Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Carrier Bag Theory of Publishing: On Feminists, Revolution, and the Shape of the Future of Books

A long time ago, I wrote a speech to give to a group of women writers, because as a scholar in the field and the creator/editor of my Women Writers zine, people wanted to hear what I might have to say to a small group of professional women writers in the Buffalo, NY area. In that speech, I started off summarizing LeGuin's amazing scholarly article "On the Carrier Bag Theory of Narrative" from her collection Dancing on the Edge of the World, and I'm going to quote myself a bit here:
Ursula K. LeGuin's interpretation of narrative, based on an anthropological theory that the first tool used by humanity wasn't, as popular media would have us think, a stick to bash someone with, but a bag-- something to use to carry home the nuts and berries, or the fortunately caught rabbit for dinner, or even hold the baby who would wiggle and wander off to be lost without some kind of attention being paid, attention that needed to be on the gathering of daily foodstuff instead.
LeGuin imagines that the true shape of narrative is more like that carrier bag-- not the pointed, linear hero-quest where halfway through you slay the beast and move on to a heroic victory parade, but a mixture of things thrown together next to each other, jostling, competing, and overlapping, somewhat like a quilt, enhancing each other, but sometimes contrasting. (WW, 5/15/04).
I'm going to come back to this quote-- so hold on to it in your mind for a moment...just be thinking about a writer's toolbox, and how she might use it. 

Today, a discussion has been going on in the "indie writer" circles that I am a part of about LeGuin's continued [edit to opposition-- at least say] objection to or misgivings about* to digital books, including, and especially, Amazon. In her speech to the 2014 Book Awards, and more recently in the article "Up the Amazon with the BS Machine," LeGuin repeatedly argues that Amazon, in particular, is anti-book, and the marketing by Amazon specifically is turning books and American Literature into a BS (bestselling) commodity that sacrifices profit for freedom, and especially an idea of a sort of market censorship and even using the strongest words like "dictatorship" for Amazon. 

She especially dislikes the idea of Amazon's marketing, and bestseller lists being "cheaply produced & immediately dumped" and "easy to manipulate" are foregrounded in the article. LeGuin seems to have her biggest objection to people buying books from Amazon. She does say that she doesn't really have a problem with indie writers publishing with Amazon, although she does say she might "have a few questions for us." 

Well, I have a few answers to those unspoken questions.

About the BS Yes. Amazon sells & aggressively markets "Big BestSellers." Books that are written to sell a million copies and go out of print quickly. These are exactly the kinds of authors that the Big Publishing industry wants to find. These are the authors that they woo because they write books about sparkling vampires. 

Those bestsellers are exactly the reason why authors who choose to write indie books often decide to self-publish instead of fighting the years of slush piles, where bored, tired PAs read manuscript after manuscript that ISN'T the next Twilight or Harry Potter and reject them. 

Different narratives. Different books. Not the "linear driven plots" of the bestseller that slays the market and moves on to the next beast, but a cross-genre, different kind of book. Indie is FILLED with those. (Mine are that-- cross-genre books that probably wouldn't catch the eye of a publisher because it doesn't have the "buzz of the moment" with them. But that doesn't mean people haven't loved reading them).

So Amazon has created a market where we can independently publish our books, and we can make a bit of money off of them. And we can share our creative process with hundreds, thousands, even, if we're very lucky, millions. All without having to wait on a huge slush pile for years and years and have our dreams of writing die under an agent's decision that we're "not marketable" or their quest to find the next big Vampire Zombie BDSM hit. 

Today's market is markedly different from the market of even 20 or 30 years ago. There are many, many voices vying for attention, and fewer readers and fewer bookstores every day. We would not be published, most likely, and be able to share our work with our fans without the indie publishing arm of Amazon, which is supported in part by all those bestsellers. 

The Commons of Indie: I am not the biggest, by any means, indie writer who is publishing her work on Amazon's Kindle Direct Program. I'm just a newbie, having hung up my publishing shingle just a few months ago after years of writing and then debating sending my work around to traditional publication's route. I know of other authors who are genuinely making a living with indie writing through Amazon, however. I'm friends with some of them, and they are the hardest working people I know. 

