The Cooperative Option

Publishing has experienced extraordinary change over the last 35 years. I began writing as a journalist, first for newspapers, then for magazines, both on-staff and freelance. I wrote about sports, about politics and politicians, about laws made and broken, about things that affected people’s lives, but the writing was journalistic and strictly a vehicle for information, information that was readily available via other vehicles. So I turned to writing fiction and poetry, writing that enabled me to communicate more than bare facts, writing that allowed me to explore reality through fantasy, truth through lies. The most difficult obstacle, however, wasn’t developing a style or voice. It was finding a publisher.

Back then, self-publication wasn’t an option, at least for me. It suggested the writer’s work wasn’t good enough to be published by a legitimate publisher, which meant it wasn’t good enough to be published at all. Self-publishing required an extra helping of self-confidence and a solid bank account because publishing wasn’t cheap. Self-published writers were suspected of being well-off egotists, satisfying their vanity by buying a byline. It’s not quite the same now. Thanks to a conservative traditional publishing industry and significant advances in publishing technology, the stigma once associated with independent publishing has vanished

Traditional publishers always have been somewhat conservative in the projects they take on, limiting risks because getting a book to market requires substantial investment. As large publishers gobbled up smaller publishers, decreasing diversity and competition, they became even more hesitant to take on new authors and new ideas, resulting in today’s homogenized market of copycat copycatting. Occasionally, however, something new breaks through. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me come to mind, both starting out at small publishers where their works proved successful enough to entice major publisher backing, backing that set about exploiting every possibility that could be connected to the works. Success stories like theirs, however, are the exception rather than the norm.

Despite random breakthroughs, traditional publishers have systematically narrowed offerings into predefined marketing niches, limiting diversity and denying opportunity to authors whose work penetrates the boundaries. And the writers who do sign with conventional publishers find themselves saddled with increasing responsibilities once the publishers’ sole domain—promotion, design, production aspects, and more. In short, publishers once took care of business, and writers took care of writing. No longer. Writers today progressively are burdened with the bulk of pre- and post-publication tasks while receiving a shrinking percentage of their book’s net earnings.

Enter technology and the path to accessible independent publishing, enabling writers and artists to get their work to audiences affordably and without the assistance of conventional publishers. Technology upended the music industry in the 1990s, and now it’s doing the same to the publishing industry. Unbridled access, however, enables both the talented and talentless to publish easily. For conscientious writers, for professionals, some basics of traditional publishing must be retained and maintained. That’s where writers’ cooperatives come in.

Frustrated after thirty-one years of writing professionally for traditional publishers, I’ve joined with other writers, musicians, and artists around the world to form Cooperative Ink, a collective of creative individuals with decades of experience in traditional publishing who have decided to seek broader audiences for their work through independent publishing. Professional artistic cooperatives offer no haven for the vanity author. Instead, a cooperative’s strength is built upon creative people assisting creative people, from basic editing to book layout and publishing, from drafting news releases and development of conventional promotional avenues to managing social networking and personal appearances—all with the goal of providing a diverse variety of high-quality, professional literature, music, and other entertainment to audiences bored with the umpteenth version of the latest copycat darling.

A place will always exist for traditional publishing and those within who make their living off the work of writers—editors, marketing personnel, agents, etc. But technology now affords worthy writers once shunned by an industry insisting on conformity the chance to take their work economically and professionally to the public. Both writers and readers are far better off for it.

Please visit the Cooperative Ink website at http://www.cooperativeink.com as members release new work they’ve enjoyed creating, work they hope you will enjoy experiencing.

The Business

Samuel Montgomery-Blinn is the publisher/editor of the extraordinary magazine Bull Spec. Recently, I contributed to the magazine’s web-column, The Hardest Part, where authors contribute articles on the “hardest part” in bringing their latest books to publication. Contributing to the column was a pleasure and honor in several ways because the book, Rise Up, on which the column centers, takes its name from the story “Rise Up,” the cover feature of Bull Spec’s debut issue. It is always a delight to work with Sam and Bull Spec. Please visit Bull Spec’s column site for this article and more by other authors on “the hardest part.”

