A Guest Post by Michael Williams
Since Trajan’s Arch was published back in 2010, I’ve once again been on the book tour circuit. It’s different than it was in the ‘80s or the ‘90s, but it’s to be expected, because industries, like everywhere else, evolve. But it’s a radical change, and at the risk of sounding like an incorrigible snob (I’m probably a snob, but probably not incorrigible), democracy is not all good.
I know, this is ‘Merica, and questioning democracy is like questioning Jesus. Let me say up front that I like both Jesus and democracy, but when a twist in both affections leads to, say, the Tea Party, I’m still entitled (I hope) to walk it back, to question, to grouse.
So, my observation that there is a lot of crap being published—more than I ever recall seeing published—has been met by liberal-leaning friends with the sound bite, “Welcome to democracy, Michael”. A better response, by the way, would be, “Some of that crap is yours, Michael”: obviously, I would disagree with that, but it’s harder to argue because it might be right.
Democracy and publishing have seldom been connected. My friends are right that the major publishers are smothering in the tar pits of inertia and caution. I’ve written for the big guys and for smaller presses, and one thing you’d have to say is that it’s almost impossible to imagine a major publisher saying, “Let’s take a chance with this manuscript.” That strikes me as much more likely at a small press, for reasons that I do not fully understand beyond the simple factor that living on financial edges sometimes makes you more willing to gamble, sometimes makes you see that profit isn’t always the bottom line.
That being said, I continue to marvel at the writing panels where I hear people talking about their new “YA paranormal romance about a high-school war between secret werewolves and secret vampires.” It’s described in enthusiastic It’s never been done before tones, when what the writer is hoping is that It’s never been done enough. But how do they know? They read stuff.
I can see how the caution and commercialism permeate all kinds of publishing, and the industry is straitened by a non-reading culture. No, the flood of small, micro, and self publishing doesn’t seem to indicate an upturn in reading: many of these writers read only themselves and occasionally their friends. Reading only your friends is fine if your friends are, say, Melville and Borges and Philip K. Dick, but usually most are simply Gus over there with that manuscript about the werewolf-vampire wars. To me, the downside to democracy in publishing is not that it’s letting in more writers, unrecognized writers, experimental writers, or even ego-driven or talentless writers. It’s that I’m beginning to think that half the publications out there are being written by non-readers. It’s like democracy run by non-voters or religion run by non-believers. Democracy by voters doesn’t always work, nor certainly religion by believers, but that the opposite is just absurd. I don’t know what it is.