tragical-comical, pastoral-tragical…

I feel a column coming on. This is a little like the itchiness that you feel just behind your cheekbones when you’re getting a cold, only it’s a little itchy spot behind my eyes where randomly-accessed ideas are bumping into each other.  Not quite sure where it will go, but they seem connected in a weird way.

It started with two articles in this morning’s New York Times Magazine. There’s an amazingly unsnarky profile of Charlaine Harris by Deborah Solomon. After saying smart things about Vampire stories and sexuality, Charlaine’s simple writing advice is “read everything you can and then put your butt in the chair and write. That’s all there is to it.”

Which … well, yes, that is all there is to it. But what most people who as for writing advice really want to know is “how can get I published so I be fulfilled and famous and rich and quit my day job and be on Oprah?” which is another question altogether.

On the very next page, there’s an article by technology columnist Virginia Heffernan about self-publishing platforms. She points out that self published books outnumber traditionally published titles by a significant number, that these books look good and, having picked up some Web 2.0 cred as well as being cheaper to produce, no longer make the author feel foolish. She writes “Book publishing is becoming self-publishing. ”

Ah . . . no. First, a lot of what is going on is better described as printing, not publishing. Print on demand is a printing process, and printing is a small part of publishing. But she’s right in that now that the expense of printing technology is no longer a barrier, the supply of storytellers is greater than the supply of those who want to read stories, and the whole distribution system is teetering. But . . .

We still need people who can pluck a worthwhile book out of a pile and make it better. We still need bookstores and libraries that can help people find books when they aren’t sure what they want to read–and to nurture reading and to be a gathering place for a community of readers. The value of those things isn’t erased just because the economic model that currently supports book publishing (barely) is being disrupted.

This seems an interesting parallel, in a weird way, to a letter sent from some publishers to Congress saying “Don’t pass the Federal Research Public Access Act! It will destroy our economic model peer review! How dare government interfere with business? Yeah, we know you’re the ones who funded the research that the authors gave us for nothing, unless they paid page charges, in which case less than nothing, but – how dare you!!

Again, lots of supply, a distribution system that’s broken, and the rallying cry will is “without us, there won’t be any quality.” Well, baloney. All of this can still happen; the flood of undifferentiated stuff won’t snuff out the need for people to sort out the good from the bad, the significant from the trivial. It’s just that the printing and distribution is cheaper now, can be done on a different scale, and we don’t have to rely on a few big companies to pat us on the heads and tell us they’re in charge.  Somewhere in all this, I think there must be a column . . .  unless I do something else. (UPDATE: This is what I ended up writing; it turned out the FRPAA letter had plenty of material all on its ownsome.)

But first – just for the heck of it – here’s a link to a photo that librarian Miriam Bobkoff pointed me to: a stranded dredger is approached by a runabout, The Bar Fly – which is (for reasons lost in the mists of time) is my nickname in some circles. Miriam reads books on a shore so beautiful I don’t know how she can focus on the page.

Now, off to watch David Tennant play Hamlet on the tube – oh, what great casting, and much fun business being made with surveillance cameras.


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