An "Ode" at Verse Daily: One of Dave Bonta's poems from his Odes to Tools chapbook is today's selection by the editors at Verse Daily. Congratulations, Dave! The poem chosen is "Ode to a Wire Brush," one of our favorites.Congratulations, Dave! The poem chosen is "Ode to a Wire Brush," one of our favorites.
Phoenicia Publishing supports its authors by sending out review copies to the most appropriate online and print anthologies and publications. We're delighted that the editors at Verse Daily recognized the wide appeal of Dave's work, and welcome any readers of that publication who may have come over to look at Dave's "Odes to Tools" chapbook; we hope you'll like what you find!
There's lots of excitement at Phoenicia Publishing this spring! We'll have more announcements soon about forthcoming titles, but today we'd like to share some excellent news about one of our authors. Pamela Johnson Parker, author of A Walk Through the Memory Palace, which won the 2009 qarrtsiluni chapbook contest, has been named a Tennessee Williams Scholar by Sewanee Writer's Conference. Congratulations, Pamela, on this well-deserved honor!
A new review of Pamela's chapbook by Lawrence Gladeview was recently published at MediaVirus Magazine. Links to many other reviews and a blog tour of the chapbook, organized by qarrtsiluni, are posted here.
A little while ago, on Twitter, Ernesto Priego posted a link to a video, "The Future of Publishing," put out by the UK division of DK Books (Penguin). The video, with its minimalistic scrolling text read by a young female voice, was originally intended for the company's internal audience but has been released externally, and generated a lot of buzz. Ernesto, a poet and writer who's writing his PhD in London on comic books in the digital age, expressed some of the same doubts I felt after seeing the video, so I wrote to him and asked if he'd like to discuss it. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
ERNESTO: The most crass commonplace in discussions about digital media, the future of the book etc. is the incorrect assumption that what in this advert is called "packaging" can be clearly differentiated from "content". Media are not simple receptacles where content is contained and that can be poured into a different receptacle. Media -- print or digital, aural or visual or multimedia -- are not only a means of transmission, they also communicate things in themselves, impose a particular framing that defines attitudes, meanings, readings.
BETH: Can you give some examples?
ERNESTO: In the case of some publications such as art books or other coffee table books (design, architecture, photography), in children's literature and books for very young readers (pop up books, books to teach kids about the 5 senses etc) and importantly comic books and graphic novels, that are collectable and make a very conscious use of graphic/editorial/publishing design, packaging is surely something that is not neutral, expendable or easily translated into other media.
BETH: For your PhD, you're working on comic books, right?
ERNESTO: Yes. My research is specifically about comic books and the new digital publishing scenario. Originally I was looking at webcomics or online comics as digital counterparts to physical, print comic books, but then mobile comics (to be read on the iPhone, and now the iPad) came along and started changing the game again.
BETH: How do you feel a comic on the IPhone differs from one printed and read on paper? How does a paper book affect the content within it?
ERNESTO: First of all we need to consider the format: page size, for instance. Other elements come into play, like the tactile feel, smell, etc, as well as behaviour that comes hand-in-hand with reading the books, such as going to a book shop every week (new comic books usually arrive on Wednesdays to shops in North America; Thursdays in the UK), meeting other readers, going to comics conventions, book-signing sessions, etc. There's that element, but the format one is key. The size of the iPhone (things are different in the case of the laptop screen or the iPad) is just minimal in comparison to even the smallest of 'mini-comics'. (self-published comics).
BETH: Books have historically unfolded in a linear manner. Comics and other graphic-intensive documents are linear, but they also have had a flow (historically, anyway) that depends on the viewer seeing more than a single frame at a time.
ERNESTO: Yes, that's true. The way comics work is through the juxtaposition of still graphic images on a delimited space (traditionally the paper page). Comics are different from comic strips and cartoons because they usually rely on a grid layout: panels are arranged sequentially, and the reading process, at least in the West, is guided by this element: first we see the whole page automatically, it's almost like an intuitive thing (unless we are seriously short-sighted). One sees the whole page, the whole grid, then one focuses on the first panel, which is usually the one on the top left corner. We follow to the next, then the next, up-down, left-right.
