“E vs. P”: the Reason for the Vitriol

Fair Warning: this blog is not for the ADD or those who can’t take the time to read and think about the issues involved.  The word count is 3720, more or less.  Yes, I am indeed asking you to buy a pig in a poke by reading further; yes, I am arrogant enough to think most of you, even if you disagree with me, will continue reading.

Recently I read a post by M.J. Rose regarding the level of emotion involved in the debate between digital and print publishers.  Here’s further evidence of my arrogance: you can read her post at http://publishingperspectives.com/2012/05/the-objects-of-our-obsession-on-the-e-vs-p-debate/.  This is arrogant because I am inviting you to stop reading what I’ve written, read something else by another writer, and return.

Is it actually arrogance, though, to assume the same interest on your part as on mine?  Maybe; you tell me by continuing to read, or not.

Ms. Rose brings up some interesting points, but by and large I’m not sure I agree with her assessment of why there is so much “vitriol” in what she describes as the “e-vs-p” (electronic, i.e., digital, versus print) debate.  In fact, on rereading, it almost seems that she is describing hate directed at digital books replacing our precious printed-paper books.  I don’t know of anyone taking that position, however, and on my initial reading I concluded Ms. Rose was directing her article at calming the waters between authors seeking to publish digitally and those still pursuing the print alternative.

I am, in fact, going to give my take on the nature of the “vitriol” and why there’s so much of it being exchanged between the writers who will take every advantage of a changing business model and the in-place print medium and its business model.  Ms. Rose offers some interesting insight on how the print model developed and if only for that reason her post is well worth reading.

On the other hand I think she misses the gravamen of the “e-vs.-p” conflict, which is really pretty simple.

“Vitriol” is a wonderful word one doesn’t see often anymore – kudos to Ms. Rose for even using it! – and is particularly apt in this situation.  In its literal sense “vitriol” was the medieval term for sulfuric acid, but eventually came to its more poetic usage as “cruel and bitter criticism.”

A lot of people on the print side express surprise at the fact that so many writers are rushing into digital, independent, self-publishing venues.  This includes writers – even published writers – as well as agents, editors and traditional publishers.  As Ms. Rose rightly points out in her post, it’s been done this way for a long time.

Which may be the point.  It has been a long time, maybe too long, long enough for “business model” to acquire the trappings of “tradition” which is only one step removed from “natural law” and/or “the way it’s always been,” i.e., since the burning bush on Mt. Sinai.  There’s a certain implicit sense of entitlement that goes along with that territory.

When the book-printing business got started it was still hard enough to print books (as opposed, say, to hiring a battalion of monks to create an illuminated manuscript, one copy at a time) that only those ideas that seemed highly important at the time stood a chance of being printed.  An interesting footnote to this is that Ben Caxton, the first printer in England, after he printed a copy of the Bible, was approached to print Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the legend of King Arthur.  But other than the Bible, my impression is that most books printed prior to the 19th Century were non-fiction, printed to inform (or sometimes misinform, or even disinform) people about the New World literally unfolding  before their eyes.  To be printed in those days it had to be important, new knowledge, understood as such by people to whom knowledge and new ideas were important and worth preserving.

I mean, come on.  Fiction might be about ideas but when I write a story it isn’t about a new method for the determination of longitude, or my personal observations of the curious habits of the natives of Patagonia.  Fiction is mostly about entertainment.  Entertainment requires two things: the reader has to have the leisure time to read, and the reader has to be able to afford what he or she reads.

The “vitriol” Ms. Rose quite rightly refers to, the “cruel and bitter criticism,” seems a bit excessive for an argument over a business model, doesn’t it?  Business is just business, isn’t that what we’ve always heard?  “It’s just business; nothing personal.”  However, isn’t it odd that for something that’s just “business as usual” we seem to be looking at a phenomenon which, in terms of engaging the passions, seems to rival, oh, I don’t know, politics or religion?  It therefore seems relevant to ask why emotions and tempers seem to be so engaged in this matter.

Is it as simple as conflicting business models?  Established publishing methods versus digital publishing and delivery?  I’ll point out that, historically, all such “old guard vs. new guard” conflicts engender quite a bit of vitriol.  Perhaps, however, in this particular case, there’s something more involved.

