Open Sorcery: Letting the Authors In

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Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, DBW, #DBW12, TOC, #TOCcon, Digital Book World, Tools of Change. O'Reilly, F+W, conference, confab, author, writer, publisher, publishing, books, ebooks, self-publishing, professionalism, amateur, amateurism, agent, editor, critic, journalist

Piazza Navona, Roma. Photo: James Cook


Yes, another journalist in your face.

And I’ve been making a lot of noise lately about the relationship of authors to what I call the “publishing core.”

The core is the business. The publishing companies and their satellites — those agents, editors, designers, developers, and Pret a Manger servers whose daily labors lie close to the fiscal center of the industry. Those with subscriptions to both PW and PL. Those who know Albanese from Cader. Those who can separate Bosman and Owen from the boys. They do LBF and BBF and FBF and jet lag.

In short, not the writers.

But hey, what am I saying about the writers?

  • I’m saying that if those peasants are revolting? — our writers are scripting the revolution.
  • I’m saying that it’s the writers’ stories the publishing core cannot do without.
  • I’m saying that it would be great for the industry to come together before our writers pen…le déluge.
  • And I’m saying that in the two great New York winter publishing conferences of 2012, I have seen something that could help.

I cannot, in good conscience, slap around the “core” without kicking writerly butt, too. Somewhat as in Stockholm syndrome, there’s a comfort to perceived — I said perceived — oppression.

  • Bitch-fests are easier than books.
  • Kon-wrathful rants are easier than revisions.
  • There’s so little poetry in platforming, and where are those fabled publicity departments, anyway?

In fact, I may disrupt the authors’ comfortable complaints as badly as I ruffle the verticals and the horizontals of F+W and O’Reilly. It’s all I can do to keep my Klout score higher than my age, but even I can tell it’s too late to be torching for a peer relationship between authors and publishers.

Maybe the best we can get is crisis parity: “My dilemma is as awful as your dilemma.”

I’ll take it.

Look at author James Scott Bell‘s latest video, less than two minutes long. He calls it “Writing for Money.” A comedy, obviously. Here’s part of what you’ll hear Bell say:

People still think that if you just throw up some ebooks there, very quickly – ebooks! throw ’em up there! – that they’re going to make tons of money just by virtue of the fact that there are so many ereaders out there. I would call that having very unrealistic expectations.

Now, the point here is not that Bell says this, but that he has to say it to writers. Bell is a publishing and teaching author who gives writing seminars of his own and sometimes he team-teaches writers with Don “Breakout” Maass.

How can anybody have to talk to authors this way anymore? That video must be a couple of years old, right? No. Bell posted it 28 February 2012.

On the way home from ToC and DBW…

Maybe you’ve read some Porter palaver already about the concern with which I left both F+W’s Digital Book World Conference and O’Reilly’s Tools of Change Conference. At those confabs, I watched, listened to, and relentlessly tweeted the richest discussions going on right now in what the industry is facing — all curated by informed points of view.

It may interest you to know that this is not what more than 9,000 writers will get at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago this week. Here’s Friday’s schedule. Scroll through a bit of this to see what the country’s largest writing conference offers.

Where are sessions about the rise of readership communities and using Big Data developments to target discoverability? Or digital adoption on the national and international scale? Or technical standards of production, format wars? How about the rise of UX, and the prancing proponents of piracy? The woods are burning all the way out to Spokane, so where are sessions on the business models going up in flames around us?

Out there where the corn is as high as an “indie” author’s eye, you can see a remarkably revealing set of more than 50 comments on author James C. Hines’ recent blog post about his difficulties with Amazon’s pricing of his ebook. What you will read in those comments is writers’ consternation morphing quickly into outright bewilderment. It’s an exchange of hearsay-as-guidance.This is going on all the time.

The writer corps is marching toward Seattle as a tattered, disillusioned, conflicted, unnerved, exhausted, socially mediated migration of hope, beckoned by Bezos.

Why are they so readily come-hithered?

Authors are fleeing a business that they perceive — I said perceive — has rejected them. I’m not talking agents’ rejection slips. I mean the whole industry.

