Friday, September 13, 2013

Effort, the individual, and how publishing has changed since the 1980s

I'm currently diving into Dan Simmons's mammoth horror novel, Carrion Comfort

I don't really have too much to say about the novel itself yet. I enjoyed the two previous Dan Simmons books that I've read (Drood, Flashback); and I anticipate liking this one as well.

What I want to talk about here is not the novel, but a portion of the book that many readers might be tempted to skip over---the introduction.

In 2009, Simmons wrote a long introduction for Carrion Comfort for the book's twentieth-anniversary edition. This introductory essay will be especially insightful for the writers out there. 

In the introduction, Simmons relates the challenges and disappointments that he encountered while trying to guide Carrion Comfort to publication in the mid-1980s. Simmons presents a long, often tragicomic tale about his struggle with (and sometimes against) the publishing industry of that era.

The first publisher to purchase Carrion Comfort, Bluejay Books, went bankrupt only weeks before Dan was to submit the final version of the book. Then Carrion Comfort was acquired by another publisher (apparently as part of the bankruptcy settlement arrangement). This was a much larger, established publisher (I'd never even heard of Bluejay Books), so Simmons was cautiously hopeful. 

Then he was assigned a (very) junior editor to work with--a young woman who was only twenty-one years old at the time. During their first meeting, she described herself as "gifted". ("We gifted people know we're gifted," she said.) 

Then she announced that she was not going to be a "passive editor". Nor "a kind and gentle one." She told Simmons that she would critique his novel rigorously, and that it had better "measure up", or it wouldn't be published. 

Simmons, who was then working as a teacher, scaled back his hours so that he could accommodate her edits and finish the book. However, she was late on her edits, and Simmons wasted time and lost income. 

Then she began sending him confusing, contradictory pages of instructions via ground mail (there was no email then, remember). Simmons eventually grew frustrated. 

After she instructed him to start Carrion Comfort over from scratch, Simmons had had enough: "I'd wasted a year and a half of my writing time and lost half of my teacher's pay." 

So Simmons arranged to buy the book back from the publisher who acquired it in the Bluejay Books bankruptcy settlement.

The story of Carrion Comfort has a happy ending, of course. However, this introductory section illustrates the challenges that writers faced in the pre-Internet days. Today there is a lively debate between advocates of independent publishing (self-publishing) and traditional publishing (corporate publishing). But self-publishing wasn't even an option 25 years ago, unless a writer only wanted to print a truckload full of books and store them in his garage.

Technology has also changed the game. There were word processing programs in the early 1980s; but they were primitive by today's standards, and the hardware required to run them was beyond the budgets of most writers. For the majority of authors, "high-tech" meant a high-end IBM typewriter. 

I never wrote a book-length manuscript during the 1980s; but I wrote plenty of high school and college term papers. While I often use this space to wax nostalgic about "the way things used to be," I definitely don't miss my 1985 IBM Personal Wheelwriter Typewriter

A prodigious amount of effort was required to produce a long text with a typewriter. There was no delete key, no copy and paste function. If you made a mistake of more than a word or two on a page, you usually had to retype that page from scratch.

It was, to say the least, a very time-consuming process.

This is not to say that the 21st century is a paradise of milk and honey for writers. Today we have new problems. 

In the 1980s, few writers had to worry about copyright laws. Today, criminal websites in Russia and elsewhere facilitate the mass piracy of ebooks. 

While it's easy enough to "self-publish" nowadays, technology has failed to bring the average writer anything resembling financial success--or pizza money, for that matter. 

Writing has always been what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a "tournament field". In other words, rewards have always been unequally distributed, with a small number of writers growing rich, and the majority barely scraping by--or making practically zilch. And there have always been more aspiring writers than either the publishing industry or readers demanded. 

But now the playing field is even more crowded, as the low entry barriers of electronic publishing have led to an overly saturated marketplace for written works. The ease of publishing has made marketing all the more difficult.

And finally, people who write books have to compete with even more pursuits that chase entertainment time and dollars. It isn't just television and music anymore, but online video, online gaming, and the unceasing, mindless tug of Facebook. 

So are things better or worse than they were in 1988? Well, there is good news as well as bad news.

The bad news is that real success as a writer still requires a rare alignment of talent, effort, and luck. And that luck is less likely to come from a corporate publisher than it ever was in the past. The economic and technological changes of recent years have strained the publishing industry. This means that publishers have fewer resources to "develop" writers than they did 25 years ago. 

Oh, and there are also fewer publishers, thanks to industry consolidation. Fewer buyers mean a narrower range of manuscripts that publishers are interested in. Editors are less willing to take risks.

So what about the good news--not from a technological perspective (this is obvious enough), but from a bottom-line perspective?

The good news is that the individual writer is far more empowered today than she was a quarter-century ago. The odds are still against her, but individual effort can do more to turn the tide in the writer's favor.

If you doubt that, go read and reread Dan Simmons's 2009 introduction to Carrion Comfort

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