‘Social’ Media: And the Boat We Rowed In On

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.

You have to hope we didn’t take up too much of their time.

Cellophane
Mister Cellophane
Shoulda been my name
Mister Cellophane
‘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.

It’s instructive, soothing, promising.

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.

    1. 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?
    2. Is there a chance for this solution? Can you see authors’ collectives — pooling resources to utilize professional publishing services — as a viable possibility ahead?
    3. 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

 

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About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson, BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, speaker, and consultant specializing in publishing. Anderson is The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook in London, a sister site focused on developments in digital publishing. He is also a featured writer with Thought Catalog in New York, writing on publishing and on #MusicForWriters in association with Q2 Music. In 2015, Anderson has programmed the IDPF Digital Book Conference that opened BookExpo America (BEA) and is programming the First Word event at the Novelists Inc. (NINC) conference later in the year. And he is working with the Frankfurt Book Fair on special programming for its new Business Club suite of events and facilities, now in its second year, 13-16 October, in the 2015 Buchmesse. More on his consultancy, which includes Library Journal's and BiblioBoard's SELF-e among its clients in 2015: PorterAndersonMedia.com | Google+

Comments

  1. says

    Oh, the contempt is real…I’ve spoken to many authors on the qt about this dirty not-so-secret aspect of the industry. But I’ve also seen publishers go to the mat for their authors, so it cuts both ways. It’s a business, after all, and the ones making the money get the most attention, while the rest of us hope we break out enough to command some respect. And truthfully this is a weird time to be in the book business where the old model is rapidly vanishing as the digital age takes hold. Where it’s going to shake out, we don’t know yet but the industry is the Wild West right now. An author collective is an interesting notion–indie booksellers are trying collectives and cooperatives, and patrons are supporting these bookstores rather than letting them go under. Could collectives become the industry standard?

    There’s strength in numbers.

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    • Porter Anderson says

      Hey, Kath, thanks for the great comment.

      It’s really sad that authors are afraid to speak of this aloud, isn’t it? I guess that really does tell us, right from the start, that yes, it’s truly a problem — whispered about for so long, too.

      Could NOT agree with you more that this is a two-way street. I do know writers who would drive me up a tree if I tried to publish them (or do just about anything else with them, for that matter). In many instances, authors haven’t held up their end of the deal in terms of professionalism, punctuality, skill, experience — we all know this.

      But I also think Jonny Geller put his finger on it when he pointed out in his manifesto that authors (or anyone else) who are handled as peers will likely rise to the moment. The sense that authors are held in contempt has become so pervasive that I’m afraid a lot of writers begin with the idea that their chances are long gone to be treated as anything but a talented and annoying child and they basically live down to that image of themselves.

      Many dynamics at work here, in other words.

      You’re right that there are collective-type efforts underway. In fact, some authors, like Bob Mayer, are trying to develop themselves as publishers of others to improve their return on what they’ve learned on the strength of their big backlists.

      I think what I’m more interested in is an acquisition of the technical publishing work BY authors so that relationship is in place and functioning (the who works for whom issue). It’s a difficult concept for many of us, really, to think of the gears and levers of a publishing working FOR its authors, not vice versa, but something of this kind might be a place to start. Time will tell.

      Thanks for reading, and good weekend!

      -p.

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  2. says

    This is an intriguing idea.

    To answer your questions:

    1.) Yes. Read the archives of http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/ for a knowledgeable (though occasionally strident) take on the subject.

    2.) Yes. Especially now that the landscape has changed and finances are less of an impediment to getting a book before the public, whether an e-book (especially so), or a paper-and-ink book.

    3.) As for “genre focus” or “high quality,” I think that you could possibly do both, as publishers do now, with subdivisions within the main organization. As a nascent e-publisher myself (Gallant Press), I am interested in hearing more about this.

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    • Porter Anderson says

      Hello, Peter,

      Very glad to have you with us here and commenting, thanks.

      I do know Joe Konrath’s work very well, thanks. “The Kon-wrathful One,” I call him, because I fear that his vehemence and bitter perspective have contributed woefully to this sense that there’s a winning side and a losing side regarding self-publishing. The battle scenario, the insistence on self-publishing as a fight — all wrong, in my opinion.

      And regarding genre differentiation in a collective format, you may be right, of course. I think I’m personally more interested in focus — and I’d worry that subdivisions could become, as you suggest, too replicative of existing publishing operations. That’s not to say that two or more collectives couldn’t utilize the services of one publishing house, of course. But the collective, I think, needs the cohesion of a creative core. I may be wrong, mind you, this is all utterly speculative.

      The real key, in my opinion, is to establish and maintain the idea of publishing services in support of the authors — and not as a kind of privilege granted to the creative ranks. As self-publishing improves (and it will), the privilege of publishing simply falls away. Everybody can publish. And so the ability of a publishing house to grant that publication becomes moot. This is one thing we mean when we say the gatekeepers are gone.

