Trad and Indie: So what’s different in 2020?

The new technologies of communication were supposed to open the literary landscape to everything and make all things possible, but instead the world of writing/reading has been sinking ever deeper into a bog or maybe it’s a quicksand. There needs to be a new way of reading and writing, assuming there is still time in this bizarre and quite possibly doomed century.

Not so long ago I assumed that soon writers and readers would be able to meet each other wherever they chose, around whatever books they preferred. Independent publishing seemed to open up the possibility that everyone could be an author and every reader could find a book (and author) they liked and could afford. Books would become easy and fast to produce. Gatekeepers and cultural brokers from identical backgrounds would no longer determine what was published. To some extent a bit of this vision has come true, but far less than what might have been. The infinite potential of the new technologies has been squandered and a new two-tier publishing world has emerged.

The two publishing worlds have accommodated one another. The Trad Pubs have happily regrouped and concentrated themselves into mega-corporate enterprises, swallowing up small publishers like sardines, cramming writing once again into little boxes marked by gatekeepers ever more vigilant and responsive to the needs of their local ecosystem with its critics, fashions and fame.  The so-called “Indies” are dominated by rules and expectations in part set by the publishing industry itself, requiring ever-greater expenditure on processes which independent authors once expected to do themselves.

Many books are no longer even written by their authors. Professional writers do what used to be called “the writing”. Editors do the rest. The degree of uniformity is astonishing. Sentences have shrunk to the minimum. Subordinate clauses have gone to the woodshed. The semi-colon and colon have largely been outlawed. Nobody would ever publish footnotes in a fictional book, or include photos unrelated to the text. In most cases there are hardly any photos at all, even in autobiographies and biographies. Copyright law makes sure song lyrics or poems by someone else cannot be included in a book. Content editors make sure the text conforms to specific “arcs”. Everyone expects three acts and a “hero” protagonist. Writers who still want to author their own books are enjoined to go to courses and learn to write so every book in each genre is as far as possible the same as every other one, apart from title and author name. Cover art, even font-styles, converge around genre expectations.

In Trad Pub the global space is once again divided up into “territories” defined by nation-states. What should have been a free flow of ideas and exchanges across an open planet has fallen into a morass of dot com suffixes with financial consequences attached. Trad Pub still pretends to be terrified of Indie, but it shouldn’t be, because Indie has been more and more mimicking Trad Pub and Trad Pub is making good profits from selling in the online market. Court cases secured publishers’ rights to set absurdly high prices for ebooks while Indie writers continue to destroy their own viability by setting lower and lower prices and indeed give a lot of their writing away for free.

Trad Pub retains the aura of superiority in cultural value. Literary writing conforms to certain expectations about ideology and positioning. Certain themes are “big”, especially if they are to do with those who are ‘Other’ to the publishing enterprise itself. It is sustained by hordes of English majors and over-educated humanities people willing to work for miniscule wages for the privilege of serving the interests of these grossly inflated transnational companies. Some books are mired in complex moral issues, most recently the question of cultural appropriation, when mostly white members of the cultural majority try to write about the experiences of the “less fortunate”. But in truth most of these books, whether worthy or unworthy, are being supported by the publication of one or two or three blockbusters every year from famous authors. If the books can be sold into movie markets or developed for long-form TV series then their success is assured via the feedback loop between viewing and reading.

In the Indie world, genre is King, Queen, Bishop, Knight and Deity. Editors, cover-designers, blurbists  and the rest ensure that writers conform to the genre. If you write one book in that genre then woe betide you it you don’t write a series of others, with matching title livery and often the same characters. This is popular mass-market writing, everyone agrees, and there is no room for literary fancies or trans-genre mucking around.  In Trad Pub they only want one book a year from their writers, if that, but in Indieland they want two, three, four or more one after the other. Mass production for a mass readership. Now readers don’t even want to read. The big thing is audiobooks so readers become listeners, mainly because the level of literacy in the general population has fallen so low.

