November 16, 2012 by Jen
I often think that I have something really earth-shattering to say about the publishing industry, and that if people would just listen, I could solve everyone’s problems. But then, as my half-baked ideas are still forming themselves in my head, John Barber from The Globe and Mail goes ahead and writes exactly what I was thinking, except more thoughtfully, more concisely and with a far better eye for business matters.
Listen, I never claimed to be good at the big ideas of commerce. I don’t fill out my own tax return. It takes me days to fill out a passport application, for the love of Pete. My sister is a PhD candidate in business. I must continually disappoint her.
I have been thinking very hard, however, about television. Wait, before you stop reading, this is totally relevant to publishing, I swear! Ten years ago, people were calling for the death of television, particularly scripted shows that cost a lot of money to produce. People were watching sensational reality series (I admit, So You Think You Can Dance is a recurring event on my PVR, but it’s a dance show and is therefore cultural, right, RIGHT?) or they were sitting in front of their laptops every night, cruising through YouTube. No one watched excellent shows like Boomtown, and the shows died.
But then, scripted shows made a comeback. Mad Men. 30 Rock. Little Mosque on the Prairie. People wanted good stories and were willing to sit down and watch them, to make them destination viewing. That’s not to say that reality shows have disappeared since then or that YouTube isn’t still growing bigger and bigger. But what’s happened is that there’s a two-tier system, with advertisers willing to pay for the highly-viewed top tier, and no one paying much at all for the also highly-viewed lower tier.
So my question is why can’t publishing do the same thing?
Yes, there are thousands and thousands of writers out there willing to disseminate their work for free. And, yes, the quality can be patchy. After all, there is no publisher acting as a literary gatekeeper. This is fine. This is what sharing and living in the online world is about. We are looking for connection, as writers who are looking for readers, or readers who are looking for other readers who share their bookish obsessions. That’s why reading and writing are flourishing online. It’s just that no one is getting paid.
But there can also be another stream of writing that plays a very similar role to shows like Boardwalk Empire. These will be the books that provide the stories people crave. Salman Rushdie might be the most active author ever on Twitter, but he doesn’t write books for free. And nor should he. His are the stories that the world will always want and will always pay for. He will always need a publisher. And the publisher will always need him.
What I’m saying is that both kinds of writing–the free and the not-so-free–can exist together. YouTube didn’t kill the television star. And the people who make it a point to watch The Vampire Diaries every week at the same time, can also be the very same people who spend two hours watching grainy, laughing baby videos on their smartphones (yes, I’ve done this and I am not ashamed). I’m reading Carnival by Rawi Hage right now. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes look for online erotica too. Shh. Don’t tell my mother.
Yes, the two writing worlds will collide, and do sometimes already. E.L. James accepted a publishing deal from Vintage after she had self-published online. Margaret Atwood publishes writing on Wattpad. But that’s good too, because cross-pollination means that writing is flourishing and that writers can use any medium they choose. Which is not to say, of course, that most writers wouldn’t take a big advance from a big publisher if they were offered one. Because most would. Because food costs money.
But what writers and publishers need to do right now is produce the best stories they can and trust that the people will come. We are all paralyzed with fear at what might happen next. No more. Books that are well-written, well-edited and well-designed will become destination reading, as long as we focus on giving readers the very best writing we can. Free reading is great, but a book you’ll have a lasting relationship with might just be worth paying for.