Pixels in the wind: traditional publishing vs. the blogosphere (part 3)

[ for new readers, here are part 1 and part 2 ]

John Updike’s obituary made the front page in his country’s paper of record late last month, and that master-architect of sensuous American sentences in English deserved no less. Who else would thought of saying that ‘the average book fits the human hand like a seductive nestling, a kiss of texture,’ and that ‘even an indifferently designed book feels like a better companion in bed than a humming, wire-trailing laptop’?

Higher on the same page on that day – only separated from the New York Times masthead by a picture of the new president – was this :


Bright Passage in Publishing: Authors Who Pay Their Way

. . . Booksellers, hobbled by the economic crisis, are struggling to lure readers. Almost all of the New York publishing houses are laying off editors and pinching pennies. Small bookstores are closing. Big chains are laying people off or exploring bankruptcy.

[…]

Meanwhile,there is one segment of the industry that is actually flourishing: capitalizing on the dream of would-be authors to see their work between covers, companies that charge writers and photographers to publish are growing rapidly at a time when many mainstream publishers are losing ground.

[…]

As traditional publishers look to prune their booklists and rely increasingly on blockbuster best sellers, self-publishing companies are ramping up their title counts and making money on books that sell as few as five copies, in part because the author, rather than the publisher, pays for things like cover design and printing costs.

In 2008, Author Solutions, which is based in Bloomington, Ind., and operates iUniverse as well as other print-on-demand imprints including AuthorHouse and Wordclay, published 13,000 titles, up 12 percent from the previous year.

This month, the company, which is owned by Bertram Capital, a private equity firm, bought a rival, Xlibris, expanding its profile in the fast-growing market. The combined company represented 19,000 titles in 2008, nearly six times more than Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer books, released last year.

The suitably worshipful obituary led me to take down from a clippings board in this study a yellowing page of the same newspaper in which, in ‘The End of Authorship‘, Updike growled about writers being turned into shallow thinkers and wordsmiths forced to give up writing time to make public appearances – to become a ‘kind of walking, talking advertisement for the book.’ The book, in its turn, is becoming just a ‘ticket to the lecture platform, or […] series of one-on-one orgies of personal access.’

He blamed the digital revolution for these evils – though presumably, for the magnification and acceleration of developments that began earlier, with the corporatisation of book publishing. But the publishing article that shared a page with his life story made me wonder whether a younger and less tired version of himself mightn’t have spotted more opportunities than cracks of doom in the changes blasting through writing and journalism.

Surely he would have realised that the digitisation of texts has strikingly different facets – among the most positive of these, the possibility – if it is still only that — that writers can use it to take control of their own literary destinies?

One of the best-known scraps of Manhattan literary lore is that Updike was that strangest animal among literary scribes – someone actually interested and exceptionally shrewd in financial negotiations. In his long career, he is said to have never needed an agent’s help.

If he were twenty-five years old in 2006, the year he wrote his fine anti-electronic rant, I’d guess that he might be a trailblazer for writers like this model of independence – or is she self-confidence and wildness run enviably amok? – in the music business:

[Neko] Case courts surprises in her music but not in the commerce behind it. She was cast on — and then cast herself on — her own devices for so long that when it comes to business, she has insisted on complete independence.

She has recently turned down major-label overtures (“And I’m so glad that Elektra, for example, didn’t come to me early on with an offer,” she says), retains all the rights to her songs and has never made a publishing deal. She does share revenues with Rigby, the guitarist. “Paul really helps me compose my music,” she says, “he always knows which chords to use when.” Otherwise she retains artistic and financial control of her productions. What are those revenues? Well, in her best year, 2006, when “Fox Confessor” was released and she had an extensive tour to go along with it, she had gross revenues of about $360,000. Of that figure, she says, about $320,000 went for professional expenses — equipment, transportation, the band’s pay and so forth.

Whatever she has, I hope it’s something like a virus that writers can catch. ‘We’re a collection of whipped dogs,’ said one novelist, scanning the glum, hopeless faces around him in a meeting of a California branch of the American Authors Guild that I heard about, not long ago.

