A Modest Publishing (meta) Proposal

Over the last few months – and definitely brought to a head by the Amazon/McMillan kerfluffle – there has been a flurry of activity on author’s blogs about pricing, authorial rights, self-publishing, and the idea of the pixel-stained technopeasant.

I real a lot of author’s blogs – mostly ones I’ve either met personally or look up to for one reason or another. Rather than link to a whole bunch of posts, I’m just going to point (roughly) at some of the authors whose thoughts have fed into the following: Mike Stackpole, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, Tobias Buckell, Monica Valentinelli, Robert Vardeman, Peter Watts, Wil Wheaton, John Scalzi, Pat Rothfuss, and Jim C. Hines. It’s worth noting that I am not stating their positions. In fact, some of them have quite openly disagreed with the others.

I’m not anywhere near the caliber of any of the above – but in this case, I think my ignorance might just help.

So here’s the situation, summed up (as best I can):

1) Publishing is a difficult business, with many books that publishers put out losing money.
2) Pay rates from publishers – especially for short fiction – tend to suck. As Pat Rothfuss recently said, "live somewhere cheap".
3) A lot of self-published work has – at least in the past – sucked in quality. (You can still see this, unfortunately, in some for-the-love markets.)
4) Culture is not purely a generative affair – to quote Steve Eley out of context, "Next week we’ll bring you different words in a different order." Remixing and retelling is part and parcel of a dynamic culture.
5) Consumers of culture are inherently patrons of the arts – including picking up a comic book, watching a show on TV, or reading a paperback.
6) Content creators cannot effectively create without getting some kind of compensation for it.
7) There’s a lot of content out there; it’s difficult to get noticed among all the dross (see #3).
8) If it’s quality work, it deserves compensation.

I don’t think any of these are particularly objectionable (if you want to argue #4, remember that "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is a retelling of the Odyssey, and that remixing and sampling have been authentic parts of much of the American music heritage for over a century). These propositions have led to a lot of disagreement about how authors should progress from here on out. Agent models, traditional publishing models, self-publishing, podcasting, Creative Commons licensing – everyone seems to have a different point of view about which is "right".

So let me suggest this – they all are.

There is no reason why Amazon (for example; this applies to any online bookseller) can’t carry a self-published work (especially digital ones) – and they do. Issues of quality and exposure can be dealt with simultaneously through Creative Commons licensing of some work. I would not have gotten into Mr. Watt’s or Mr. Doctorow’s work, for example, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to read it for free first – and since, I’ve bought copies for myself and given copies to others. Both Jim Hines and John Scalzi have creative samplers online – but it’s not the entirety of their backlists, nor is it CC-licensed. Rating mechanisms from independent sites can help guide people to quality works – I was able to list the e-book version of Hungry For Your Love there (I have a story in it) fairly easily, and can point people to that. Wil Wheaton recently pointed out how Twitter helped his independent publishing succeed. Mike Stackpole has some great ideas about using serial fiction to keep an author’s family fed while achieving many of the same goals of releasing your work under a Creative Commons license (without doing so). He even created a great guide to preparing your work for publishing for the Kindle. And there’s folks who simply say that traditional publishing is the only way to go, no matter what.

I don’t see why all of these cannot co-exist – not even among different authors, but even within the same author’s work. It’s worth debating which of these models (or what mix of them) will work best for individual authors. It’s not worth getting upset over – because again, the technology is available to allow all of these to exist, and still ensure authors get paid. The back end mechanisms can still be as invisible to the end-user as the current murky world of publishing is to the average reader (you know, the ones who think authors determine what covers go on their book or how much they sell for.) If it doesn’t exist already, then instead of us expending mental energy pointing out how each other is wrong (or worse, setting up straw men about each other’s position or devolving into ad hominem attacks).

Instead, let’s instead figure out how we can help everyone succeed – both as patrons and creators of the arts.

[Edit: The bullet points in this post have some good (and more concise) discussion of the same topic.]

Featured Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

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