Where is writing outside the norm? The most encouraging signs come from small local independent publishers who find all kinds of new (and old) writing worthy of publishing. It is fortunate that many writers can get back their rights to their own works from publishers who have gone out of business, or whose contracts were limited. The new publishing technologies mean these books, long unheard of and forgotten, can be republished and brought to new readers. But what about the countless writers who want to do something different but are being railroaded into the latest trends via K-Lytics and feel obliged to write shape-shifter romances featuring panthers, lions and mongoose (mongeese?) There needs to be a space where they can be published even if they aren’t going to score on the peculiar algorithms used by Amazon and the rest. Books used to appeal to small groups of readers. People didn’t expect to make $50,000 a year or more by writing pot-boilers, although now it seems to be a career path. But it’s all about money and ranking these days, whether Trad or Indie.

Meanwhile I am pushing onwards trying to find some path between the two even though I increasingly think it’s a truly thankless venture.

Copyright: for and against

In my last post I mentioned that I was seeking permission to use two lines from a country and Western song sung by Ernest Tubb in 1959 as an opener for my memoir. I still haven’t heard anything back from the copyright holders, a large transnational organisation which holds copyright on a huge number of songs.

This has led me to further musings on copyright as a concept and practice. There are many countries in the world which appear to have no copyright laws or if they do, they don’t enforce them especially if the writing being used comes from somewhere else. Imagine my surprise a couple of decades ago to find my book Nature and Nurture published in a Third World country, in English and pretty much in full although without the photographs and someone else’s name on the cover. But somehow there seemed a rightness to that. The book is unobtainable anywhere as the Australian publishers never republished it, and made no effort to make it available anywhere outside Australia. Practically no libraries in the world hold it. This of course was before self-publishing. If people somewhere else want to read my book, this was a way of doing it, and did it matter that much who was the author?

These libertarian thoughts are very much outside the frame today. Everyone is so precious about their rights over a few sentences that whole books can be pulped for some minor bit of plagiarism. You are legally vulnerable even where the copyright holders don’t answer queries or have gone out of business. This, in an era when visual and written information can be circulated as never before.

Copyright is an issue quite apart from libel and privacy breaches. My inability to finish Regret Horizon is in large part due to my anxieties over privacy issues which remain unresolved.

I wonder how much one would have to change the text to claim that those two lines were no longer subject to copyright? I’ll play with that idea, but somehow it just wouldn’t be the same.

The River of Regret with Ernest Tubb

Ernest Tubb sang “River of Regret” in 1959.

For reasons only a psychoanalyst could clearly state, I don’t seem able to get this book finished. I have promised to send it out to the family members who are mentioned in it for their comments and permission to use their real names. I have asked the designer to stand by to do the covers. I have promised myself it is #1 on the priorities list. But no matter what I do I just can’t get it to a point where I can send it out.

The biggest issue has been endlessly rewriting the first chapter. I realise this is because I don’t really know what I want to project in this so-important introductory bit. I have been struggling between two positions: a kind of grovelling excuse-seeking for having been such a dreadful mother and partner and sister and daughter (and probably everything else) all my life and not having realised it, and the desire to say look here, you guys, I was doing my best! I came from another era! I had a miserable confused childhood just like everybody else who was born close to World War 2! And I think I worked incredibly hard and tried everything to keep the show on the road. If it didn’t turn out so well for you all, I am sorry, but I can’t go to my afterlife taking all the blame! I couldn’t be a perfect person. What a surprise! But I guess I am still regretting that.

If my emotions throughout 2018 seemed unstable, the beginning of 2019 has been even worse. Maybe writing a memoir was not the best idea, under the circumstances. A part of me wants to just forget about it right now, today, put the project aside and go back to painting my landscapes and writing about art. Of course none of it makes the slightest bit of difference and it is dawning on me that nobody, I mean nobody, cares in the least what I write or don’t write. It is, to follow my perpetual aqua-marine metaphorical inclination, all just water under the bridge. Or to quote my recent favourite ballad:

And instead of being someone with the world to win
I’m just driftwood on the river of regret.

This is from a song sung by Ernest Tubb in 1959. The original version is on Youtube here – I think I worked out how to embed a song in a post – always something new to learn!

As this song seems so completely apposite to my memoir I set about finding out how to get permission to use these two lines as opening quote in Regret Horizon. What a fascinating business this copyright stuff is. I will write a post about it when I have an outcome.

