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 and Communists: the cover art for Revolutionary Baby

When I began to think about the cover for Revolutionary Baby the poster image by Nina Vatolina came to mind. I knew this image but I couldn’t recall where I had seen it. I thought it could be modified easily with title and author information inserted where the Russian text was. It was easy to find via the Big G. It is in the Tate Modern collection, under the following title:

 Fascism – The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism, August 1941; Nina Vatolina 1915-2002; DK0029

Nina Vatolina’s original poster: Fascism: the Most Evil Enemy of Women, 1941.

This powerful image appears all over the Internet and has already been used for the cover of one published book and I naively assumed it would be copyright free. However this was not so. The image is available for purchase from the Tate which has access to it on licence. Reproduction rights are subject to the usual requirements including payment for the use of a high quality image provided by the Tate. However, the Tate itself does not hold full copyright, only the licence to reproduce the image. The picture itself is subject to the artists own artistic copyright.  The situation was investigated by Chris Suthens of the Tate and I would like to thank him for his helpful advice (below, email of July 24th 2019).

I can let you know that the reproduction fee to include the Tate photography DK0029 on the front cover of a single printed edition, plus electronic use on the cover of a parallel e-book edition, world rights, English language, available on demand up to a total combined unit run of 5,000 copies/downloads will be £229.

If you find these terms agreeable and wish to go ahead please do let me know, confirming the name and address to be included on your invoice/licence and I shall send it over as soon as possible?

I’ll then be able to supply the hi res file as soon as payment is received.

I must mention that Nina Vatolina’s work is also still subject to her artistic copyright so you would need to obtain additional permission from the artist’s estate or their representatives. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to locate any contact details available for us to pass on so Tate’s own use has been on a risk management basis. We are happy to proceed and license the reproduction of the Tate image file though must stress that it would be the responsibility of yourselves to ensure that you have made every effort to identify and contact the artistic rights holders where possible and on the understanding that the use in relation to the artistic copyright would be at your risk. In the very unlikely event of a holder coming forward you may need to be able to demonstrate that due diligence has been conducted.

So even if I paid the required fee to the Tate to reuse the image, with my own modifications, I would still be in potential breach of the artist’s own copyright. But without being able to read and write Russian, and/or go to Russia to investigate who might be the holders of her estate, it is impossible to be sure that copyright requirements have been met.

How mad is this? I am sure Nina Vatolina, a sincere and committed Communist, would find it completely bizarre that nobody is now able to reproduce her art-work in any form without paying a fee to an August British art institution in the heartland of Western capitalism. I am grateful that the Tate does hold reproducible images of art works, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think it would be in the spirit of Nina’s ideological or political thought that her work cannot be shared by others.

So I abandoned all idea of using this image and commissioned my Mexico-based illustrator Keith Johnson [Keith Draws] to create something for me. In the event, he created the cover for the second volume of stories, Radiant Sands, at the same time, and many thanks to him for his great work.

Meanwhile, though, I became fascinated by the situation of Communist artists such as Nina Vatolina, and did some additional research on the subject, shortly to appear on my art-writing site https://annette-hamilton-art-writing.com

Just as a taste, here is one of her poster illustrations featuring Stalin.

Nina Vatolina: Grandpa Stalin brings Christmas gifts to the children of Mother Russia: lovely bombs and warplanes!

REVOLUTIONARY BABY: final edit?

So I think this is the final edit. The whole manuscript is printed and I am about to get into it with a red pen. I couldn’t say how many edits it has had, that is not a meaningful question. I edit all the time as I go along, and I try to keep a version in my files periodically in case I need to go back. I can see why people employ an editor, if only because it costs so much money and you wouldn’t want to mess around with something that already has had so much expensive attention. Maybe I’ll reconsider my position on editors. But every time I have had an editor whether for creative or factual writing they make changes according to some inexplicable principles of their own. I am very aware that all of my stories in Revolutionary Baby use different narrative voices which do not convert into standard grammar, in some cases (as in the voice of one of my young hippies from the Northern Rivers) very far from it. But it is how my characters think, as far as I can write it. It is not a mistake or the product of grammatical infelicity even though grammar checkers don’t like it. Does it work? I am trying to inhabit each of my main characters in their own worlds, and each of their worlds are very different. I guess I will know more when I’ve read all of the stories together while wielding the red pen.