I believe that it's the grid layout that makes comics what they are (or used to be). In digital comics that are read on a small screen like the iPhone's, usually what used to be beautiful, complex visual narrative structures in the form of multilayered panel grids are now constrained to just one panel. One drags the fingertip to get to the next panel, but the experience of the page layout is lost.
Of course, it's great one can zoom in the text and the images, 'navigate' the visual text, but the specific texture of the comic book page is lost because physical dimensions have been constrained. We have a different case with the computer screen and probably with the iPad, where the dimensions are more generous.
BETH: Do you feel that comics and graphic novels are an entirely different category of book?
ERNESTO: What's important is that comic books ARE books. And people who study books have very largely ignored them, as if they were non-existent or from another planet. I strongly believe they offer some of the best examples to prove how it's not true that everything is translatable into 1 and 0s. It's literally like translation. The jar can never be rebuilt the way it was.
BETH: Let's get back to the DK advert...you had some reservations about it...
ERNESTO: My negative reaction is mainly to what it assumes about packaging... that these things can be seen in two reverse ways. I'm against this kind of bipolar thinking; it's a huge oversimplification. The video, supposedly engaging the debate about the migration of books from print to digital media, is reduced to two opposed ways of reading (scrolling down/scrolling up); where one is the negative one and the other the "optimistic" one. Perhaps paradoxically, DK Publishing's video, prepared by the UK branch of Dorling Kindersley Books and produced for by Khaki Films, could very easily be considered a plagiarism of "Truth," a 2006 promotional video by the Argentinean agency SAVAGLIO\TBWA and "Lost Generation" by Jonathan Reed (2008). In a time in which digital piracy is considered one of the biggest threats to creative content industries, DK Publishing's video's lack of originality seems counter-intuitive.
BETH: Well, the advert seems intended as a kind of slam-dunk, putting away (and putting down) any nuanced argument. And I hope readers will look at these original videos you mention - I'm rather shocked!
In my work as a professional graphic designer over the past three decades, I've had to become expert at "translating" print publication for the web - but I notice the problems people have with this, even now. The two methods of taking in information are not equal because, for one thing, our brains cannot process them the same way.
What you point out about the reading process is also my experience with graphics-heavy documents, and it's probably maximized with comics. One thing that is totally lost when we view one frame at a time is the way comic artists, storyboard artists, and graphic designers have always played with scale in their drawings, both as an artistic device and as a way of creating emphasis and a shifting viewpoint, not unlike a camera's zoom. For those who are familiar with storyboards for film, this is the standard way of representing the flow of a story, and the best artists are tremendously skilled at this manipulation of view. It's another component of "content" that is lost on the small screen when we're forced to view one frame or a small segment of the whole at a time. Of course, larger viewers will help with that.
I also saw that you mentioned Issuu as a viewer for comics. That's the application I use here at Phoenicia to simulate the act of turning pages and allow zooming, as well as a sense of the pages as a sequence in the book. I chose it because I couldn't stand the single-page previews of most "look inside" applications.
ERNESTO: I liked Issuu in the case of European comics because it allows the larger format. What I said before about the page layout on the iPhone is not entirely true since it is often possible to see the whole page, but it's so small you have to zoom in anyway. I think there are different degrees in which physical format, design, typography, layout, paper type, size, type of binding, etc affect the way one reads something depending on what kind of publication we are talking about. I often think of the Financial Times, published on that characteristic pinkish paper: what if they started printing it on standard newspaper paper? Maybe it's just me but I think that an important part of --at the very least-- the corporate identity of the FT would be lost. It's interesting that very often, if not always, books are designed differently depending of which market they are for: US and UK for example, or the Spanish, French or Italian editions of the same books. Cover design but also physical format in terms of size, binding, soft or hard cover, etc can affect dramatically the reaction to a book. It's not only about marketing, it's about what it makes readers feel.