Meanwhile I’ll just keep on drifting with Ernest Tubb and try to take the deeper philosophical meanings on board.

Regret Horizon: the Memoir

So my memoir of the year my mother and my ex-husband died is almost finished. Procrastinating about sending it out to the family and trying to do the final edits. Every time I open the file I find myself making changes, not just a few, but a lot. I still don’t feel clear about it. And the question of the title has been holding things up. From the start, the working title was A Dying Year. Feedback? Oh, that sounds so sad/distressing/upsetting. And who is dying? Is it you? Is this yet another PityParty by someone on the way out? No, no, not that! Well, what then?

So it got a new title, and a new slant, because I realised by the time I had finished the penultimate draft that my main feeling about everything was my awfulness, and how much I still don’t understand, and how much I feel regret for what I had done and not done in those last few months.

Somehow water, rivers and seas, threaded through everything I felt throughout the process of writing this book. So when I found Jordan Cantelo’s wonderful photograph, “Ocean Horizon”, it spoke to me profoundly. Jordan gave me permission to use it for the cover, and asked for no payment, which was truly generous of him. I love his work. I will write something more about it later.

Draft cover: Regret Horizon.

More on opportunism: hire an actor!

Since my last post – and thanks so much to everyone who liked it – I have been giving more thought to my writing career.

I realise that I shied away from confronting one of the core realities about the writing career today: namely, who are you? If you have to Put Yourself Out There to Reach Your Readers you have to first work out who those readers might be and then consider what kind of author they want you to be, which means, you have to look like that writer. Once upon a time a writer looked like him/herself, no matter what he/she looked like. Shirley Jackson (below) wrote Gothic horror stories about life in small New England towns. Her publicist would never have let this photo into the public realm if it was today. Actually her story is very interesting, see the link below.

shirley jackson

More on Shirley Jackson

And then there is Charles Bukowski. OK, this is a cheap shot, but hard to resist.

Bukowski Sam Cherry 1970

Cbarles Bukowski, 1970 portrait by Sam Cherry.

Actually when you look at photographs of famous writers going right back to the early twentieth century you can see already the aesthetics of writerly fame were already at work, in parallel with the growth of photography. There are profound existential questions here, but let’s skip them for the moment and go right back to Square One!

Everyone in this game accepts that Marketing involves being someone marketable. These days the author is a product, and like all products it does matter what she/he/they look(s) like and whether or not they fit the current paradigm for successful writers. There are countless guides to how to ensure a successful author photo. I like this one, especially for its analysis of specific published author photos. A certain look, a physically attractive or interesting persona, a hesitant smile that looks great on the back cover,  a certain age, an air of reserve and mystery – possibly the hint of the exotic – that will work. But the thing is, if that is the author in their photo, then it has to be the author in real life as well, in the unlikely event they get asked to appear in public somewhere, like at the Podunk Valley Writers’ Festival.

What do you do when you don’t even dimly resemble any of the persons identified as successful writers in their photos? It has occurred to me that it might be helpful to hire someone. Good training for a budding actor! Hire a young person, able to manage the Internet, look great and make public appearances, that might be a good alternative. After all, the gig economy demands people work in all kinds of different careers so there must be hundreds or thousands of young people who’d love to be writers without having to write any books. As for the writer,  if you can use a pen name, why can’t you use a pen body? There are ghost writers, why not writers’ ghosts?

Is this a good plot or what? I don’t think it’s been done before although back in 1976 Martin Ritt directed a very young Woody Allen in a movie, The Front, about a writer manqué who signs his name to scripts by real writers blacklisted during the darkest days of Hollywood, when J Edgar Hoover determined what would and would not be acceptable from writers and movie makers according to his own warped ideologies.

The Front 1976

And there has been at least one movie about Ghost Writers – Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski, starring Ewan McGregor, 2010.

ghost writer 2010

Maybe there are other movies with similar plots, and that great little series Younger, currently in Season 5 on Stan, takes up the issue of ageism in the publishing world, and the extent to which millenials are currently determining what is published and what isn’t – in tradpubland of course. Incidentally in researching this blog post I came across a list of films about writers  here. I’d love to watch all of them in one big binge! That’s the only thing I might enjoy more than actually writing the stories myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is there really a future for independent publishing in Australia?

