The Legacy of Publishing’s Ownership of Work

There are a couple of things here that you may think are unrelated but I’ll try to bridge the gap and make a coherent argument in support of my thesis. I contend that the history and very institution of publishing has lent itself to a culture of a lack of ownership by authors and artists, resulting in today’s hysterical clamoring on privacy issues.

You all have a better sense of the publishing industry since Gutenberg than I do, so there’s no need to retread. So just think about how difficult it is to turn that Titanic of a beast around in just a few short years. I’m no industry apologist–I think that’s been made clear–and I’m not saying that we should give it some time. I’m asking that we reconsider how we are framing the debate around the breakdown of the traditional publishing industry; the rise of the independent author; the risks and opportunities of technology to serve readers, established authors, and independent writers; and the implications of copyright, privacy, and ownership on all of the above. Here are some of the areas through which we have to change our perspective in order to offer thriving solutions:

Agents. While agents have no doubt played a pivotal role in mediating the publishing industry’s desire for total control of a text and an author’s rightful assertion of ownership, they have also perpetuated that very dispute. How? They haven’t fought on behalf of writers for their fundamental rights, because that is not their role, traditionally. Sure, a good agent has fought for more money, bigger marketing budget, a favorable contract that matches the author’s strengths. However, agents have supported the passive-aggressive nature of the publishing industry in recent decades by fighting within the publishing companies’ own rules.

See, what I mean by that is this issue of framing our own perception of things. We have to work outside what we know as the traditional boundaries. Isn’t that what successful technology innovators do? Next:

Ownership, Privacy and Copyright. I never thought I would get hung upon this, but every day we are seeing some outrageous assertions of ownership, and not by the authors. Where the hell are our writer-brethren taking to the proverbial streets and proclaiming their ownership of their works? Because we are seeing press releases and contract clauses and Terms of Services stating proudly that the content deliverer retains at least some aspect of the rights to the work in perpetuity, or some godforsaken thing. Come on, y’all, that’s just ridiculous.

What I’m trying to get at here is that writers have been utterly de-fanged over the years of publishing industry beatdowns, reinforced by agents. We need more Stephen King and less, well, of everybody else. (Which is to say, we need more writers who tell the industry paper-pushers to fuck off. See Hunter S. Thompson’s comment to this effect.)

It’s not rocket science. It just means operating outside the “Terms of Service” and when enough of us do so, and if we create a strong enough demand in the marketplace for our work, miraculously those terms of service will derive from our side of the dispute, not the publishers’.

Now I’m not talking about bunnies and unicorns: this is going require a tremendous amount of discipline. Which brings me to my next point:

Desperation. This is the reason why the industry as we know it has perpetuated. Writers in general are desperate for exposure and that potential big gain from a publishing contract. So what do they do? Give it all up. That’s right, they give up their e-book rights and derivative marketing rights to a marketing department full of 22 year old interns with no budget who foil that author’s attempt at success because they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. But the writer is ok with this, because they know that the risk they’ve put on the table is worth the possible reward. Wait, not it’s not. The rewards of signing with a major publishing company suck, and the chances of a $1 million book contract are nil, so why not publish yourself and instead play the lottery each week for a better chance to win? BECAUSE WRITERS ARE SO FUCKING DESPERATE THEY ARE BLIND.

I guess we could consider what it is that has made writers so desperate. Maybe it is in our personalities: we create something and put it out there and hope for accolades, because that piece of writing is an extension of ourselves. Maybe writers are just talented people who didn’t get enough love and so this is what they do. Except I’m not a shrink and couldn’t possibly assert any truth there. All I know is that when there is a mass population (there are a shitload of writers) who require such enormous public accolades, with a finite number of readers (and by extension a finite amount of money you can earn from selling your work which is in effect a measure of that public love), there are bound to be disappointments. Lots of disappointment.

Is it social Darwinism of writing? I don’t accept that because it assumes a framework from which to judge good or bad writing and assigning it a successful or unsuccessful stamp. But clearly our expectations must change or else we are all headed for continued disappointment.

Democratizing the world of reading and writing will help everyone, I’m sure of it. No more hardcover books, sold at ridiculous prices–there’s just no need. No bottlenecks and gatekeepers needed any longer, you are relieved of duty. The internetz can enable this democratization of the book and content marketplace, but let’s just keep aware of the vultures who prey on writers’ naiveté  or their unwillingness to blaze their own trail, instead of following the trail of peanuts right back to the monsters that ripped out their teeth.