BETH: Thinking of visual material as a "scroll" is helpful sometimes too. In our early days of producing .pdf versions of printed reports, we changed the formats from double-page spreads to single horizontal ones, similar to the IPad screen. One of the objections people had was that they wanted to print out the reports and couldn't deal with landscape pages! A client actually insisted that we do a vertical format version so people wouldn't have to turn the pages once they were printed! Resistance comes in many forms - literally! And it's especially so when the market is older readers.
ERNESTO: Yes, I'm sure of that. As my colleague Katharine Schopflin commented on Twitter, it's not only poetry that makes use of typographic and layout design in creative/meaningful ways. Even the most traditional prose-only novel will transmit different things in different editions with different formats. The best example is perhaps the much-hated "comic sans" font: can you imagine a PhD dissertation being taken seriously if typed on it? Lettering, like colouring, paper quality, printing method, etc., matters, and it matters very much.
BETH: So -- to get back to that advert -- what can we say about it in conclusion? It was, for sure, very clever and made its point, but I think there is truth in it read both ways around - attention spans are shorter, for instance, and publishing as we have always known it is definitely radically changing, if not dead.
ERNESTO: Yes, I totally agree. I think the advert can be read in many ways. What do you personally think of the voice they used? What does it make you feel or think? I have seen it once again, and I think I dislike it more now. It assumes there are only two sides to the coin, as if the print/digital debate were about seeing things in reverse only, about being 'positive' instead of 'negative'. I think it might even be patronising of young readers...
BETH: I agree about that. As for the voice - that's the whole point, isn't it, that it's female to be unthreatening, but definitely "young?" It reminds me of how I feel about a lot of Apple's marketing: it's so well done that it's manipulative. That kind of branding creates identification with the brand, makes you feel like an outlier and a rebel, but actually encourages conformity of behavior. I admire the cleverness - how can you not? - but it's important to think more deeply about the issues, as you've helped us do here, Ernesto! Refusing to think of digital and print in a bipolar way is the first step.
ERNESTO: I agree with you, it's marketing so it has to be taken with a grain of salt. It's not theory; it's not highly intellectual; it's what it is, an advert for ebooks or books on digital media. It's clever at the first watching, but if you think about it longer it's obvious it does not engage with the real questions.
BETH: Thanks so much, Ernesto! It's been great talking with you.
Chris Clarke and I have been online friends for a long time now, almost all the time I've been blogging, which will be seven years this coming week! We became friends when we were both contributors to the Ecotone Wiki, a collective early project of a number of bloggers who were interested in writing about "place."
Chris has continued to write about place, nature, life, and spirit, first at "Creek Running North" and now at Coyote Crossing. He's one of the internet-based writers whose work I admire most, for the consistent quality of his thought, his luminous prose, and for his dedication to writing itself. He not only keeps at it, he thinks deeply about what he's doing and believes, as I do, that we can always improve our craft.
Readers here may have seen Chris's comments on some of the previous posts, and he's written about Phoenicia at his own blog too. I'm so grateful for this kind of give-and-take and thoughtful discussion about topics of mutual interest; writing used to be one heck of a lot lonelier than it is today.
I asked Chris for permission to reprint his recent post, "How to Write," because the advice he gives is worth its weight in golden bytes -- and there's wisdom here for aspiring and expert writers alike.
HOW TO WRITE by Chris Clarke
1. Spend most of your time reading. Start as early in life as you can. Read everything — billboards, cereal boxes, books, letters, instruction manuals, correspondence course texts, magazines and affidavits. Drown yourself in a sea of sentences.
2. Keep track of the reading material that most moves you. Don’t worry if you can’t find commonalities among the various pieces at first. Don’t pick a favorite, or even a top ten. Keep it all in one big category: “stuff I loved reading.” Reread items from this category on a frequent basis.
