Brave New (Writing) World: The Rules Are Changing

Introductory Note: I spend a lot of time these days thinking about where writing and publishing are going, so I decided to start blogging about the ideas I run across as we make our way through this period of profound change. I will still blog on warriorship  from time to time.

We’re living through the greatest revolution in communications technology since the invention of movable type and while it’s fascinating, even exhilarating, it has also turned the world upside down. Book publishing, newspapers, magazines, television, radio — all are confronting the fact that the rules that made their enterprises profitable ten years ago no longer apply. And nobody really knows what the new rules are going to be. Nobody. Not the experts, not the established publishers, not even The New York Times.

And not me. Especially not me.

New media expert Clay Shirky described the current situation clearly in a blog post on the crisis in newspapers:

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.

Newspapers are broken. Book publishing is broken. Even television is broken — just look the NBC/Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien fiasco. Shirky, talking about newspapers but making points that can easily be adapted to other media and industries, goes on to observe:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. … When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

By the same token, society doesn’t need print publishers, but it does need writing — all kinds of writing: fiction, poetry, and the whole pantheon of work lumped under nonfiction. And to get writing, you need writers. (You also need editors, but I’ll save my paean to editors for another post.)

We writers are simple souls. We basically want four things:

  • To write.
  • To get published.
  • To get read.
  • To get paid. (I’ve heard there are some literary fiction writers who think it’s déclassé to get paid, but the rest of us would really like to make a little dough.)

Those with the burning desire to write find the time and discipline to turn stuff out. And while it’s still a struggle to get accepted by publications with good reputations (online and off), our brave new high tech world allows anyone to become a publisher.

Ah, but getting read is much trickier. Can people find your book in the stores? Do people actually read the online magazine that accepted your work?

And as for getting paid, well, I have a day job in legal publishing (though I don’t know what the future portends for that kind of work, either). In the case of short fiction, pay rates seem to be falling rather than rising, and except for the occasional blockbuster, I don’t think novel advances put people on easy street either.

So what’s a writer to do, especially one like me with a reputation based in short fiction and a few prestigious small press publications who’d like to build a larger career? Well, I’m certainly not going to give up trying to get a novel published by a major publisher, but I’m not going to put all my eggs in that basket, either. It takes a lot of effort, and I’m not sure that even if I get a contract it will advance my career the way it might have ten or fifteen years ago.

I’m here on Book View Cafe, contributing to Book View Press anthologies, publishing a slew of free flash fiction, and working on getting up a couple of e-books to sell. It looks like there’s a future in e-books these days — the electronics are finally catching up — so maybe our writers’ co-op will be one of the answers out there.

I’m also still working with the print small press, mostly because they’re publishing so much of the work I find worth reading. The change in technology has lowered the barriers to all kinds of publishing, and the benefits in terms of good books available are enormous. But most of the publishers are engaged in labors of love and have their own day jobs. Your guess is as good as mine about whether the print small press will survive.

Along with that, I’m combing the news and blogs for every idea or rumor out there, trying to guess what’s going to happen next.

Stay tuned.

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Shadow ConspiracyRocket Boy and the Geek GirlsNancy Jane has stories in both of the anthologies recently published by Book View Press: “The Savage and the Monster” in The Shadow Conspiracy and “Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars” in Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls.

Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press. All fifty of the short-short stories she posted as part of her year-long Flash Fiction Project are available for free here.

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Brave New (Writing) World: The Rules Are Changing — 2 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading A Reporter’s Life, Walter Cronkite’s memoir of a life as a journalist, and thinking a lot about journalism in the World of Today™. We may not need newspapers, but journalists need some of the infrastructure that newspapers (and radio and TV networks) provide: the backlog of information, the funding to send people out to get firsthand data, and the (theoretical, at least) institutional understanding of the difference between reporting and editorializing. Maybe all this stuff is going the way of hot type, but I hope not.

  2. Yes, journalists need infrastructure. And given that good journalism requires digging for facts and knowing a lot about what you cover (I have to cover an area I don’t know much about at a conference tomorrow, so I’m spending most of today learning about it), it needs the ability to pay for time that doesn’t translate into the written word.

    But what I think Clay Shirky is getting at is that the current model of newspapers is not the only way to provide infrastructure, but we don’t yet know what the new infrastructure is going to be. Right now nonprofit models are common, but since all nonprofits depend on fundraising from people and corporations making lots of money somewhere else, this model makes me uncomfortable.