Guest Commentary: LEO SCHULZ

23Jan09

Leo Schulz, a writer in London, posted a fascinating essay on Facebook and I asked him if I may “reprint” it here, as I believe he sparks exactly the kind of provocative conversation that The New You Project was inspired by (and designed to continue). Leo agreed and asked that I preface the piece with, “My thanks to Lauren Cerand for her initiative with The New You, which inspired me to write this essay.” Thank YOU.

“THE FUTURE OF BOOKS

I am not a literary insider. I don’t work in publishing or the booktrade. I am not an academic or a critic. I am not a published writer.

Still, over the past four years I have written what I would say is a literary novel. I am not going to make any judgements on its value, but I am pleased with the outcome. I intend it to be read and to make money.

Is this possible? And if it is, how should it be done? Here are a few obvious steps –

1. Submit it directly to a mainstream publisher.

Definitely not. I am confident with what I have written, but the odds of being raked up out of the slush-pile are just too long. And if I was taken up, I am not sure it would be a good idea to have to deal with a large publisher myself, rather than through an experienced agent.

2. Submit to a mainstream literary agent.

Maybe, but probably not. See 1. above re slush-pile, long odds.

3. Submit to a boutique publisher.

Maybe. I would be more important to them than I would be to a mainstream publisher, and I expect they would have a shrewd idea of my potential. But I don’t write in verse. I am not a specialist. Would a boutique have the resource or experience to break through the noise of industrialised publicity machines to promote a writer looking for a more generalised market?

4. Submit to a boutique literary agent.

Probably the best of the conventional options, but see 3. above.

So what then? It occurred to me – why not just re-think books? As digitalisation chews up one after another of the established creative industries, will ‘book publishers’ be around long enough for me to swill away even the most modest advance?

What Is a Book, Anyway?

When I was a teenager, books were a technology which, in the West, was relatively easy to access and which opened up vast and magnificent worlds – history, travel, poetic vision, philosophy, revelatory narrative – that utterly transcended the vacuity and tedium of the isolated bourgeois suburbs in which we lived in Auckland, New Zealand. Simply put, I could take a book, any book at all – and in those days I saw little difference between Harold Robbins and Giacomo Casanova, both of whom were among my favourites – and I could leave my family to their mid-evening single-channel network television, while I went and lay on my bed to be teleported to the salons of Bourbon Paris, the prisons of imperial Venice, the vice-pits of post-war Hollywood, the townhouses of the Upper East Side.

What I did with books is very similar, perhaps identical, to what my own children do with computer games. Books and electronic games are cultural artefacts that allow for the unfolding of long narratives. They can be engaged alone in the imagination, in private places, out of reach of parents and siblings. While playing GTA or Runescape or Sims or Empire, my children will be chatting on MSN, fiddling with Facebook and Myspace, watching YouTube in a separate browser and a film on broadcast television.

The one thing my children will not do when alone in their rooms is read books, and in my view it is a waste and a folly to regret the way that the use of books has changed. Television revived film. VCRs revived television. Re-recordable tapes and later MP3s extended music. The internet is the most literary new medium since the beginning of daily newspapers in the 1780s. My point is this: my children do not read books as I read them, but books have not gone away. More books are published now than ever before. It is almost certain that nascent technologies, such as e-books and print-on-demand, will expand again the market for the narratives, analysis and aggregations for which books have traditionally been the most convenient vehicles.

It’s a Mixed Up, Shook Up World

Before looking in detail at the effects of digitalisation on books, let’s review the effect it is having and has already had on other media. Newspapers, for example, are seeing their traditional business models crumble even as you read. The London Evening Standard was sold today (15 January 2009) with a paid circulation of about 120,000, down from around 500,000 two years ago. Seven or so years ago when newspapers were just beginning to publish on the internet, the Wall Street Journal would only allow access to paid subscribers. A couple of days ago I downloaded a gadet – or is it a widget? – that allows me to read pretty much the whole thing free on my phone.

Popular music was the first of the cultural industries to be affected by digitalisation, and the one in which established interests probably reacted with the greatest incompetence. Film, given their cost, have the most to lose.

Musicians and music-lovers have tended to do well from digitalisation. Live music has been thoroughly regenerated, which is a wonderful thing. Alternative and quirky stuff finds an audience – look at the following for the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. The rewards of music stardom remain immense, and therefore continue to match the high risk of an investment in a creative idea. The worst outcome has been for older artists, who may never have been famous, the backing musicians, for whom recording royalties were a modest income in old age.