3. Keep track of the work you least like reading. When you’re about to add a work to this category, spend some time thinking about why you’ve decided not to like it. If it’s simply a matter of the author being boneheaded and wrong, waste no more of your time on the work. But if it’s something else, figure out what that something else is. Pay attention to that. How does the writer fail you as a reader? Are there patterns within the writer’s work — consistently mangled metaphors, illogic, clunky language?
4. Edit other people’s writing. Take a class in editing at your local community college if you have to learn the basics, then volunteer your services at a non-profit or other community organization helping out with their newsletter or paper or magazine or website. Nothing teaches you what you want to avoid in your own writing as quickly as finding and correcting it in others’ writing. Nothing teaches economy of language more quickly than editing a 2,200-word article to fit it into a 600-word hole in a newsletter. As an alternative, take some of the books from step 3 and mark them up. Find the problems that caused you to dislike the work. Underline them. Describe them.
5. Go back to your pile of stuff you loved reading and do the same editing. Make positive comments where you feel moved. Note problems if you find them on rereading.
6. Pay attention to the world. Find something, or many things, that affect your emotions. It doesn’t matter what they are. Birds, stones, music, pastries, books, software, toys, bottle caps, medical procedures, politics, sex, other people’s writing. Whatever. It doesn’t matter except that it should matter to you. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of anyone writing about those things before. Just pay attention to them. Pay attention to how you feel about them. Note the nuances. Learn everything you want to know about them until you run out of time, information or interest. Keep doing this, with one thing or many things, until you die.
7. Eavesdrop. Sit in restaurants by yourself, or with another person who’s quiet. Be non-chalant and non-intrusive. Pretend to read a newspaper. Note the rhythms of conversation, the pauses, the phrasing and repetition.
8. Spend a couple years learning a new language. Nothing makes the inner workings of your native tongue more apparent than learning to think, and write, in a new one. If you already speak more than one language, add another to your repertoire. Pick different language families. If you speak English and Spanish, study Mandarin. If you speak those three, study Euskadi.
9. Start a blog. Commit to yourself to write and post 100 words a day on your blog. Feel free to write more than that if you get momentum going, but give yourself that daily deadline. Don’t edit before publishing, aside from a cursory once-over for embarrassing typoes, spelling and grammatical errors. Don’t worry if you have nothing to say. Don’t worry if you blather. Just: 100 words a day, at least, put up where people can see and respond to them. And replying to comments on your blog doesn’t count toward the 100-word total. Though you should reply to comments. You make friends that way, and writers need friends.
10. You pay attention to getting your spelling right, and to word choice. You pay attention to sentence structure. You need to take that up to the next level. Pay attention to paragraph structure as well. A paragraph is an idea. You’ve heard that said, if you’ve taken composition classes, and it’s basically true. But it’s more than that. A paragraph is not just a string of sentences in a logical order. A paragraph is a stanza in a poem, a verse of a song. It has an internal structure that has nothing to do with the information conveyed by the sentences. If all the sentences in a paragraph are the same length, you have a monotonous paragraph. Sometimes that’s what you want to do. Mostly it won’t be. Vary and balance sentence length within a paragraph. Put a long sentence in the middle of a series of short ones. Put two short sentences after a very long one. Language is music. Pay attention to its rhythm.
11. Read your writing aloud. Even better, have someone else read it aloud. Note where the reader stumbles. If it’s not over a word that’s hard to pronounce, then phrasing or sentence structure is probably the stumbling block. A sentence that’s stumbly when read aloud is a sentence that will distract the silent reader. Note the tripups and fix them. Smooth them flat. Sand them down. At the very least put up some caution tape. This is also a good way to learn about words you use far too often, phrases you’ve done to death, and concepts you haven’t illuminated sufficiently.
12. Write things. Put them away for a week. Don’t even look at them once in that time. Take them out again after a week and edit them. Look for stumbling block sentences, paragraphs that don’t quite follow, ideas that there’s an obvious better way to convey.