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9 Comments

Filed under Book publishing, The blogosphere

9 responses to “Pixels in the wind: traditional publishing vs. the blogosphere (part 3)

  1. elcal

    i can forgive you for liking John Updike, but I have a hard time believing that he would actually have ever thought innovatively about the publishing situation. the man is as blue-blooded and traditional as they come in writer’s heaven (Harvard, New Yorker, etc). If a Penguin or Random House editor hadn’t been around, I doubt the self-pub world would have occurred to him. he probably would’ve railed against the undermining of editorial and/or literary authority that the web was causing. in fact, I might argue that he and his generation of writers may have even been what made possible the corporatization of the publishing world. his suburban novels tapped into a large purchasing demographic in post-war US. but maybe he and other writers were just a symptom.

  2. wordnerd7

    @elcal,

    as far I can tell from reading a great deal of what he wrote, and about him, I might not have liked Updike the man very much — or at all. He could really only write perceptively about one gender. I’m not much interested in the stories, either, except for the Rabbit books.

    It’s his sentences (and nimble mind) I admire: there is genius in the best of them — he wrote extended passages like that — and I don’t fling that word around carelessly. . . Then, to think of using such language to describe utterly ordinary human beings like Rabbit, a car salesman ‘Bubba’ undistinguished intellectually, morally and in every other way . . . well, there’s something completely marvellous about both the idea and execution.

    Is it possible that you haven’t read his memoir, Self-Consciousness? Not a blue-blood background even remotely. The most humble origins. Yes, he went to Harvard and Oxford, but on the strength of his own intelligence — I _think_ he got a scholarship for the Ivy League part of his education. . .

    As many of the obits explained, he deliberately turned his back on the Manhattan literary elite by going off to the wilds of . . . was it rural Mass.? .. . to live the small town/suburban life . . . something he did all the way to the end. I’m almost certain that the NYT obit said that his none of his close friends were remotely literary types but something like owners of small businesses . . . and golfing with them was the high point of his social life. I read and thought, aha, so _that’s_ how he knew the Rabbit milieu . . . 😉 . . . so intimately.

  3. wordnerd7

    @elcal,

    . .. for your consideration – the longer version of one of my quotations of John Updike:

    As the author is gradually retired from his old responsibilities of vicarious confrontation and provocation, he has grown in importance as a kind of walking, talking advertisement for the book – a much more pleasant and flattering duty, it may be, than composing the book in solitude. Authors, if I understand present trends, will soon be like surrogate birth mothers, rented wombs in which a seed implanted by high-powered consultants is allowed to ripen and, after nine months, be dropped squalling into the marketplace.

    … Of course you don’t have to agree, but I’d say that no puppet of corporate publishing would ever make a declaration like that. Certainly not in public, and when there was no need for him to express any opinion whatsoever on the subject. . . think of that, too, please.

  4. BaronCharlus

    I’m not familiar with Updike, I’m afraid, Wordn.

    But regarding the ‘taking control of literary destiny’….watch this space. Also, really enjoying Suzan’s dispatches.

  5. wordnerd7

    @BaronC, a friend picked out the same paragraph from your last post — on the surreal vacation thread — as specially beautiful. This one:

    === After the rain, we could at least venture out of the forest although I took the sun’s continued absence as a personal wound. We cycled along the huge water defences built across a long stretch of sea, linking two parts of Zeeland. They were built after the ‘water disaster’ of (I think) 1953, when many people died. It is an extraordinary structure. There’s a museum half way along. Out to the west, a tiny patch of sunshine appeared over the ocean. I cursed the ship that drifted beneath it. It was so unfair. Over the day this sunspot grew and grew until, as we sat outside a café drinking tea, a whole blade of sunshine found us. It was, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating, one of the happiest moments of my life. ===

    So, more than one of us will be watching with keen interest to see what you’ve been hinting at.

    I’ve been enjoying @Suzan’s dispatches enormously. What other blog can boast of a foreign correspondent like her? 🙂

  6. elcal

    i’ll try to be a bit more reasonable on the Updike verdict. sometimes I think that the NY crowd still treated him as special (and moving to Mass isn’t really running away). Maybe (or not) they saw him as a kooky uncle with slightly antithetical views, part of the fold, tolerable because he still wrote fiction they could “get”.