And a lot of them are writing fiction that could very well be traditionally published, that is -thoughtful, ground-breaking, and simply breathtaking. You can find a list of some of them in a blog entry I wrote the other day, in fact. 

But most people think "indie" means vanity press, or crap. Yes, some indies are slapdash writers who toss their books up on Amazon with a hand-drawn cover, poor editing, poor formatting and call themselves writers. That is true, and I do wish that people would craft their work. But the traditional world is not immune to that, either. 

Still, there is a vastly different group of people who are self publishing who have used KDP as a market to find readers, to find a voice, to publish work that is not easily categorized or sparklie. (Although some of it is as sparklie... that's a different essay, though.) 

Within this common area of Amazon's big bookstore, we have created an entire community of indie artists. We support each other, we sell to each other, we find new readers and writers and love of reading among this common-ground. We overlap, like that quilt. We enhance each other at times. We share. We learn. We cheer our successes, mourn our losses. We even raise money when one of us falls, or memorials for others lost, forever. 

The conversation many of us indies have been having today shows that those of us in the indie trenches realize that perhaps the greats* (like Ms. LeGuin) don't really know much about us, and why the bookstore (not publisher) that Amazon Can Be makes us possible

We are each our own publisher. We have our own small printing press. It's as revolutionary as the press that Gutenberg created around 1450. It truly is. I say this as someone who has devoted my entire life to studying literature and the history of literature. And I say this as someone who has respectfully left the classrooms where I was spending my life teaching verb tense and comma splices to try to instead spend my life creating literature. 

I know-- it's really blurry.... my camera was broken....
Just as Gutenberg opened the door for the Protestant reformation by allowing the words that had previously been held only by the Elite into the hands of everyone, Amazon has opened a door that the non-elite can share their ideas with everyone. The day I held my first printed book with my name on the cover in my hands was a life-long dream coming true. I might have been able to find that with a traditional publisher, but I might have sat on a slush pile forever, too. 

The indie community works together: we pay artists-- cover artists, graphic designers, editors, formatters, to make our work better. We have a vast cottage industry of people we can go to when we need some advice to make a storyline work a bit better. We have groups of readers who are willing to write reviews, to whom we listen and attempt to answer. We even have marketers-- mailing lists, websites, reviewer magazines, etc, who curate collections of sales, deals, new hot books. 

All of us are out here, every day, working to share our ideas with others. Just like any artist, some days are better than others. 

We are all our very own, self-owned small international independent bookstores, each of us working from our own office in Shreveport, or New York, or Australia, or Texas, or Iowa. Wherever there is a Wi-Fi connection and a computer, we can publish. Amazon is the distribution point, and as soon as we hit that "publish" button, we become a partner with them for however much our profit is. It comes directly to us, and we immediately know what works and what doesn't.  So far, for me, most of that profit has been turned right back into new art, new editing, new formatting. But I keep going, and I still think my prose is good enough that it will eventually catch a wider audience. But if it doesn't: so what? I'm loving the creation. It's worth it. It is an ARTISTIC ACT of defiance against the mediocrity of daily life. 

Indie publishing, which Amazon has been a forerunner of, can be the exact opposite of "Junk food" and the exact opposite of the BS Machine. We don't have to be a bestseller to exist. Or even a midlist. As someone just getting started, I've made the amount of sales that a publisher would laugh at-- but I have shared my ideas with a good amount of people who have found me and expressed their joy at my work. I'm creating art not for profit (although that would be nice) but for the joy of sharing my work. 

Some of us have created anthologies that are very much like the Golden Age magazines where "the greats" got their starts, magazines that don't really exist anymore. We are reinventing the short story, and finding a conversation with each other. Those are so much fun, and we're going to keep doing it. Thanks to Amazon. 