I believe that it’s still possible to develop and benefit from a more encompassing, honest, inclusive understanding of publishing as a disaster area. But to do that, the industry core is going to have to welcome its thinking, progressive, professional authors into the tent. Soon. Now would be good.

The James Scott Bells of the business can understand with authorial instinct why Tim Carmody is talking about “changing readers” at ToC — and why Mike Shatzkin came away from DBW trying to focus people’s attention on what romance publishers know about DRM.

Does every author out there have the intelligence and professionalism to handle this level of industry briefing? No.

Does every publisher? ______ (you answer that one)

Our best writers, the ones who will be drawn to top-level industry conferences designed for them, are the ones needed most by our best publishers. But neither the pricing nor the design of our industry conferences at this point is practical for author involvement. That’s fine. I’m not complaining about the cost of ToC and DBW, they’re mounted exactly the way they should be. I’m asking for a version of those events made affordable for authors.

  • I like what DBW and ToC do for the publishing core so much that I want writers to see what Shatzkin and Joe Wikert and Kat Meyer are doing, each conference configured in a form built for them, for writers.
  • Even one-day conferences would be great. Sam Missingham can do it in one day at TheFutureBook in London — so let’s do it in one-day events for authors. Save on time and expense.

If such events can be created, we’ll get better writers, we’ll work with smarter authors, we’ll be in touch with the fundamental suppliers of the industry who will find outlets for their work.

Our best authors are going to find publication. Where would you like them to find it?

There are no villains here.

Blame is for jackasses. Only questions count now.

I ask the publishing core: Can you really afford to wait, as you once did, for an eloquent, media-genic unknown cracker in Georgia to crawl out from under a trailer and hand over the next sandy but radiant bestseller?

And I ask the authors: Can the vegetable stands of your own unsupported creativity really keep you in that double-wide when you’re selling your life’s work for 99 cents?

But don’t we already have these conferences for writers?


For long years, writing conferences have been in place, many good ones. AWP, which I mentioned above, is 45 years old. Most of these affairs do their jobs well in terms of craft sessions on structure, voice, building up tension, tearing down revisions, and Platform For Your Life. Sometimes even copyright sessions are on tap, along with social-media management, and how to write queries, queries, queries.

F+W‘s vertical Writer’s Digest (sister to DBW) and its annual Writer’s Digest Conference (WDC) are the leaders in this regard, hands down. And yet, when the earnest authors line up to tell agents about their projects for a scant 90 seconds each, in WDC’s well-orchestrated Pitch Slam?–those little tables between writers and agents are as wide as the Hudson. Ask any agent who’s been pitched at these conferences. Supplication doesn’t breed peer relationships.

What is being reinforced, coast to coast, event by event, is an understanding that there is the industry, the core — and there are authors knocking on its door. No one likes to mention the fact that the industry can do nothing without those utterly essential stories.

The biggest meetup of all

I want Digital Book World and Tools of Change to create events that offer to authors the same acumen, the same high view, the same executive-level presentation of the industry’s issues that DBW12 and ToC12 have just offered to the core. Including CEO panels.

Don’t dumb it down, for God’s sake. Those who can’t keep up, won’t keep up. Those who can? –will be our industry’s winners.

Only when authors get to hear Russ Grandinetti from Amazon tell the plenary that there’s never been a better time to be a reader than today … only when writers get to hear Dominique Raccah explain Agile’s pros and cons … only when novices get to hear A.T. Kearney’s boys from Milan talk global digital uptake … only when storytellers hear Valla Vakili go on about “exaggeration and perversion” in Small Demons … only when newcomers hear Kassia Krozser moderate a couple of market-cracking innovators … only then can the piece-workers of this industry start to grasp what’s happening in the home office.

I want to see DBW-Authors. Not “WDC: Special Victims Unit,” but a separate event produced by F+W’s book-biz vertical, DBW. I want presentation and explication by the principles of sessions from the DBW confab, say New ePublishing Initiatives: Digital-first (and digital-only) publishing comes of age and Agents Evolving: New developments in business models and publisher relations.

