A Compendium of My Confusion on the Future of Publishing
As a person particularly attached to traditional publishing (my first book was traditionally published). And even with all the ways traditional publishing has failed writers and readers (and these are well-documented), I never really thought of going any other route. But the world has opened so widely. It’s changed so immeasurably. And I’ve begun to feel that I too must open my mind. I’ve been forced to rethink everything. And its a huge paradigm shift. I fear so much that it is moving further from good writing and closer to the hegemony of those with millions of social media followers. I’m gonna try to be optimistic and think that like pop music, and other forms of monetized entertainment, the good ones still sneak through — even in a cynical world.
But here’s the rub. The biggest pushback I get with my writing rarely has to do with my actual writing. It has to do with my “platform.” Beyond my writing, which is generally well-regarded, is where all the difficulties lay. (And, by the way, I get this regardless of my ‘respectable’ Twitter following. I imagine asking an agent or editor what I could do to “fix” or “adjust” or “redirect” my book proposal. But I know the answer already, I know that the criticisms so often lie in the world that exists outside the writing. How is the agent going to ensure the editor that the book has a readership? How will the editor pitch it to her team?
Yes, granted, market considerations are always intrusive on our arts and entertainments. But now, it isn’t simply that you have a potentially profitable book or project, it’s that you have to prove you have a large audience ALREADY. Authors must be celebrities before they publish — or, sadly, they may never the chance to publish. Is it just me that is feeling the massive of weight of more shit heaved on the writer’s shoulders? I can’t just write books or articles. That is no longer acceptable. I have to blog and Tweet and Instagram and Youtube. Every publisher will ask for this data and it is certainly my fault if I can’t deliver the goods.
Now, I am indeed grateful for every writing experience in which anyone has read anything I have written. I still marvel at the kindness I feel from people at their decision to read something I’ve written. I imagine it’s a lot like the feeling chefs experience in cooking food for people. At the same time, I can only split my attention so much. Nonfiction book proposals are big endeavors — the research (for absolutely everything), the business acumen necessary, the complete assurance that your voice is all over it. Every proposal I’ve every written is about 100 pages at some point — certainly trimmed from there, but still, it ain’t a synopsis. And I need to be tweeting and building a “social media presence” the wh0le time? Some of us have jobs too! Is there a point in which I will have some sort of Luddite breakdown and begin to only write on paper? Or scrolls? Or tufts of bark? Just where is this going? I know I’m having trouble getting a handle on it.
Is it possible that many of the pitfalls experienced with traditional publishers can be avoided by going a different route? Are the factors easier or harder to control? These were the things I set out to discover as I began my research into the many ways I could fund, write and publish my next nonfiction book. We’ve all heard the wonderful stories, the stories of books like The Martian and other self-published miracles. (I chose to discuss only crowdfunding here, as self-publishing and its variants is a whole encyclopedia of its own.)
I am an old enough writer to know that every fantasy you have had about being a “famous writer” is skewed, wrong, exaggerated, false or all of the above. Writers know. It’s a hard run. For those of you who can absolutely find the exact right words to transforms the swirling wanderings of your mind into prose, Mazel! But not all of us “wake up like this.”
I’m trying to think in new ways, not just the same old marketing bullshit that we see repeated continuously in the “how to use social media” flotsam. But what about books themselves? What about how they are written? What about ebooks with embedded media? What about author-led social media book clubs? Wow, this is all starting to sound great. Wait. Wait. Wait. Shit. I have to eat and pay rent and work. I may not be able to launch my own full scale PR campaign. That is, along with actually writing the book.
Now, my very sustenence is a hinderance. Financial and time concerns do their dance on our lives as they always do. And I am forced to admit that I may need some help. And, as we all know, expert help costs money.
Then, I began to think about the range of my book, who it would inspire or appeal to and I started to think about those early writers who had “benefactors.” That really is the essence of crowdfunding — it’s the modern day equivalent of Fredrich Engels financial and intellectual support of Karl Marx. People who believe in you and your idea enough to give you a helping hand. There’s something kind of beautiful about it actually.
I respect my audience, have no fear of them, so why not reach out to them? Ask them for support. What is there to lose? In the end, this was the conclusion I came to — why not? What do I have to lose? It could be a great way to prove a test market to an agent or publisher. Or a good way to spread the word about the idea. But even if no one pledged a single cent, all it cost was some time — time in which I probably should have been trolling trending twitter hashtags anyway.
For nonfiction books in particular, there is often lots of information needed to tell the story. Maybe the “crowd” can help in that respect too? Maybe it can open up a world of ideas and stories? For instance, take a book like Barbara Ehrenright’s book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America in which she goes ‘undercover’ as a minimum wage worker. She began her experiment in 1998, so did all her research in the real world. But maybe today, broken-hearted liberals like me would help fund a book like that? I know I would — to hear about that experience, to learn these humans’ stories. Certainly, for my book, Righteous Anger: Why American Women Should Be Pissed and What We Can Do About It, I am telling the story of our nation through the personal stories of the women who experience it. While I troll through online comments, I would love to reach out to some of these women and get their full stories or (gasp!) even speak to them or interview them. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. Maybe, though, crowdfunders would be more open to emailing with me or telling me their stories if they already know the project’s logistics from the campaign? I do believe that if people invest in an idea, the psychology is different. I’m pretty sure Kickstarter supporters are much more likely to purchase books than Twitter followers.
On this count, the publishers and marketers are right. But that clearly doesn’t extend to all social media. Crowdfunding has found this nice niche between art and commerce. And that is the space in which my books live. It may not be for everyone, but I am learning that it’s possible this new-fangled world ain’t so scary.
Wait. Crap. Now I have to create and shoot a 3 minute video for my crowdfunding campaign. And link it to everything. And post a clip on Instagram…
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