The late Thomas Rubick
, my dear friend, professor and sensei, had a unified theory of communication technology. When a utility matures, he said, once a superior thing
surpasses its functional usefulness as a tool, the old tool is more free to act as a conduit for art. He first told me of this idea back in 1996, in a campus darkroom bathed in red light, as he fastened dripping prints to a hanging clothesline. In the 1800s, Thomas explained, still photographs served as documentary evidence of single moments, and as soon as the pictures started moving, they didn't have to be anymore. Thomas took wonderful abstract pictures of landscapes and shadows and machines.
History is filled with a lot of technological progressions like that. Early words conveyed basic survival information like "don't go there" and "eat this and not that." Once a wider range of human communication tools emerged, narrative and poetry were possible. The stories didn't come first. Applied pigments and paints were once best used for durable asynchronous messages on cave walls, and later ended up on canvases. From loud warning noises, singing and music. Much later, the Internet went from a secure and unshakable military network to the greatest creative outlet in the history of the world.
Inventions and discoveries tend to be born out of necessity and function. When something new comes along that's better suited to a task, the old can take on a second life as a tools of expression. How hopeful: the possibility that in nearly every useful apparatus there is the capacity for beauty. Perhaps the true destiny of science is art.
Thomas was the first person I knew who owned a digital camera. In 1997, he brought it into the classroom one day, and we all gathered around to gaze and touch and ooooh
. It was the size of a catcher's mitt and looked like a pair of oversized binoculars. Until he got bored with digital photography and started painting watercolors instead, he created digital prints (enhanced with Photoshop 4.0) and sold them at gallery exhibitions across the Northwest.
Later digital camera users had less artistic ideas: terabytes of cheap pornography. Indeed, there is often a third, post-art act. Once a utility metamorphoses, what can come next is disposability, mass production and total trash. A film century that began with Lumière and "Roundhay Garden Scene" closed with "It's Pat" and "Cold as Ice."
But even as these media tools are handed down from utilitarians to creatives to charlatans, they don't fundamentally change. Even as they inevitably pass into the hands of an empowered proletariat, the still image and moving picture and group of words still retain their capacity for power and transcendence. It just becomes much more difficult to choose between which are good and useful and which are hardly so. And when there are too many, there is no hope for true consensus, just a lot of endless sifting and aggregating. Consumers must put in as much effort as those who create, if not more. That's not marketplace power, it's unpaid labor.
But in every evolution, there are those who suffer most, who will resist Phase Three as if it were the end of the world itself. They're the artists who built their lives around the mistaken idea that their version of art was always going to be scarce, that their creative license would remain exclusive, and that things would never change. They're the old people
, the ones who tell you about how great things were once and how horrible things are now.
Garrison Keillor was one of my first literary heroes. In the mid-1980s, I was probably the only 12-year-old kid on the East Coast who dropped everything on Saturday nights to listen to "Prairie Home Companion." I recorded each show on two Certron C-60 cassette tapes, which I bought from the Ames store in polybagged three-packs for 99 cents. God, how I loved those Lake Wobegon monologues. More than baseball. I wondered how he was able to weave all those characters together into stories, and how he managed to make it sound like he was making it up on the spot, for 20 minutes at a time every week. I bought all his books, and even read a few of them twice. That was the kind of thing I
wanted to be able to do, and I wanted to learn.
Years went by. I grew up, Keillor quit his show and came back again, the Internet happened, and there were suddenly a lot more words. Because technology allowed me to, I started adding my own. But then my old hero came along and took a whiz in my face. On May 27 of this year, Keillor took to the op-ed section of the New York Times
to declare that the golden age of authorship was over. He bemoaned its passing with sackcloth and ashes, and then proceeded to cast aspersions on my generation of writers.
Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check and our babies got shoes. But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book.
...Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I'm sorry you missed it.
God, I don't want to be that
guy, I thought. I'm glad I missed the Old Era. That sounds like pure hell.***
When I go into the big chain bookstore near the Interstate that runs close to my house, when I scan those thousands of spines and look at all those names, I know
what's really going on there. I am aware that there's no possible way that each of those authors is getting rich off their work. The books that are sitting there haven't sold yet, after all. Whenever I go to the local library and see all those stacks of dusty old volumes in monochromatic hardcovers, I think about how many of those writers must have died broke. I imagine how many were just idle, stuffy noblemen who happened to have enough time on their hands to fill hundreds of pages.
