Recently, I’ve become more and more aware of the online writing community.
Now, that might sound like a misnomer, given I’ve been a part of a writing community for the past several years (The Young Writers Society) among others, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I’ve gradually become aware of the rather intimidatingly large blogosphere in which aspiring writers participate – I suppose that’s the difference, actually. I’m used to writing communities, but these are individual writers operating largely on their own in a self-promotional bid.
In this space, it’s all about networking, about connecting to other writers but more importantly, finding agents, editors and publishers (as well as a more general audience, ideally) in an often shameless effort of prostitution. Because, let’s face it, quality is rarely the issue – it’s all about who you know.
There are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of these pages in an ever expanding, intricate net that is seemingly impossible to penetrate. I’m not really making a judgement on them (this is, after all, my own such example of it) so much as I am simply observing the online boom as it relates to us aspiring writing people. In a bid to cash in on this boom, HarperCollins created the site Authonomy, a place in which one could upload part of or all of a novel and through a process of “backing” by other members (in which they placed the novel on their virtual bookshelf) rise up through the rankings. The prize? The top 5 ranked books of every month have the honour of being reviewed by a HarperCollins editor. Pretty neat, huh?
Let me tell you something: that place is fucking depressing.
It reeks of a desperation you’re unlikely to find outside of characters facing the wrath of the Mafia in certain old, stereotypical films. Well, most films. Because of the fashion in which the site is set up, people claw at one another in a frenzy to be “backed” and to get just that one rank closer to the top. Getting honest feedback, genuinely wanting to improve and to entertain others with your story, these things are forgotten.
You receive constant messages like, “Please back my book and I’ll instantly back yours too” and like desperate hobos that make up incredibly creative stories – “I just need two bucks to get to the bus to the train station so I can see my long lost brother who I only just found out existed… he’s been in Mexico, you see, trapped by the drug cartels… and he’s going to be there in 20 mins, please, just two dollars…” – you will get messages that are convoluted and annoying.
“I can’t wait any longer, I’ve just got married, and my agent says blah blah, if only I can get to blah blah, in time for my first son’s birth in blah blah, he was the result of immaculate conception, I swear, blah blah.”
It is beyond ridiculous. And defeats the purpose of the best rising to the surface – it simply becomes about who annoys the most people, the most constantly, throughout the whole month and consequently, who has the least to do in their days. Retirees and elderly maestro’s come forth, it’s your time to shine! It’s an awful atmosphere, honestly, and what for? To beat the fabled slush pile and get to the editor’s desk? If you spent half as much time working on your novel as you did coming up with bullshit reasons for people to read and “back” your book, you’d be well on your way to getting an agent and being published anyway.
The prize isn’t worth it, either. Has anyone actually read the HarperCollins reviews handed out? The clear majority of them have been palmed off to an intern (or at least, I really hope they have; the idea that there are paid editors out there doing such a poor job is beyond depressing) who really couldn’t care less and provides some lazy, general claptrap the likes of which I could produce while riding a unicycle naked, blindfolded and drunk.
Now, of course, there are *some* individuals out there that care about their work, about giving good feedback, and there are even some genuinely well written novels on Authonomy, but they are few and far between – certainly not enough to warrant wading through the rubbish, especially given that these people, rather depressingly, never make it to the top.
So what do they do? These people that seem to eschew the traditional route for the online turn to self-publishing and to eBooks. I generally don’t like either of these things, for a number of reasons. The first issue I have – and this is just a personal impression – is that it seems to me like this is an option being taken by those that have failed to crack the traditional publishing market, that have given up, and it’s because of this that I question the validity of the books being published in such a way. It’s not an “alternative” market, or genuinely alternate method of publishing, because 9 times out of 10, it’s done to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher anyway.
If it were a matter of spurning the mainstream, because you didn’t want those greedy publishers taking away all your imagined profit, or because you simply couldn’t stand not having a novel out there, no matter the manner it’s published, then I suppose that’s reasonable enough. Some people revel in the indie status, in the culture.