      I’ll give you another image to think about.

      Great painters, particularly in the Old World, have run large studios of many artists, apprentices, journeymen, all engaged in doing the work of the master (finishing great ceilings, creating duplicates of popular paintings). Michelangelo, Rembrandt, etc. This has been a common mode of artistic production in Western art for many centuries and can be found in some instances even today. In such scenarios, the studio personnel are keenly talented, hand-chosen by the master — but it is clear that their job is to produce and deliver the master’s vision. A maestro wouldn’t apply to a studio to be allowed to make great art. Just the opposite. The studio (the publisher) would be formed to produce and manifest the master’s genius.

      This is the kind of direction in which we need to see literary work move. It’s hardly to say that all writers are working on Sistine projects, by any means (we should be so lucky). But simply that the work, itself, the literary vision is the point. Not the manufacture and distribution of it.

      A sea change in thinking alone, let alone in execution. Lots of rowing ahead. :)
      -p.

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  3. says

    “I find you fascinating. And I resent that in any man.” – My Man Godfrey

    Honestly, Porter, there aren’t a lot of men who can make me laugh early in the morning, but quoting “Mr. Cellophane” did it. So appropriate, too. Did I ever tell you about when I interviewed Bob Fosse?

    My new crush on Jonny Geller notwithstanding, I believe his manifesto is the point we’ve been lurching toward for a while. There’s no room for contempt or dismissiveness – from any part of this debate. A new model is necessary; the only question is what it will look like. And of course, who ultimately holds the power.

    I am fascinated (see above) by your collective idea. Actually, I think it’s rather brilliant. Sort of United Artists-like? Would the Stecchino’s group qualify as a collective? Would the collectives be genre-specific? So many possibilities…all good…

    Also loved your crew references. I know a few very typical teenage girls who have been recruited by top colleges since they were 15. To see them morph into team mates on the water is a powerful lesson for us all.

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  4. Porter Anderson says

    Viki, I’d feel I’d failed in some duty or other if I failed to make you laugh in the morning, thank God I’ve succeeded. :)

    I love “Cellophane,” but I find it not at all funny. In fact, it’s the most touching point in the whole show, of course, beautifully rendered by Fosse. (I interviewed Ebb, myself, and when I told him that my favorite song of his is City Lights, he had the amazing bravery to ask me to sing it for him. Can you imagine such masochism? Liza would have wept.)

    Couldn’t agree with you more that there’s no place for bad blood. But as we’ve seen in folks like Joe Konrath, there is, alas, a great deal of dark feeling installed already. I worry, in fact, that the noisy, nasty, obnoxious play that such people make of their hostility to legacy publishing is one of the things making it harder for publishers to stick their necks out and say, “OK, OK, maybe sometimes in our bad moments, we have’t been so kind or appreciative, could we do some talking about this and look for common ground?” It’s hard to fess up to an error (especially one you’re not entirely sure you’ve committed) when the folks who think you’re wrong are screaming in your face.

    And having just taken our great friend and colleague Kathy Pooler to task for looking a bit too hard (my opinion only) for positive vibes, I really feel we have to accept the fact that we may be too late for the reconciliation, the coming back together, the grand reconsideration…the digital timer has gone off, and visiting hours are over.

    UA may not be the best model (though the stable of artists, itself, is right) unless it’s cast as the initiative OF the stable members.

    I’ve just mentioned to Peter Spenser, who commented on the piece, that one model might be that of the studio created around an Old Master’s work in art. Here, we’d have a group of masters creating and sharing the services of a combined studio, basically. Think everybody in Montmartre getting together to work with the support of one big team of assistants. The whole thing would go up as soon as a spark hit the absynthe, of course, but you get the idea — the key is that the artists, themselves, must be the driving force that calls a Magnum-type collective into being. Lo and behold, we finally see a horse walking before its cart.

    Instead of publishing folks saying, “You get to be a published author because we think we can make money on you,” we have authors saying, “we’re choosing you to publish us and we will share the rewards of our success together.”

    Endless questions. In fact, I’d love to spend some time with the Magnum people and learn how their work has gone so well, what pitfalls they’ve discovered, etc., in 65 years of this.

    A Stecchino’s group, sure, but I’d never advise social bonds as the reason to form a creative business project. I think there are much more critical criteria in such a call — truth in commitment (I don’t enjoy dilletantes), the need for challenge (I like people who work with others they think are better than they are), and self-sufficiency (the Magnum members have one annual meeting, that’s it). But that’s just me. Making you laugh, I’m sure.

    Cheers1
    -p.

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    • says

      Totally agree, Porter. “Cellophane” is a depressing song. I just found it funny that you quoted it (a perfect reference, btw). And it was early. What can I say?