News from the Writing Zone

So after weeks of stifling heat, many days over 40 Celsius (104 F), ravaging bushfires, impenetrable smoke, unavoidable dust and ash inhalation causing nausea and headaches, constant obsessive anxiety looking at bushfire maps and a state of acute mourning for the losses, especially the wildlife, we now have buckets of rain, floods, drinking-water fears and blackouts. But there you are, dear friends, this is Australia and here we are and we love it (even though a lot of people have been talking about migrating to New Zealand).

The first sign of the Ruined Castle fire near Katoomba, 3 December 2019: it burnt out 40,000 hectares over the next seven weeks and was not put out finally until 5th February 2020. Photo A. Hamilton.

So as you might gather this was not great for the writing. In fact, I stopped writing altogether. Even my red daily diaries, which I have been assiduously adding to for over two years now, still rest untouched on the bookcase. I wanted to write about how this summer felt, but I just couldn’t. It was too awful, too terrifying yet somehow also familiar. We have been told for years now that the world will end in a conflagration, well here it was and it was right on our doorstep.

The red skies, the relentless approach, flames leaping, everything alight

You have to start asking why you would write at all. If the world is perilously close to a terminal phase, what good is writing? What good are books? If you saw that movie The Day After Tomorrow that scene in the New York Public Library will no doubt be burnished into your synapses: the brave survivors holed up inside tearing up the entire contents of the library, all the world’s books which could at least keep them warm. One old guy was trying to keep the Gutenberg Bible intact, as I recall, but the rest of it was just good for fuel.

What books are really good for … The Day After Tomrrow.

My writing associate Obelia is now completely convinced that are now only a couple of decades left. She stopped writing as well.

But time passes and in spite of doubts and fears I really have to produce the books I have been working on for so long now. In the next couple of months I have plans to see at least two or maybe three of the front-runners hit the deck. The two volumes of short stories and the memoir are pretty much ready to go. So stand by for some more advance notice: covers are done and all that remains is the playing with Vellum which I hope will allow me to pull them all together very quickly.

Another thing I have done over this horror summer is read a number of very interesting memoirs (loosely identified) and I am going to write a little about them, not so much reviews as reflections on the thoughts and feelings they created as I read them in this heightened state of alarm and anxiety, pushing me once again up against the complex questions about what memoir writing really is and can do, and where is the Real in writing.

The Bushland is Inhabited Too!

I posted this on my site for my children’s book The Priceless Princess (thepricelesspricess.com) which is about the need for protection for wild creatures and their natural homes. Although the Kingdom of Hullabaloo is an imaginary place, the creatures who live there are Australian – snakes, owls, bilbies, crocodiles and others. Because the present situation is so dire I want to write more about habitat and wildlife protection and thought I would start a thread of posts here about it, since it has been such an important part of my life and writing.

skynews-australia-wildfire_4830948

The horrifying bushfires across many parts of Australia in 2019 (and it’s hardly even summer yet) are a dreadful reminder of how vulnerable our amazing wildlife is to the changes happening all over the continent. We must never forget how extraordinary Australia is. Isolated from evolutionary pressures which created the creatures of Europe and Asia (and much of the Americas) life here was able to sustain itself in so many unique and wonderful forms, which do not exist anywhere else in the known universe. Yet uncontrolled population growth, land clearing, forest destruction and “development” have affected all but the most remote parts of the country. Now climate change is creating wildfires which are ripping through what used to be wet rainforests and across national parks, annihilating whole populations of animals, birds and plants in its path.

After the bushfires, people reported hearing the utterly horrendous sounds of burnt creatures, crying out, abandoned to their agony. Great efforts are being made to find and save burnt koalas from their rare bushland habitats, and people have given generously to the Koala Hospital. You can visit their website here. Donations are still being received by the Hospital, which hopes to use the funds for a long-term survival and support program. If you can help, go to the donation page.

