Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Change Happens: You Have a Say In It

In the past month or two I've been bombarded with a statement that seems to be taking many areas of publishing by storm: Change happens; you just have to go with it.

I've been asking myself a lot of questions about what changes I do indeed want to go along with.

Last month I attended two panel discussions. At both events it seemed that different generations of writers and editors were clashing.

At an evening titled, "What's Happening in Chicago Publishing?" held at an old clubhouse of a bar in Lincoln Park, three classic Chicago literary personalities took the stage. Each talked about their own feelings about changes happening in the publishing world, specifically the increase of digital and online reading. They talked about what it would mean to lose material books, newspapers, magazines. They talked about the decline of professional reviews in favor of Amazon Customer Reviews. They talked about whether writers would continue to be paid for the work they did, if they continued to offer their opinions and knowledge in free forums like blogs. One younger editor of a Chicago Literary championed the benefits of online communities. When one of the three big-wigs on stage voiced his anxiety over the loss of face-to-face communication, the younger editor shot back, "Well, that's why I'll have a job in ten years and you won't." It seemed to me, that while that may be true, there was a certain lack of respect for all that publishing has accomplished in the course it has already mapped out. While the prediction might come true, though I suspect it won't, the question could be asked what that jobs benefits might be. Will there be a salary or any sort of pay at all? Will the job of writing and editing be a career for anyone but Audrey Niffenegger and Gordon Lish?

The second discussion I attended was held at my bookstore, Women & Children First, and featured Jane Hamilton and Elizabeth Berg in discussion about the increased presence of humor in their writing. At one point the conversation drifted to Jane's experience teaching writing on a cruise ship. She said it seemed like people were more interested in being published than in writing. She talked about the advent of self-publishing companies like Lulu. She talked about how important it was for people to record their stories, but wondered why wondered how many adoption memoirs needed to exist for the public to consume without any support or marketing whatsoever.

I will be the first to admit that I, myself, was temporarily fixated on publishing. The fast pace of online publishing, especially, can allow one's priorities to shift. All of the sudden it seemed like every time I finished writing a piece, I had to send it out right away, to keep my name on people's radars. Once this obsession had been satisfied an arbitrary number of times, I relaxed a little. Perhaps it was that I could feel myself existing in an online community of sorts. My attention narrowed or widened, depending on how you look at it. Either I knew more what I was looking for, or I was able to gaze beyond the megalomaniacal myopia of making sure people knew I was out here working my butt off. I was able to give more time to writing, allowed myself to work on longer projects, which didn't promise the instant gratification of sending off a story after the 48 hours it took to write it.

The attention span of a reader online is clearly shorter than a paper reader. With the glare of the screen and a minimum of a dozen other buttons to click on the same page you're reading, a story has got to be good to keep a reader's attention even for a short while. This is not to say that a handful of very dedicated readers have not trained themselves to read longer amounts on the screen. It can be done, but I think credit should be given to the way these limitations have created a space for a different brand of work, which is typically short and compact. Stories and poems which can be swallowed whole. I have to say, despite my commitment to reading online in addition to reading paper publications, I've yet to return to a longer story or article to finish reading after I've paused and traveled elsewhere. I will go out on a limb and say without the material reminder to carry on, I easily forget or leave behind an interrupted online text.

The world of publishing is in an enormous state of flux. Advances to new writers are nearly obsolete. The large publishing houses are falling or consolidating. The catalogs our bookstore uses to order are shifting to a strictly online presence. How long can it be before the products are virtual as well? before the space for gathering to buy books, talk books, browse is completely unnecessary?

Amazon has a virtual monopoly on e-books, with the Kindle, and while I champion the physicality of a book to the bitter end, people appear more and more open to experiencing their literature through another machine. Despite Sherman Alexie's cries at book expo that the Kindle is a elitist, making knoweldge and literature available to only the people who can afford the electronic devise, I'm sure people in the music world voiced similar fears about ipods and the internet before that. For years I delayed getting an ipod, for financial reasons and because I wasn't willing to give up album art, the physical presentation which accompanied the music, but I was broken down on that front quite easily.

Several months ago, I didn't know what dominos would be set to fall when I went on a blind coffee date. Most of the things I've already discussed had just been fleeting thoughts I hadn't taken very seriously. One of the first topics Eric broached, knowing I was a writer who worked in a bookstore was the fact that he'd given all of his physical books away, and now owned a Kindle. In my mind, I'd already made decisions about how this date would go, there were tattoos of spears involved and consistent look of pity for me the artsy ne'er-do-well who flipped her sentences inside out with passion, so I wasn't about to tread lightly. In the next hour or so it became known that we worked for Amazon, at which point I vocally declared him my mortal enemy. He said, "We can still be friends. I think it's okay that you work at a bookstore." To which I responded, "Well, you're not the one who's dying are, you?" Eric chuckled and chimed a chorus that I would come to know too well in the next hour and then subsequent months: "Change happens; you just have to go with it." I tried to hold my side and argue that there was a lot worth fighting for in physical books and the public space of the bookstore, in interacting with other human beings to get your needs met rather than the anonymous and detached act of buying everything you need online from a massive, anonymous conglomerate. Eric repeated his refrain: "Change happens; you just need to go with it." Eric, who apparently read science fiction novels on his dreaded kindle, as if they were fact, went on to talk about how soon we would have the capability of living forever and how he would choose to live in a pod and experience a happy life virtually instead of a true, physical life full of the pitfalls of reality. I expressed horror at what he was willing to give up for some generic and manufactured version of the experience of a life. When I tried to remind him that we are just animals who need to nourish themselves and move around and interact with other animals, that our nature is defined by us ending at some point, and not living forever, that we are not owed any flawless experience of happiness, I felt certain that he would see the light and agree. Why I cared, maybe illustrates my own utopic visions of humanity. Eric simply repeated his mantra: "Change happens; you just have to go with it."

I don't have answers about what's right or wrong. I'm not even entirely sure what I'm most committed to preserving. I do know that indifference isn't what brought these shifts on, and it's certainly not what's going to protect the elements of this area of culture which we value and are not willing to discard. My hope is simply that everyone will be deliberate in the decisions they make; that people will think carefully about what they support actively and passively. That when the time comes for changes you have decided are important and valuable, you will not just go with them, but care about them deeply enough to support them and take part in the way they develop.

2 comments:

Sapuche said...

Hi Jac,

I really enjoyed your post about the changes happening in publishing. In some ways I guess it’s a disconcerting time to be a writer, but it’s also exciting to see what new opportunities are emerging.

And it’s true, of course, that “change happens.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see all of the non-national newspapers, and many more magazines and literary journals, go entirely online in the near future unless a sea-change occurs in how revenue can be generated and maintained. Right now, it doesn’t look promising.

Still, I’m confident that digital and online technology will never rid the literary landscape of certain conventional publications. I think this is an experimental period, and the openness to new ideas is a good thing. I like to think that in another five to ten years the publishing industry will settle into something viable, and viability would suggest better days for the little people (namely, writers). I could be wrong; as a writer, I'll keep my eyes open to what happens, and I'll take your advice to be deliberate and careful about what changes I choose to support.

Thanks for the provocative read,
David

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