This morning, my colleagues at Book View Cafe noticed an interesting proposal from Canadian novelist Douglas Anthony Cooper regarding a publishing concept called "Imprimatur" that he has conceived.
I read it with my usual care and attention to detail and concluded in 5 seconds that it sounded quite a bit like all of us at Book View Cafe did. Five years ago. He wants to Kickstart up funds ... just like Spike Lee!
This is a case of "I know what I want to say" but how to best say it?
And thank you once again, Spike Lee, for providing the exact right model! Will Spike make it, by the way? He is a little over 50% of the way to his Kickstarter goal of $1.25 million to make a movie (or "Spike Lee Joint") about "Human beings who are addicted to blood. Funny, sexy and bloody. Not a remake of Blacula." I'm going to say that unless he has a secret donor to put the Kickstarter over the top: "No."
Spike Lee, for all of the praise he has received, and for having made many fantastic movies, is someone who was "good" in the traditional film industry. He had skills that helped promote "Spike Lee Joints" in a way that no one would have thought would have been possible before he emerged as a filmmaker. Spike Lee is original - in his way - but my impression has always been that one of the major driving forces behind his creativity was simply making it possible to tell stories that were meaningful to black people or meaningful about black Americans in the hostile environment of Hollywood -- a suspicious, condescending, nasty and exploitive environment. Spike Lee is a man comfortable working in enemy territory. I was not surprised when he made a WWII-inspired film (Miracle at St. Anna). This man grew up on "Combat" and had the idea of "suicide mission behind enemy lines" well in-hand.
The only difference between the traditional NY publishing establishment and Hollywood is volume and a veneer of gentility (which runs both ways -- a "Hollywood No" is a "yes" followed up by empty echoes).
No one in New York publishing would ever refer to Spike Lee in the terms he's probably been referred to in many Hollywood meetings and on LA-area golf courses. But the publishing establishment has always selected its limited number of high-profile black authors as well: Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, etc. They do things like The Help (white author ABOUT black people).
And I'm sitting here seeing Sherman Alexie's amazing face in my mind. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Sherman won the Native American lottery. He doesn't write a lot.
There is no lottery for little orphan white girls who operated on their Barbie dolls with penknives, built forts in orange groves out of rocks and sticks, did battle with a massive bipedal packrat while investigating a mysterious stick hut large enough for two homeless people, and lit doll-fed bonfires to the Norse Gods in the genuine hope that one of them might appear.
Girls were, and to an extent, still are, raised to accommodate others, be social and sociable, to nurture and care for others, and to have an ingrained sense of authority. It's hard to describe to someone not part of this whole culture and socialization the terror engendered by going outside accepted norms of thought and behavior.
It's pretty much just about too much to think about going outside accepted norms of thought and behavior, and also to do battle with the powers-that-be on the level of Spike Lee, Toni Morrison and Sherman Alexie. Now, everyone seems to have always loved Sherman, and I'm pretty sure Sherman, a prince among human beings, is well aware he's "The Indian." To what extent this has impacted his work, I do not know. Maybe not a lot, because as I said, he doesn't write a lot, which lends credence to that he does his own work without undue influence of trying to meet the needs of editorial gatekeepers.
Here's the physics of traditional publishing as it has existed until the past 2-3 years:
Author ---> Agent ----> Acquiring Editor ----> Publisher ----> Distributor ----> Bookseller ----> Reader
There are five variables between the author and reader in this model. Many people say "It's all about money," which has the benefit to the mind of putting moral or creative concerns to the side. Certainly money is the main goal of the publishing business. However, any brief analysis of traditional publishing shows that it is different from the way in which most other manufacturing businesses operate. Product design, development and marketing is limited or rudimentary in the publishing business.
In terms of my personal output, and this is being written by someone able to make a storylike object out of a box of Altoid mints, I have never been able to sell a story outside of small press with a female protagonist over age 25. I spent the entire first part of my writing career writing 90% male protagonists. I spent a decade trying to figure out the "heroine's journey." I could have saved myself that agony by simply writing female protagonists of any age and doing my own "joint." I'm the one who operated on that doll and popped her head off.
