Saturday, July 21, 2012

Commodification of Authorship (Or Penguin buys ASI: So what?)

Jane Friedman blogged yesterday about Pearson (parent company of Penguin) acquiring Author Solutions in a $116m deal. Read it here. I follow Jane because she is very smart and always has interesting things to say. I don’t always agree with her, but in the best possible way. She pushes me to figure out what I think.

In short, many people are deeply offended by this development. I’m not. Here’s why:

In Jane’s post, she talks about writers. And authors. And how confused they are. But I also (dare I say it?) think she’s a little confused too. She uses the terms almost interchangeably, but I don't think they are, exactly. I think Jane thinks about writers. Not about authors. Or, more precisely: Authors.

And by capping it, I want to indicate that I do not mean the term in the simple dictionary definition. Author is a word that is used to refer to the producer of a piece of writing. Or a specific kind of writing. It usually comes with the genitive case. It usually looks like this: Suzanne Collins is the author of Hunger Games. James Patterson is the author of numerous popular novels.

But the word is changing, in the vernacular. Many people use this word, all by itself.

I am an author.

This is new. Ten years ago, nobody said this. Or very few, anyway, and only in specific contexts. It wasn’t a word one threw around. Like on FB statuses. Both because Facebook didn’t exist and because it was a professional status that had to be acquired. Very few people had it. And very few people who wanted it could afford to buy it.

Now? Different world. Which means – and if you’ve read Marx, you should be way ahead of me right now – what we have here is commodification. Authorship is now a commodity. It is a thing that can be bought and sold. And it is being bought and sold like crazy.

Back in the olden days, most writers were unpublished. They were a type, a tribe. They spent a lot of time talking about craft, talking about submissions. I know this tribe. Plenty of them are still around, and I recognize them instantly when I bump into them. We have a similar outlook on things, a similar vocabulary. They are my peeps. Most of them, once they were (traditionally) published, still called themselves writers. They use the word author in the way I know it and use it. “He is the author of this remarkable book….”

But there is a new type, a new tribe: Authors. People who have self-published perhaps one or two books and almost obsessively self-identify as “author.” (Or even Author. It’s significant how often it’s capped.) I do not recognize them when I run into them. They do not feel like members of my tribe. I realize this sounds judgmental, though I’m trying hard to not make it so. They are people who do not talk about this stuff the same way members of my tribe always have. They are different. Not better, not worse. Different.

And I think those of us – like Jane — who have been tribe members for a long time only think about "writers." We think there is still a singular tribe of people who love the written word. People like us who have always been interested in the literary world, and have spent much of our lives figuring out how to work in it. And we miss something when we don’t differentiate, when we don’t acknowledge the rise of the Author. Thus, some of our critiques about what’s going on out there miss the mark.

While I could go on and on about the self-publishing revolution and what it’s done for writers and readers, I’d rather make this point: Such services do not exist only to connect readers and writers.

These services exist also to fulfill the needs of people who want a certain status. People who want to be authors. Companies like Author Solutions and PublishAmerica recognized this.

While Jane and many others like her have pointed out the problems with these services – and I think they are bad, bad choices for writers, for people who want a career in writing, people for whom this is vocation, not avocation – I don’t think they are necessarily bad choices for those who have other goals.

Because these services give their customers what they want. And that’s partly what the publishing industry is about, these days. It is a consumer business, for consumers who want to be authors.

About a year ago, there was a woman on one of my online writing groups who sent an email, proudly announcing she was being “published.” Some of us asked questions, and over numerous emails, teased out the details. She was paying something like $1500 to a company (name forgotten now; not withheld) who advertised itself as “partner” publishing. They claimed not to take every ms that was sent to them, and detailed the “marketing” efforts they’d make on their “author’s” behalf.

We went to work, assuming she was ignorant of the choices available to her. We explained that they were doing nothing she couldn’t do herself. Her package entitled her to ebook formatting; POD for print; something like twenty copies of her book; plus a “marketing kit,” which consisted of book-title-embossed bookmarks, tote bags, signage, and posters. I did a little math and figured out she was spending something like $50 per copy of her book. Others pointed out that the marketing items could be had for much less if she ordered them herself from online providers.

Every single comment we made was waved off, shrugged off. A few months later, she sent another email, effusing over the carton she’d gotten in the mail, stuffed with her book swag.

And the light bulb went off for me. This wasn’t about being a writer. She was buying the experience of being an “author.” She evidently had some fantasy about what if felt like to be the “author” of a book, to have a “publisher,” to be treated like she imagined someone like Danielle Steel was treated, I’d guess.

Silly? Pathetic? Maybe. Those aren’t the choices I’d make. So what? It’s a free country.

Did she later have a big come-down? Regret the money she’d spent? I don’t know. And even if she did, that means little. She couldn’t be dissuaded then because she wasn’t interested in being dissuaded then. We were never asked to critique a page of text. She wasn’t interested in being a writer, or in apprenticeship. She didn’t want to spend time – a long time – talking to other writers, learning the business. She wanted to be an author. She wanted a status, and she wanted it NOW. Surprise. There are businesses willing to serve her.  

The care and feeding of both writers and authors is a business, and many many folks are making a lot of money off it. Any of the companies working in this industry – mine included – are implicated. I do not turn away people because, in my judgment, their work is unsalable. It's not only not my call, it's business suicide. And this goes for everybody out here. (And, yes, Amazon too. They allow the publishing of ebooks for “free” so that they have a huge quantity of material in stock. Stock which they encourage the author to give away. Or sell for .99 cents. Why? So that they can sell the device that will let you access this vast stock. It’s about the KINDLE.) And these aren’t the only players in this game.

