The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.
Antony & Cleopatra, II, 2
It was St. Paddy’s Eve, after all, when London-based agent Bonnie Jonny Geller let out with his Agent’s Manifesto. This prominent man o’ the industry said that publishers need to stop dissing their own authors, baby. He said those authors know more about whether the cover’s right or the marketing plan is wrong than the smarties inside the publishing house do — because the book is the author’s creation.
And oh, there was joy in Mudville then.
- Finally, said we, someone with a prime perch in the big cage.
- Finally, said we, somebody of real pith and purpose turns to look toward the authors and sees them where they stand faithfully waiting and waiting and waiting.
- Finally, said we, someone who can call to account the manicured publishers, line them up in one Saville row, and make them see at last, see at last, thank God almighty, they can see at last how short is the shrift they’ve given the very writers who polish their marble and burnish their brass.
Truth is the cruelest blarney when it’s on your side, isn’t it?
In answer to Geller’s call for respect of writers, the Cuff-linked Ones said…nothing. They didn’t even rise to defend themselves.
- Not when Geller posted on Fortuitous Friday at TheBookseller site.
- Not when author Roz Morris posted on I Second That! Sunday at her Nail Your Novel site.
- Not when I posted on Man-Up Monday at Digital Book World’s Expert Publishing Blog.
- Not when I posted again in Writing on the Ether at the mighty site of #JaneFriedman, hashtag unto herself.
You have to hope we didn’t take up too much of their time.
Shoulda been my name
‘Cause you can look right through me
Walk right by me
And never know I’m there.
Lyrics from Chicago, by Fred Ebb
So I turned to some correspondence with Kathy Meis.
The seat of her Serendipite Studios is in my hometown, Charleston. One big focus of her efforts is on ways to enable book discovery. You can see Meis accepting a People’s Choice Award for her Pappus software at the Tools of Change Conference’s (Toc) Startup Showcase last month — her award is at 5:30 in the video.
In looking over an essay she’s drafting about the author-publisher relationship, I had an idea I’d like to test on you.
Meis is doing some good thinking on the new centricity of the author. My interpretation of her basic concept is that as we reposition the best authors to connect with readers, we should also look to the best publishers to support those authors in cultivating their connections. We require the opposite of disdainful, dismissive publishing personnel. Instead, publishing folks should become proactive enablers of the author as the tip of the spear, the lead on both production and promotion.
And this should produce an enabling factor Meis describes as “a more present publishing brand.” I’d call this a seal of approval, a validation. It’s beyond imprint names, to which most readers pay no attention. This is something that communicates to readers an imprimatur of quality.
Do you know Magnum Photos?
I met the late Magnum photographer Inge Morath when I interviewed her husband, the playwright Arthur Miller. Both died in 2002. You might recognize one of Morath’s most famous shots, A Llama in Times Square.
Morath told me how Henri Cartier-Bresson led the formation of Magnum Photos about 10 years prior to her own 1957 induction, as a cooperative of highly regarded, accomplished photographers.
Magnum, to this day, serves as a powerful content-processing agency for its members. It’s an archive of their work that services requests for Magnum images to the news media. art museums and galleries, corporations, advertising firms, etc.
Potential new members must be invited to submit portfolios. Those portfolios are voted on in stages by the full membership at its annual meeting. It takes at least four years of provisional acceptances before a photographer can be made a full member.
I look at Morath’s images and I see captures of a different world from ours today. Poverty and wealth, whimsy and despair, they’re all unique to their time and her sensibilities. Morath seized on the black-and-white postwar ebullience of the mid-century with the energy of Rand and the compassion of Schweitzer. This helps me understand Cartier-Bresson’s contemporary-sounding description of the collective he created in 1947:
Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.
I wonder if a Magnum model couldn’t become at least one concept for authors in the future. That “community of thought, a shared human quality.” Could that bind writers?
Particularly during this digital transition — when some publishers are likely to see the backs of authors they’ve treated with less than collegial goodwill — what if a publishing concern put its capabilities, resources, experience, and distribution channels at the service of an author’s collective?
What if a group of authors acquired a publisher?
These writers would, in effect, become their own stable of talent. As Magnum’s photographers do, they would control who got in through the juried appraisal of applicants’ work. They’d vote on who to admit to membership.
An aside: I’d love to see the best agents included in this type arrangement. I take Geller’s manifesto reference to talk of “disintermediating” agents quite seriously and I think this class of the publishing core is much too valuable for us to lose, even in a transfigured future. Maybe especially in a transfigured future. Agents, while susceptible to the same arrogance that has afflicted some publishers, generally live much closer to their writers than do publishers. To be plain about it, when the car goes into the canal in Amsterdam? — I’m diving in to save the agent first. Then I’ll think about the publisher…if I feel like another swim.
So now then. We’re coming to “your turn,” as Morris likes to call that moment in blog magic when we get to hear from you. Bear with me as I set up my questions for you.
Let’s say we have author collectives springing up across the land. Magnum Authors. Hemingway House. Chandler Consortium. Gibson Sprawling. Nin’s Nuns. Dharma Didion. Since James Scott Bell and I have been discussing the bean, Balzac Bold, a collective notable for having its own Starbucks franchise.
These and other great houses of the new publishing order vie with each other to induct the best authors, to raise the strength of their collectives’ “brands.” Readers are encouraged to follow all the Angelou Arbor poets or all the Tropic of Miller novelists. These brands are no ignored imprints — they’re the coveted indicia of vibrant creativity.
Ah. And Creighton’s Crew. You were wondering when I’d get into the boat, weren’t you?
I’m lucky to live on a waterway that daily stages the workouts of rowing teams from universities all over the country. Tampa’s weather and our extensive, protected in-town channels make us the perfect setting for crew training and dragon boat regattas.
When it comes time to clear my head (and when is it not?), there’s nothing like the lessons of crewing.
These are impossible splinters of power, these Vespoli rowing shells, some 50 feet long.
Sure, they gleam crazily as they come around near a Royal Caribbean cruise liner to get pointed. The rowers slump, ragged at rest. They get hot and testy during the tedium of aligning with another shell for a race.
But a few words from the coach in his motorboat, a bug in the rowers’ ears from the coxswain, and a shell abruptly surges like a dolphin, sweep oars suddenly working in kick-ass unison, down to catch the water, driving through it just under the surface to the release, up and out and feathering flat down into the next stroke.
The individual temperaments of these athletes flare into this coordinated sunlight of legs pushing, arms pulling, the spoons of the oars rising, traveling, falling, the eight+one consumed in the row.
I want to see the best authors pull together. And I want to see them own their own boat.
So now to the questions I have for you.
- Is the problem real? Do you agree that authors are subject to the disdain that Geller and Morris and many others say some publishing insiders show for writers? Have you experienced this apparent contempt, yourself?
- Is there a chance for this solution? Can you see authors’ collectives — pooling resources to utilize professional publishing services — as a viable possibility ahead?
- Who could you row with? What would you need to join a Magnum-like organization? Would it be more important to be in a collective with a focus on your genre or a reputation for high-quality and well-regarded writers? Or both?
It’s time for you to talk. Our comments form awaits you. As the guys rowing eights say, that’s “way ’nuff” out of me.
Crew imagery / Garrison Channel and Bayshore Boulevard, Tampa / @Porter_Anderson