Declaration of Independence

An Internet pundit suggested after my June press releases that because I wasn’t originally published by a ‘bricks and mortar’ or traditional publishing house I was not part of the traditional publishing industry that I claim to be ‘breaking’ from. We’ll set aside the rather narrow definition of publishing for the time being and address the essential concern. How can I break with something that has not accepted me?

Every writer who writes a book or story or poem and then patiently submits it to a publisher, waits in line, re-writes something, submits it again, is humbled, buys international reply coupons, includes self-addressed stamped envelopes, types double-spaced on bond or begs an agent for the time of day; every writer who deals with rejection slips and a day job is not just in the traditional publishing industry, he or she is part of its backbone. A strange thing has happened in the world of publishing when the writers who create the products are considered separate from the industry until they have been ‘accepted’ by it. That’s like suggesting raw diamonds have nothing to do with the jewelry industry.  We are the raw material from which fortunes are made.

I can understand the misconception. It’s an honest error that I made myself. The traditional publishing industry treats the vast majority of its writers like a pool of unpaid employees—and we all just want to be paid. We work hard. When do we get paid? The industry sets very rigid rules of conduct to participate, and writers must follow these rules to the letter or risk having their work returned ‘unread.’ No one would dispute that publishing, like any industry, needs rules of engagement and business. That much is evident. The publishing industry needed measures to filter the serious writers from the hobbyists—the good writers from the bad.

But something went wrong. Somewhere along the way a constriction of purpose occurred where the rules began to have more meaning than the content. A decrease in the number of publishing houses prompted it, followed by larger corporate structures that increased the stakes and the profits grew in size accordingly. In an effort to keep the fiscal trim, the larger publishing houses downsized by shifting primary editorial duties to highly competitive literary agents and favored agencies hungry for a piece of the action. Bookstores continued to diminish in number increasing the competition for shelf space while drastically decreasing each title’s effective shelf life.

A natural offspring of this heated evolution and competition was a tighter adherence to the rules of conduct, and that in turn fueled an attitude of elitism—a winner’s club. Suddenly a writer was first judged by his or her ability to follow the system of rules created by publishing houses and enforced by literary agents.

And this grew into something else. The stakes were high. One can understand how it happened. But the publishing industry began to present itself as a judge, not just an editor: as an arbiter of fate, not a producer and promoter of talented people’s work. They didn’t have to find new talent any more; it came crawling to them. There may be moderate voices along the narrowing highway to literary success but none leave any doubt when making the ridiculous assertion that without the publishing industry, writers are nothing.

So why do writers submit to this? What are we missing? It’s simple, really. We are willingly blinded by a beautiful dream that disguises the draconian reality. The embarrassingly pedestrian dream promises this: If our stories and books are good enough, we’ll get the big break we need and we’ll receive the recognition our work and our talents deserve. That will prove that our friends and families were right for supporting us all along, faith in ourselves ruled the day, and all those girlfriends were wrong about me, etc.

That’s the dream, and before recent technological advances, it may very well have been the single horrible truth. Publishers had all the cards. So it was easy to make us believe that our goal as writers was to break into their publishing industry to be validated and rewarded. Or we could admit defeat and surrender to an ignominious end. That’s the way it was. And that’s the way they wish it to remain. If you held all the cards, wouldn’t you feel the same way?

Especially if on top of that you could like the publishing industry profess that you’re the only game in town. Everybody has to play your game if they want to play. In such an environment, writers are forced to behave as indentured servants to the limited imagination of agents, editors and the myriad other professionals who populate the profit-driven traditional publishing industry. As slaves to their whimsy, writers compete for rare success while the majority accept likely oblivion as the only possible outcome for a life’s work.

I am in the traditional publishing industry. I have been a prisoner of it since I sent out my first double-spaced manuscript typed on bond paper with a self-addressed-stamped envelope enclosed. I am part of it—intrinsic—apparently inseparable. I want out and you see, now I have someplace to go.

The old system never served writers very well. The vast majority died and continues to die in obscurity. Only a fool would believe that the traditional system of publishing caught every Christie, published every Vonnegut and printed each Lord of the Rings. They didn’t miss a single masterpiece. Not one good yarn slipped through their grasp. One can only weep at the overlooked pool of talent that drained and drains into the darkness and despair.