And now I'll get back to that inherently feminist idea of stories being non-linear, a catchall bag for whatever women might have need of, rather than a pointed linear quest owned by the hunters to say that:

Indie publishing smashes the patriarchy. The act of writing, of asserting my voice as worthy of being heard, is an inherently feminist act. Doing it for very little financial reward is definitely anti-status quo. 

It takes power away from the few and gives it to the many. 

It takes the control of our words out of the hands of the few elite publishers who are putting out book after book of the same old plots reconstructed with the next big thing, the next celebutant gossip, or politician autobiography or ghost-written junk endorsed by a famous reality show family. Indie publishing allows women and men to work from home while we supervise the learning of our children, while they play games at our feet. We can work any hours we want, not set by a corporation. We can write whatever we feel like writing, set our own deadlines. We don't have a soulless boss reminding us to fill out our next TPS report (unless we do that for ourselves). 

And most importantly: our books are in OUR control. We can FOREVER keep going with a book that isn't selling, without it going out of print, just because we want it to be there. We alone choose whether to "unpublish" that book. 

And we can choose what we think of as a fair price. I can't tell you how many amazing foundational feminist texts I have wanted to recommend to someone but found that they were selling for a huge price in e-book format because a publisher still controls that story, that idea, and therefore, the new potential reader has passed on the book-- that the publisher made its initial investment on years and years ago. We indies set our own prices. 

We keep our books on the market and don't have to worry about whether the bookstores tear the covers off and toss them into the dumpsters because no one wants to pay 10.00 for a forty year old edition of a book they could get at a library. And then never read because it would be a hassle to go to the library. 

The problem that LeGuin has with this theory of BS marketing and Amazon is actually the problem of Big Publishing, which is a creative oligarchy of sorts.  Big Pub wants to make a lot of money off of bestsellers, yes. 

Big Publishing predicts the past: They want the next J.K. Rowling/Stephanie Meyer/50 Shades Blockbuster. And they spend all their energy on finding the next Rowling (or someone like her). Meanwhile, midlist or new writers sell out of their print run and find demand being unmet, and cannot reprint any other copies of their books because they no longer own them. They have sold their babies into slavery, and can only get them back many years later, after Big Pub has ignored them long enough to let them go as unworthy. I know of a new amazing writer whose press sold out of her book because of immediate clamor/demand. They waited and waited with the book out of print for ages, losing all of that immediate demand, simply because they didn't want to bet on a writer who was already showing amazing potential to be the next big seller. Who has gone on to be that great seller. But think of all the people who left that "store" disappointed and never came back, never read that author? Such a loss in potential ideas exchanged. Print on demand & e-book publishing makes that loss unnecessary. 

Little publishing, Indie publishing, is the opposite of the BS publishers. But even some of the indies do become bestsellers, even passing up the Big Sellers sometimes on the bestselling lists-- all because of an ad strategically run and a sale strategically offered. A book can go from a non-seller to the top ten with a quick ad. Mine have, in fact, hit Amazon bestseller lists-- not by manipulation, but by me getting some folks to simply try it out. One of them is still ranking a little on the Short Reads list right as I write this. Short stories do NOT get in the hands of people in the "Real World" regularly. But they do on Amazon. 

And all of this amazing indie work would be virtually impossible without the risk that Amazon takes in letting us do the publishing. Yes, they take a cut, but it is within the range of the percentages that any agent would take on our work otherwise. 

We just ask that people who have their long-career, their long history, see the trees for the forest. Please

See instead this small, good-naturedly jostling inherently feminist and anti-capitalist industry within the giant carrier bag that is that huge bookstore online. We aren't fighting to win the war, but every time someone says "don't buy from Amazon; it's all crap" it hurts. And it causes readers to think they only need to keep supporting that BS machine forever, and not even try to find the corners, the places where the new voices are waiting. (Not to mention that there are very few "independent" brick & mortar bookstores anymore-- not that Amazon was the one who destroyed those... look to other corporations and the publishing practices of the last 20 or so years for that answer). 