Ever get the feeling that independent publishing, which promised so much, is heading down the vortex, especially for Australian authors? When it all started rolling it seemed like writers would be able to reach readers without all the intermediaries deciding who and what would be allowed through the hallowed gates of author-dom.

selfpub diagram wikiIt looked as if new technology would link writers and readers all over the world and open up the artificial geographic zones which for half a century had been creating unnecessary boundaries around the best new writing. Readers were forced to pay absurdly high prices in some areas, including Australia, to accommodate the outdated business model. You might have thought the response would have been to change the business model, but no, that didn’t happen, and now things seem to be in some kind of weird spiral.

In the US E-books are still selling, and selling well. In number they far outweigh trad pub titles, and just recently they have superseded print books in dollar value. Of course many of these sales are for traditionally published books from established publishers, who bring out an e-book edition along with their print editions. It is very hard to get accurate figures separating the different market components out.

US eBook_Sales_to_Surpass_Printed_Book_Sales_in_2017_n

When Indie publishing took hold, a network of new support mechanisms evolved to help authors bring their work to an eager public. Traditional publishers went on doing exactly as they had been doing (but added in e-book versions) and everyone else was free to try things out in all kinds of ways while Amazon  provided the all-important technological platform.

For a while Amazon set the prices of the e-books from the traditional publishers. But after a legal case spear-headed by global giant Hachette Amazon was forced to raise the prices of the e-book versions  so they did not  compete with print books: take a look at the price box next to the Big Five published book you want to buy on your Amazon site and you will see “The price was set by the publishers”. This has pushed e-book prices higher for “good” books from all the global players who have eaten up the smaller niche publishers at least in the English-language market.

BigFivePublishers

Meanwhile millions of other books are left wallowing about at the lowest possible end of the price scale in the hope that someone, anyone, will buy a copy. The unregulated indie market has turned out to be a ghastly place full of bad writing, creepy fantasies, idiotic space-nonsense, buff six-packs and bizarre arrays of erotica. There are many notable exceptions, of course, but anyone who takes a close look at what is going on in the Amazon indie market better not be a serious reader who thinks books have something to do with improving society and culture.

In Australia, the e-book revolution hardy took hold although Australians are known as early adopters of new technologies. Try asking around among friends and workmates and see how many actually have and use a Kindle. The answer, if you are an indie author, is super-depressing. It seems everyone longs for the olden days.

old Angus and Robertson

But there’s more to it than persistent nostalgia. It’s not just that people like going to physical bookshops, or buying physical books (often as presents for others), it’s that the guardians of Australian culture mounted an incredibly successful campaign against Amazon among booklovers. They were readily convinced that anything coming out of a corporate US giant like Amazon was automatically going to be a Bad Thing. This impression was shored up among the writers’ groups, in publishing circles, among academics and general literati, the local press, the network of book clubs and whatever other areas of public communication had anything at all to say about books and writing. Indie authors did not appear at Writer’s Festivals. Nobody mentioned them on the TV book shows (all now defunct); everybody interested in books and writing in Australia knew that good writing only appeared through a reputable publisher. The books by Australian authors hailed by the literati sold in modest to low numbers. Books written by Australian indie authors had to succeed in the US market, or not at all. There has never been an identifiable market for Australian independent authors in Australia.

Now things are even worse. Amazon won’t let Australians buy e-books – or any books for that matter – from it’s American site. This is supposedly because the Australian government didn’t like it that e-books were being bought by Australians who weren’t paying GST on them. Now the reader is forced back to the .au site, no option. Add the GST to the cost of the e-book and it looks a lot more expensive than when it was $2.99 on the US site. Previously, readers who wanted to order a print version could do so from the US site and pay horrendous postage. It seems that hardcover versions of Big Five published books are available through the Australian site, but still have to be sent at a high postage rate from the US. So guess what? You might as well buy a print copy of the book from your local bookshop, or by ordering online. Who needs Kindles and e-books after all? Somehow all this seems to have shored up the ultra-conservative elements in the Australian book world.