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I am not a businessman. Nor am I a public relations expert. And I do not want to be.

So it’s no surprise after nearly three decades as a professional writer–newspaper staffer, magazine editor, and freelancer—the business of writing—manuscript marketing and book promotion—remains for me the hardest part of the process. That doesn’t mean everything else comes easily. Creative writing is work, no matter how many Joe Blows brag “I’ve got a really great idea for a novel I’m going to write as soon as I get a little extra time.” The talent for writing creatively, contrary to hot air declarations, is not developed overnight. In fact, most career writers rarely feel they’ve developed the craft fully, no matter how long they’ve been at it. But they understand and accept the devotion, self-motivation, and sacrifice of time with loved ones required in choosing writing as a career, forsaking pursuits that may offer more immediate rewards.

The ability to hook publisher or agent interest in a manuscript is a mystery to me, a tall hurdle to clear, and I’m astonished with each success. After all, an author must compete with an ever-increasing number of seasoned and novice writers by summarizing a complicated plot and months, perhaps years, of work into a single paragraph that delivers everything a publisher or agent requires to say yes, even though the book/story/article is probably no better or worse than the majority of its competitors, only different. Talk about odds… Once that first sale is made, subsequent sales may become easier—Rise Up, my latest book from Mundania Press (I’m quite proud the title story appears in the debut issue of Bull Spec) may have had an easier time due to an established relationship with the publisher and the fact that most of the collection’s stories have been previously published in magazines—but the business is rarely, if ever, a cakewalk.

The second hurdle comes after publication when promotional responsibilities–including those traditionally assumed by publishers—fall increasingly upon writers. Writers are now charged with securing most reviews, promoting through blog events, arranging signings and promotional events for which the writer supplies the books to sell (all once upon a time the publisher’s responsibility), purchasing and placing advertising, and more. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of hitting the bestseller lists—meaning most writers—promotional funds are usually a tad limited, crippling the ability to promote effectively. So writers must go after less costly opportunities, from the obvious free copies to reviewers in the hope of scoring a published review, to contributing to various blog events, to exposing the book to potential readers through channels such as my bimonthly newsletter, developed to promote my work and the work of other musicians and writers, regularly offering special perks such as free eBooks and music. Further, a writer must maintain a presence on social networks such as Facebook.com (crap) and Goodreads.com (excellent), operate an active, frequently updated website, participate in conferences, conduct workshops, and engage the press at every opportunity. For someone who shuns the personal spotlight, these activities are quite daunting, consuming precious time that could be devoted to producing new work.

Beyond the hurdles of manuscript marketing and book promotion lies the reward of engaging readers by providing what I hope is a story that’s entertaining and thought provocative. To personalize Rise Up, I include a short introduction to each story, detailing story inspiration or specific challenges encountered from the original publisher. Connecting with readers is something I relish, second only to the creative process.

As for the business of writing, I crave its elimination, an impossible eventuality. Of course, I could do an Emily Dickinson, shoving my work into a drawer to languish until I’m dead and gone, but that’s simply not an option. So what’s left? For me, it’s to continue the figurative pounding on publishers’ doors, enticing reviewers, participating in an endless array of promotional activities—in other words, doing whatever it takes to get my work into the hands of readers. And though the business is the hardest part, I refuse to cave in desperation and defeat. I love the act of writing and the engagement of readers too much to give up.

Critically Speaking

Recent heinous acts by extremists, motivated by intense critical rhetoric, have set the media abuzz, with pundits defending and condemning critics for denying responsibility for their words. Critics have come a long way, applying their observations to every facet of private and public life with strident rhetoric that has elevated them to a level of prominence and power never before possessed. American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken warned long ago that “Criticism is prejudice made plausible,” something that every writer with work to come under a critic’s damning gaze had already realized by the time of Mencken’s observation. “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics,” English playwright John Osborne confessed, “is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.”

