“Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea. Some bottles drown, some come safe to land, where the notes are read and then possibly cherished, or else misinterpreted, or else understood all too well by those who hate the message. You never know who your readers might be.” - Margaret AtwoodNot long ago I came across an article in The Guardian (one of my favorite newspapers to which I've recently become addicted to reading) about John Green and self-publishing. As "to publish or to self-publish?" a big debate amongst writers right now, I happen to be self-published myself, and I quite like John Green, I was curious about the article. But when I read it, I came away feeling a little...well, hurt.
I love John Green and his writing and I wholly agree with him that writing and authorship is not a single, individual effort made in a locked room by an individual genius (as auteur-style thinking has led us to believe) but a collaborative effort. Writing - and any cultural form or medium - does not occur in a vacuum. And I respectfully disagree with Mr. Green that self-publishing completely promotes this.
Not that Mr. Green is wrong to make these comments. In certain ways, self-publishing absolutely can promote this idea that writing comes from a single genius and needs no editorial team or promotional group or agency to sell it. It creates a space where you can publish your work just as it is without recommendations or changes made by others, and send out your manuscript in a "pure" sort of way, untouched by anyone else. I don't agree with this way of thinking about authorship - sure, I might have put the words down on the page, but the ideas are solely mine - I was inspired by something or someone (and likely many somethings and someones). And my writing could certainly benefit from proofreading, questioning of the storyline and plot devices, and general constructive criticism. I don't disagree with this at all.
I have very unclear feelings about copyright - one one hand, I hate plagiarism. On the other, I love fanfiction, I write fanfiction, and I'm totally cool with people writing fanfiction on my stuff (not that I'm at all on a level of prestige for that. Ah, maybe one day...). I like what Gaiman says about allowing authors to have the ability to say yes, allowing people to do what they like with their works. But at the same time, it isn't just the author that creates the work - it is in part their agents and editors and companies. Authors are also influenced by the culture they are apart of and how culture reacts to their books. I could dive off into a very long debate about fanfiction and authors who are very much against it, such as Anne Rice, George R.R. Martin, and (of all people) E.L. James and how this view of writing and characters as personal property that belongs entirely to the author baffles me. However, that's a topic for another time. What this gets at is how complicated ideas of ownership are when it comes to something like a book that is both physical entity but also a collection of ideas and influences. It's messy and there's no one sole person it belongs to. So who should have the most rights over the material? Honestly, I don't know.
I reacted to this article pretty strongly and perhaps I took the whole things personally rather than reading it as Green's critique of self-publishing firms, not self-publishers themselves. Maybe he's frustrated at constantly being labeled as someone who's revolutionizing the publishing market when really he wants to emphasize that he's not doing this on his own and that collaboration is important. But I wish this article had incorporated how difficult it can be to go through traditional publishing routes. Self-publishing is usually portrayed as something that well-off people do because they have the monetary ability to indulge and publish their own works. But I went through a group that publishes ebooks really cheaply because I DON'T have the monetary ability to self-publish through other firms, I don't have the budget to hire an agent, and I haven't had the time to research on my own what sort of publishing firms would accept unsolicited manuscripts in the genre that I write.
I'll segue into an attempt to pull this all together with the book I'm currently reading, Virginia Woolfe's A Room of One's Own. This is a wonderful read and gives a very interesting perspective of gender in writing. While I'd love to discuss that, it's not entirely relevant here and is a topic for another time. Woolfe overall premise, however, is important to writing and being able to be published. She argues that one needs a room in which to write in order to do so and if you do not have these means, writing will be difficult. Many of us now have spaces to write in - and computers make this so much easier - but we still have difficulty finding ways to get our writing to an audience. We want that audience not because we are interested in profit or making money, but for the same reasons that John Green illustrates - storytelling. We want to tell our stories and we would like people to read our stories and give us some feedback and maybe a little bit of money so we can eat and think and write more stories. That's it. That's what writing is. Why publishing in general makes this difficult boggles my mind.
Not that writing is the only field met with such frustrations. I'm looking into dramaturgy right now as well, which is mostly only volunteer work. Between that and my blogging and my limited book sales, everything I do doesn't make money. Which is why I need writing to start working out for me and why I need to find something else to do besides theater work and writing that will make money so I can at least eat and pay rent. Now I finally understand why people become lawyers and doctors because of the stability and clarity involved. Not so for my muddled liberal arts path.