I want to see ToC-Authors. Granted, most authors may not need such sessions as The Changing Face of Open Commerce Identity in Publishing with Jonathan LeBlanc, but on the other hand, those writers who are mounting cooperative selling sites with other authors?–maybe they do need it. All authors need What Should I Read? A Brief History of Recommendations with Zite‘s Mark Johnson. And many more sessions from ToC.

The cluelessness enabled by the Net is choking us. To stop that, we have to turn around and take the time to say to the writing pool:

Here, this is what we’re talking about. This is the real issue, and this is why. These are our best heads today, these are the things they’re telling us, these are potential results – are you still with us? And what can you do to help?

Our crowning confabs are in a unique position to start professionalizing and even credentialing a perceived — I said perceived — underclass of indispensable creativity.

Whether you’ve barricaded yourself in the publishing core or are out in the saddle riding with the authors sans frontieres, “our” crisis is “their” crisis.

Kumbaya, baby, means nothing more than “come and sit by me.”

What do you think? Ping me on Twitter at @Porter_Anderson.

5 thoughts on “Open Sorcery: Letting the Authors In

  1. Laurie Cameron

    As a writer who has gone down the whole traditional publishing route once and is now trying to find a way forward with my next book, I couldn’t agree more with this post. I have begun reviewing self published ebooks on Amazon and have received a surprising number of comments/questions from the authors. I interpret this to mean that they have gone out on their own, but need serious feedback and support.

  2. Porter Anderson

    Hi, Laurie,

    Many thanks for reading and commenting! You’re right on the money. Many authors are searching for structure, basically, with so much of what traditional publishing used to provide having fallen away. Eventually, new structures will be in place, of course (we could see whole consortia of authors eventually) but during a long transitional period, I think we’re going to watch a great deal of casting-about, trial and much error, and a difficult layer of tension and obligation hobbling writers’ ability to focus and move forward with their work. All the best in your own career, and thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  3. Elisabeth Watson

    Mr Anderson: I was excited yesterday to see the subject of this article—it’s one about which I’m passionate. And when I finally did get ‘round to reading the whole thing, I found many solid points. However, I “finally got round to reading”, about 10 hours after I started. Why? Because when I reached the penultimate sentence of your first main paragraph: “Those who can separate the men from Bosman and Owen” I came to a screeching halt. Wait, what? I thought. I’m reading that wrong. But no—there’s only one idiom that employs that phrase “separate the men from”, and I know don’t need to explicate for you or my fellow readers this idiom’s traditional tone. It is at best infantilizing (“boys”); at worse, infantilizing AND sexist (“girls.”) But as place-holder for the “lesser” party in YOUR play on the phrase are two enormously talented industry journalists. Who happen to be women.

    I turned this almost-throwaway phrase this way and that all yesterday. I asked my professional peers to read it and tell me what they think. And I can find no way in which this one sentence is not heart-stoppingly, pointlessly demeaning.

    Now, I am almost entirely convinced that there was no such \point\ behind this unfortunate construction—mostly because I can locate no rhetorical force behind the sexism. The drive seems to be toward building up the cheeky list of “insider” knowledge, this being just one more block to lay on the heap.

    I also suspect no malevolence because your intent is so opaque. What I both hope and fear is that there is, in fact, no gendered “meaning” behind this unfortunate phrasing. My hope, insofar as I admire much of your work and want to believe the best of you. My fear, insofar as ignorantly crafting words so insulting—and not having the empathy that allows one to interrogate those words before they escape to the world—is a cause for sadness and concern. I know this because I am human and have done it myself. But if you COULD explicate your intended meaning for those of us who had to do a good deal of soul-searching or brisk walks around the block to come back and read the whole article, I think that could be very constructive for all of us. After all, here’s to dialogue, right?

    On a short-but-more-positive closing note, as a young editor/industry journalist just returned from AWP, I couldn’t agree more with many of your propositions. While I’m doubtful that AWP could contain as much industry insight as authors deserve and still maintain its mission, I think the need for such a conference is great. The conceptual block I see in both author and non-author book professionals (I lose your logic behind christening the non-authors “the core”—especially in this day and age) is the conviction that brilliant, daring artistic understanding cannot exist in the same brain as brilliant, daring business sense. THAT is a hurdle to be leaped on both sides. For both sides at this point, this line seems to be as fundamental and necessary as separating the men from the…well, YOU know.