Of course, with things like Lulu, POD publishing, Kindle, CreateSpace etc, self publishing is becoming much easier to accomplish and consequently, more and more people are turning to it. Is it a good thing? I can’t say. I’m sure there are quality self-published books out there, and there are even some success stories like that of Matthew Reilly. But is it worth it? Given the sheer amount of crap allowed by the no-holds barred, no rubbish filtered process, will you even be noticed?
It’s still an expensive endeavour, one you have to pursue with every dollar and every spare moment of your time to constantly market it, to find those odd-job bookstores and independent market stores that will pick up 10 copies of your book and even then, you’re unlikely to make a profit. Certainly, it’s not something you’ll be able to maintain with a regular day job.
Do you have that kind of time and money? And if you do, wouldn’t it be better spent on re-drafting, editing, and working on your novel? On having it professionally assessed? Ultimately, the traditional mainstream publisher is still going to get you the widest distribution, no? I am genuinely asking here – if you think otherwise, let me know! If I’m missing something, show me where and how! And so now, you say, doesn’t the eBook change all that?
eBooks are another growing market, first seized on by the Kindle, now targeted by the iPad and the rather predatory Steve Jobs. It’s cheap and easy to produce (or so I hear, I’m not entirely certain about this area honestly) and has been hailed as the death of the printed novel. Certainly it seems to be increasing in size and credibility, with the appropriate devices now in place to utilise them, more known authors and famous novels are appearing online, on iTunes, and at really affordable prices no less.
Will it be the death of the print novel? Doubtful. Is it hurting the traditional publisher? I have no idea. Trying to find an answer online has proved difficult, although I found this article that manages to somewhat convincingly portray Amazon as the devil attempting to murder the publishing market and this discussion on self-publishing and eBooks which is just as inconclusive.
Ultimately, I can’t speak for anyone else and I don’t really know how viable an option it is. I can tell you how I feel about it though and it’s derogative not because it exists primarily in the indie/self-published realm, but because I feel like it’s a gimmick, an attempt first made by those that couldn’t crack the mainstream publishers, to pour their crap on to the internet and now, with the mainstream trying to capitalise on an increasingly digitalised market.
I feel the same way about 3D in films today. It’s an unnecessary gimmick. Where can you take your eBook that the printed novel can’t go? It seems designed for the multimedia platform, for the on-the-go Gen Y, and yet, there’s no place, no space that the eBook can be read in which the printed book can’t do the same, and as such there is no reason for it.
The novel isn’t meant to be read while you’re doing a dozen different things, while you’re on the go, or flicking between Youtube and Facebook and Twitter. It’s a respite from our increasingly digital world, from all the LCD, LED screens, from the flicker of bluewhite lights on tired eyes – something to be read slowly, to be savoured and enjoyed. It doesn’t need to be charged, you don’t need to shift its weight on your lap, or worry about the device getting too hot, it doesn’t require anything of you. It’s easy to carry, can be read in a bath…The printed novel is a fucking beautiful thing. And I for one will never go for the eBook.
The only thing about it that appeals, rather dangerously for us would-be published writers, is its cheapness. Cheap costs to upload, cheap price, less money for us and indeed, for all. All of the above, of course, is just my (admittedly rather uninformed) opinion. These are just the impressions I’ve formed about Authonomy, self-publishing and eBooks, based on what they aim to achieve and why people use them. Have a story that proves me wrong? What do you think about these areas? I always aim to learn more, so I’m always interested.
Just while we’re on the topic of independent publishing, writing, etc, I randomly thought of this amusing quote from Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman:
“There were actors who wished to be stars, stars who wanted to be independent producers, independent producers who craved the safety of studio jobs, directors who wanted to be stars, studio bosses who wanted to be the bosses of other, less precarious studios, studio lawyers that wanted to be liked for themselves or failing that, just liked.”