Friday, July 1, 2011

A piece published with moneys involved!

Since I've been skulking around with ne'er-do-well Jimmy "the worm" Callaway, I've been immersed in - or maybe just sort of moistened by - the online crime fiction scene. The online crime fiction scene comprises a number of promising authors and fiction blogs, which the magic of hypertext binds together into virtual proximity, though widely distributed geographically.

This scene is great because there are a lot of really excellent writers producing a lot of really excellent writing. Because of the tight-knit nature of the community, these great writers are very friendly and eager to share their knowledge and assist the newbie (me).

The downside, however, is that the online crime scene suffers acutely from a widespread disease of the new electronic media. Online publishing is rapidly pushing print into irrelevance. However, it is difficult for electronic publishing to serve the legitimizing function of print; i.e., since anyone can put up a blog, why should we take your "publication" on a blog seriously? How many blogs do you have to be published on before you can call yourself a "published" author?

There was a form of this disease circulating before the advent of electronic publishing - the vanity press - but the nature of paper printing kept it from becoming terribly virulent. There were (that is to say are, but who really cares at this point) a number of schemes, but they all more-or-less boiled down to an author paying a publisher to print her work, so that she could point at a book and say "I'm published!" In a similar vein were pulp publishers, who, though they published some great fiction, notoriously had lower standards and who it sometimes seemed would print anything submitted to them.

This malady has become much worse on the internet because the nature (and one of the great strengths) of the medium is that there virtually no barriers to publication. In print, one needed a printing press, paper, ink, and a substantial outlay of money to bring a work to print. As the story goes, a publisher needed to feel confident that those expenses would be at least recouped, and thus only "good" works by "good" authors would make it to print: being published thus legitimized a writer, since "marketable" is clearly synonymous with "good" and the crucible of capitalism had burned away all of the unmarketable competition. But marketability is more-or-less irrelevant on the internet. Any jerk with a laptop (read: me) can set up a blog and anyone who stumbles across it can read his work. This is a great advantage in that experimental and avant-garde writing that is undeniably good, but that may not be marketable can reach its audience, as can niche markets be developed that otherwise may not be large enough to bother with. But, as the common wisdom goes, these benefits come at the expense of legitimization: without capitalism metering what I can read, how do I know if I'm reading a good author?

There isn't a good answer to that question because it isn't really a question at all. Although I've phrased it in such a way that the answer seems comically clear, it would be naive to expect people to read everything they have the opportunity to read and then decide post-facto whether or not it was "good", if not for the obvious logistical reasons then for the fact that most people are tasteless and stupid (except for you, of course). The answer is actually a bit more complex.

As I mentioned above, the disease of legitimacy is emphatically not new and not unique to electronic media. We aren't printing books one sheet at a time with movable type anymore. The massive explosion of the vanity press, pulp publishers, print-on-demand and hell, even xerox machines all belie the principle that ink-on-paper equals success. Yet we navigate this publishing landscape effortlessly. The compass that we use, or the tonic for the disease, depending on the metaphor to which you are paying the most attention, is reputation. Without even knowing the names of the "legitimate" printing houses, we can spot, at a glance, the difference between a summer bestseller, a serious scholarly work, and a pulpy fantasy novel published by a company that doesn't seem to employ a proofreader (I'm looking at you, TOR). When our mom tells us that she won a poetry contest and will be published in a handsome faux-leatherbound anthology of all the contest winners and she can buy a copy for a special price because she's in it, we know to roll our eyes when she calls herself a "published writer".

It seems clear that over time, the same "reputation principle" will come to be applied to electronic media. We will all learn to differentiate at a glance between Black Heart Magazine and Joe's Crime Blog, and those suckers that don't will continue to be suckered as they always have been.

But this analysis leaves out an important point: money. The old capitalists haven't figured out yet that the internet makes information free. They look to their old models and continue to insist that if people don't have to pay for something, it isn't worth anything. Okay, fine. Until people figure out how to differentiate good writing from bad on the internet, I'll just have to assure you that since the magazine in which my latest story appears is available for sale as an e-book, it must be good. After all, if you have to spend $2.99 to read it, it must be worth at least that much.

TL;DR: My story got published in a magazine, go buy it.

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