Sunday, 23 October 2011

Digital Screaming

Take your fingers out of the dyke!

 As the nascent Indie publishing scene develops, its greatest challenge is not just to win the battle for respectability, writes Mark Cantrell – but also to avoid becoming a pale imitation of the big publishing corporates

YEARS ago, I wrote that the “floodgates should be opened to a deluge of talent” and now it appears to be happening, but not in the way I ever envisaged. It’s kind of scary, but exciting too, though there are no guarantees that the seeds of a revitalised literary culture will flourish under this irrigation of talent.

My original words were part of an impassioned plea to the print publishing industry, then as now dominated by a handful of large corporates, to embrace greater diversity and turn aside from a path that leads to a bland mono-culture based on ‘blockbusters’, ‘big name’ celebs and ever-more of the seen-it-all-before. Of course, the industry never paid a blind bit of notice; what, listen to an unknown author scribbling far beyond the fringes of the literary map? That’ll be the day.

Well, that was then, this is now. Those floodgates are finally open and talent is gushing through, but the way wasn’t opened by the big publishers – if anything they’re trying to close it again – rather it was opened by the authors themselves.

Authors, frustrated by the indifference of Big Publishing, have long taken a leap of faith and ventured into publishing their own works, but thanks to a window of opportunity created by the emergence of online and mobile digital technology, more authors than ever before are turning away from the established practices of bygone years to take their works to market for themselves.

Big publishing has sought to tighten its grip, of course; the industry has sandbagged the floodgates, and tried to tame the digital beast to its own paddocks, but it has proved unable to stop the dykes springing a leak as new technology – combined with a frustrated literary spirit – has begun to undermine the levees. For all this, the battle isn’t so much between the underdog authors and big publishing – David and Goliath, as it were – but between big corporates competing for the hearts and minds and, yes, the wallets of consumers. The conflict is about rather more than market share and profit margins, however, especially form ‘Big Tech’s’ point of view. Why else would they be stepping into Big Publishing’s territory? Essentially, it’s about dominating the architecture through which human cultural expression and perception is rendered possible. If the printing press dominated in the old days, now it’s ‘Big Tech’s’ turn to dominate the means of cultural intercourse.

On the one side of this battle to share our hearts and minds, there is Big Publishing, long-embraced in a struggle with Big Retail, and embroiled in a struggle with the new emerging superpower – a nexus of Google, Amazon, Apple, and other ‘game-changing’ technologists. Between them, these bold newcomers are smashing the ‘tired old Soviets’ of yesteryear to usher us into a new age of personal freedom and untold consumer choice. The hype they offer is seductive, the technological possibilities alluring, the fact is they are every bit as Soviet in their totalitarian impulse as those they aim to supplant.

Caught in the middle of all this, authors and small publishers – long reliant on the largesse of big publishing and big retail, but increasingly cast away into Siberian exile – have found a brief window of opportunity with the rise of the new technology. The gap created for authors and readers to create their own space may be brief, becoming firmly shuttered as the contending sides play out their bitter struggle, or it may be that authors manage to carve out a space and hold it, but either way they must not take the matters for granted.

Big Tech is no more the friend of literary culture (in its widest sense) than is Big Publishing, so the emergent Indie scene needs to move fast but wary to seize a toehold on the future.

For now the gates are of opportunity are open and the emerging world of the Indie author is still in its infancy, but there is little reason why it cannot enjoy a vibrant future as it develops and begins to find its feet. Of course, it remains a little rough around the edges; it’s early days yet. Inevitably, there’s a learning curve involved. The Indie scene is the sum of its parts and some of those individual authors face a steeper curve than others, but they all feed into the wider curve that the scene itself faces, as it strives to fill the vacuum left by traditional publishing.

The emergence of a vibrant Indie publishing scene isn’t just about the multitude of authors learning the craft of writing – and now publishing – it also represents something of a culture shift too. For now, the traditional publishing industry maintains the standards, ideologically speaking. The traditional machinery and hierarchy of publishing has held sway for a long time, as much over the writing process as publishing, so it is inevitable that the Indie scene will remain steeped in this culture – this world view – as it emerges to define its own existence and legitimacy.

For years, decades, generations even, the literary world has been shaped by the precepts of the conventional publishing industry: its concepts, its norms, its expectations and its prejudices. To navigate the successive layers of gate-keepers, authors have faced little choice but to conform to the demands of the culture-keepers, and in turn this labyrinth has moulded the readership into a shape that broadly fits their needs.

As readers and writers alike, our perceptions, our expectations, and our understanding of what constitutes a valid form of literary expression, has been shaped by the great and the good of the established publishing world. Publishers, agents, the media network of journals and newspapers, the highbrow ranks of critics and reviewers, distribution channels and bookstores, have all for generations shaped the word-view (sic) of readers and writers alike.

Until now. The rise of the Indies challenges this staid agenda and opens up the way for new voices, greater variety of styles, the emergence of new conventions and approaches to the world of words, but Indies too emerge shaped by the precepts and prejudices, the norms and conventions, of what has gone before; they too need space to breathe and to slough off the worst of the old while embracing and revivifying the best.

In a sense, this places Indies in a position to grease the rusted wheels of literary motion and get them turning again, but it will take time, effort and a good deal of mistakes along the way, before it identifies the most appropriate wheels to lubricate and set turning and those best left to the solidity of obsolescence.

The capital intensity of traditional publishing has left the written word to the dead hands of a tired ‘literary priesthood’ left naked now by the rise of digital technologies that have taken the dissemination of the literary spirit out of their sepulchres – but let’s not mistake this for a technological argument.

Print versus digital is a distraction. What really matters is the relationship we have to the words, whether as writers, as readers, or as mediators between the two. Humanity has always been a story-telling animal, and the means by which these narratives are constructed has been constrained, contained, directed, or unleashed by successive shifts, not just in technology and medium, but social and economic shifts too.

Technology isn’t quite neutral, because we – the human animal – are far from neutral, and that has shown itself with the dominance of print publishing technology. The machinery itself long became subsumed into the flesh-and-blood ‘machines’ of corporate publishing. Print technology is far from obsolete, and could have a constructive future in symbiosis with digital, but the big corporate ‘machines’ came to jealously hoard the world of print into one in keeping with its own agenda. We might almost think of them as Orwell’s ‘fiction writing machines’ as in 1984’s Ministry of Truth, but that’s another story.

Digital offers authors the opportunity to reclaim their balls (or ovaries) – and neuter the publishing machine. Once free of the fetters, where we take ourselves in this brave new world of Indie publishing is up to us; the world is ours for the making, pretty much as it was for the scribblers of the print age, before the corporate machines embalmed them.

The Age of Digital can be a liberating time for readers and writers alike, but if we don’t take care then the machinery will enslave us, turning us into a scaled-down facsimile of the corporates that first stifled print. So let’s not go down that route – take our fingers out of the dyke and keep the talent gushing.

Mark Cantrell,

21 September 2011

Copyright © September 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Category: COMMENT



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