Thursday, September 25, 2014

Philosophy Thursday: The Evolving Publishing Industry, and Me

So far in this Philosophy Thursday series, I've discussed my place in the world, my views on fame and fortune, the nature of my universe, my ethics, the nature of violence and some specific examples thereof. But I've yet to write about the tie that binds all these threads together: what any of this has to do with my career specifically (as promised), and the publishing industry more generally.

It evolves

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It's probably no surprise to you that 'publishing' was not always a business. What may have begun as yarns told only aloud and handed down through successive generations turned into written scrolls, then to narratives copied through the means of the printing press, and eventually serialized stories printed in newspapers and then novelized with the help of a publisher.

A market turns into an industry. The activity of swapping stories has become a monster that supports authors, literary agents, book designers, printers, editors, publishing houses big and small, graphic artists and the fringe: shysters. And so it has been for a handful of centuries.

It won't come as any surprise to anyone even tangentially related to the publishing industry that it is again changing. has been in the news for months now as it battles with publishers and traditionally published authors. Self-published authors take sides. Everyone speculates over whether ebooks and ereaders are here to stay. And then there's folks like me: those out of the 'bleeding edge': publishing content for free on platforms like +Wattpad.

Rise Above

Of course, my interest in this debate has nothing to do with what's already been said. Authors published through traditional publishing houses are going to take the side of their publishers. I get that. They have contracts, they've been given advances. They have a stake in traditional publishing winning. Self-published authors are going to take Amazon's side. I get that as well. They've made a living through Amazon's business model, and they think it's a better living than they could have made otherwise. Everybody lines up according to where they have the biggest financial stake. It's unsurprising, predictable human nature.

But in this debate, I'd like to take some other factors into consideration. After all, I have yet to publish anything that will make me any money. I have no ties to Amazon (and their brethren Kobo Books, Apple iBooks and the like), I have no ties to a traditional publishing house. So I am interested in how to present my art to the public that will:

1. Be ethical towards my readers;
2. Make it widely available;
3. Honor the art itself;
4. In a way that serves my needs as a budding author.

Consideration #4

Consideration #4 is, of course, the most selfish of these. I'm going to start with this consideration because, even though I put it at the bottom of the list, I want you to know that I am not a completely self-sacrificing individual. I do have goals -- some of them lofty, some of them greedy. But my hope is that my other three considerations bring these goals into the realm of the ethical.

My wants

My wants as a budding author are quite another matter. This goes back to my first Philosophy Thursday post. I wish to see my books in print: complete with leather-bound covers and embossed titles. I want to be the most renowned author the world has ever known. There's the dream of the Nobel prize, the dream of blasting to the top of every global bestselling list. There's the prospect of selling more than Rowling (you could have written this, my mom once told me on reading a bit of Harry Potter). There's the thought of the Golden Ticket that is landing on the Oprah Show (yeah it doesn't exist anymore. What does that matter? We're talking pie in the sky here). And there's the dream of the book tour to end all book tours, more like a world tour a rock star would embark on rather than an author of fiction -- complete with a rider that makes all green M&Ms strictly verboten for no real reason.

My needs

But that's not really what I need, is it? That's taking up too much room, strangling other potential voices in the literary scene. When I look back on the past five years of my life or so, I can see that I can get along with very little. At most, it would be nice to be able to cover my living expenses (which are not so very great) with my writing. At worst, it would be nice to be able to continue on the way I have been: to scrape out the time between the day job hours to write.

That's what makes me happiest. That's when I am at my best. When I am writing, it doesn't matter whether or not I have an audience, or whether or not I am paid for my work. If I am working on my writing for myself, and do not have to write to a pay check or have my talent be abused for others' purposes, I am content.

That's what I need most of all: to write.

Consideration #1

This one is most important for me. I want my readers to enjoy my stories. I think that in this game we call publishing, the two most important parties are the writer and the reader. Really, no one would have a job in publishing if not for this relationship.

I tend towards being idealistic (is that not yet apparent from what I've written so far?) and I've never been able to shake this belief that art should be free. Yes, I know! In a perfect world and so on, everyone needs to make a living, and so on! You're right. But I think when it comes time for publication, I am going to go (at least at the ebook level) with the 'pay what you can' route.

Look, I realize that I am in a privileged position. I can see that I have ample food, clean water, a roof over my head and clothes on my back. More than adequate medical care if I so require. I have very little in my life that I need to stress out about. And I understand also that not everyone can take this stance. Not everyone who yearns to write has the luxury to just give their stories away for free. And I wouldn't recommend anyone else follow me. We each have to do what feels right. We have to weigh the options and choose our path. I only want to explain to you the path that I've chosen.

Consideration #2

Having said all that, now I'm going to be completely hypocritical/paradoxical. Ah, well. What's (applied) philosophy without a good paradox, hm?

One of the very few problems I've come up against in using +Wattpad to publish my stories is that not everyone uses the platform. The readership is wide, sure, but when I talk to many of my friends and family (most of whom are not teenaged), they say that they find reading my story on that platform taxing.

My friends and family are a mix of people who use eReaders and those who prefer physical books. When I talk to the eReader bunch, I can assure them that in 2015, I will have an ebook copy of RoboNomics available for them to read. Independently published by yours truly, pay-what-you-like and it's yours to own.

But what can I say to the folks who crave a physical copy? For a long time I had nothing to say. For a long time I thought about print-on-demand services -- and frankly, that option is not totally off the table. But in case any publishing houses approach me for a deal, I'll definitely be telling them that I'd like to be a hybrid author.

This choice is predicated on something that may never happen, but it's also predicated on the fact that even though the publishing industry is changing, publishing companies, corporations and houses all still have one thing that they do better than anyone else can: produce physical books. And they are far more well equipped than I to deal with the eventual legal tangles involved in subsidiary rights: translation, movie options, merchandising if it ever goes in that direction.

Consideration #3

This one is even more esoteric. What do I mean when I say, honour the art itself? Well, I mean that I want to put my art into the world not only in a way that is as free as I can get, to get into the hands of readers, but also in a way that allows readers to play. I would be a traitor to my own ethics, and the themes that weave themselves throughout my stories, if I held onto the art too tightly. I want to allow for others to have their voices heard. And so I'll never quibble over fan fiction.

I know it may be getting ahead of myself to even think of the possibility of fan fiction. It may be arrogant of me to imagine that such a thing is, in the future, possible. I should be honoured that anyone at all wants to look at my work. But frame it more as a 'being prepared' thought experiment, if you will.

Life and art informs more art in complex, interacting ways. A line from a book, a character in a movie, a song. It's all fair game for the creative mind, even if we don't mean it to be. I'm not talking about plagiarism here, but instead the varied ways in which art forms come to life. In the past, Gilgamesh and Pyramus and Thisbe inspired Noah's Ark and Romeo and Juliet, respectively. Who's to say that fan fiction isn't just a modern day equivalent of these earlier homages? It's not my place to regulate the way that art is created. And so I'm not going to try.

The End

Oh my goodness. Do you know what? I've made it to the end. I've said all I want to say in this, my #PhilosophyThursday series. But you know, it was pretty successful. I'm proud of the results. I think I might try it again sometime. And perhaps sometime soon. I could go into more detail about all my tangential thoughts about what I've written so far. Or...

There is something bubbling in the back of my brain -- related to RoboNomics, I have the urge to write a non-fiction series about the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence. Whatta say? Would you enjoy that?