Plato may be the one responsible for infecting society with criticism as a profession when he condemned poets and poetry in his work The Republic. Aristotle didn’t help matters with his critical counter response in Poetics. He, instead, ensured someone would write a counter-counter-response, which ensured a counter-counter-counter-response, which ensured a—well, you get the idea—until a good number of complainers figured out that, by condemning or praising someone else’s work, they could make a buck. Critics have since gnawed their way through the arts to infiltrate every aspect of life with the blather of critical analysis and condemnation twenty-four/seven.

Lucky us.

Critical analysis, whether the topic is literary, musical, political, social, or whatever, is made through and delivered from a specific person’s worldview of reality, just as this essay is written from my own personal and quite prejudiced viewpoint. The problem arises when the critic expects or, increasingly, demands that the audience accept critical analysis without question or examination, to see and judge the subject of the analysis through only the critic’s narrow viewpoint.

My book Divorced Dads: Real Stories of Facing the Challenge explored how divorced fathers in uncommon and extreme circumstances maintained close and positive relationships with their children, offering pointers and solid, productive advice to fathers in less extreme situations. The point, as detailed in the book’s foreword, was to provide perspective for divorced fathers and examples of fathers who, in uncommon challenging circumstances, maintained healthy relationships with their children, no matter the forces working against them. The intent escaped one critic who called the book the best gift a vindictive divorced woman could present to her ex-husband if she wanted to finish him off emotionally. The critic was certainly entitled to his opinion and to his inability to comprehend the book’s message, even when stated outright, but was he entitled to inflict his views on others, to mislead and prevent some fathers from improving their situation by learning from the fathers detailed in the book? Yes, he was. It wasn’t his responsibility to be honest or fair. It was the reader’s responsibility to think independently.

An extraordinary genre magazine debuted last year, featuring some up-and-coming authors whose stories proved extraordinary. Every critic reviewing the magazine admitted as much, but each felt compelled to point out something “wrong” with the magazine and/or the stories, no matter how far-reaching. While one admitted that the technique of flashback worked extremely well for a particular story, he didn’t like the technique personally and, thus, concluded the story suffered because of that. Another suggested that the premises for most of the stories were thin, sacrificed for the sake of plot and characterization. Perhaps the critic thought the same about classics that employed such thin premises as persons physically transformed into wolves by a full moon, or the presence of gravity on starships zipping through a weightless void, or impressive kabooms when death stars explode in the vacuum of space, or some alien monster uncovered after centuries under arctic ice, able to change its cell structure to match its dinner, or maybe some mad scientist whose potion turns him into Piltdown Man. Thin premises, it appears, result in extraordinarily entertaining stories, critical analyses notwithstanding.

Critics today have surpassed the danger level with their analyses, threatening to lose any ability to provide unbiased or sound guidance about their subject. The majority of today’s critics cheat, fool, berate, and belittle listeners and readers into believing and thinking as they tell us to, suggesting and even convincing us that their views, sound or warped, are our own views. We forget we have choice. We forget we have voice. We forget we are individuals.

Remember the 1976 movie Network? It accurately predicted the demise of journalism, particularly television journalism, into a clown act of entertainment, audacity, and critical extremism. Peter Finch’s character, Howard Beale, the veteran journalist who became the movie’s messiah of broadcast news, upon realization of the social harm being perpetrated by the new “news media,” urges his huge TV audience to go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And he tells them to turn off TV, to turn him off, to think for themselves.

It’s time we listened to Howard Beale, even if he is a fictional character. We all benefit by turning off the critic—TV, radio, print, internet. Eliminating the relentless palaver of negativity can decrease the acts inspired by insipid and vitriolic critical rhetoric. By using our own intellect, we can better choose our entertainment, our politicians, our brand of body lotion, our cars, our futures. We can contemplate, comprehend, and decide on our own once again, defining likes and dislikes based on our personal and individual realities and worldviews, not the views of others.

At the same time, we must put the challenge to critics to tone down their rhetoric, to approach subjects calmly, rationally, to take the same advice as Thumper took in the 1942 movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Or, at the very least, be constructive and respectful.

Enough said.