Very few have a realistic idea of how big-time book-writing really works. It's a very romanticized process. That's mostly because authorship tends to be a secret double-blind chamber, and nobody sees what goes on inside... unless you dare to enter yourself.
My third-person experience with the publishing industry reminds me of the haunted houses from the theme parks of my childhood. I can't go a week without my hearing about a book that a friend or colleague is going to write someday. They're going to get on that ride. They talk about novels, mostly, the kind of genre lit with a twist
that would only crowd that marketplace further, or their Sterling's Gold
-style memoirs. But sometimes the projects sound like real non-fiction labors of love. "It's going to be great," they promise me. Just as soon as they can find the time to write it, get an agent and then a publisher, and get their work out there to the people.
Many writers I know who've come out the exit door are disillusioned, dissatisfied, and some are convinced they're never going to do that
again. While they were spending those lonely late-night hours typing away at their characters and chapters, some were driven forward to the end by practicing exactly what they would say in the interviews. Well, Oprah, the primary villain was inspired by my second ex-husband...
But the number of million-selling novelists, all the authors with multiple NYT bestsellers, could fit inside a hotel ballroom. Seriously, think about it. Most all else, and nearly everyone I've run across, got an advance, the publisher printed too many, and a year later there were hundreds of copies of their precious work in Barnes & Noble bargain bins (I don't think they rip the covers off anymore, probably out of a new sense of decency), or selling for one penny plus shipping on Amazon.com. That's enough to break anyone's heart.
Even when the book sells, I'm constantly told, you only clear a dollar or two on the sale of a paperback, and three or four for a hardcover. There's a cha-cha conga line of middlemen in the old-style publishing industry, editors and designers and agents and publishing houses and printers and distributors. Consider this: according to the Brenner Group, the average fiction book takes 475 hours to write -- about two hours per page -- and the average nonfiction book takes 725 hours, mostly because of all that extra research and fact-checking. Publisher's Weekly
reported in 2006 that among the 1.2 million books on Nielsen Bookscan, 950,000 sold less than 99 copies, and only 25,000 sold more than 5,000. The average book sold 500 copies.
Do the math, and that's not even a dollar per hour. Aspiring authors choose to enter a sweatshop of their own construction.
And that was four years ago, before the proliferation of self-publishing outlets like Lulu and PubIt and Booksurge. I shudder to think what those numbers are now. I just know which numbers are higher, and which are lower.
But there are enough first-time novelists who who negotiate seven-figure advances and nab Hollywood options to keep the fantasy alive. At this moment, at darkened home desks across America, there are tens of thousands of J.K. Rowlings and Stieg Larssons, all waiting to be loosed on the literary world. Thanks to people like Garrison Keillor, the notion persists that all one needs to be is discovered
, then whisked off to pretentious cocktail parties and book signings and offered the jingling keys of a house in the Hamptons. The illusion extends to readers too. When my neighbors found out I was a writer, they were so impressed.
"Oh God, don't be," I said. If I didn't know six different computer programming languages, I wouldn't be their neighbor. I'd be living in a car.
I've written two books, co-authored three. They have sold pretty well, better than the above-stated averages. I pinch myself every day. That there are (literally, literally) thousands
of people willing to pay for what I write, people not somehow blood-related to me, is a source of constant astonishment to me. It's humbling. I'll never stop being appreciative. And it gets better. One book, and I can't tell you which one yet, is close to being optioned as a movie.
But I do not have a house in the Hamptons. Well,
one might say, that is because you are a bad writer.
Ninety-five percent of the people who think that, by my unofficial count, either disagree with my opinions or have had some kind of negative personal experience with me in the past. I don't think it's my adverb choices. On the other hand, some people think I'm one of the best at what I do. I tend to like those folks more, and have fewer negative personal experiences with them. I'm only human.
On balance, I live in what Chris Anderson referred to as the Long Tail
. No really, that's my mailing address: Kyle Whelliston, 34 Long Tail Drive, Pawtucket, RI 02860
. The LT represents the idea that in a frequency distribution in a market with maximum freedom of choice, 80 percent of available content will be specialized and special-interest. The other 20 percent are the pop hits.