Peter the Koala
Photograph from News.com.au

But it is a drop in the bucket. As the heat increases, the land and plants dry out, and fires are uncontainable. What is worse is that some are deliberately lit. It is awful that people lose their homes and possessions, some even lose their lives, but consider the fate of the animals and birds abandoned in the midst of raging fires which nobody even tries to contain, since all their efforts are directed at helping the human victims. Steps must be taken to develop better fire retardants, and to be able to deliver them in bushland areas as soon as any fire is detected, instead of waiting until the fires are completely out of control and approaching “inhabited” areas. The bushland is inhabited too!  Please help raise awareness of the impact of climate change on our wildlife, and try to find ways to help in whatever way you can.

Governments and industry are in some places trying to work towards helping avoid the apocalyptic scenarios we are so rightly afraid of. Anyone caught anywhere near the bushfires in Eastern Australia recently will know just how totally terrifying these fires are, beyond anything people have lived through in the past. There are so many reasons for this, but the main one has to be the reliance on fossil fuels and the entire economic system with its remorseless demand for “growth” and ever-greater levels of consumption. It may well be too late to avoid some pretty catastrophic outcomes in the next twenty or so years, but every effort should be made to do whatever we can to change things. But some governments appear completely unable to even see the problem. Some prominent people simply deny there IS a problem!  While I care about people, I care as much (sometimes more) about the wild creatures we share this planet with, rare and amazing survivors through countless aeons. How dare we paltry humans, who have only been around for 200,000 years or so, threaten the existence of life forms already millions of years old!

If you care about the survival of wild creatures under this threatened planetary catastrophe, find ways to let people know and do something about it. Write letters, join with others, help rescue and care for injured wildlife, leave water out for animals and birds in the horribly hot weather, consider what you are doing and how you are living, and ask whether you are entitled to exist at the expense of all other forms of natural life on the planet. Get ready for change, which is coming, and try to find ways to sustain the life of the dear creatures we share our existence with.

kookaburra in burnt land
Note: copyright acknowledgment above

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And so another year …

Yes, it has been a long time since I last wrote here. So much has happened. I have filled up three diaries already and it isn’t over yet. My first book of the memoirs project Regret Horizon seemed to disappear over the Regret Horizon and into the mists of past time. Where I thought this was a final volume, turns out there will need to be at least one more, to take us from the end of Regret Horizon to the actual genuine real end, and we know there will be one. It is one which I can foresee and expect but cannot know when it will arrive, or how it will turn out. Most estimate a few years, but anything can happen. I will write a post or two about this very strange experience when I can, next year probably. And maybe I’ll be writing the actual volume by then.

But here is the good news. I have finished revision of the two books of short stories, Keith has done the covers for the ebooks (still finalising the print books) and all going well they should be available in early November through Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as other ebook retailers and in paperback through Ingram Spark. You can order from your local bookstore if you are in Australia and hopefully there will be a Paypal button on this site at least. Website orders for customers in Australia only.

And Regret Horizon is nearly finished too. I am going to have a special order made from a local printer on quality paper for signed orders and my own gifts and maybe the local independent bookstores will stock some as well. I had such a struggle knowing what to do about getting feedback from the people in it, but finally I decided to give up on that and let the cards fall where they may. Still thinking about the final cover, now it looks pretty boring next to Keith’s fabulous cover art for the short stories (below).

So I guess this is a kind of pre-launch announcement. Congratulations to me – but there is still a way to go before I can push the “publish” button.

Final cover images for Revolutionary Baby and Radiant Sands, September 2019.
Copyright Keith Draws/Annette Hamilton

Regretting “Regret Horizon”

Honestly and truly, I don’t know what led me to think I could write this memoir, edit it and publish it by the beginning of 2019. Now it is almost May and I have so far only managed to edit and rewrite the first opening chaper – or maybe it’s a Forward – about a hundred times. Now I realise I have to write an Afterward. Or is it an Afterword? Both, I guess. So I have spent weeks angsting about whether or not to send the current draft out for comments but I haven’t done it. Indecision and procrastination rule.

Meanwhile all I can think about is photography and painting. I said I would do that this year but it still hasn’t led to any actual paintings either. Of course the memoir and the photographs are producing interesting interactions but the overlapping memory-work is exhausting. Has anybody written a good account of the interior state of writers as they get to the end of a project? If so, please let me know asap! I think Gaspar Melchios was having a few doubts about the wisdom of the thing.

Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a Spanish writer depicted with the tools of the trade.