So Much Traffic, No More Parking Spots

You’ve seen the stats: upwards of 280,000 "self-published" books in 2009, according to Bowker or some big brother agency; with 2010 expected to dwarf those numbers and crush the number of mainstream published books.

We’re all like, "woo hoo." Kind of.

[Publetariat Editor’s Note: strong language after the jump]

Because you’ve also seen a lot of shit out there, too: Your twitter buddy who asked you to beta-read her manuscript which is a piece of shit; or that authonomy friend who implored you to read his wanna-be-commercial-genre-fiction-lookalike-but-awully-written piece of shit. The barrier to entry to successful readership is not gatekeeper agents any longer, but writers ourselves. Lack of credible editors (or our investment in them) is problematic. First drafts will kill us all if we’re not careful. The culture of swapsies and kindness is dangerous–really dangerous.

There is and is going to continue to be an enormous population of work by authors who have attempted to be published commercially and have not had success in getting the attention of agents and publishing companies. There are a couple of reasons why we haven’t seen their work published by the mainstream companies: (a) it’s good, but it’s *not good enough,* (b) it’s really fucking good, but outside the formula for the pubbies (e.g., experimental, mixed-media, gritty); (c) it’s just awful.

And then there are those of us who never intended on being published by another entity and blazed our own trail. We should stop applauding ourselves so much and focus more on making our work the best that it can be: ruthless cutting, investment in a credible editor and copy/proofreader. [I proofread 29 Jobs and a Million Lies and there isn’t one fucking typo in the entire thing, so it CAN be done. I printed it out in another font and combed through every line.]

So we’re dealing with a few issues here which I just don’t have a proposed solution for and it bothers me tremendously:

  • Intensively increasing competition for attention (we’ve talked about this before and it’s all over other pub blogs)
  • An increasingly compartmentalized and siloed readership
  • Literary fiction — that which doesn’t fit into a genre — is ever-increasingly homeless. We can’t develop a marketing niche, or a community of readers who will want to identify with this non-genre. After all, we can’t define something by that which it is not, right? Where will we belong? How will we stand out? Answer-in-theory: We just have to be awesomer.

I’m not heading in the direction of publishing industry apologist, don’t worry about that. But maybe the cropping up of writer’s affiliations and communities is a solution to leveraging the strength of other writers’ marketing visibility. Strength in numbers, right? That’s what we’re doing at Year Zero Writers and it’s new and exciting and cool. But there is a dicey line between editorial control, right? With these affiliations, or independent mini-publishing companies, seems like someone or some body needs to help vet, right? Well, then it becomes a publishing company. Think about it–objectives to earn solid profits, yadda yadda, and before you know it, your totally cool independent community now is run by committee, decisions take eons to make, you have to make political compromises, and it’s worse than divvying up the fridge in your college apartment with a half dozen broke-ass roommates.

Not all are like that (Year Zero won’t head in that direction). But look how authonomy turned out — like Marion Stein described it recently to me:, Lord of the Flies. And that’s an independent writers community? That’s how we propose toppling the publishing industry? Ain’t gonna happen. It’s like they pitted writers against each other in a global cage-fight and sat back and watched us destroy ourselves.

So, it won’t be writers or an independent movement that will topple the publishing industry, so let’s stop taking credit for that. Readers–the marketplace–have control and let’s not forget that.

There are still hordes of readers who browse the stacks, literally. There are still hordes of readers who only read one genre and will never even consider picking a book up outside that purview. There are still hordes of readers who rely solely on book club recommendations. No independent movement of outside-the-box fiction will change that force, and neither will any technology gadget.

So to writers embarking on their next project: If you have to ask yourself why you are writing, remember it is for readers–THOSE readers who you know appreciate your work (even if it’s just your mom and cubicle-buddy)–who hold all the control. No matter how defiantly independent, DIY, and whatever other title we love to label ourselves with, if we’re pissing off readers because they just don’t "get" what we’re doing, it serves no purpose other than our own exercise in writing.

We’re in a tremendously exciting time right now and the entire landscape is changing every day–this is fucking history and it’s great. Let’s revel in it. Let’s not fool ourselves that a pivotal shift in the marketplace will occur, though. There are ever more platforms, writers, genres, and TV shows competing for the SAME number of eyes. So while accessibility to the marketplace is eased, consider it like a crowded highway onto which we are merging, headed to a city with a finite number of parking spots. 

Fuck, did I just liken our writing to a game of musical chairs?

This is a cross-posting from Jenn Topper’s Don’t Publish Me! blog.