    And I knew he got into the Harvard/Manhattan world by merit, but Harvard gobbles up all who enter. And he hung around Manhattan long enough to get in there. I mean, my heart goes out for the normal guys at Harvard, but I see them every day on the train worrying about what law school, think tank, hedge fund they’ll get into (or what Great American Novel they’ll write). Harvard teaches a way of living and thinking about the world apart from any educational program it offers. it teaches greatness conferred by fiat. I’m not going to continue my Ivy rant, because it’s sort of off-topic, but I have a strong feeling that Updike bought into this world, however conservatively, however shyly, however sometimes-critically, however much on merit.

    Rural Mass…hm, funny that the Manhattan elite would refer to Cape Ann (where i lived for several years, attended college 5 minutes from Updike’s town) as rural. Parts are even more blue-blooded than west chester or Greenwich. Updike resided in the quaint village of Beverly Farms (can’t get median income figures because it’s technically part of the more down-at-its-heels Beverly, a not-so-rural town). It’s an old NY richie haunt. The Gilded Age mansions along the main route are quite a sight, and some are still owned by original families. People in the financial sector in Boston dream of moving out there (it has a commuter rail link). He owned, or subsidized, a bookstore in town that had suspiciously large numbers of his books. (I didn’t care much for the shop, but kudos for his local support). A guy from my college once almost hit him while he was on a bike. Anyways, yes, I suppose it’s “rural” in that urban NE way. But for rural Mass, you can’t beat Western Mass, where Melville, Wharton and Dickinson lived. But even there, a lot of the area has been settled for 350 years and it had periodic booms due to the Industrial Revolution (lots of mill towns).

    In the end, i think he did try to escape civilized NE corridor, as his last NYer piece showed. He’d gone snowbird and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona (or maybe he always wintered there?). The essay was a description of a brief moment he experienced there.

    I think as an essayist or reviewer he was pretty decent, so i’ll give him that. and the man was a serious writer, by which i mean he cared for the art of writing, which is a rarity.

  7. BaronCharlus

    Many thanks for sharing your friend’s appreciation, Wordn. It’s given me a lovely start to the day!

  8. wordnerd7

    @elcal

    === i’ll try to be a bit more reasonable on the Updike verdict. ===

    I’m grateful, . . . and want you to know that I already have you on my select list of the most reasonable comrades in debate . . . 😉 . . . because of generosity way beyond your years in acknowledging actual or possible errors of judgment . . . which has meant that you’ve altered some of my opinions, too. I certainly have a much softer spot for a certain CA-Zen poet since our last discussion of him.

    === sometimes I think that the NY crowd still treated him as special (and moving to Mass isn’t really running away). ===

    They most certainly did . . . the obits said that he kept in close touch with literary Manhattan — would dutifully make the rounds on frequent visits there, even if they were never very long . . . I take your point about Mass., but then it has to be considered that Noo Yawkers are even more snobbish about suburban living than the deep sticks/boondocks . . . so choosing suburbs for his homes as I think he did for long stretches in the early years also took courage (arguably).

    === part of the fold, tolerable because he still wrote fiction they could “get”. ===

    yes . . . and because he was canny beyond belief in the way he balanced a high literary style with minutely zoological accounts of bedroom capers, … which meant that he made pots of money for publishers and no deodorant is sweeter, …?

    === And I knew he got into the Harvard/Manhattan world by merit, but Harvard gobbles up all who enter. . . .teaches a way of living and thinking about the world apart from any educational program it offers. . . teaches greatness conferred by fiat. . . I have a strong feeling that Updike bought into this world, however conservatively, however shyly, however sometimes-critically, however much on merit. ===

    All very true, elcal, . . . but don’t all elite institutions around the world aspire to the same degrees of pervasiveness and clout, and isn’t Hyeh-vud only like the few others at the pinnacle in its determination to hang on to what it has . . . I’d guess that Updike was like the one person I’ve known really well who went there . . . someone who both bought into the mystique and told me the most damning stories I’ve ever heard about the institution. He’s a writer-editor and I think that writers who are any good have something like double-vision.

    . . . Btw, have you heard Neko Case sing and do you think she’s as good as that NYT writer apparently does? . . . Haven’t googled/utubed her so far, perhaps from fear of disappointment .. . not just a lack of play time.

  9. wordnerd7

    @BaronC, … am very pleased to learn that; and sure that my friend will be, too.

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