That “something more” is a group of persnickety, high-strung, grandiose-depressive creative types otherwise known as “writers.”

Let’s get one fact straight: if there weren’t hordes of people convinced of their talent to the point that they actually sit down and write something, and finish what they write, and then actually have the chutzpah to believe other people might want to pay to read it, the fiction publishing business would not exist.  It’s only with the availability of leisure time in which to read for entertainment as well as being an affordable medium of entertainment that the fiction publishing industry became established as well as profitable.

Remember that phrase “affordable medium of entertainment” – I’ll have occasion to refer to it below.

Now for a little personal history.  Over the last five years I’ve rededicated myself to being a published writer.  I won’t say that I’m doing it for the money, although heck yeah, if I could make a living sitting here pounding the keyboard all day, I’d quit my day job in a heartbeat.  So being the sort of person I am I started researching that traditionally thorny question, How do I break into print?

Have you ever looked at the magazine section at your local book store and counted how many publications there are dedicated to just that question?  When I started all this it never occurred to me to think about one very salient fact literally staring me in the face: for all those magazines to make a profit, or even to simply break even, there had to be an awful lot of writers out there looking for ways to do just exactly what I wanted to do, and a whole industry dedicated to making money off those wanna-be-think-I-can writers.

At first I treated all those magazines as gospel and thought hard about how I’d implement all those strategies put forward for being noticed, “getting out of the slush pile,” or “landing an agent,” etc.  In time here’s what I figured out: there wasn’t a hell of a lot of really specific information in those articles.  Lots of generalities, but nothing specific.  Even writing-related articles on the subject, say, of “make your characters interesting” were sort of vague.  That was a tendency prevalent enough that I could feel that tickle of unease in the back of my mind, but I kept reading.  Surely, I thought, somewhere in all of this is the key, the answer, the one thing I can use to reach my goal.

The straw that broke the camel’s back and brought enlightenment was an article from an agent about query letters.  By that time I was part of a writers group and “query letters” was a hot topic for us.  Let me summarize the discussion, which was fairly heated and lasted for two or three meetings: (a) the agent dealt mostly with romance novelists, and none of us (at the time, we were all males in the group) wrote in the romance genre; (b) the tone of the letters was almost uniformly what we ended up describing as “cutesy” and “flirty”; (c) there was no discussion by the agent writing the article concerning query letters in general, although that subject was implied by the title of the article, almost as if, as far as the agent was concerned, there wasn’t anything in publishing outside of the romance genre (which may have had some truth to it at the time she wrote the article).

I’m not sure I could write a cute, flirty query letter if I tried.  At the time I was heavily engaged in the first draft of a novel about fighter pilots in the New Guinea jungle in 1942.  I couldn’t see much cute and flirty about that.

Two conclusions eventually emerged for me in all of this.  First, most of what I was writing would probably be considered “unpublishable” by the traditional print publishers whatever its literary merits.  Second, the people writing those articles, in general, were pretty well wrapped up in their own little world.  Articles like the one above I came to see were like those scientific papers where the list of authors or contributors is longer than the paper itself; advertising for the agent or editor as much as anything.  Which is fine; we’re talking business, after all, but there’s a subtle point here that’s easy to miss.

If your article in a trade journal is really advertising for the service you provide, and it appears under the guise of “I’m trying to help you,” well, what’s the word for that?  I won’t say it’s outright deception; deception implies intent to deceive, and I can’t honestly say the intent is there.  But it does seem to me that “self-serving” might be an applicable phrase.  Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that.  The implicit subtext, though, is like this: “I’m trying to help you (so I can make scads of money off you).”

Once I understood that I began to see a lot of things about the publishing industry.  Not all at once, but over time.

One thing that publishers know is this: there’s always going to be a lot of people who believe that they can write fiction and are willing to put up with endless B.S. to have their fiction published.  If you’re a new writer there’s no way to distinguish you from all those faces in that endless sea of unpublished writers.

