November 4th, 2011 by Will Entrekin

Occupy Publishing

Yesterday, I caught Chuck Wending’s post over at his Terrible Minds site, “Writers Are the 99%.” Interesting post about the marginalization of writers in industry and culture.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, and especially with regard to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I fully understand the Occupy Wall Street movement. I identify with the protestors and their dissatisfaction, for sure; until this past May, I was under-employed for going on three years, and that despite a master’s degree (albeit in writing, which isn’t the most useful/applicable of graduate degrees). And I generally agree that corporations’ actions in the past thirty or forty years have been rather deplorable, and have contributed to a largely class-based social struggle.

I honestly think the idea of privilege–usually attributed to gender, race, and sexuality–is more attributable to class. But before I digress . . .

I think the problem is related to the idea of the War on Terror. Follow me here: we got scared, and because we got scared, we declared war on a noun, and we basically ran around shooting and bombing people because we really weren’t sure what to do otherwise, but it was cathartic and it might have made us feel safe so long as we never considered it was really just an illusion of safety.

The threat was mostly ill-defined, but we could fight the fear.

Now, people feel dissatisfied. Angry. Anxious. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the economy. Distrust of leaders.

It’s similar to the way we felt after September 11th, if not quite so immediate mostly because there was no attack. Maybe we don’t quite know how to fix it, but we know there’s something we need to fix, so we want to do something.

Like Occupy Wall Street.

Wall Street is really no more concrete than Terror. It’s metonymy. That’s when you say the Crown and refer to the entire British government. Wall Street is corporate greed and a corrupt financial sector and income disparity and the death of the American dream, just as Terror was burning buildings and taking off our shoes in airports and the possibility of another attack and some type of xenophobia.

I’m not sure Occupying Wall Street will have any more effect on ameliorating class issues than invading Iraq prevented terrorist attacks. I do think it’s more useful, though, mainly because it’s peaceful (if angry) and cathartic (if tense), and because I get the sense Obama is the sort of leader who listens to this. The partisan bickering in Congress is really not his fault. I bet some days he’s as frustrated as everyone else.

And that’s pretty frustrated, isn’t it?

In a way, I think the people involved with Occupy Wall Street–in whatever sense they are involved, be it standing with a sign or trying to increase awareness in the media and elsewhere–feel a sense of the marginalization Chuck discusses in his post. I think that’s the heart of it. It’s less about justice and income and money and etc. than it is about ending marginalization. The 99% are marginalized in society. They are foreclosed and evicted from their homes. Charged to access the money they’ve saved.

Marginalization is insidious. It’s often neither explicit nor overt. It’s creepy and lurky and shadowy, and that probably makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist, but really it goes back to that idea of privilege, which is also often insidious. Something someone maybe doesn’t recognize even as it occurs because it’s so subtle. As Wendig notes in that post:

Writers are not considered part of the larger ecosystem. Creativity and art are afforded little value in today’s corporate culture. It’s a lie, of course — writers are everywhere. Our work is ever-present yet our role remains unconsidered. The written word is a powerful support structure, and it’s everywhere you look. Magazines, billboards, instruction manuals, marketing copy, and, oh, I dunno, the entire Internet. Nearly everything begins with the written word, and yet, despite this significant contribution, writers and other creatives exist as a marginalized group. Further, our support system is eroding.

It seems to me that the feeling there has much in common with the feeling those people occupying Wall Street have.

So what do we do?

*

Beginning, arguably, after the turn of the 20th century and exploding at its end, bookselling became an increasingly cloistered business venture, and the landscape of its execution changed to become almost unrecognizable. People consistently use the term “traditional publishing” for the late-20th century model of production and distribution.

According to Dictionary.com, “tradition” means:

the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice:

The problem with this is two-fold.

  1. In the brave new world of digital distribution and the explosion of online reading, why would we want to continue to abide by the statements and beliefs implemented at a time when those mechanisms didn’t exist? Put another way: if you want to sell on iTunes, would you seek advice from someone who’s sold only cassettes?
  2. The statements and beliefs in place were reinforced during the late-20th century and largely didn’t exist before them, which means that “traditional publishing” is anything but. If you’re going to consider statements and beliefs handed down from generation to generation . . well, sorry, but the great authors whose work has survived and who published their own work would be good to consider here. Poe. Twain. Thoreau. Williams.

Chuck advocates a diverse approach to publishing. He publishes some stuff on his own, and others with companies like Angry Robot Press.

So, too, did Edgar Allan Poe. Published stuff on his own and with companies, I mean. Not that he went with Angry Robot Press.

It seems like people are trying to make “traditional publishing” mean:

  • Getting an agent. But getting an agent is new, at least in agents’ current form, which might correlate at least roughly to the development that corporate publishers stopped accepting unagented manuscripts. Basically offloading the slush pile to literary agents, which mean that agents fulfill for publishers roughly the role interns and editorial assistants used to. There’s more to being an agent, of course, but maybe less so from publishers’ perspective. Publishers empowered agents.
  • Getting an editor. Except, more and more, the days of Maxwell Perkins & Scott Fitzgerald and Gordon Lish & Raymond Carver are basically over. I’ve read myriad editors complain that their jobs are less and less about editing and more about acquiring–that is, finding manuscripts (via agents) and taking them to the marketing team and the other people who can say yes to buying a book.
  • Getting on bookstores’ shelves. Chain bookstores are not exactly new, but really, the boom of Barnes & Noble, Walden, B. Dalton, and Borders (and their consolidation among each other) was one of the major things that begat the late-20th century model. It worked. Publishers got manuscripts to print, then went to bookstores to distribute them. Except that’s less the case now. Of those four large-ish chains, only one exists anymore. And it’s making less money selling books than it is selling the device it created to read books on.

I’m not saying publishers and agents and editors (especially editors) have no place in books.

What I am saying is that publishing has changed. A lot.

*

I’d also argue that some of these changes have served to shift power from creators to sellers. That some of these developments have helped marginalize writers (and writing) in the context of the publishing industry.

But I’m reminded here of Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” I’m also reminded of my friend Cynthia, who once advised me, back at a point when I had a girl problem, that “Girls will only let them play the games you let them.”

It seems like part of the Occupy movement is akin to the movie Network (“I’m mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”).

Partly, in other words, revoking permission. For too long, we’ve sat by and taken it. For too long, too many people have gotten away with too much. No longer.

Maybe the best way, in this case, to Occupy Publishing is to become it.

And that’s easier now than ever before.

Comments

One Response to “Occupy Publishing”
  1. It’s true writers are marginalized — and some are too happy to let themselves be treated like crap for the sake of seeing their book on that Barnes & Noble shelf for a few months. I’m personally not sure where I stand in all of that, being on the verge of self-publishing and, with each passing day, wondering why I’d ever want to deal with normal publishers as they are now. I’m a part of an art site (deviantART) where many young and hopeful writers talk about when they’ll land an agent and then get published by a New York publisher. It sounds nice, but when you try to bring in the facts, they suddenly flip out on you. They love their image of publishing, and nothing you say can shift that. What’s worse is some of those authors have come back without rights to their first novels because they went with the wrong publisher — or worse, they paid money to a vanity press. It’s sad.

    And I didn’t know some of the classics self-published (or at least the equivalent) their own work. It makes sense though; some of them weren’t celebrated as classics until after their death. Long after.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: