Friday, January 25, 2013

5 Ways Publishing's Changed in the Last Decade

     For anyone who's written anything more ambitious than a 52 year-old barfly's phone number on a cocktail napkin at last call or a Facebook update dedicated to how they drank too many Sex on the Beaches last night at the local dive bar and "who the fuck were those swarthy guys stealing my kidneys, OMFG, you mean that 52 y/o barfly's in cahoots with them? Is her phone number even real?! Why didn't they cut out my fucking heart, too, while they were at it?", publishing's undergone some serious-ass changes in the last decade.
     From the rise of POD (Poverty on Demand), publishing mergers and a radical acceleration of digital technology that only James Cameron could've foreseen, it's a Brave New World for novice authors and established ones seeking to dip their toes in the digital ether. What follows are the five biggest changes in publishing since we decided invading a sovereign nation with no more involvement in 9/11 than they had WMDs not much more dangerous than a zip gun and then giving publishing contracts to the top war criminals who pulled off this heist of the Iraqi oil fields were great ideas.

     1) Literary Agents Are Slowly Becoming the New Buggy Whips.
     Ever since 1980-5, or when we thought it was cool to roll up our suit coat sleeves to the elbows and tease our hair like it been washed in liquid Viagra, publishers got together with literary agents in a small, ill-lit, smoke-filled back room at the Four Seasons. In between being served aqua vit and Calamari Fra Diavolo by 400 pound enforcers with shoulder holsters, they hashed out a deal that basically went like this:
     "Yo, Binky, Swifty, lissen up. We don't feel dere's a poi-centage in slush piles. They're gettin' bigger than my wife Sophie's tits after our 5th kid. So dissiz what we're gonna do: We'll cut ya in on the action. We ain't talkin' to no more writers an' we ain't readin' their shit 'cuz yer gonna, capish? Then ya can skim whatever you want off da top. 15% seems about right."
     Then they all belched and farted in agreement, shook hands and celebrated their collusive new business deal by defenestrating some literary properties (and probably the authors who wrote them). A generation later, this corrupt business model's still firmly in place despite more and more literary agents making themselves harder reach than JD Salinger after an alien abduction. POD, however, is also making literary agents as redundant as they insist on acting like head cheerleaders toward the freshmen on try outs. Still, publishers who are approaching digital publishing like a horny sailor on a 12 hour liberty would that hot Filipino tranny with the suspicious Ann Coulter Adam's Apple are thinking of their agent henchmen. Some publishers with digital imprints still insist on you being fronted by an agent as if they were fencing stolen jewels. This is akin to a plumber who insists on employing his otherwise unemployable semi-retarded brother in law and bringing him into your home so he can piss all over your toilet seat, lick your frozen hamburger patties and driving up your repair bill.
     But this insistence on keeping these parasites firmly embedded on the underside of your nut sack just delays the inevitable: Literary agents will eventually become more redundant and useless than a female Strip-O-Gram at the Vatican's College of Cardinals.

2) The Blob
     The sight of two behemoths like Random House and the Penguin Publishing Group merge into one is what Steve McQueen must've seen in The Blob. The merger, when completed, will corner a quarter of the book market, making it the Optimus Prime better suited to take on Nemesis Prime (aka Jeff Bezos and Amazon). Despite the official press releases glowing about this corporate coitus, mergers mean only two things: Fewer book titles and selling opportunities for agents and authors, fewer reading choices for readers and expendable employees being stripped naked and excommunicated at gunpoint into the Siberian wilderness (Not really. Considering today's job market, I'm actually soft-pedaling it). To get an idea of the sheer size and scale this merger, one would have to go to the Hubble Space telescope when it witnessed galaxies merging.
     The Random-Penguin merger (which sounds like an homage to Tom Tomorrow) is designed solely to enrich top executives and shareholders who apparently make no distinctions between selling books and rolls of Charmin, making the Big Six the Big Five. And publishing pundits are telling us this is far from the last merger we can expect. Before they finally get around to publishing An Idiot's Guide to Antitrust Laws for the express edification of the Federal Trade Commission, there will be only one publisher and the American reader will be given a choice between only James Patterson, Stephen King, Tom Clancy's ghost writer and Lena Dunham.
     Like rats leaving a sinking ship, this only drives more of us off the rickety gang plank and on the deceptively palmy, balmy shores of self-publication.