13. Remove the first and last paragraphs of each drafted piece altogether and see how the piece works without them. Most writers take a paragraph to crack their knuckles and warm up at the beginning of a draft, and you’ll find a perfectly good and more economical beginning at the start of the second paragraph. Taking a paragraph to wind down at the end is common as well. If, while reading your last para, you can hear the theme music swell in your head and imagine credits rolling, cut it out. There’s almost always a great ending line at the end of the previous para.
14. Explore indecision and doubt where they exist. Don’t try to explain the things you can’t explain. Doubt is way more interesting anyway. Find the weak points in your argument and acknowledge them. Hell, celebrate them.
15. There’s another level of structure above the paragraph. John McPhee once described some of his essays as having a structure like a lowercase “e.” They started out in a direction, made a wide expository loop, then ended up near but not precisely at the starting point, heading in more or less the original direction. Write a 2,000-word essay structured like a lowercase “e.” Then write essays structured like an “O,” an “S,” and a “Z.”
16. Take two wholly unrelated concepts. Write an essay about both of them. Make the transitions seamless. Write so the reader says “I never knew those two things had anything to do with each other, but it’s so obvious now!” Hint: Most of the effort lies in selecting the two things. The writing comes naturally.
17. Above all, enjoy your writing. Go back and reread things you wrote years ago and find joy in them.
Todd Davis, winner of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and author of Some Heaven and The Least of These, is a professor of creative writing, environmental studies, and American literature at Penn State University's Altoona College. Todd's own poetry is influenced by the natural world, by family relationships, and by his personal knowledge of the Amish and Mennonite who live and farm in central Pennsylvania.
He was pleased to be asked to say something about fellow Pennsylvanian Dave Bonta's Odes to Tools, and I think his words reflect succinctly and beautifully what many of us feel about the integrity that exists between Dave's life and his poetry.
In Odes to Tools, Dave Bonta’s wide-ranging intellect and voracious curiosity are on full display, as is his insistence that we come to know the world that is forever passing from us. A meditation on everything from a measuring tape to a spirit level, this first book of poems demonstrates what all of Bonta’s readers at Via Negativa already know: here is the uncompromising voice of a man who has not allowed the broader culture to dictate what is important to him, or what is vital about the natural world that sustains us and the relationships that might actually transform us. As he says in “Ode to a Socket Wrench:” “with the click of a lever // the past screwed down / the future loose.” Bonta’s voice is one that offers keen insight into how we might move into that future, all of our senses intact, especially our common sense.
My Saturday morning began with a quick read of a two-part article in the Guardian, "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction," in which a number of contemporary authors were asked to give their advice. As both a writer and an editor, I found a lot that was worthwhile, though some took the question more seriously than others, and the article was very long -- probably the editors didn't want to offend anyone by leaving them out. The best standalone lists, I thought, were those by Geoff Dyer and Al Kennedy.
So let's look at what the responses had in common, and what stood out.
First, each author found a way to say: "If you want to be a writer, write." I don't write fiction, but I've written every day for several decades. Before I became a writer, my journal was full of pages talking about all the reasons I wasn't writing. The ways to avoid and procrastinate are endless! If this is what you really want, there's only one path: stop talking about it, stop making excuses, and write.
Two other words appeared in almost everyone's list. The first was "Read." Good writers read widely, and they think hard about what they've read. If you list your favorite authors, can you also explain why you admire them? Have you analyzed their work, so that you know what it is about how they write that works so well? Have you tried to emulate it? There's nothing wrong with imitation if you know you're doing it and trying to learn from it.
The second word was "Cut." Part of becoming a good writer is learning to become a good editor; unless our manuscripts are in pretty good shape, they aren't going to get far. As E.B. White said so clearly when asked for his own top 3 points of advice: "Omit unnecessary words! Omit unnecessary words! Omit unnecessary words!" Writing freely is the first step and a necessity: just get the words and ideas down, and don't burden yourself with too much editing as you go. But then go back, correct the errors, and see what can be cut. We prune a rose bush not only to make its growth more vigorous and the plant stronger, but to reveal the contrast of perfect flowers and thorns that constitute its true nature. It's the same with editing. Cutting out everything non-essential strengthens the writing, and it should also reveal to you, and to the reader, the essence of what you wanted to get at in the first place.
