The Self-Pub, e-book Race to the Literary Bottom

Earlier this year, when the skies were still gray and the streets were still icy, and we were all, still, wondering when spring would be sprung, I attended a pricey publishing 'do in NYC. Called "Tools of Change," it held hopes for a tenacious writer such as myself, hopes of being able to meet and greet with some of the best minds in publishing, to network with fellow book geeks, to fully and frankly imbibe the rarefied air of the tech savvy literati that predominate the talk of what's hot and what's not.   

What I got, instead (after an admittedly enjoyable first session panel imploring publishers to see their industry as groups of real readers driven by the real love of real books), was a day spent in mind-numbing session after session of the whys and wherefores of school text book online collaboration in Denmark, thorough (and detailed, very, very detailed) walk throughs of font design, and lunch, which was something yummy, and Asian-spiced, with a considerable and enjoyable view. There was talk of code, and design, and book design, and book design for people with special needs (important, yes, and as a parent of two special needs children I do not discount its value), and there were literally more tech geeks per square foot than I'd seen in years. Not since my days of selling nonlinear editing software had I been so tech-geeked out.

Ironically, there were only two ingredients missing from this storied assembly of publishing industry professionals dedicated to distributing the printed word: writers, and readers. I seemed to have been the only one representing either of these groups, at least in an official capacity (one panel participant actually congratulated me on same). If one wants to understand what's wrong in American letters these days, why all of the great, experimental literature is either printed, distributed and too quickly forgotten, or imported from the singular content delivery continent otherwise known as "Neil Gaiman," one only needs to look upon the flush faces of those enthused about inside baseball conversations involving DRM, rights content management, and the latest and greatest way to hover a finger over a letter and hyperlink your way into multimedia heaven to see why. Instead of having conversations about what makes art good, we are  asked merely to read the tea leaves of market metrics and determine "what people want to read." Instead of writing, simply and honestly, in an entertaining style about life, as we experience it, as we have observed others experiencing it, as great writers for centuries have written timeless books, we are told to focus on "what starts a conversation." Publishers, the traditional gatekeepers in publishing, those who have historically helped put great works that push the boundaries of art in literature into the hands of readers, have consolidated, and re-consolidated again, to the point where they have become the WalMarts of the world of letters, carrying sure-fire best sellers, far too often shying away from embracing too loudly anything in adult fiction that doesn't carry a sub-text of sex, lies, or a YouTube-able videotape. This big box store mentality is carried over to big box store booksellers, those who can turn a profit in spite of Amazon's digital presence, those which also feature on their shelves the sure fire commercial hits. As The Guardian recently noted in its article on "Five Reasons to Support Your Local Indie Shop ," even established writers are having difficulty getting their experimental works published, and, "if you write a wildly experimental novel, the chances are you will be publishing it yourself." 

They follow up this thought by saying that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I respectfully disagree.

Self-publishing, as a business model, thrives on volume, and that volume most benefits the providers of content readers, especially Amazon, especially in its DRM-driven, walled in world of Kindle books . Unlike independent book stores that promote books for the love of good literature and which, financially and feasibly, can only carry a limited number of titles, the company that carries ebooks on its readers can do so with unlimited titles. An independent bookstore has a financial incentive to be known as a local institution that promotes good books that its local community of readers will enjoy; a company like Amazon that provides ebooks has a financial incentive to sell ereaders, as many as possible, and it does not matter what is read on those readers, what its artistic or literary merit is, it will be just as happy if you download and read a book on a family trip to Florida where your dog dies at Disneyland, as it will be if you purchase the next Will Self. The money is in the device upon which the title is being read, primarily, and secondarily in the content being read on it (paid or not). To survive in this brave, new digital world the writer also has incentives, to create books that are "conversation starters," to write works that - from the point of view of commercial publishers - are safe and sure bestsellers, or to self-publish, and swim in a small teacup in a sea of pulpy science fiction and vanity books, and to therefore spend more time marketing and less time writing, and when writing to spend less time on each individual work in order to create more content. When this happens, the quality of works reaching each reader goes down, it becomes more safe, more bland, and the works that would challenge that safety and blandness are drowned out by competing volume, and that is not any viable way for an industry based on a thriving, literary art community that continually challenges and questions itself to survive.