3) You Are a Spammer Who Should be Flogged
     Publishing today is like walking into a whorehouse where virtually the only people there are johns who also ambled in after the whores had long since been outsourced to Bangladesh. You're told by the holographic image of a madame that if you want to get off, you'll have to pleasure yourself because paying whores is too expensive and we had to outsource them or lay them off. Maybe, if you're lucky, these editors/madames will hand you some Jergens and a travel 10 pack of Kleenexes doubling as bare-bones PR press kits that may or may not include a mention in your old high school newspaper.
     That's basically the fate of all writers who are allegedly lucky enough to get into traditional publishing unless you're shtupping the executive editor's niece, in which case you'll have plenty of oomph put behind your memoir of how you went on a coke and meth-fueled killing spree and got a literary agent catapulted at you right after the hung jury convened.
     For the rest of us. we have to publicize our own work and be whore and pimp rolled into one like those poor seedy Frank Sinatra hat-wearing bastards you used to see on 42nd Street handing out mimeographs for peep shows. Here's the problem: Whether you're traditionally published or self-published, good luck finding a venue that'll put up with even moderate street hawking of your book. I'm living proof that just putting up permalinks without even mentioning your books can get you banned for life on if the beneath-the-bridge-dwelling trolls have a problem with blatant capitalism.
     Yeah, they don't tell you that. Luckily, you have me to give you the 411. But the facts are, lazy-ass publishers and literary agents who think a good day's work consists of updating their index page want your audience lined up in advance, your book edited in advance and your marketing platform set up in advance. Then when you get out there and do what you're told, you're treated like a Nigerian banker or that email in your spam box from Hannah Golightly who wants to extend your penis length by 400% with Canadian Viagra while offering you payday loans to refinance your nonexistent home.

 4) "Baby, Come Back. You Can Blame it All on Me!"
     As for TPs crawling back to indie authors, it's notable they're interested only in sales & still insist that we have a ready-made, built-in readership and fan base because they're still too lazy to cultivate careers & actually drum up demand for their own products. Name me one other industry on earth that refuses to give adequate advertising for 90% of its product. Think of Betty White throwing a lead-lined bull elephant. That's about how far such a strategy would fly in the real world.
This new development strikes me as a classic abuser-abused relationship: "Oh, baby, that wasn't me. I'm so sorry. I'll turn over a new leaf. I swear, I won't use basket accounting & short you on your PR press kit ever again. C'mon, babe, come back to me. We can make beautiful P&Ls together. But make sure you still live under my rules & bring your assets back in with you, m'kay?"
      Independent author: "You blew your chance, now blow me for a change."
      After 30 years of broken promises, orphaned titles, bad advances, shitty royalties, basket accounting dirty tricks, no creative control, bait-and-switch promises of hard cover deals & having doors slammed in our faces, insisting we get repped by agents, who can blame us? 
What's interesting is that they're directly approaching the most successful indie authors (Shades of 50 SHADES OF GRAY) instead of waiting for agents to approach them with properties. I think publishers, as stupid & dim-witted as most of them are, are finally beginning to connect the two dots of 90% of their books failing with the 90-95% failure rate of agents trying to place adult fiction. It's not traditional authors who are being endangered, it's literary agents.
      Dogma, meet Karma. Squish. Goodbye, dogma.
      Problem: the number of successful indie authors are rarer than unicorns and honest Republicans. They're the only ones being sought out by publishers & if & when it comes time to approach midlist indie authors and newbies, they'll jump at an actual publishing contract with alacrity & the whole corrupt process and spousal abuser way of life will begin anew with battered and bruised authors insisting they fell down the stairs and crying out, "You don't see my acquisition editor's other, more tender side!". It'll also put agents not only back on the playing field but between the hashmarks. And we need literary agents in our lives about as much as Bob Marley needed another cancer.
 5) I'd Only Fuck You With Someone Else's Vagina
     Because that's precisely what modern publishing is like: babymaking by proxy. Editors ostensibly want to crawl between the sheets with you to bring your baby into the world but only if they can make it a threesome with an agent. It's kind of like those sex scenes in A Handmaid's Tale where Robert Duvall is fucking Faye Dunaway through their handmaid. Then when the product is stillborn for lack of support or doesn't come out at all, neither Robert Duvall nor his dowager wife get the rap, you do. Then you wind up in a plastic bag on Soylent Green Day and sold to the proles while Robert and Faye start womb-shopping again from their gated mansion. OK, maybe I'm mixing my metaphors and sci fi movies but you get the point.
     Dealing with an indie author, on the other hand, is often a personal, almost face-to-face process that at least brings some humanity back into this medium of the humanities. With Amazon author profiles, social networking through Facebook and Twitter, email addresses that authors may or may not put on their back covers, readers can directly interact (and even buy through) with authors in ways they still can't with hoity-toity traditional authors and their army of flaks. And if the author is charismatic enough, being able to interact with an author of a quality product may be an added incentive to go through them rather than the impersonal bookseller, publisher or even Amazon (if the author sells through their website or blog).
     Of course, actually reaching those readers is another thing entirely but, unlike before when book readings and signings were the only way to do so, independent publishing over the past decade has made the author, especially the independent one, more theoretically accessible than ever.
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