Beyond "Read," Write" and Cut", here are ten points that jumped out at me:
1. Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary. -- Geoff Dyer
Whether it's a notebook or file of conversations overheard, interesting words, scenes observed, or a yearly collection of letters and emails that record your life, I agree that keeping a journal of some sort is extremely helpful. On days when starting the main project is difficult, writing in the journal or composing a letter to a friend is a way to ease into the harder work of the day. A journal is also a path into the deeper self, showing us not only what we're thinking but how our minds work and change over time. The best writing proceeds from this kind of self-knowledge and careful observation.
2. Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted. -- P.D. James
Our lives are boring only if we decide to think of them that way. Everyone's life is filled with opportunities for observation of the self and others, and of the world around us in its grandeur and minutiae: it's our inattention to the mystery, variety and peculiarity of life that limits us, not our inability to fly to exotic places or our lack of unusual relationships. People are fascinating everywhere. We have to seek out life, not the other way around, and learn to see and use the material that's around us by knowing it intimately, and observing our own knowing.
3. Find your best time of the day for writing and write. --Esther Freud
I'm not at my best when I first get up, but after an hour I'm ready to work. I've always written in the morning and stopped by 2 or 3 pm. Everyone's different, but writers need to find their own best time and place to write and develop a daily discipline. The existence of computers and online venues for daily writing can actually make that easier, so long as you avoid being distracted. Most dedicated writers have a minimum daily goal: 500 words, a page of writing, a daily blog post, a 140-character poem, a certain number of pages of editing. You'll be astonished how much you get done once you get in the habit of daily practice, and the sense of accumulative accomplishment will help you keep going.
4. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. --Elmore Leonard
Never say "never", either -- of course our characters have to shout or whisper once in a while -- but I think the basic point is well-taken. Write with nouns and verbs, preferably familiar ones: they form the strong foundation of good writing that can hold a reader's attention. Overuse of adjectives and, especially, adverbs always weaken writing; look for a descriptive verb that can do the same work you're trying to lay on a plain one modified by an adverb, for instance. Avoid being clever or erudite unless there's a reason for it beyond showing off. Practice writing dialogue using only the verb "said" and see if it sounds less self-conscious; allow the speakers to speak by sharpening your ear, and get yourself out of the way.
5. Listen to what you have written. Helen Dunmore
Good writing has an internal rhythm and pulse that neither calls attention to itself nor is repetitive and predictable. Developing an "ear" for your own prose is essential; read what you've written out loud, and analyze the structure of your sentences to see if you fall into repeated patterns that are boring or create choppiness, awkwardness, or confusion for the reader. Have you written three sentences in a row starting with prepositional phrases? Have you varied the length and complexity of the sentences in each paragraph? Do the paragraphs begin and end repetitively? This is an area where only practice will help: write, read, listen, and ask a good editor occasionally for her comments.
6. The way to write a book is to actually write a book. --Anne Enright
Like writing itself, large projects are easy to talk about and yet there are hundreds of reasons to avoid beginning them (or finishing them once begun.) Don't be worried about failure or what other people may think: one of the worst regrets in life isn't failure, but never attempting the things you really wanted to do. So try, and trust that the process will teach you a great deal, which is the best reason for doing new things.
7. Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven't written yet. -- Roddy Doyle
It's no gift to creative types that we can now search the entire planet and find out who's already done the exact thing we thought would make us unique; in fact it doesn't take much more than a trip to the local mega-bookstore to become paralyzed. When I first started as a freelance graphic designer, my father, a businessman, gave me the excellent advice, "Don't worry about the competition, just do what you do as well as you can." It's the same in the arts: we have to shut the door, sit down at the desk, and do what we are meant to do, being true to ourselves and not worrying about everybody else.
8. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving. --Neil Gaiman
In art, we leave artifacts that trace our development both as artists and human beings. When I look back at my old journals and early essays, they embarrass me, but I also find I have compassion and greater understanding for the person I was then, and am now. Lately I've been reading all of Joseph's Conrad's novels; the earlier ones are raw and halting works-in-progress, written by a young man finding his way. Very few of us will burst onto the scene with a brilliant first novel. Life is about process much more than it is about accomplishment and laurels; we're here to learn and to grow. So it's important to do one's best, and then let it go and move on, using the limitations we've identified and struggled with as challenges for the next project.
9. Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it. -- David Hare
What is "style" anyway? I put this enigmatic comment of Hare's in the list because I wanted to think about it more myself. Young writers always worry about developing their own style, often with unfortunate results. I think it's more important to just write rather than to focus on being inimitable. One's genuine style tends to emerge over time, and except for some particularly quirky examples, the better ones tend to be fairly subtle. Less, I think, is more.
10. Have humility. -- Al Kennedy
I like Kennedy's whole list, because she pricks the balloon of self-importance that afflicts so many writers, and also acknowledges that writers actually do live in relationship with other people. She suggests that we listen to others and learn from them, but also know ourselves well enough to run from destructive advice. Instead of using family and friends as fodder, she gently encourages us to write in a way that honors the people closest to us. Too many writers and artists get caught up in an egotistical game and forget, until it's too late, that we're here to live a whole life where art doesn't always come first. Is it possible to be in relationships, to be responsible and loving toward others, and still find the time and energy time to write? Can we avoid turning our fears and disappointments against ourselves, as well? Is it possible to be a dedicated writer and not leave destruction in our wake? These are pretty important questions to ask.
Finally, Kennedy takes us back to where we began: Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go. -- Al Kennedy
The recent flap between Amazon, Apple, and MacMillan over rights and payments for making titles available on Amazon's Kindle vs. Apple's new iPad has spawned a lot of talk about the future of the publishing industry. Contrary to the loud gnashing of traditional publishers' teeth, an article by Steve Pearlstein, in the Washington Post, takes a rosy view, saying that "what looks like death is actually progress."
"It will still be years before e-book technology matures and a sustainable business model emerges for the publishing industry. In the meantime, you'll hear lots of moaning and groaning about how the quality of writing and editing will decline, browsing for books will become a lost art, authors and their agents will be forced into poverty, and consumers will get hosed. Don't believe any of it for a minute."
Pearlstein, a business columnist and apparent Darwinian capitalist, says markets "have their flaws but in the long run are good at executing technological transformations." Execution is a good word, because the corpses from this revolution are already piling up. Pearlstein is right, I think, in saying that best-selling authors will be one of the winners, bypassing publishers and agents to sell directly to readers and, of course, cutting much more lucrative deals for their work in the process. But what about the rest of his arguments?
"Other authors will turn to smaller, more specialized publishing houses that will offer smaller advances but bigger royalties and will be built, as they once were, around great editors. Publishers will sell their books through competing online distributors and traditional hard-copy bookstores, the latter of which will continue to exist not only as places to browse and socialize, but also as places to have printed on demand. Backlists will be infinite, pricing will be dynamic, and more copies of more books will be read and sold."
That's fine if you're Anne Rice or Steve Jobs. It's even OK if you're Barnes&Noble. But if we stop talking about books as a commodity and talk instead about writers and readers, and the editors who have traditionally helped good books become better, this vision of "progress" looks much more like a fleet of bulldozers razing an historic neighborhood and scattering its inhabitants for the "progress" that is represented by a faceless mall or highway interchange.
Unfortunately, I agree with Pearlstein that this trend is not only inevitable but well underway. Independent bookstores have already closed, smaller publishing houses have been bought, newspapers and magazines have folded, and a great many people have already lost their jobs. But to insist that quality is unaffected by this trend, and that it's a great boon for authors and readers, is to disregard a huge segment of writing that has formerly been part of publishing in a "macro" sense.