As Levitt and Dubner point out in Freakonomics, much like drug dealing, professional fiction writing is a high-demand job. Many are called: few are chosen. Many are willing to work for free or under slave-like conditions just on the hope that one day, perhaps, they might be like the drug kingpin, wealthy and powerful. About one-third of young women in recent career surveys give "author" as their ideal career. I am fairly certain this is based on high-profile female authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. The dream of being "Just like J.K. Rowling, wealthier and more famous than the Queen of England" is a pretty powerful one.
So, what has happened now is that, if fiction writing were like Venkatesh's drug gang in Chicago, all the street soldiers would now be able to make and directly sell their own drugs to customers.
Some of them might be unable to do that, requiring orders "from above." Others might make poisonous drugs and kill all their customers. Still others would find it impossible to package the drugs, or would be immediately arrested due to lack of protection from above and around them.
Here's the new publishing model:
Author ----> Bookseller ----> Reader
This means something similar to younger people who haven't had the pleasure of working within the traditional publishing establishment, as well as to those of us who have had experience in that environment. When I returned to Scripps College this spring as the Distinguished Alumna in Residence, I was very surprised as to how strong the influence of the traditional approach to publishing was among the students, at least one-third of whom looked forward to some type of career related to writing and publishing. I had "born editorial" telling me how vastly crucial editors were. Yes, but there's acquiring and developmental editor -- which is truly most important in the new environment? My answer would be certainly developmental.
See, although I do have respect for authority (believe it or not), and do recognize the importance of social structures and chain of command, I'm at heart a self-reliant mostly-anarchist. I might live that way -- I might do the ten years in the barrel of figuring out the "heroine's journey" but at heart, I'm the one who dug the wires out of Barbie's legs and popped off her head, much to my dismay when I realized that head was never going to be quite right ever again even with ample glue and child-like blowtorching. I'm the one who played with pen-knives (got one nearly-severed pinky and a half-severed forefinger to prove this), wood, nails, metal, glue of all types, mysterious jars of kerosene and old canned vegetables ...
I made stuff. I still make stuff. I make stories up out of whatever. About whatever. Whatever means something to me.
We all have only so much time and energy. In the old publishing model, most authors' energy was put toward working within that original structure:
Author ---> Agent ----> Acquiring Editor ----> Publisher ----> Distributor ----> Bookseller ----> Reader
Look at the steps removed from the actual reader. The written word is already removed in time and space from the recipient. That's the beauty of books, by the way. To this day, here I am, reading something Dickens wrote 150 years ago. When we read Shakespeare's sonnets, we're hearing a voice that spoke forth 400 years ago. I ask people to consider this when they're talking about dominant creative forms. There is absolutely no way that "Glee" is going to be viewed by large numbers of people 400 years from now, and that's what I have to say about that.
So in that respect, the way the traditional publishing industry has worked for most of the 20th century and up until the last two or three years, tends to work against that concept. It doesn't and hasn't worked like other manufacturing businesses, so it can't really say that making and selling books is done just as "well" as making and selling laundry detergent, furniture, or non-dairy creamer. Publishers like Harlequin are about as close to that as one is going to get; and even then -- not really.
Books are about communication. Entertainment, enlightenment and delight. So there has always been that question: For whom are you writing? The reader? Or the agent. The editor. The sales staff. The bookstore buyer. The marketing staff. Are you writing so you will sell an option on your book?
Or are you writing what you believe in, and at some later time and date and place, someone will read it. And they too -- will believe.
For better or worse, that is now what we are all doing whether we know it consciously or not.
Here's the advantage, too. I've been around a long time, and I actually have a dominant presence on the internet, especially for a woman. I do have a brand.
Every day, I see male authors and commenters hollering their stuff to their echo chambers. The most puerile, thoughtless, casual and off-handed comments are treated like pearls of wisdom from the mouth of Confucius.
When I was a little girl, it's not that I was loud-mouthed or felt I had to be the center of attention. The last thing from that. I was painfully shy. But every so often, I would feel like I wanted to say something. Very early-on, I realized that if I wanted anyone to pay any attention at all, it had to be something the others wanted to hear, and it had to meet their needs, come at the right time, and basically - be succinct and perfect.
So to this day, I do not have people telling me that every single thing I say or do is the best thing since Hot Cheetos.
I have my own editor. You, friends, and you don't know who you are because you're happily burbling on, do not.
People like me and 14, we come with built-in editor and critic.
This is why men get to have their wives, lovers and girlfriends spend countless hours poring over everything they do.
Because somebody has to tell them: "Don't wear that."
I already know.