      There’s a little bit of “hey, my uncle has an old barn – let’s put on a show!” going on here, I think. The old Mickey/Judy model: we have all these talented kids and we’re going to put on a show. If you back us, we’ll all make money. Yes, simplistic (not to mention dated).

      But, I find it so interesting that (arguably) the most successful people on either side of the traditional/self-publishing argument (let’s say Turow and Konrath) have taken such strident positions. And why not? They’ve benefited from their position.

      It’s also not surprising that publishers were silent. I think the problem a lot of people have right now (and I include myself in this, too) is that we can’t see a clear resolution. Things are moving fast in many different directions. There are lots of possibilities out there, but no LEADER.

      In times of chaos, we look to someone who will make sense of it all, tell us what lies ahead, and leads us there. No one has stepped up. Maybe no one will. Oh, no, wait: Amazon has taken a stronger leadership position than any other person or entity (with the possible exception of you).

      Surely there are enough creative minds in this community to figure out a way all parties can be successful (though with somewhat different job descriptions than they currently have).

      And yes, no dilletantes allowed. Had my fill of them in theatre, too. Just a willingness to work together.

      In the mean time, I guess we’ll have to slog though on our own. And try to make sense of it all. Which is why I read everything you write, Porter. ;)

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      • Porter Anderson says

        Right, as usual, on every point, Viki.

        I especially like what you’re getting to when you mention the strident tones of the Turow-Konrath axis and the fact that we’re each slogging through it alone.

        Authors are, in the end, alone. And even the sort of collaborative service-enabling collectives I’m speculating on here would, remember, not be able to change the solitude (which I love, many others don’t) of writing.

        The Turows and Konraths depend, in part, on the essential loneliness of the writer. Their noise, they know (as do all bullies) can help shove people who feel isolated around for the pleasure of feeling involved, in touch, in sync. But they are, as you point out, at the extreme ends both of the publishing spectrum and of the volume range. Not a lot of thinking people, I believe, take much the yell at us seriously.

        You raise another fine point: Amazon may have it figured out. Many don’t like how they think that solution looks. Then again, we haven’t really seen it yet. Only now has Amazon (in the last quarter) pulled up alongside two of the Big Six in terms of adult-trade publishing output. Its influence is pervasive in so many parts of the fray right now that we feel we walk into them around every corner, as if we were in an MC Escher piece. But to be fair and prudent, we do have to quietly concede that Jeff Bezos’ vision has a lot to say for it. And may have a lot more to say for it. And could, despite many misgivings, be good for literature in the long run, garden rakes and all.

        We slog. Keep your own head on. That’s the key. Whether it’s me or anyone else yakking, only your own thoughts will finally count for you.
        -p.

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  5. Bernadette says

    Interesting. A lot of food for thought here. It seems like a great answer for the current state of publishing.

    However, one has to wonder if the personal taste of the collective board will have a large play in what is deemed “collective ready”.

    A collective could be a lot of sound and fury for new and better method, and end of being the same ol’ game–with a freshly made-up face.

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    • Porter Anderson says

      You’re completely right, Bernadette. Any given collective could even have a corrupt majority that pulled in friends and turned down those it didn’t like. On the other hand, it could be fairly run and promote an unusually open, receptive tone in all its activities.

      I can’t say that writers’ collectives are the answer even to some of the problems authors and publishers face, I’m afraid. I wish I could If a number of them were created, I feel sure that some would be badly run, others well, some places of serious business, others of frivolous socializing.

      What I WOULD like to see, in any format, is a re-conceptualization of how authors and publishers see each other and work together. And the concept of a collective or a co-op, as Cartier-Bresson termed it, is just one way that we might be able to see authors take the lead role as the “hiring” entities in a group effort involving publishing personnel.

      This is my real goal. To see if there can’t be a re-balancing of creative and processing forces, so we have a chance to see publishers and authors switch into peer mode, just as the rowers on the crews here suddenly become equals working in perfect precision together when the time comes, to get their boats down the course.

      I think this is a good time for all of us to cast about for ideas of how to redress the imbalance of position so many see in the industry, and I really appreciate you thinking with us on this. Keep that up!
      -p.