  • sleepyjohn

    This is probably going to sound terribly pompous but I do dislike the constant use of that word ‘fuck’. There seems to be rather a lot of it. It has its place for sure, more so when spoken than written, but of the times I have seen it written in recent months, I would say that perhaps one percent actually creates an effect that could not be bettered with more carefully crafted writing. It is a shame because hidden behind all the effing and shouting there are some good points made here, notably about writers signing any old contract just to get published. I am as guilty as the next, as are many pop musicians – still penniless after twenty years while the middlemen drive round in gold-plated Cadillacs. This is what self-publishing frees us from, if we have the confidence to go for it rather than ‘following the trail of peanuts’.

    And the juxtaposition of this piece with its neighbour about Hay House and Author Solutions is rather apposite. I see the writer beginning to move into the driving seat. Instead of sending manuscripts off to individual publishers and patiently waiting for month after month like a servant at the door, the writer can now self-publish a proper book and place it, polished, gleaming and ready for anyone to read, into what is effectively developing as a global slushpile cum marketplace, available to every agent, publisher and reader in the world to peruse all at once. The mountain is beginning to come to Mahomet. I wrote about this recently here http://7-books.net/global-slushpile/

    I think the author makes rather a meal out of why writers are so ‘desperate’ to be published. It seems to me that the purpose of writing something is so others can read it. Until now that has required a publishing contract, and the publisher has always been in the driving seat: no contract, no readers. That is no longer the case. And neither is the limitation of a finite market. If it takes you a year to write a book, the world population will have increased by about 75 million people. And technology is enabling ever more of those to gain access to the internet, and thus your book. The market is expanding, not shrinking.

    Publishing is changing dramatically, and the winners will be the writers, not the 22 year old marketing twonks who don’t know WTF they are doing.

  • It doesn’t sound pompous at all. But my first reaction is, “Who the fuck is this guy, my mother?”

    Fuck is in my lexicon, it just is, to a fault. I won’t apologize for it. It’s my emphasis, it expresses my passion in a way that I obviously can’t articulate otherwise. I’m not as artful as I could be, I guess. And now I’m reaching to find as many words to respond to your critique of my use of Fuck as you did, and I just can’t, because it’s so not important.

    Now onto your comment. I forgot already.

    See what you did?

    Thanks for reading, anyway.

  • sleepyjohn

    Chacun a son gout. But I shall choose more carefully where to comment in future.

  • Tom Cole

    Agree with you entirely, John. I’m no prude either, but it seems to me that someone who calls himself/herself a writer should be able to find some other way to describe or convey a sentiment other than resorting to four letters. It all seemed rather gratuitous, like, hey look at me, I’m a tough guy/gal.

  • Constant use of ‘fuck’? Constant? The author is expressing themselves exactly how they want to regarding a subject they’re obviously passionate about, and I applaud that.

    I think it’s well written and brilliantly argued. And yes, it WILL be the writers who, well, ‘win’ (though it’s really not a contest) — the ones that don’t bend over backwards and eviscerate who they are to please others. There’s something to be said about using ‘fuck’ when you want to.


  • sleepyjohn

    “well written and brilliantly argued”? Well, compared with the infantile chuntering from Hunter S. Thompson that he so admiringly uses to bolster his case, yes. However, without a capable editor’s clarity of communication and convincing, reasoned logic, passion so easily descends into adolescent rant.

    It is a shame this writer is not gracious enough to accept fair criticism, and respond to it rationally, as there would be the basis of a good discussion on the interesting points he makes, were they not so obscured by irritating hysteria and gratuitous coarse language. I think Tom Cole’s last sentence probably has it, in which case there is little point continuing.

    Apart from agreeing that there is something to be said about using ‘fuck’, but the word that springs to mind is tiresome, not lovely.

  • Bah. What’s there to get upset about? Mellor is in New Zealand. We here are Americans. We are more forceful and blunt in our expression. And we also don’t market to suckers with angel books (yes, Mellor, I checked out your site, kthxbai go away now do not reply to this go away do you get it yet?).

  • Mike, Eddie, Sarah, you guys have made me piss my pants laughing. You’re all awesome.

    On to bigger and better things now….