Here’s something else a perusal of the writing magazines will teach you, and it’s something their publishers (and their advertisers – look how much those Creative Writing MFA programs cost!) would probably prefer you didn’t figure out: there is no one path to success.  Something catches the eye of an editor or an agent, and that something is different for each and every editor or agent, and isn’t always the same for any given editor or agent at any given time.  So the conclusion I draw is simple: you can follow all the advice in all those writer’s magazines and whether you succeed or not is still a matter of luck.  People will tell you hard work and persistence pays off, and they are absolutely right, but the same thing can be said about playing the lottery: sooner or later, if you keep buying tickets, you’ll draw a winner.  It might be a couple of bucks, or it might be the jackpot, but if you don’t keep buying tickets you can’t win either way.  As for the hard work, well, you have to have the dollar to buy the ticket in the first place, right?  You sure aren’t getting it from your writing, however hard you work at that.  As for us writers, our lottery ticket is a finished manuscript, and in terms of time and emotion the investment can’t even be measured in dollars.

So there’s the fan dance done by agents and editors alike: they want you to believe that there is some standard, some set of rules, a sure path through their door that writers can follow.  But why do the fan dance at all?  What’s the point to it?

The point is that agents and editors want you to believe they have standards and rules because they have no other way to establish authority over you, the writer.  Think very carefully about this: I used the word “authority” very deliberately, with purpose and intent.  If they don’t have some standard of behavior that you, the writer, is supposed to conform to in order to succeed – i.e., to be published – then why would you listen to them at all?

Herein lies the first part of why there is so much vitriol and acrimony involved in the “e-vs.-p” debate: Agents and editors want to have authority, a very parental, paternal sort of authority – sort of like the Pope being infallible when he speaks ex cathedra – so that you, the writer, when and if you are admitted through the pearly gates into the hallowed realm of publication (this isn’t merely sarcasm here, that’s my impression of how they think of it), you will never question why they do things.

They don’t want any questions because if you start asking too many questions you’ll realize they have little more clue than you do about what a good story is or why one story sells better than another.  There’s really only one definition of a good story in the marketplace: a good story is what a reader will pay money to read.

Most readers don’t care about grammar or spelling or sentence/paragraph construction beyond a certain point.  The truth is that most people don’t use it while telling stories in their daily lives.  I suspect only English professors are going to make a fuss about it anyway.  I’m not saying you can write at the level of a first-grader and expect to be successful, but in a population whose average reading skills are at the junior-high level, perhaps we could concede that meaning can be conveyed without slavish attention to grammatical niceties.

So if those things aren’t the point, what is?

Story.  It’s that simple.  Tell a good story, and the rest is window dressing.  How much of Mark Twain’s work, for example, is grammatical?  Ah, but I hear you saying, you have to know the rules before you can break them!  Maybe so, but I’m pretty sure Sam Clemens wrote like he heard people talking.  It’s called authenticity.  People like authenticity when you’re telling a story.  Here’s a rule for you rule-driven people: if you sound too much like your high-school English teacher, it’s going to turn a lot of readers off, since most people don’t talk that way, do they?  How many of us liked our high school English teachers?  (I remember two that I liked in high school, and none of my English professors in college.)  I don’t say that’s a rule, it’s just something to think about.

Wait a minute, though…don’t editors and agents fulfill the useful function of helping you polish your story, bring out the best in your characters, transform a soso story into literary genius?  That is the party line they preach, isn’t it?  To do that, though, might it not be relevant to inquire as to the track record of editors and agents in picking out the “good” stories from the “bad” ones?

The track record just doesn’t seem to be there.  Research it for yourself.  Given my definition of a “good” story, however, you’d think that the first editor who had Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone cross his or her desk would have snapped it up at once.  Of course that’s being wise after the fact – but a good story is a good story, isn’t it?  Contrarily, almost everyone knows that J.K. Rowling was turned down by I don’t know how many publishers before landing a deal with Scholastic.  The conclusion to draw here is that editors and agents may or may not know a good story.  Supposedly, however, it’s their job, even their profession, to know; it’s how editors justify their six-figure salaries and how agents justify that 15% of your royalties as a writer, if you get that far, that they require from you for their services.

We might ask, though, if that Emperor is actually wearing any clothes.

Yet, as writers, we are constantly bombarded with what amounts to a party line as thoroughly authoritarian and inviolable as any Stalinist or Nazi party proclamation of the way, the truth and the light: that publishers and editors and agents, most of whom aren’t writers (fiction writers, anyway, but I guess there’s always expense accounts) and haven’t paid their dues as writers (whatever that actually means) but nonetheless profess to know everything there is to know about writing and that we, the writers, should listen to them.