Yes, you'll be able to buy Gladwell's latest book for $9.99, but what if what you really want to read is the book by an African survivor of genocide adjusting to life in a North American city? And what if you're that woman - talented, hard-working, and in need of an advance, a sympathetic editor, and a publishing house willing to take a chance? What if you're a poetry lover and have enjoyed collecting and reading beautifully-produced small editions?
What Pearlstein is talking about is dog-eat-dog market capitalism, where the players and pundits pretend to be talking about books but all they're really talking about is money:
Business models will change, companies will come and go, and people will lose their jobs. But at the end of the process, there will be fewer people who will be paid higher incomes to produce a wider array of products at lower prices. There's a word for that -- progress -- and it's exciting to see it unfold right in front of us.
Is there any sort of silver lining here? When technology drives massive change, as has happened in my own professional life in the graphic arts industry, there's a complex winnowing and a widening split, with most of the profits concentrated in the hands of fewer players who emerge on top, just as Pearlstein predicts. The basic technology, though, spreads into the hands of more and more people. In 1981, when we bought our first computer, "desktop publishing" was still a term of the future; graphic designers like me were going to be put out of business by all the people who would be able to do our job, once they had access to the technology.
To some extent that was true. The people who were able and willing to adapt did survive, but when things shook out, it also became clear that the average person, office, or company could only "design" on an "average" level: professionals who learned to use the new technology continued to be in demand for higher-quality artistic web and publication design. As Oscar Peterson said about the first digital synthesizers, which he embraced, "It don't swing if you don't swing."
Writers will continue to need good editors, readers will still look for higher-quality writing. The ability to publish your book on Amazon is now open to anyone. The question is whether there is any money in it.
As happened in "desktop publishing," in the early years of a technology's availability, everyone wants to get on board, and that's certainly been true of writing and publishing on the web. There's even an egalitarian ethos that arises: let's all share our work for free. Of course, this also means that people in the existing system feel threatened, and try to denigrate and exclude those who are advocating the new systems.
It's obvious that as the larger publishing houses merge and find themselves squeezed financially, taking risks on experimental, innovative writing -- especially where the audience may be limited, as it is for most poetry, for example -- has already become less and less viable. Academic publishing and journals are becoming, in my opinion, an increasingly insular club. So, for truly creative writing, writing by people who don't fit into the existing systems, writing that crosses genres and boundaries and takes risks -- the sorts of things that small presses and independent bookstores once championed -- online publishing is one of the only remaining solutions. Doesn't some of that work also deserve to be in print? Yes. But we've yet to figure out how the economy of it can work for everyone's benefit.
There are opportunities, I believe, for a vibrant micro-publishing effort for high-quality, short-run books and journals, running out of sight of the warring Titans of the big-league publishing industry. Frankly, that's up to us, and much more discussion and experimentation are necessary before sustainable systems develop, and writers, editors, publishers and internet-based arts-community-builders are able to work creatively without burning out.
1) It may be a radical concept, but I think serious poets and writers (especially those emerging from blogging and online grassroots communities, rather than the academia and the traditional literary world) need to gain the self-respect and confidence to refrain from publishing all their work for free online, so that their collected works in print gain in value and desirability. More on this in a subsequent post.
2) Publishers will need to develop innovative ways of getting the word out about new titles, hand-in-hand with writers and journals. Distribution and marketing remain the most difficult areas for small publishers.
3) Readers need to support these efforts by buying the works of writers they read and admire on the web, perhaps using more of their book-buying dollars for short-run books and chapbooks, and using the library more for mass-market titles.
Nobody is going to get rich, but everyone stands to benefit. The kind of cut-throat competition that makes headlines has no place here; we all need each other. Without the development of a mutually-sustaining micro-economy for short-run editions of poetry, essays, and prose, we risk losing the ability to preserve these voices and this kind of writing. People will continue to write, but their work will flicker into and out of our consciousness, disappearing shortly after it's posted on the web.
And that, in my view, is not progress at all.
The latest news and commentary about our plans, events, authors, and titles!