I can see no reason to regret the demise of the record companies themselves, once as culturally dominant as the great Hollywood studios but which, outside of classic music, are already going the way of oil-lamp manufacturers. They have themselves to blame for much of their fate. When change was coming, instead of embracing it and adapting, they set out to persecute their own customers. Does anyone remember Brianna Lahara, the 12 year old girl ostentatiously sued by the Record Industry Association of America? Unsurprisingly, it is Apple Inc, a computer company, not Apple Corps, a record company, which now dominates the distribution of digital music. The critical individuals in a record company were the A&R department and they continue to thrive. They work for live-music promoters or, anyway in the UK, as consultants for automotive companies, who are increasingly using new music as a differentiator in their advertising.

Film companies are in a slightly different position. The margin of quality between an MP3 and a CD is too little to matter for a pop song, but there is an enormous difference between a cinema exhibition or a DVD and most pirated movies. As a result, there is an incentive for a rational consumer to buy a properly made copy rather than a pirate version. There is still a likelihood of significant change in the film industry, but the routine panics brought round by bit-torrents and YouTube appear to have subsided. Hollywood remains supreme.

Magazines, like films, also appear to be enjoying a stay of execution. A newspaper primarily sells its literate content – it was only three or four years ago that the Wall Street Journal started publishing any photographic material. A magazine is much more about look and feel. This is especially true of high-end titles in which the photography is the main ingredient and where the internet is still a long way from offering the control, poise and gloss that journalists, advertisers and readers collectively desire. Low-end titles may have a greater struggle, but there is also something about the way magazines are consumed. As a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement recently remarked, she reads Hello! and Grazia not to escape life but to escape literature, which implies wanting to have them away from the distractions and work-load of a computer screen.

The Beginning of the Anti-Book

Books as ojects will survive. Where graphics are important, they will be conveyed on bits of paper mechanically printed with pigmented fluids and bound with glues, thread, cloth, leather and card. What books will soon cease to do is be vehicles for literate content, for works of analysis, poetry or narrative. Poetry, in the sense of lyrical poetry, has the advantage of being relatively short and therefore flexible in where and how it can be formatted. Ezines, providing verse to be read on-screen or printed off PDF, are proliferating, as are groups for sharing new work on social networking sites. Poetry – the original ‘flash fiction’ – can also be performed and we should hope for a revival in the example of the music industry.

So what of analysis and narrative – travel, history, philosophy, social sciences and novels? The devices on which we read narrative will also change. Electronic print will supersede chemical print and this will radically alter the economics of distribution. Books in this sense will follow the paradigm of music and newspapers rather than that of film and magazines. The question is not how narrative will be consumed – give it up now, brothers and sisters, it will be consumed via your Sony Reader, your Amazon Kindle or your Nintendo DS. The question is who will consume it and where.

The greatest consumers of narrative (for the sake of convenience let’s please include in this term any type of long literary work with few graphical elements) are students, but they are a captive audience and do not need to be dealt with here. Instead, I would like to focus on those who influence what economists would call ‘change at the margin’, what Harold Bloom refers to as the ‘solitary reader’, people who read because they want to, and who read what they like.

From Millions to Billions

I was careful in the paragraph above to stress that books in my adolescence were relatively cheap in the West, that is, including Japan, among about 3—5% of the world’s population. However, though the relative cost of books in the developed world has continued to fall drastically since my adolescence, they remain expensive to most of the world. Digitalisation, by contrast, produces the complete works of Shakespeare free to anyone with a mobile phone, which is rapidly including potentially vast populations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

I run a ‘fan page’ on Facebook for John Milton. We are currently putting Milton’s Italian poems online, a process that has brought contributions from Georgia, Italy and the US, as well as me in London. I got quite a bit of correspondence asking why we were ‘publishing’ works that were ‘freely available’ in any complete edition. The answer was that we had been specifically asked to make the poems available online by members in the Third World, where books are not freely available at all – they are prohibitively expensive and anyway vulnerable to censorship.

