A Few Thoughts

A few thoughts knocking around inside my head:

* No matter how much being a full-time writer sometimes sucks, I really, really like that I don’t have to work retail right now unless I choose to. I do volunteer at a bookstore (Cover to Cover Books in beautiful Uptown Vancouver, come and see us!) but I don’t have to deal with the General Public every day. As someone who has worked a lot of retail, this pleases me a great deal. Which is why I find this so amusing. Anyone who works retail or food service need a huge sense of humor and more endurance than Job.

* There’s a special place in hell for those who steal books. That being said, the Tome Raider is a huge plot bunny. My steampunky forensic sorceress and her two sidekicks (one of them a Sherlock-Holmesian master of observation and deduction) could SO use this story.

* Some thoughts on the “democratization of slush” that digital and self-publishing is opening up.

You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven’t seen the vast majority of what didn’t get published — and believe me, if you have, it’s enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.

Everybody acknowledges that there have to be a few gems out in the slush pile — one manuscript in 10,000, say — buried under all the dreck. The problem lies in finding it. A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel. With slush, the cost is not only financial (many publishers can no longer afford to assign junior editors to read unsolicited manuscripts) but also — as is less often admitted — emotional and even moral.

It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés — for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that’s almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue. You walk in the door pledging your soul to literature, and you walk out with a crazed glint in your eyes, thinking that the Hitler Youth guy who said, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver” might have had a point after all. Recovery is possible, but it’ll take a while (apply liberal doses of F. Scott Fitzgerald). In the meantime, instead of picking up every new manuscript with an open mind and a tiny nibbling hope, you learn to expect the worst. Because almost every time, the worst is exactly what you’ll get. Laura Miller, Salon

Oh, God. SO TRUE.

* This brings me to another train of thought: people are once again yelling wildly that digital and self-publishing are nails in the coffin of trad publishing. Um, no. One of the things very few people who sound off about this realize is that digital publishing, (most of) self-publishing, and e-readers largely presuppose a number of things:

-an infrastructure to deliver Internet service
-disposable income/sweat equity to pay for some aspects of self-publishing, and definitely to pay for marketing
-access to or disposable income to buy Internet service
-access to a computer or the disposable income to buy a computer
-access to or the disposable income to buy an e-reader
-that the quality control a trad publisher delivers (editing, copyediting, art departments, proofing, production values) Doesn’t Count

I’m not saying that digital or self-publishing is bad. Far from. I just don’t think a lot of the underpinning assumptions beneath grand sweeping statements about the Death of Trad Publishing or about how Trad Publishers Are Keeping Quality From The Masses are founded on any kind of reality. Plenty of people who are very vocal in this discussion don’t realize that the Internet and e-readers aren’t ubiquitous, it just feels like they are if you have access and income enough to take advantage of them. Self-published successes, or so-called “digital” successes, are still the exception rather than the rule, and trad publishing has better resources and a better track record at this point in time. Trad publishing also makes books available to a vast mass of people who aren’t privileged enough to be plugged in. Sherman Alexie made this point not too long ago:

Having grown up poor, I’m also highly aware that there’s always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids. I haven’t yet heard what Amazon plans to do about this potential technology gap. And that’s a vital question considering that Bezos wants to change the way we read books. How does he plan to change the way that poor kids read books? How does he plan to make sure that poor kids have access to the technology? Poor kids all over the country don’t have access to current textbooks, so will they have access to Kindle? Sherman Alexie, Edrants

I have very mixed feelings about ebooks. Part of this is because I’m very in love with the sensuous experience of reading a physical book–the smell of the paper, the feel of the pages. Partly because used bookstores and libraries were my salvation before the Internet existed, they were my salvation when I was too poor for a high-speed connection or indeed any connection at all, and they still continue to be the places I patronize when looking for books, because I don’t want to spend the money on an e-reader and deal with the hassle of platform changes, technology burps, and the distributor deciding to take things off my private electronic device even after I’ve paid for them–I could go on and on.

A greater part of my mixed feelings about ebooks comes from the fact that I can look at torrenting sites and see people stealing my work. (Mike Briggs addresses this eloquently in his Copyright And Free piece.) Maybe my books are shoplifted from brick-and-mortars, I don’t know. But I can look and see them being stolen online, and that irritates me.

Now I’ve got some more fiction to commit. Like I said, these are just some thoughts knocking around inside my head today. Make of them what you will, and play nice in comments.

See you around.

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