Monday, November 18, 2013

Artisanal Authoring: The Strange Need to Justify Authorpreneuring - By Erec Stebbins

Artisanal Authoring: 
The Strange Need to Justify Authorpreneuring

I have a number of friends in the Native American style flute community who make flutes for a living or as a hobby. Some full time, some part time. In fact, you might like to check out some amazing instruments in wood  and ceramics.  These are artisans in the best and oldest sense of the word. They are homeshop craftsfolk, working with their own hands, nowadays hanging their virtual shingles on the internet.

Compared to Yamaha recorders, their hand crafted, more variable, personally quality checked without robots products are valued more highly than the precision, machine crafted flood of flutes that sell for much cheaper. These “makers” are considered artists, their individualism in their art part of the charm and value.

When potters form their plates and bowls, hire external shops to fire them, then sell the products locally and/or online, they are artisans. I have never heard the term “Vanity Kilns” applied to them. Jewelry makers rarely have the label of “self-forged” on their earrings as a derogatory comment. In general, the image of an artist is enhanced by their ability to bring to fruition their work “from their own two hands.”

Not so with writers.

Until recently, and still now the tendency is strong, writers who do not go through external businesses specializing in producing books are considered somehow less than artists. There is no equivalent “artisanal” mystique about self-publishing. The more one does oneself – from writing to layout to artistic work for the covers – the more one is considered doing it for “vanity.” There are no vanity kilns, only vanity presses. Such writers have historically been met with derision and mockery.

The reason for this is actually quite obvious. Until the last 10-15 years of human civilization, it was quite impossible for single artisans (aka “writers”) to produce books. The technology of disseminating the written word either was extremely limited inherently (stone carving early on, or handcopying), or was the province of large, industrial machineries affordable only to businesses and not individual proprietors (unless they possessed a private fortune).

Therefore, the cultural structure of publishing became centered on large capital, the companies that could afford it, and the process of getting books to those printers. Those who could afford them – in order to maximize their wealth – screened writings for what would generate that wealth and allow for the business to continue. Quality was only one of several variables in the financial equation and often not the principle term. And there was a strong incentive for these businesses to delegitimize any other approach to the process.

With Print On Demand services (POD), digital technology in word processing and art, and the connection of anyone, anywhere through the internet, it became possible very recently for writers to write their books, format them, create covers etc, and send digital forms of the manuscript (for print or ebook) to services that would produce hardcopies and digital distribution at a fraction of the cost that typified such efforts in the past. Now hundreds of thousands of self-published novels are released each year.

Regardless of what one thinks of this trend, the larger picture is that the process of producing and distributing books has been democratized (and there is no going back). Anyone can paint, sculpt, knit, fashion jewelry or pottery and sell their goods without undo stigma (well, assuming it isn’t horrendous!). The situation is now no different with the written word.

The question is therefore when, not if, writers will take their (rightful) place among other artists and craftspeople. As is usually the case, the true cultural paradigm shift requires some generational die-off (we more enlightened ancient ones, notwithstanding). You see most of the resistance and mockery of artisanal authorpreneurs in the established (read older) generation, and most of the acceptance of it in the young. Soon the young will be the established: révolution accomplie.

It used to be that if you couldn’t convince a large industry to take your book, you could never shop it around for an audience. Imagine if a potter had to run her works by a large ceramics corporation, with its high throughput, standardized guidelines for mass market sales, and other requirements of big business, in order to ever offer her work to the public? If the corporation refused (for many reasons), the poor products of her hands would be shelved and forgotten.

Once it was so with authors. But not anymore. Now writers can publish digitally and in print without the need of “respect laundering” through a publishing house. Of course, high sales are not promised (and are rare), but the technological barriers are removed for this area of artistic expression.

Welcome to the brave new artisanal world of publishing.

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