Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Giving It All Away

Two recent stories about authors trying opposite approaches to find audiences in a way that doesn’t necessarily involve monetary compensation: First, author Lewis Shiner is making his short fiction available for free on his web site, the Fiction Liberation Front. He explains why in his manifesto:

There's been no living to be made from short stories in my lifetime. But short fiction endures because it provides a way of introducing writers to new readers, and because there are stories that need to be told at that length.

Getting short fiction published is notoriously difficult, because the supply of short stories far, far exceeds the demand of literary journals, and furthermore, the supply of literary journals far exceeds the demand of readers. I’m not just saying that because so far I have failed at this. Literary journals are almost always produced by universities (Virginia Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, etc.) or by idealistic young writers who knowingly attempt to buck that reality (n + 1, A Public Space). Even McSweeney’s, which by any definition is successful, is teetering on the edge of insolvency, even if it’s through no fault of their own:

As you may know, it's been tough going for many independent publishers, McSweeney's included, since our distributor filed for bankruptcy last December 29. ... Like most small publishers, our business is basically a break-even proposition in the best of times, so there's really no way to absorb a loss that big.

All of this is a round-about way of saying that Shiner’s decision to give away his work isn’t as crazy or revolutionary as it sounds. Writers look at lit journals as a way to get read, not as a way to make money. And the internet, if harnessed properly, is a fantastic way to get read. (Which then hopefully translates into purchases of actual books.) I can see the attraction of not having to read a form rejection letter ever again.

Compare all this to Jeff Gomez’s post on Print is Dead about neo-beat writer Alan Kaufman, who has very different, non-internet ideas about what writers should be doing:

After saying that he [Kaufman] doesn’t “believe writers are going to be content having their works published on the Internet,” Kaufman expands this idea by explaining that “I was looking through a book of mine from years ago and it had little pieces of food on it and I remembered the meal that I had eaten.” So I guess that, in addition to curling up in the bath with a book, if there’s enough food in the margin you can also treat yourself to a little snack (try doing that with an eBook). ...

“What’s going to happen, I believe, and I’m very excited by this prospect, is that writers will form their own collectives, as was done in the Sixties [and publish their own books]. I don’t think I’m a dinosaur in thinking this way.”

Kaufman is probably letting his nostalgia for old paperbacks and the Haight-Ashbury scene color his judgment, but there is something to be said about the robust, low tech experience of reading a printed book. After all, books are cheap, portable, require no batteries and work great in almost any lighting condition. But in the end they are physical objects with the limitations inherent to that state - words in a book are far more difficult and expensive to replicate and transport than words on a web site.

But Gomez is more optimistic about the author’s future with the internet than I am. The robust community of lit bloggers still revolves around the printed word (and often a geographical location), and not around any new, social, collaborative way of writing. And exposure for an author through the short form - either on the internet or in printed literary journals - does not automatically translate into money. That comes from publishing long-form fiction, which isn’t practical to read on a computer screen. So for the foreseeable future, I think fiction authors’ money will overwhelmingly be made the same way it is now: through physical books and traditional publishers.

[via Shaken & Stirred and Print is Dead]

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

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