A couple of weeks ago I was ranting about the economics of traditional publishing. I mentioned a new day coming in which at least one major publisher is playing with a new model. And now along comes a writer named Seth Harwood whose path to publishing is much more 21st-century (You can hear a podcast or read a transcription of the interview at this link, it’s all on the same page at Booksquare).
I don’t know anything about Harwood or his work. What interests me about his experience to date is how much of a direct challenge it is to the traditional publishing model, and to cultural notions of what constitutes “success.” Harwood starts in one of the “right” literary places — the Iowa Writer’s Workshop — and ends up serializing novels in podcasts, novels that aren’t “finished” enough for the agents he sends them to, but that people out there hungry for story sure seem to enjoy well enough. And hey, now that there’s an audience, there’s also interest from a Real Live Publisher. Harwood’s book will be out next summer.
And was that the goal all along? Is the wacky interweb only a more circuitous path to the hallowed temple of traditional publishing? Of course it’ll work that way for some people, for some books. And the trade publishers will get all excited and make corporate decisions to circle the wagons around the rabbit hole of the internet, waiting for something interesting to pop out… and perhaps the publishers will be thinking, okey dokey, here’s the new model — instead of getting stuff from agents, we’ll get it from these here rabbit holes.
But somehow I don’t think it’s going to be that simple.
There are many lessons for new writers and established writers in Seth Harwood’s experience. One is the lesson that audience comes before money. If Harwood had been waiting to “make money” from an advance before he shared his work with people, he’d still be waiting, and you certainly wouldn’t be hearing about him from me today.
One mistake that many new writers make is to assume that the publisher takes care of finding the audience for one’s book. After all, isn’t that what publicity is for? Well, it’s a sweet thought, but no. Publicity for most books is an automated process: a copy of the book and press release is mailed to a well-established list of reviewers with a hopefully nice cover letter from a publicist (although I have seen some letters that would make you just want to put a fork in your eye if it were your book they were supposedly “promoting”). And that’s it. No follow-up, no tours, no radio, no Oprah, no ads. And even if one does get those perks, it’s no guarantee that these things will create audience the way they once used to. Oprah, yes — anything else, it’s a roll of the dice. But writers have been taught to expect that these things will work. And when they don’t, the publishers suddenly offer less of an advance for the next book because the sell-through was low, and the writer scrambles to write the book faster because that’s another way to “get” that audience…. and here we go down the Death Spiral of the Midlist Writer.
Good luck finding an audience through publicity. People don’t want to hear some spin about your book. They want to know going in what to expect. That means a trustworthy recommendation (which could be a friend or a critic or 30 five-star reviews at amazon), or the ability to judge for themselves before they put their money down. And that means putting the work out there for them to find. Free fiction. Let them find work they like, and hope they like it well enough to begin supporting your ability to do more. That’s how it’s beginning to work in music these days, and I suspect fiction in particular is not far behind (I don’t know about nonfiction, I think that might be a whole different beastie… we’ll see.)
But as radical as the idea of separating writing and money — that writing is a path to an audience, and that maybe the audience is the path to the money — even more radical is the idea of fiction as work in progress. Harwood gets a chunk of the novel out there on podcast, gets some feedback, realizes he might want to make some changes… or he puts it out there knowing that the changes must be made, but wanting to keep to his schedule because he’s got an audience waiting. So he’ll come back and make those revisions later.
That borders on stark raving crazy talk for a lot of writers. Putting something out there before it’s finished, letting people comment on it, letting those comments maybe, I dunno, influence the work? Many will tell you that Real Writers don’t do that, that’s for screenwriters, poor bastards, who have no choice but to write to the demands of others. (And yes, there’s a whole post about screenwriting coming up one of these days, I swear).
But what if the definition of Real Writer is changing? What if it’s expanding to include the possibility that maybe an audience will bring you a big advance a lot sooner than a big advance will bring you an audience? Or that maybe there is no big advance, there’s only big audience and the small amounts of money they’re willing to pay individually to download your work or contribute to the PayPal tip jar on your website? What if some writers develop a here you go, what do you think, should I work on this idea? relationship with their readers, so there’s some kind of push-pull between the artist and audience?
I don’t know what will happen. I don’t even entirely know how I feel about the possibilities. But I do feel change, like a cool wind in late August that smells for an instant like burning leaves and makes you realize that autumn is coming.