Amazon is a gathering place, a watering hole, and all of us small publishers are creating our art and selling it there.  As long as we want it to be there-- we alone make the choice to take it down, for it to go "out of print." 

That is the exact opposite of "Quick obsolescence, disposability — the creation of trash — [the] essential element of the BS machine. Amazon exploits the cycle of instant satisfaction/ endless dissatisfaction. Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment." 

So please, in addition to "trad pub," support your local indie writer, publisher, artist, editor, illustrator. We are building a new industry from the ground up, and it's good to have a common area to share those creative works in. And Amazon provides that giant bookstore where everyone can find us, sitting right next to the greats. That would never happen in a traditional context. 

This is the future, the great speculative market where we have left behind an industry supported by the hard work of a lot of authors who never really earn the money they should, who never really get on the shelves because the BIG authors are being marketed.  

I'm going to quote myself and my speech (and also LeGuin) again. Virginia Woolf once famously wondered what it would take for a woman writer to exist. The famous "500 pounds and a room of one's own" quote comes from that idea. "And a door, with a lock" is often left off of that quote. 

In LeGuin's essay, she thinks about Woolf's image of a woman writer on a bank of a lake of inspiration, fishing with the imagination. LeGuin pictures a daughter down the bank of that lake, playing in the mud and trying not to disturb her mother's professional endeavors. At the end of the essay, the imagination, which Woolf's woman writer has lost hold of, goes to talk to the little girl. I want to quote the essay at a bit of length because I love it so, and I think it might get at, finally, what I think about writing and being a woman, and being successful, even with, and maybe because of, the distractions. The child asks: 
Le Guin imagines: "Tell me, Auntie. What is the one thing a writer has to have?""I'll tell you," says the imagination. "The one thing a writer has to have is not balls. Nor is it a child-free space. Nor is it even, speaking strictly on the evidence, a room of her own, though that is an amazing help, as is the goodwill and cooperation of the opposite sex, or at least the local, in-house representative of it. But she doesn't have to have that. The one thing a writer has to have is a pencil and some paper. That's enough, so long as she knows that she and she alone is in charge of that pencil, and responsible, she and she alone, for what it writes on the paper. In other words, that she's free. Not wholly free. Never wholly free. Maybe very partially. Maybe only in this one act, this sitting for a snatched moment being a woman writing, fishing the mind's lake. But in this, responsible; in this, autonomous; in this, free."
Amazon, and its indie publishing arm Kindle Direct, allows me (and many others) that freedom, that autonomy, that moment to fish in the mind's lake. And I can freely share it with others, who can find those ideas one way or another, on one path or another. We have entire communities out here. Maybe those who resist can join us someday, when they stop seeing Amazon, the huge corporate bookstore, as the Evil Empire that is oppressing books & writers.  


In 2009, LeGuin resigned from the Authors Guild in protest over its endorsement of Google's book digitization project. "You decided to deal with the devil", she wrote in her resignation letter. "There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle." This, to me, seems a bit like opposition to the digital age forthcoming... that, and her one-sentence summation of indie publishing makes it seem like she's at least not a fan.

*(and I very much consider LeGuin to be one of those... her novel the Left Hand of Darkness was groundbreaking and a revelation to me when I started college.  Still is....)  

(And don't even get me started on the environmentalism of buying all of our books digitally and not killing trees for books that end up in dumpsters because they aren't selling....)

And let me also say: I don't object to sparklie vampire books! I don't even dislike them, inherently. (Poorly written once make me grind my teeth, but I don't object to a well written genre pulp read.) Heck, I write ghosts/magic/witch books. I just want the market to make room for ALL the potential stories out there, not just the ones that have already made it....

I also have nothing inherently against traditional publishing. There are many amazing authors published by even big presses... and I read them, still. It's not a war of attrition. I have room on my e-readers for all of them.

There is, finally, an ironic element in telling readers not to purchase a book from a bookstore because it contributes to the oppression of ideas when one's own book is for sale there. 

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