichtenberg

    Thanks for the refreshing take. New trends always seem to lead to a chorus of identical voices on either side of a great divide, and the times are always a’changing. The ideal situation for writers would be to let their storytelling side do its storytelling, and let their moneymaking side do its thing, and try not to let the two get in each other’s way, as is so often the case.

  8. Elisa

    Thing is, in my case this advice came right from the horses’ mouth: I was told by everybody from agents to editors at Penguin who wanted to acquire my book that I should indeed establish a platform (blog, twitter, every media tool I could think of) for my book.
    It was also my agent who first told me that “editors don’t edit anymore” as an excuse for why he couldn’t sell his other clients’ books.
    Some of the greatest misconceptions about the industry were spoon-fed to me by my ex-agent. Am I against all agents? Of course not. You just have to do your due diligence and not sign with the first one who offers representation, especially as more and more agents these days are turning into self-publishers themselves.

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  12. rushmc

    I don’t equate making money off of your writing as necessarily producing anything interesting, btw.

    Of course not. And yet, it means it was interesting to SOMEBODY in some fashion, and it’s the easiest metric to use comparatively.

  13. Jeff VanderMeer

    RushMC–it’s a terrible metric, given the fact book publishing will always be a roll of the dice.

    Elisa–yes, this does happen. But the fact is, agents and publishers are there to push you to do commercial, PR things. And you are there to pick and choose what works for you.

    JeffV

  14. CC MacKenzie

    Fantastic post.

    I’m self published. Two novels so far with more to come. It’s not been the big bang. Social networking totally stifles my creativity. My work is professionally edited and copy edited.

    The joy is in reaching readers who email/facebook/tweet me. They don’t want a ‘relationship’ with me, they only want to tell me they enjoyed the story and when will the next book be available.

    My plan is to reach as many readers as possible and if that means traditional publishing, indie publishing or whatever device grabs a reader’s attention in the future to read work then that’s what I’ll do.

    The point about the polarising of opinions whether it be in politics or publishing is spot on. Both sides need to come together to put the needs of the reader first.

  15. Travis Heermann

    Some good reminders, Jeff. Especially the section about our audience expecting content to be free. I’ve done a lot of writing and thinking about this myself recently, and mostly it’s just depressing.
    Will any of use except a couple of dozen Stephen Kings be able to survive if all books (novels!) are 99 cents. No.

  16. SarahP

    Yes, absolutely, all of it.

    For those (fiction writers) who are told by their publicist/marketing person that they have to establish a platform: Yes, a marketing person can say that, but that person is very likely working off the same truisms that others in the industry are propagating but not examining. Building a platform through social media marketing is simply obnoxious, and, with a few exceptions, I suspect it’s of limited efficacy in promoting a book.

  17. Olivia Ashe

    Thanks for this Jeff.
    The genre I’m writing at the moment is fantasy, which I’ve read is almost non existent here in Australia. I’ve looked for an agent, but only found one so far that deals with fantasy. I was afraid to send them an email because of previous rejections from other novels.I was thinking about giving up.
    I don’t like social media and don’t want to use it, but keep reading about how its “the future” and “you won’t be anyone with out it”.
    I swear Dickens and Austen were so lucky.