  4. Porter AndersonPorter Anderson Post author

    Ms. Watson. Thanks for your note.

    As you surmise, and in such carefully crafted language, there is no negative intent in my write whatever — quite the contrary — for the work of Ms. Bosman and Ms. Owen. In fact, I was pleased that Ms. Owen was the very first person to tweet this piece when it ran. I regard her efforts at paidContent very highly and was honored by her attention. It never crossed my mind (nor, I hope, hers) that I might have intended even the hint of a slight against her or any other woman — or man — with that line.

    Since my turning of the phrase seems to have so firmly arrested you, however, I’ve actually changed it. It now reads: \Those who can separate Bosman and Owen from the boys.\

    I might gently suggest — and I mean \gently\ quite seriously — that we all can read peculiar shadings of lightness and darkness into verbal constructions. This is why any day’s political news involves one side of the aisle hearing precisely the same words as the other side of the aisle and coming up with opposing inferences. Surely our minds are better put to actual issues of challenge, and while I appreciate your care for precision (and your delightful way with words, actually), I regret that my initial choice of words caused you such grief and resulted in your spending so much time writing so graciously of a concern that has no basis. Next time I fail to see some line that might worry someone, just tweet me at @Porter_Anderson and say, \What are you doing, you jackass? That line’s offensive.\ Quicker for all of us 🙂

    To the point at hand, I, too, have just returned from AWP and am more convinced than before that it is not the conference organization to handle this issue. AWP’s seat in the academic community it serves (rightly, that’s its provenance) already has caused it to fall far behind in dealing with the business issues of publishing. I had several long talks with colleagues about this while in Chicago — at least one representative of a creative writing program is concerned that there’s an ethical lapse in so deep a scholarly focus that the razor-sharp realities of the business aren’t being communicated well to students. There were, as you know, precious few industry/business offerings on the list of sessions we’ve just battled to navigate. This, I fear, is a more serious problem than many in the academy have been able to realize. (And such crowds — this year was simply overrun, with 10,000 people there. The size of the event may be the most pressing issue for the AWP leadership to take on, first of all.)

    I have much greater hope that at some point, organizers of such confabs as ToC and DBW can consider an authors’ version of their presentations because those conferences are OF the industry world needed. They are the meetings of the leading minds, rather than surveys of what those minds are thinking. We need those actual players, and those conference producers already are dealing with them on a regular basis. This is a level of commercial heft and sophistication we can’t ask AWP’s people to address well, because the world of creative writing programs is simply not positioned to stage such a thing.

    Lastly, the publishing core is still just that. It’s easy for us in a time of so much change to think ahead of ourselves, it happens to all of us. I, too, can fall into this, believe me. But even with the upheavals around us, the industry’s central power base is in place, shaking badly, challenged on all sides — given some five years by Mike Shatzkin, in fact, in his latest essay, within which time, he predicts, the Big Six will not be Six. In many instances, however, that core, still forceful, is struggling to find a way forward, and all its initiatives are not wrong. The resources of sheer data on what’s happening and the range of experience those players bring to bear on this unprecedented era is remarkable, really. This is some of what I heard and saw at DBW and ToC and would like authors to hear and see, hence my interest. By contrast, the vast \National Kitchen Table\ of largely untrained and untested, Internet-prompted, aspiring writers won’t be ready to take on a core’s driving role unless and until recognizable standards of individualized professionalism have illuminated the field and established an agreement that quality of product must reign as the priority before a responsible sea change is understood.

    I do join you wholeheartedly in your concern that so few seem to be able to imagine both creative and commercial brilliance in a single mind. This is very odd, isn’t it? –especially considering that we have such powerful proofs in history, such as Charles Dickens, who was a considerable business talent, even if he couldn’t stop a good deal of piracy of his work. Yes, it’s a truth that girls and women, boys and men, need to reach. We are going to need to see some demonstrations of such comprehensive capability. When we can hold them up as examples of the \double threat\ we envision, it will be much easier to persuade others to grasp and support a unified approach.

    Thanks again for writing. While I’m sorry to have given you such a needless turn, it’s good to hear from you and an honor to have your attention to my work. All the best!

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