The old system played on the dream that if you were good enough you’d make it some day. I think most people who actually write know that talent you may have, but a good work ethic is everything. The world is full of storytellers. Most people can tell a tale but few have the discipline to carry it through on paper or flat screen. It’s the work ethic married to talent. That’s the key to success as a writer. Readers will determine your success as an author.

The old system had us believe that only a traditional publisher could give value to our hard work, validity to our many compromises and sacrifices. And admittedly, they held all the cards and could make the claim.

But not anymore. At this moment, they don’t hold all the cards. They’re losing their control, and it’s making them very nervous.

They want us to hold onto the old model: publisher is the god that writers kneel before. But the old model doesn’t fit. They’re trying to apply it, but it’s a ridiculous shell kept up to support a system that is invalidated by technology. They’re moving into the digital age pretending that web sites are bookshelves, and that the pictures of books on them should be sold at the same price as actual books—even though those books may not yet exist, or may only ever exist as digital files.

There are too many powerful tools that we’d have to ignore if we are to accept their premise: that the old way is the only way. The digital age makes the printed medium vastly easier to reproduce, store, transmit or transport, at the same time as it opens up a marketplace of readers the likes of which has never been seen or imagined in human history.

Print-on-demand is the way of the future—if you prefer paper to e-books. That’s the world we’re building: on demand. We only make things when we sell them. But the traditional publishing industry badmouths print-on-demand at the same time as it prepares to offer its backlists as print-on-demand titles. Print-on-demand is the future because it requires little upfront cost, no inventory, and you only produce the final product if it sells. They still want us to believe that they prefer paying for large print runs with the possibility that these piles of books will sit around in warehouses or on bookstore shelves unsold until they’re shipped back to be pulped. It’s ridiculous. In fact that notion flies in the face of the corporate responsibility of maximizing profits. They have to adopt print-on-demand and the new technologies. Their duties to shareholders demand it.

You see they’re dragging their feet because the old system gave them complete control. And though this new system would save them money and guarantee greater profits, to adopt it is to validate a system they cannot dominate or predict. The entrepreneurial spirit requires taking risks, and mistakes can be expensive. Currently the status quo is reporting profits by cutting away at infrastructure making the old model inevitably unsustainable. But the new model requires adopting a paradigm that is so different from the status quo of maximizing the profit on each item sold that it gives them pause. The new model suggests a fair profit fixed to each item increases sales in a mammoth marketplace.

There is more competition but more consumers. The tools of the new model can be used by an individual or by a small group or company and the Internet opens every home or office to the largest marketplace in human history. The technological advances have allowed everyone to become a publisher and distributor of books and other media. That’s got to be scaring the traditional publishing industry!

So writers now have the tools to get out of the prison. But we have to make sure that they remain our tools.

The great debate of the day is the corporate media conglomerates’ defense of the artist’s intellectual property rights. They complain that digital media make it too easy to copy and reproduce copyrighted material. They say the public at large is to blame for ripping off the artist. In an effort to control that, to shield artists, the corporate media with the use of effective government lobbying is taking steps to control all media, how it is copied, shared and accessed.

And that is the only way they can force their old model on us—if they take control of our tools. Then we’d have to submit to them again because they’d be the only game in town.

Or so they hope. The truth is, the more they try to control it the more they justify change and the adoption of a new business model. Online piracy is the result of overpriced digital goods. People will steal something if the determined price does not reflect the actual value of the goods. And a digital novel, being an intangible thing, could not possibly have accrued the extra costs that publishers say are reflected in the inflated prices. The same goes for print-on-demand works, as it could be said for music and movie downloads. It is ridiculous to suggest that the cost of storing and shipping digital books and virtual media is the same as warehousing and mailing actual products.

They’ll never be able to maintain control unless we let them. If we give them the keys to our success then they deserve them. At best, they can create their own Internet, somewhere with tolls and entry fees and any number of other cash grabs attached.

But if we’re careful, and we maintain the tools we now have, there will always be a free Internet where the larger marketplace conducts business. And one must imagine the size of this market. The world is just coming on line, people are just getting comfortable using the net as a shopping place, and the infrastructure is only now being developed. Imagine it ten years from now.

To apply the status quo of the traditional publishing industry to our future is to climb back into the prison. A prison not built for writers and artists alone, but for readers and consumers too. We stand at the edge of an actual revolution. Let’s take control of it and define it. We must participate in its development before the overpriced terms of surrender are dictated to us.

Declare Your Independence!