To nimble postmodern retailers, the Long Tail is a goldmine. An Amazon employee once semi-famously noted, "We sold more books today that didn't sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday." And while nobody in the Long Tail is getting rich, life here can be pretty good. The trick is to keep the overhead low, and to find independent agents, producers and distributors who understand that and make for good partners. The biggest thing is marketing. Hiring people to trick the public into wanting to buy my books would be a waste. The product and the audience will find each other.
Being able to afford that kind of attitude is easier when expectations are realistic, and when an author's lifestyle is subsidized by something else. But the margin of error is very different here, and so is the motivation cycle. Back in the golden days, chosen-one authors negotiated an upfront lump sum and spent their time trying to live up to that number. Lord, the pressure.
In the New Era, authors emerge from the writing room hungry and ready. The editor and agent get their cut, and then it begins. Since the only ongoing costs are related to printing and distribution, the middleman line is reduced. The end take is a lot higher. In my case, I get seven bucks per book instead of two. I just have to wait six months to get it, but that's fine.
That's a Stephen King-sized cut. If One Beautiful Season
sells just 5,000 copies, that means I don't have to consult or make computer Robots for a whole year. I can pay all of my bills at home and keep the fridge full, and I have more time for writing more books. And it looks like we just might make it. But if it doesn't happen, life goes on, because I haven't mortgaged my future on the book's success.
Perhaps I feel such a kinship with the Long Tail because it is so much like the reason I'm there. The 262 college basketball teams from the 25 conferences that I write about are part of a real sort of Pareto distribution
, just like the one Anderson wrote about in his book
(which, semi-ironically, became a bestseller). In the full field of 345, those teams represent 76 percent of Division I. That's scary close to old Vilfredo's 80-20 rule
. We specialized writers, those of us on special order instead of on the table near the bookstore doors, are offered no advantages coming into the game, and have to fight for every inch.
And so, in short, I feel like I understand mid-major basketball more than ever now.***
Thanks to instant publishing and turnkey blogs, everybody's a writer nowadays. A well-maintained Wordpress site, updated on a regular basis, can generate over 100,000 words per year. That's just over 250 printed pages. Furthermore, this is November, which for the past 12 years has been NaNoWriMo
, or National Novel Writing Month. The words are coming fast and furious, and you can't stop the bum rush.
Of course, not everybody is happy about this. What Garrison Keillor was really lamenting was the loss of the mysterious author archetype, which he picked up from his forebears and which will die with his generation. What an author used to be was somebody who retreated into a farmhouse and couldn't be bothered, who'd occasionally emerge with a masterpiece that set the world on fire, and who would come out of hiding from time to time to cough, sputter and say something brilliant in public. That's over. Good riddance and byebyenow. See ya, Salinger.
In the scary future that is the year 2010, authors will have to interact with their audiences. In real time. They might have to get their hands dirty by typing tweets. They might actually have to be actively involved in the marketing of their products, like the butcher and baker. How looooooathsome
. Once the last beachfront houses of the publishing industry collapse under the pounding waves of 21st Century progress, books will sell when the public wants to buy them, not when a marketing machine declares a hardcover a hit before it's even printed. Niche audiences, like mid-major basketball fans, will be served well. There will be as many niches as, well, stars in the sky.
A lot of modern writing is useless. Most blogs suck. Personally, I'd rather cut off a finger than read a NaNoWriMo novel. But here's a secret: there have always been books that hardly anybody read. Back then, they went "out of print." Sometimes, they weren't forgotten. Niche audiences would pay high multiples of the original cover price to find used copies, the sales of which never went back to the original authors, not one penny. Those days are over too. With the smaller print runs of on-demand publishing, nothing ever disappears.
And there's no barrier to entry anymore. There's nothing stopping you from writing your own book. I've long held that the simply difference between the disposable blog and something bigger is the approach. The way towards uselessness, staleness and suck is the series of one-off, self-contained, unconnected bursts. Thinking about the big picture changes everything. "Would this look good printed out, next to the others?"
If it's good, people will find it, and they'll keep reading. They even might offer editing services... for free!
If it's marketable, people will pay real actual money once you polish it up and have it bound. Worked for me.
You don't have to disappear into the darkness to write your book anymore. You can work on it every day, in public. It's amazing, this New Era.
We need more books. We need to fill this Long Tail up, make it even longer. We need to create more of the kinds of works that will make small yet eagerly interested people take notice. And if you do put one of these things together, let me know. If it takes you about six months, that actually dovetails quite well with my schedule. Once the royalty checks start clearing, I'll be able to afford a copy.