Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Response to Garrison Keillor's position that: When everyone's a writer, no one is

In this article Garrison Keillor bemoans the current and future state of publishing which has been inundated by self published authors. Since I happen to be a self published author (as well as one who has sold rights to my writing to publishers, thus putting me on both sides of fence) it may surprise you to learn that I in large part agree with the premise of Mr. Keillor's article. I didn't even need to be invited to a fancy Tribeca rooftop party surrounded by literary bigwigs each preening like the only rooster in a henhouse to reach the same conclusions. As it happens I was raised a lot closer to Tribeca than the windswept plains of Keillor's childhood, but like him I grew up in awe of real deal "book people". He has a number of years on me, but I too am old enough to recall the days of mailing a manuscript (even if not one typed on a manual typewriter) in a manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it, then hoping that I would eventually find a much smaller envelope in my mailbox with an acceptance letter in it. When Keillor writes "These are anti-elitist times, when mobs are calling for the downfall of pointy-head intellectuals who dare tell decent people what to think, but I admire the elite", I'm right there with him. Just as I watch NBA contests on TV rather than pick-up basketball in the park because my desire is to see the best of the best elevating it from a game to an art form, so too do I want to read the work of authors standing head and shoulder above the average person who may happen to own a pen and paper and have the ability to put down words, but surely this alone does not qualify one for the distinguished title of WRITER.

Self publishing has always been an option for those diligent enough to write a story to completion, but until recently it was not overwhelmingly commonplace. Once technological advances brought about the existence of publishing on demand, in essence allowing people to cost effectively print as small a quantity as one copy, the ballgame permanently changed and everyone who wanted in could become a player. The need to hone one's craft in order to write so impressively that it was inevitable they'd land an agent and then a publishing deal simply vanished. It's still a goal for many of course, but not a need for all. Now a person can write any old pile of gibberish, no editor ever need intervene with pesky suggestions or sound advice not to quit one's day job, and within a few mouse clicks they can become the published author of an electronic and/or printed book. Garrison Keillor laments this condition and expresses nostalgia for the days when only the chosen few were anointed by a passing of the torch, and his point is a valid one. Yet there are some critical issues he does not bother to make mention of, such as the fact that far before the irreverent emergence of self publishing, traditional publishing had fallen down on the job and made a mockery of its role.

The days I personally miss even though I didn't live during them are not when Garrison Keillor was getting his earliest books published, but further back in time when the primary goal of publishers was to find great talent and provide a platform for unique voices to make their marks upon the world of literature. Doing so typically led to the other necessary goal - making a profit. I'm talking about an era when publishing was not mostly about following whatever the latest hot trend was in order to make a quick buck. The mindset was not - Harry Potter is selling well so let's publish a ton of wizard books for teens. Oh wait, the Twilight series has caught on so let's publish a bunch of books about teen vampires. Hold up, it turns out people really like Swedish detectives now and Stieg Larrson is no longer around to write them, so let's round up as many imitators as can be found until the next trend emerges. And as for readers of color, in between Terry McMillan releases perhaps we'll publish a few other tan writers who do the most remarkable job of writing as similarly to Terry as humanly possible.

But the thing is, there are many examples, many many examples, I really could go on and on listing them, which show that in addition to being the realization of Mr. Keillor's worst fears, self publishing has resulted in the voices of remarkable authors being discovered by appreciative readers. It has also resulted in less remarkable authors with equally remarkable success stories nonetheless - such as the legions of soccer moms who bought copies of 50 Shades of Grey.  One might have to pick through some less than stellar work when reading books by self published authors to find the most enriching gems. But you know what - the same exact thing can be said about those who only read books put out by corporate publishers. And while big houses are mostly looking to sign the next writer and book that conforms to whatever the latest trend may be, many of the writers publishing themselves are demonstrating originality with their prose rather than going out of their way to write about a Swedish detective on the trail of a teenage vampire (hey, I might be on to something here) in order to grab an editor's attention and avoid their pile of slush.

In the end it doesn't matter whether a new title is put out by Random House or Fred's laptop, just as it doesn't really matter whether you end up reading it on your iPad or as a paperback. It doesn't matter if a writer attracts an audience by becoming a master of social media or has the luxury of sitting back and letting a big company's marketing department do the bulk of the heavy lifting so he can focus on what he is supposed to be best at - writing. No difference is made whether you find out about a book because of a New York Times book review, an online review written by the average Joe or Josephine, a book blog composed in a college dorm room or homemaker's den, from a video trailer unearthed while surfing the internet, or because the cover caught your eye while you walked past a shelf in a brick and mortar shop. What matters is that there are still talented writers out there willing to pour their blood, sweat and tears on to a page, then hope that somehow, in some way, that page in some format manages to make its way before your eyes. After that, let you the reader be jury and judge who decides if the story is worthy enough to make its way into your heart.

Those who love Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books and can't wait for the next one to come out need not worry because every major publisher in existence will put out several Twilight-like titles for your enjoyment until the next installment of the real deal is ready. As for those who are looking for a great new literary discovery, an original rather than a purposeful copy, you'll find that traditional publishers are still putting out some of those too. But since they aren't guaranteed money makers, in any given year more books fitting this description will be written than will be published by industry giants. No need for concern though, because in this day and age the Everyman can build his own platform to showcase the fruit of his labor, and once built adventurous readers just may come and decide for themselves if the time has arrived to end the current trend and begin the new one.

- Roy Pickering (Author of Patches of Grey: A Novel written with all I had in me to give)
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