If there are no clear standards of good vs. bad art, other than what the public will buy, which is utterly unpredictable, and if anyone who’s been in publishing for any length of time knows that the reading public will buy a good story, but that that “good story” is an unpredictable quantity, then why are publishers/agents/editors so adamant that they have all the answers?

Again: so we, the writers, will believe they do and not question them when we receive those rejection slips, or the paltry royalties, or the bad marketing, or the condescension, etc.

On that basis something that might be understood a little better in this whole print vs. digital controversy, and why passions and tempers are so high, is that, in my opinion, a lot of it is less about how you want your stories delivered than by the way publishers, editors and agents have treated writers for the last fifty years or so.  (Probably longer – but let’s go with fifty years.)

Anyone who has read Alice Miller’s ground-breaking work The Drama of the Gifted Child will understand the pattern.  The publishers, editors and agents take the role of the abusive, narcissistic parent, while forcing the writers into the role of the abused child.  The gift Dr. Miller refers to is the empathic ability of a very young child to interpret the emotional needs of the parent.   This is a survival skill.  Interpreting the rage of an abusive parent so as to supply that parent what they need emotionally (conforming, submissive behavior by the child — cloaking growing rage) is unfortunately a necessity for many children.  Also, like such parents, the publishers/editors/agents know that writers, like children, have nowhere else to go.  It isn’t about money, or efficient delivery of a business service; it’s about relative power, its use and abuse.

From that it’s easy to see that the driving energy behind the controversy, at least on the writer’s side, is pent-up rage.  Psychologists have known for decades that we learn as children to hide our anger from our parents because we sense it threatens our lives.  But the truth is that writers are angry, and have been for a long time.  We are passionate people, we care about what we do.  We care enough to put up with a lot of bullshit from people who aren’t writers so we can tell our stories.  If we don’t get published, the unspoken party line among publishers is, well, sonny, you just aren’t good enough, are you?  (pat on the head)  But keep trying, keep polishing, and maybe someday, if you try ever so hard, we’ll publish something of yours.  If we feel like it.

I’m not saying that, at least in my own writing, that there’s no room for improvement.  There’s always room for improvement.  But when you see talentless schlock published and pushed when writers with ten times the talent languish on a back shelf, what conclusion is one to reach about the competency level of publishers, agents and editors within the field they profess to be experts in?

Writers – at least, this writer – are sick and tired of being made to feel incompetent and unprofessional by people whose only contribution seems to be to take their money and give nothing in return, while asking you to believe that they stand one step below the throne of the Almighty.  When I say nothing in return, I mean just that.  I hear over and over and ad nauseam over again how much editors give you in terms of polishing your work and making it more literary and readable.  Maybe there’s some truth in that, but when you hear it so often you sooner or later ought to ask yourself if someone keeps saying it so no one will question whether or not it’s true.  It’s a propaganda technique known as the “Big Lie.”

Writers have been made to feel like bastard step-children by the very people who depend upon them for their economic existence, because those same people are dependent upon writers, and they know it.  The publishers are acting like parents surprised by a child’s accusations of abuse:  but we love you!  It was all for your own good anyway!  Come back and behave and everything will be JUST the way it used to be!

Once a child understands that it isn’t love but abuse, one typical reaction is rage and the destruction of trust.  That’s exactly what we see here, in this so-called “e v. p” conflict.  It has a lot less to do with the way stories are delivered than it does the way writers have been treated by publishers.  New York City publishing has sown; now let it reap.

That brings us right back to the phrase I asked you to remember, the “affordable medium of entertainment.”  Hardcover fiction is pushing $30/book nowadays.  That’s pretty close to double the cost of a month’s worth of internet access and about what a month of cable TV would cost.  Even an $8/copy paperback is starting to push that envelope – buy three or four paperbacks at normal retail and there you are.

I submit that on this basis print isn’t affordable as entertainment.

Digital print media, however, is affordable, given prices ranging from $0.99 to $4.99 per download.

On that basis some of the vitriol from the print side (“You’re cheating!”) becomes comprehensible.

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