E-book author earnings are still very substantial, and when you consider that many authors identify themselves with a self-managed publishing imprint, the result is even more impressive. But of course this is happening in the US, not in Australia.

ebook-author-earnings-1m-201605

Australian authors often made print versions through CreateSpace and ordered fifty or a hundred or whatever copies to distribute themselves in Australia, sell through their own website or send out as freebies. Now CreateSpace has closed down and everyone is supposed to use KDP for their print books. But nobody, not even the author, can order print books from their US-based Amazon account, and Amazon is not going to be printing books in Australia anytime soon. You can’t even order a proof copy of your new e-book from KDP, apparently, because that would involve sending it at the US price. I believe this issue is currently being looked at by Amazon, but the bulk print copies will never be available again. So it’s back to the Australian traditional publishers.tradpub cartoon

Several correspondents have asked why authors don’t just have their own books printed locally, instead of worrying about the whole Amazon/e-book experience? Well, there are three good reasons. Firstly, local printers quote for a paperback version around two-three times the cost CreateSpace used to be able to supply them at, even with shipping from the US. They can look a lot better with much nicer paper but the price needs to be set very high if the bookseller gets the 40-50% discount they expect. The author may finish up getting even less than the miserable payout from a book priced at $2.99 on Amazon. Second, local bookshops are very reluctant to stock books from independent authors unless there is some local reason to do so – like a book about riding bicycles along back paths here in the Blue Mountains, which sells well from just two or three bookshops. The author supplies the copies personally when the bookshops run out. But if you are trying to sell more widely it means you have to keep stocks of your printed books somewhere – in your garage, or in your bedroom, or in a warehouse-type space, then you have to post or send or courier copies to whoever wants them, then pick them up again if they aren’t sold.

There is no simple answer, obviously.

BTW I  want to thank Anna Castleton for her recent comment (August 31st) which prompted me to write this post sooner rather than later. I also should mention that my e-books, such as they are to date, have been illustrated and cover-designed and the interiors formatted by a well-regarded professional (in Mexico, as it happens) and the colour shift problems  I had with my children’s book The Priceless Princess when print copies were made on Ingram Spark were the result of the Ingram Spark presses not “reading” the PDF files correctly.  Ingram Spark seems much more responsive these days and  is making a significant push into the space being vacated by Amazon. And it prints in Melbourne.  More on this in a later post.

 

 

 

 

 

A Kindle binge with Helen Garner …

Jenny Sages portrait

Jenny Sages Portrait of Helen Garner. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

The best thing about getting older is realising that others are getting older at the same rate, especially your favourite writers. They’ve been writing for years and years, and you’ve been reading away alongside. In traditional publishing it means that they write and you read at different moments of the Zeitgeist, so you experience them in different ways according to where you both are. Helen’s recent book of essays Everywhere I Look felt both familiar and dazzlingly fresh. Preoccupied with my current volume of memoirs, this and the publication of Bernadette Brennan’s study of Helen’s work (more on which in another post), sent me scurrying off to rediscover her work in the present moment, 2017.

A lot is now available on Kindle. I had purchased her print books over many years but most had gone off into the mysterious places books go when you move your stuff around a lot. Now I could repurchase and reread all at once. Yes, it is a Kindle binge. A wonderful short novella about a trip to the Antarctic was the first surprise: I had never heard of it before. I reread The First Stone and This House of Grief and The Spare Room and then I came to Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which I had never read before..

What can I say? Absolutely riveting, so moving, so saturated with a personal truth which is at the same time a collective experience of being “us”, people in Australia, experiencing things in different ways, and it is these differences which Helen tries to clarify and explore but in the end the mysteries of human behaviour defeat explanation or even understanding.It is great that Helen is getting the praise she deserves in the US at last. Reading some of the reviews on Kindle is sobering, though. They are not negative, rather, puzzled, a bit confused. Why is it that some writing travels seamlessly through English-language markets while other books falter? Why was The Dry such a hit in the US? Why does Liane Moriarty work everywhere?

I hope a lot of people discover and rediscover Helen Garner now. Nobody could have guessed back in Monkey Grip days what she would become. If you could give a medal to an Australian writer, Helen should be first on the dais.

everywhere_i_look