5 March 2014

Covering the Territory

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:57 am

This one scientific study, this one business, this one war, this one church: each individual creation is simultaneously a part of a larger reality and a separate reality in its own right. How does the reality of the larger category of Science, Business, War, Church shape the way you create this particular instantiation?

Say I want to write a novel. All the novels ever written comprise the larger reality of The Novel. There are abstract properties that apply to most novels: they are fictional, they are written by one person, they’re pretty long, there are characters, there are stories involving the characters. There are novel-writing skills: good writing technique, imagination, character development, dialogue. There are subcategories of novels, the “genres” of fiction: science fiction, romance, inspirational, literary. Then there is the environment where novels “live”: publishers, bookstores, the reading public. There’s what the customers want out of a novel: characters they can relate to, some sex and violence, snappy dialogue, straighforward story development.

Then there is my novel. A man is sitting at an outdoor café table. It’s southern France. It’s raining, late afternoon. He’s sitting by himself, drinking a beer. Just like every afternoon. He’s distracted, lost in thought – he’s just heard disturbing news from a distant friend. After a while he realizes that there’s a woman standing across from him, greeting him by name. She extends her hand…

This is the reality as it exists inside this particular novel, a novel that isn’t even written yet, a reality that’s being summoned into existence out of the formless void of the individual imagination. I’ve read plenty of novels, I’ve worked on my skills: now I’m writing this novel, creating this one idiosyncratic creation. I’m totally immersed in this emerging reality that’s taking shape around me. To me as I write there are no other novels: there’s only this one.

Say I’ve finished writing the novel. There it sits in the agent’s slush pile, one manuscript among hundreds, thousands, millions. What’s distinguishes mine from the rest? Perhaps nothing: it’s a product of the novel-writing industry. It’s a cottage industry comprised of hundreds of thousands of individual practitioners working in relative isolation. From forty thousand feet my novel is identical to every other novel.

I can approach the work of writing a novel in one of two ways. I can think about where my novel sits in the larger reality of The Novel: the component parts, the skills, the genres, the market. I want to make my novel enough like everyone else’s so that it’s attractive to the publishing industry and the reading public, but different enough that it stands out from the competition. Or I can think about the guy getting up from his café table to greet the woman. Does he kiss her extended hand, shake it, grasp it tenderly? What does he say to her? Does she join him for a beer? Why has she come?

In my view, the only escape from Baudrillard’s world of the simulacra, of copies without originals, of representations without realities, is to ignore The Reality and to create this particular reality. Instead of seeing a world overwhelmed by more and more of the same, you find – or you create – a formless void where nothing exists except pure unprecedented possibility. Are there any formless voids left in a world inundated by mass-produced simulacra of everything under the sun? From forty thousand feet, no. But right here, right now, the guy at his café table rises to greet the woman. He bumps his leg on the table, sloshing just a little of the beer out of his glass, but neither of them notices. The man reaches out to take the woman’s extended hand as the waiter stands by the open door of the café, empty tray in hand, watching the motorcycle as it splashes its way between the double-parked cars toward the sea…

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The preceding is an exact replica of this post, dated 4 October 2006. Is it, like Menard’s Quixote, different now, maybe even better, more original than the original?


2 March 2014

A Populist Yet Elitist Alt Model for the Book Biz

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:12 pm

Reading what the literary agents say they’re looking for in a novel, I’m struck by how similar and bland these wish lists are. They want excellence, which generally comes down to a distinctive voice, sympathetic characters, and stories so compelling they make the agent miss her next subway stop (several used this same image of compellingness). In making your inquiry, you should be able to blurb your book in a single paragraph and synopsize it in a single page or at most two — straightforward linear narratives would seem best suited to this sort of punchy summary. Are these really the indicators of a good book, or are they features that make a book easy to sell?

There’s no good reason why individual readers should have to pay for books. A reader does not “consume” a book: after it’s been read, the book remains intact, available to be read again and again. Public libraries use tax revenues to buy communal copies of books that are made available without charge to all residents. Electronic books cost nothing to print, distribute, and warehouse, and so the marginal cost of downloading each individual copy is zero.

Suppose that, instead of selling books directly to individual readers, the publisher sold exclusively to libraries. Each library would pay the average retail price of a new hardback — $25 or so — to acquire an e-copy of the book. Then anyone who wants not just to borrow the book but to own a copy can download it onto their electronic reading device for no charge through the library.

Let’s say that 600 libraries buy a copy of a given book: that’s $25 x 600 = $15,000. Let’s say that it costs around $3,000 to edit and format a novel: $15K – $4K = $12K net. Allocate another $1000 for informing the libraries about the new book: that leaves $11,000. There are no investors or marketing people to take a cut of the proceeds, no printers or distributors or wholesalers or bookstores to reimburse. All $11K goes to the author. That’s just about what the average published novelist makes these days via royalties, but it’s earned  on 10,000 copies of a novel printed, distributed, and sold one at a time, the old-fashioned way.

The main problem with the library scheme is visibility. How would readers find out about these books, freely available for them to own through their local public library? There would be no hard copies to browse at the local bookstore, no promotional campaigns pushing the latest titles in the mass media. Not very many readers patronize their local libraries, so library-based educational campaigns would have limited impact. On the other hand, the publisher would make its $25 per library copy regardless of how many patrons actually download the book. And if librarians acquire new titles based at least in part on the enduring archival quality of the collection, then the publisher’s sales pitch would rely more on the excellence and distinctiveness of the book than on its appeal to fleeting pop-cultural tastes.

Still, it’s not like the traditional publishing industry is going to cease and desist in order to make way for this new, less expensive, more populist yet more elitist alternative. Despite perpetual lamentations about the end of literacy, book sales in the US generate around $30 billion annually. The library-based distribution system could make those same titles available to everyone for a tenth the aggregate price. Authors of best-sellers wouldn’t like it, but there aren’t very many of those. Nearly all other published novelists would make just as much money as they do in the current system, while making their books freely available to a potentially much wider readership.

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