Heads in the Cloud: how digital self-publishing is dimming literature’s sun



Exponential changes to the publishing landscape in recent years, producing a changed psychic climate for writers, have placed certain kinds of fiction on the endangered list. In theory, all known narrative forms should be a possibility. We now have unprecedented access to new and old literature, and if we therefore write something inspired, no matter how unique, we have the networking tools to deliver it to a niche readership. So how could groundbreaking fiction be threatened with extinction?

Well, for starters, the sequence of the process by which most fiction reaches readers has been short-sightedly rearranged. Marketing used to come after the author had mastered their art form and craft. Publishers had a crucial function. But now, they’re loath to invest in more than token editing and promotion, except for those authors already selling enough to succeed at self-publishing. Their job description, like the writer’s, has been redefined by technology (our absorption with the processes of which has turned us all into products). Author Richard Flanagan poignantly touches on the problem:

The determined, dreary excitement around the digitisation not just of books but much more significantly of retailing, hides the grimmer reality of cultural power being dominated by two or three global molochs that have no interest in literature and every interest in increased profit.

Though Flanagan is coy, even vague, regarding which two or three molochs he means (as if it weren’t safe or polite to name them, or as if that equation’s subject to change), it’s obvious that casualties include discerning book proprietors and libraries.

Meanwhile, posts with titles like ‘How Amazon Saved My Life’ threaten to go viral. Jessica Park, with five traditionally published titles behind her (all co-written by her well-established author mother), hit a wall of rejection when she shopped her first solo effort. Eventually she got so angry – ‘really, really furious’ – that she opted for the DIY route, and could ‘finally admit to myself that the only thing I had really wanted was to be told, “You’re good enough.” ’ Now readers give her the acceptance she needs. But ‘it’s because of [Amazon] that I can continue writing’. One of many excited comments on her post begins: ‘That article ROCKS. I’m another author who had stopped writing until Amazon and Kindle publishing came along.’

Which reminds me – there would seem to be at least two very different breeds of author: those who apply their gifts conditionally, who’ll pull their finger out only at the prospect of worldly reward; and those whose gifts would make them implode if they were to check the creative process.

Very few authors, percentage-wise, make a living from writing. Yet vast numbers of them somehow persist. If the authors I love had given up because their books failed to make enough money, would that amount to a great loss to literature? Undoubtedly. Do I want to read authors who exist to be told they’re good enough (or as good as their mothers?) – or authors whose commitment to a culture reaching beyond their own egos renders such questions redundant?

Writes Park: ‘Readers are escaping hell on earth through our books.’ The readers to whom she refers here are undergoing cancer treatment. But forgetting whether Park is peddling literary morphine, it’s because of Amazon that (to be a bit more precise) she continues writing often and amply enough to pop out a novel every twelve to eighteen months. Her claims (Park doesn’t confine her hyperbole to the post’s title) are made with righteous zeal on behalf of her whole tribe: ‘Indie writers owe Amazon big time for what they’ve given us.’ Whew! How will they all repay Amazon? No doubt by blogging or tweeting its praises – as if Amazon needs evangelists.

According to author Tim Parks (no relation whatsoever to Jessica), blogging about his own kind, the career writer: ‘Again and again when reading for review, or doing jury service perhaps for a prize, I come across carefully written novels that “do literature” as it is known.’ Which makes sense. Why would a publisher take a punt on something readers won’t recognise? And yet, literature as it is known only exists because innovators took risks, staked their health, security, sanity, on new ways of imagining narratives. Does that sound unfashionably romantic? And in the footsteps of this vanguard follow derivative pragmatists, genre writers scoffing at their literary confreres’ airs, and wannabes waxing grateful toward profit-based corporations; the same wannabes who pride themselves on bucking the system, defying the gatekeepers, breaking free from the major publishing houses’ monopoly – only to conform to the norms of even bigger molochs; because the danger of not jumping on the bandwagon is that you might get left behind. But, as Tim Parks continues from his insider perspective:

… a would-be anti-conventional public enjoys the notion of the rebel, or at least admirably independent, writer, but more and more to achieve success that same writer has to tune in to the logic of an industrial machine, which in turn encourages him to cultivate an anti-conventional image. This is an incitement to hypocrisy.

Indeed. And no doubt it applies as much to DIY as to traditional publishing. Take Jessica Park: ‘As much as I despise having to run around announcing how brilliant I supposedly am and whatnot, I also deeply believed in [her latest book].’

Such running around comes readily to extroverts who can’t work in isolation. As Park enthuses: ‘I’m learning what readers want, and I can incorporate that into my work without worrying that an editor will nix all the good stuff.’ Presumably teen or young adult readers want less censorship, and fair enough. But in general, what readers want is more of what they know already. If an author has to factor that into every narrative, they’ll never extend the possibilities of literature.

To quote Park in the context of a lament for lost innovation might seem like a category mistake. But between Facebook and Twitter, fielding comments and carrying out market research, who has time to go deeper, to really take risks with form and content, style and technique? Digital culture, while appearing to equalise and expand opportunities, also promotes uniformity, conformity and superficialness, and in so doing, widens the gap between the lowest common denominator and the invisible.

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One Response to Heads in the Cloud: how digital self-publishing is dimming literature’s sun

  1. Seems to me that the Digital publishers are doing to the big publishing houses what the big publishing houses previously did to the smaller ones, just as they are doing to Waterstones what Waterstones did to the independent bookshops. Interestingly, I have heard that Amazon is planning to set up a “nomal, paper” publishing arm itself.

    Have heard plenty of examples of extreme cynical and populist behaviour from what now pass for “traditional” publishing houses, such as a couple of excellent books being passed up because the author did not look right for the publicity material. In that context, a technology that enabled more experimental stuff to be published looks good, even if it feeds Molochs in the process.

    The big problem seems to be the lack of a quality filter. A couple of eBooks given away free for publicity had typos on their first page; several more are, frankly, complete pants. At least in the nostalgic past, an editor would prevail upon their brilliant but erratic bohemian to produce something of publishable standard, or tell the complete fools to improve or stop wasting their time.

    I think we should have a “kite mark” service that can put a stamp on eBooks when they meet a basic standard of production and writerly proficiency, but I’m not energetic enough and I can barely spell entrepeneur…

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