The first thing, then, is that digitalisation is going to open up the market for literary products to an extent unprecedented in the history of the world. The internet is already providing the infrastructure, as well as the motivation to acquire the necessary skills. In the face of such an opportunity, attachment to books as objects, as things made up of paper and card, is vain and sentimental. I would happily burn my books if it meant my stories could be read on a handheld by practically anyone, and free from the interference of siblings, friends, parents, teachers or government officials.

Who Contributes to a Book?

The writer writes the story and the reader reads it – the writer and the reader are the only necessary participants in a literary experience. When literature was stored and distributed by means of bound-paper books, publishers and booksellers added important layers of value. The publisher provided copy-editing, physical construction and promotion, while the bookseller provided the physical distribution. Agents, like a record company A&R exec, helped to identify talent and provide both tactical and strategic management.

The agent is likely to survive, less as a gatekeeper of talent, more as a manager and a negotiator of cross-media rights. But what of the publisher? I am not going to write about grammar here, but I believe written language is already changing and will increasingly return to something that would look familiar to Shakespeare. Understanding will become more important than standardised spelling and the falsifications of punctuation, while any copy-editing still left will be done by machines. Where physical construction continues it will either be through websites like Lulu, but mainly it will be bypassed altogether for electronic distribution through iTunes or Amazon. Another phenomena, the seeds of which are already sown, will be books read aloud, either by their authors or by actors, to be consumed on iPods. Publishers and booksellers will survive only insofar as books will remain an important technology where graphics are involved, or as items prized by the bourgeoisie to decorate their coffee-tables. This is close to the paradigm of the music industry, indicating deep and difficult change.

The remaining element is promotion. If we continue with the analogy of popular music, we could say that high-end advertising, that is, advertising as a means of pushing mass market sales, is likely to rise in importance, but also to move to electronic media, which is where the books will be sold. Keeping with the example of music, complementary media should be exploited to a far greater extent – why do books so rarely have accompanying videos or even, like films, theme-songs? I mean, it is as though the worthiness of a book is enhanced by the dreariness of its marketing… .

How to Publish Narrative into a Digital Economy

Students read books, and a lot of people still read books in their bedrooms. However, one of the main constituencies of people reading books by choice is travellers, people on aeroplanes, but more than anything, people on trains. Across the world, scores of millions of people are involved in long tedious daily commutes. Books – printed on paper – are their ideal technology, being small, light, reasonably cheap and quickly swappable. More than being easy to handle, books – long narratives – provide commuters with an encapsulating world which removes them from the cold, wet, grubby carriages, the repetitive, rhythmless noise and the aimless interest of other people.

Commuters by definition have jobs and given the cost of travel, they tend to be in well-paid professions – they are a high value market segment. Instead of selling the book to the commuter, why not sell the narrative to a business which wants to reach that audience? Let the business package the content any way they like – they have no interest in spoiling the reader’s enjoyment and so their attention will be literally in the packaging, in the cover and wrapping. The book can just be given away at stations, in much the same way as newspapers. If carmakers can become the patrons of rising rock bands and films can shamelessly exploit product placement, why should books not have sponsors?

Lauren Cerand, a New York literary publicist, recently launched a blog, the New You. The title comes from a book she is promoting, You or the Invention of Memory, written by a well respected if not globally established literary author, Jonathan Baumbach. In the blog, Lauren explains the importance of the first publicity rush in selling a book of any type or quality, and the effect this has on the publishing industry. You or the Invention of Memory, for whatever reason, missed that first rush and now she is trying to keep it alive by other means. She knows what she is talking about and her posts, for someone like me, who has no background in the book trade, are a master class.

Where I disagree with her is in her assertion that the effect of publicity is corrosive given that poor quality work is just as likely to win out as good. The lesson she draws is that publishers need to take more risk with literary works. As I see it, the premise of the ill-effect of publicity is not new or unique to publishing and is really just a characteristic of mass markets. The conclusion is therefore also false – publishers, like other people in their day to day economic lives, do right to pursue what will make them an honest living. The real lesson is the importance in the future economy of literature of people like Lauren – publicists. What she ought to be doing is not arguing for a change in mass market economics but doing what a publicist does, creating controversy to draw attention to her product.

I wrote my novel from my own mind, in my own time, at my own expense, according to my own lights, to tell a story in my own words to be read by whoever might care to share it with me. This essay began with the question, who should I now approach to look for help in releasing what I have written, publishers or agents?

The answer is neither. I want a publicist.”

— LAUREN CERAND

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