October 23, 2013

CARGAS | Dont’ Fear the E-Book

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Last month, the grump-in-residence of American fiction — that would be our Luddite Laureate Jonathan Franzen — condemned the rise of self-publishing and e-books as self-promotional rubbish. In a controversial essay in The Guardian, Franzen thrashed the Amazon publishing model as a harbinger of the imminent publishing apocalypse. He lamented a time when “publication still assured some kind of quality control” and “literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels.” His assault on the massive e-book industry was perhaps the most high-profile of a surging tide of negativity toward the world of self-publishing. When they’re not straying into exaggerated doomsaying — Franzen likened Jeff Bezos to “one of the four horsemen” — these critics have a point. The rise of e-books has radically changed the means of literary distribution. Amazon now dominates the self-publishing industry, promoting a model in which all e-books are published through their platform and writers are responsible for their own publicity. While they’ve monopolized this portion of the market, the model also opens up publishing to a wide range of authors of all backgrounds and skill levels — something that would seem to be a positive thing. As in many other artistic media, electronic distribution has changed the industry’s landscape. What’s fascinating here is that the backlash comes not from the corporate higher-ups at, say, Simon & Schuster but from writers themselves.

It’s not a phenomenon unique to publishing. The music and television industries have undergone similar recent transformations. Yet in both of these fields, creatives seem thrilled at the prospect of an ever-widening field, where art becomes a more inclusive and accessible medium. Both musical newcomers and established artists have embraced the transition to electronic distribution. While unknown groups stream entire albums on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, giants like Kanye West and Arcade Fire produce intricate, high-quality videos free for repeated viewing on YouTube. Sure, this democratization of music opens up the field to truly terrible artists, but the shift is largely viewed as a positive phenomenon. As with e-published writers on Amazon, these musicians direct their own publicity and success is largely due to popular opinion and online reviews.  The problem of illegal downloading remains — this hasn’t hit e-publishing too strongly yet — but no one seems to be asking the question Franzen does of Amazon.

The shift for television is perhaps more analogous to the literature model. Small, aspiring directors can create low-budget webseries distributed entirely via YouTube, allowing creatives other than well-connected Hollywoodites to achieve some measure of success. Take, for example, Issa Rae’s runaway YouTube hit Awkward Black Girl, a short-form series that networks would have never given a second thought. If major New York publishers were once the guardians of literary quality, as Franzen posits, the big TV networks were the gatekeepers of television. And they certainly dominated. In 1983, 60.2 percent of the TV-owning population tuned in for the series finale of M*A*S*H, while Seinfeld hit the 58 percent mark in 1998. Now that consumers have shifted more and more to the daylong binge-watching method of viewing, these statistics have declined significantly. And have TV writers, directors and actors felt the same impending doom that Franzen fears will soon overtake books? Not at all. Rather, this has led to an increase in artistic innovation and a diversification of content. Webseries from The Maria Bamford Show to Sugarboy have allowed people without some massive NBC budget to create insightful, funny and accessible entertainment. Even creators with significant funding have benefitted from thene wmodel. Mitch Hurwitz, the mastermind behind Arrested Development, praised Netflix for allowing him the freedom to innovate on the show’s Netflix-produced fourth season. Without the constraints of time limits and advertising, writers are free to play with a previously static form, all the while increasing public accessibility.

So why is self-publishing any different? Not every webseries is good, and the majority of college-students-turned-DJs on Soundcloud are intolerable, yet few of the artists in these fields bemoan the good old days, when a few giant corporations lorded over their industries. Franzen styles himself as the protector of traditional publishing, yet doesn’t give a second thought to the exclusionary, capitalist tendencies of major publishers. The idea that all published books are high quality and any rejected manuscript is trash is pure delusion. Maybe the answer he wants is a world dominated by small indie presses where quality is valued above profit. The reality, though, is that e-books are here to stay. Yes, this means anyone with an internet connection can now publish their writing. And yes, much of that writing will be horrendous, even if you are a big fan of werewolf erotica. But levelling the artistic playing field is by and large a positive development, one that Franzen — and the publishing industry as a whole — should learn to embrace.

Gina Cargas is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Gina Tonic appears alternate Thursdays.