Okay, I’m just the writer. Some days it’s all I can do to drag myself to the computer and put one word after another.
Those of you who follow this blog, or any of the other blogs with which we’re linked, know I do my work in the midst of a revolution. This revolution is potentially as profound as any in the publishing world since Gutenburg and, if you don’t believe me, check out the two references cited in earlier blogs: Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s “The Strange Benefit of Social Networking” and Heather Massey’s “Ten Steps to Making Science Fiction Romance a Contender”. Both offer upbeat appraisals of the movement toward digital forms of communication—from Twitter and Facebook to blogging and e-publishing—and their implications for the future of publishing.
Lichtenberg’s analysis is particularly insightful and elegant, and I hesitate to paraphrase it here. I urge you to read it in its entirety. But as I understand it, what Jackie is saying is that we blog or comment or tweet to become part of the “in” group, or to remain on the inside. A unique sense of humor, knowledge or communication skills (that is, the ability to use the network itself), make you a valued member of the group. A disagreeable nature (a tendency to flame or brag, for example) might land you on the outside, just as it would in high school.
Jackie’s point is that it is very difficult to use this network for commercial purposes unless you are already a member of the group. She refers to corporate marketing interests, but the case could be made for anyone. Stick a pin in that.
Heather’s thought-provoking piece suggests that science fiction romance may be in a unique position to take advantage of the benefits of social networking in support of a whole new model of publishing. Authors and readers might connect in a variety of ways—through e-publishers, authors’ websites, blog tours and so on—bypassing the traditional agent-editor-publisher-bookstore approach. Heather’s argument is that SFR lends itself to this new way of thinking about the publication process, since both readers and writers are more open to the possibilities.
Ah. But remember Jackie’s thought about this social networking thing? There may be limits to what you can do commercially with what is essentially a social beast. If all of us are pushing a book, doing an interview, wanting a review, seeking some kind of gimme from this network we are a part of, then the rewards will certainly grow thin. Call it feedback fatigue.
Now let’s look at the brave new world of digital communication from another perspective. This revolution we speak of hit the world of journalism long ago, and the implications are now becoming clear. A recent AP article reports the price per word paid to freelance journalists has plummeted over the last few years. And really, why bother paying anyone to write an article? Opinions on virtually any subject can be had for free on the Internet—the number of bloggers is mind-boggling. When the earthquake hit Haiti, CNN didn’t wait for qualified journalists to report from the scene. They took commentary from anyone with a cell phone or working computer. No filters. No confirmation. No waiting to see if the information was factual or not.
The result of the digital communication revolution in journalism has been a proliferation of “sources.” The problem is, if everyone is a source, no one is. Ask ten eyewitnesses to an accident for their accounts of what happened and you will get ten different accounts. That used to be why journalists were trained to ask the right questions, to seek balance, to check sources, to get confirmation. We’ve virtually dispensed with all that.
In a world where the source of news is fragmented so badly, the consumption of news is piecemeal at best. In search of the “truth” we seek out those outlets we are familiar with, or that give us what we want—the liberal view or the conservative one, the funny one or the deadly dull one. Just as in our listening preferences we confine ourselves to hip-hop or emo or classic rock, when we used to get everything from Sinatra to Howlin’ Wolf on the same station.
My fear—and it is a fear, not a belief—is that by embracing a wholly digital model of publishing for science fiction romance (or fiction in any genre), we leave ourselves open to this kind of fragmentation and lose any hope of a mass market. An ever-increasing number of writers end up chasing a diminishing number of readers. And soon, just as happened in journalism, when everyone is a writer, no one is.
One school of thought holds that anyone can be taught to be a competent, entertaining writer. As a former editor, I seriously doubt it. Too many people believe they are God’s gift to literature, and they don’t need anyone telling them how to shape their words. The reality is, without proper gatekeepers, quality becomes an issue. If all it takes to put out a book is 40,000 words and a website, how is a reader to determine whether the book is worth buying?
Without something more than the social network to rely on for distribution, how can any writer ensure that the months of hard work she’s put into her book will pay off in sales to more than just her friends and family? The proliferation of writers and “publishers” will certainly limit the audience available to any one title. (Or will it? Maybe it will work like car dealerships—put them together in one place and sales increase.)
Then there’s the issue of piracy. Theft must be dealt with or we’re wasting our time talking about this. Period. Going online to “share” the content of someone’s intellectual property is NOT the same as passing along a copy of a paperback to a friend. First case can cost the author hundreds of dollars of hard-earned pay. Second case, maybe a few cents. Someone smarter than me needs to figure this out.
Because there is another reason why we tweet, blog, comment and CREATE: it is to leave a part of ourselves behind that is somehow immortal. Our characters, our worlds, the principles expressed in our words, can live on when we have passed from the scene—either into death or into obscurity. That’s why I’d disagree with Jackie Lichtenberg on this one point. When we hit “send”, we don’t do it freely, thinking only to “give”. We very much hope to “receive” in return—a comment, some acknowledgement, some recognition that we are here. When we write, we want to know we’ve left a mark on someone’s heart.
Immortality, such as it is.