I ended my subscriptions to both Writer’s Digest and Poets&Writers some years back, fed up with the MFA-industrial complex. And the writing-conference-industrial complex.

The MFA will teach you how to write, and give you a terminal degree, so you can teach writing. Right? For the bargain price of what? 25K? Are there jobs to be had? Maybe. (Cf. overproduction of PhDs in the humanities.) The writing conference brings you to a lovely location, and offers you the chance to further your career. Meet agents! Meet editors! Network with authors! Listen to an attorney talk about intellectual property!  Is it the only way to do these things? Of course not. There is some value, but you can get almost the same thing by using Google, blogs, agent web sites, and email. This latter is the time-consuming, apprenticeship method. Many people aren't interested in this method.

And the ethics are problematic. A friend of mine “applied” for a poetry workshop at a certain conference. She was “accepted.” The poet even wrote her a personal email, saying he looked forward to working with her. Then my friend thought about it. And asked me: Have I really been “accepted?” Or I am being tricked?

She’d be forking over almost 5K (lovely ocean location; plus airfare!) for the “honor.”

What to say? The math is ugly. Five thousand bucks for perhaps a total of ten hours (with a roomful of other students) with a POET. Is this a wise writerly expenditure? (And why did I cap POET? Because we all know poetry sells not, that’s why.) Would the poet in fact connect my friend to people who might help her career? Could this by any logic be seen an “investment?” Hmm. How long does it take a poet to earn 5K from their writing?

What exactly is being sold here, anyway? 

I’m not saying these things have no value. I’m saying that determining value is complicated, that different things are being commodified here. Value depends on what the consumer wants and what they think they are buying. Jane says Author Solutions is not “author-friendly,” which is precisely where I disagree. It’s enormously friendly if you want to buy the commodity of being an author. I know people who are very happy with them. If your goal is to feel yourself an "author," you may be very happy with the money you spend there. 

In the writing-industrial complex, people are in fact paying for different things — an experience, a class, a status, a feeling, a vacation, a chance. Which is what I told my friend. If she had the money, if she loved the poet, if she loved the location, if she’d always wanted to do this, then go. I said it was possible the poet loved her work; it was also possible that he loved the work of anyone who was willing to fork over 5K to be told so. I said there was a possibility that this would lead to great career happenings, but I wouldn’t bank on it.

YOLO right? I personally believe that travel (and education) is the best way to use our dollars, so I don't necessarily think it's a waste of money if a conference doesn't lead to a contract. But if YOU think it will lead to a contract, then it might just be a waste of money for you. There are good reasons to do it. Still, one is not necessarily advancing a career as a writer by doing things like this. 

There are plenty of inexpensive ways to get the things that are really, absolutely required by a writer but such things are often packed into pretty, expensive packages for a reason. They find a place in the market because they are fulfilling certain needs -- to do things quickly, conveniently, for one. The presumption that all such packages are overpriced is probably true. And yet. Working with newbies is unbelievably time-consuming, so if you did AS's math, you might be surprised. I know, because I work with newbies. I'm sure there are many dissatisfied Author Solutions consumers. How much of that is because they didn't know what they were doing? Does caveat emptor not apply here? I am sure that many of those folks have required a level of hand-holding that those of us who know what a "gutter" is cannot imagine. Unless you've been on the other side, working with total newbies, it's hard to see it. It's not dissimilar to the first time a beginner is critiqued. We've all seen the reactions that can come in that instance. What is going on with many of these companies is similar. Writers who have apprenticed themselves don't end up in this situation. Seriously. How hard is it to find an online writing group? How long do you have to be there before you start hearing about the companies out there? If you're a writer, if you put in the time and apprentice yourself, you learn these things. Authors are less likely to do this. So beginning with the premise that their consumer “need” is necessarily to have a career as a writer is a questionable assumption.

Something like 90% of Americans believe they have at least one good novel in them, and they want to give it a shot. There is a Gold Rush quality to much of what’s going on. These companies are the new Amway. In the 70s, people who wanted their “own” business sometimes paid hundreds of dollars to buy starter Amway distributor packages. It was mostly dumb and it mostly didn’t work. And yet. Those people wanted to feel like they had their own business, and they got what they paid for, at least for a while. And some folks made boatloads of money. So it will be with these authors. Some of them will find new a new career. Many more will come across a box of books in the corner of the garage years from now and groan, the exact same way my parents’ friends groaned when they discovered a leftover box of Amway SA8 laundry detergent. Does it mean they’d not do it all over again? 

Finally: My point. This is why my response to the Big Six finally figuring this out -- as evidenced by Penguin's acquisition -- is mostly: Eh. So what? Everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t they? Geeze. When they tried to argue they were curators, incubators, that they had some cultural mission, everybody shouted that down. So where they were once high-and-mighty gatekeepers, they are now unethical sleazes. (Which to be fair and clear, Jane herself did not say, but I've seen it elsewhere.) Really? So much of the analysis these days is what psychologists call splitting: Good or bad. Maybe the Big Six are neither; or both. I actually gave a small sigh of relief when I saw this news. The sad, cynical truth: The money is out there to be made. Maybe if the Big Six make some of it, they’ll survive. Many of my tribe work in those buildings. And they get me, as a reader. The coursing Borzoi has made me happy for decades now. I’d like to keep seeing it.