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  6. says

    Way to blow this author-publisher impending divorce (for lack of a better description) out of the water,Porter! Let me go on record as saying I do not mind being taken to task for hanging on so quickly to the positives as projected by @RozMorris and@JonnyGeller because it really keeps the dialogue going. I would love to see all parties row together toward our common goal of getting the best books to the right readers. But you bring up the realities of the point of no return when it comes to publishers respecting authors enough to make that happen. Instead ,we have a changing structure that we can play a part in designing. The idea of “publishers being proactive enablers” as per Kathy Meis seems a worthy goal. On the other hand, writers have a deep obligation to their readers to be the best authors they can be by taking responsibility to study their craft and putting out their best work to earn the respect of publishers and readers. I agree, agents are too important to disregard as they are the main advocates of the writer/author. However this all ends up, the idea of writers participating in a Magnum-like model of”a community of thought and shared human quality” seems like a noble goal to shoot for. As always Porter, I am loving the balanced, realistic, lively conversation on the topics that matter presented with your usual humorous flair. It keeps me coming back to enjoy a laugh like our good friend @Victoria_Noe while staying “in reality” I will, however, continue to cling to the positive as much as possible. Sometimes you do have to “fake it till you make it.” :-)

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    • Porter Anderson says

      As far as “fake it till you make it” goes, Kathy, there’s another marvelous number from Chicago — Fred Ebb’s lyrics say,

      Give ’em the old hocus pocus
      Bead and feather ’em
      How can they see with sequins in their eyes?

      What if your hinges all are rusting?
      What if, in fact, you’re just disgusting?
      Razzle dazzle ’em
      And they;ll never catch wise!

      And we may all be doing some razzle-dazzle for a while until we get the “new order” sorted out in publishing. :) I won’t tell if you don’t. :)

      You’ve summed it up, I’m afraid, in alluding to the author-publisher relationship of old being beyond the point of no return. The “revolution” feels like an explosion or two about every hour these days, but in fact it’s been moving in and over and under and around this business for years. I do think that the major publishers would have reassessed, reacted, regrouped with authors and looked at the changing field by now if they were going to. The bunkers look hardened, and while that’s not good news, it’s positive (!) to me when we take stock of things and say, “Well, this is what we’ve got to work with. Not too nice. But if a Geller initiative like the one we’ve just seen shows us no more movement than it did, then we need to read that handwriting on the wall and move on.”

      So yep, we row together. And I’m hoping we can figure out a way to have some of our superb publishing talent and skill row with us.
      May not have the slightest thing to do with authors’ collectives. That’s my idea du jour, only. But we need to think.

      Your note reminds me that when a crew is working well together, the time at which those long, long skinny boats are at their most unstable is the “catch” — that’s when the spoons of the oars first enter the water for the next stroke. The tuc of the water coming into contact with those things can jostle everybody if all eight women or men aren’t perfectly coordinated and hitting the catch at once.

      I think the industry is at the catch and the jostling is pretty amazing. There are so many rowers in this boat of publishing and so many ideas of what good timing is and what the coxswain just said and how the swell is coming at us … amazing we’re floating at all, really, lol.

      Life jackets advised. :)
      -p.

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  7. says

    Ugh, had a comment all typed out and then slipped my fingers and went back a page. So I’ll hit the important part (probably for the best).

    Do you think that these types of collectives could cause even more shifting towards a literary elitism? If as you say it takes 4 years of voting to get into Magnum, what would the equivalent process be like for writers? I think there would be an unfair advantage to those that were able to get into a collective early, as they would possess a way to market, collaborate and criticize each others work.

    New writers could still break into the market but not without a lot more effort and work. They would have to be that much more talented to overcome the strength of the community as a whole. But hey – maybe that’s not a bad thing as it would help raise the skill cap and readers and writers would all benefit.

    We’re already halfway there anyway, with the community of blogs (like this one) and online collaboration. It just isn’t formalized or restricted by membership.

    I’m all for the idea; but you know what they say about paving a road with intentions. It could easily devolve into something that takes away from the friendly community support we have now.

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    • Porter Anderson says

      Josh, first of all, I feel your pain – I’ve had exactly that experience of losing a Perfectly Marvelous comment I’d written, makes you crazy, doesn’t it?

      Even without that first copy, though, you raise a wonderful set of questions and points, really apt.

      Yes, the example of the Magnum photographers definitely — mea culpa — veers us right into the elitist end of things. My own contact with that one takes me there in my mind but you’re completely correct that, in fact, that particular collective is intended to create just that, an elite force of news and cultural photographers (the type National Geographic will dispatch to the new volcano and AP will throw into the most awful wartime massacres).

      In any development of a purpose-driven organization, the risk of such elitism is presesnt. It’s not necessary, of course, but it’s present. Remember that a collective of authors need not follow the pattern of admission that Magnum uses. Might be four days or four weeks and you’re in. Might be set up as a deliberately concentrated group of fine midlist cookbook writers, nothing to do with the Cordon Bleu end of things at all. There are as many ways to consider a collective as there are ways of writing and working. That includes such a group’s relationship with publishing personnel, too. One group might want vast support from multiple copy editing rounds for every scrap of text to specially trained illustrators for kids’ books — or it might be a more bare-bones requirement from the group as a whole. My guess is that in any of these coalitions, if they occurred, the authors would each act as their own agents, drawing on the resources of the publishing personnel as needed (in the same way that the Magnum photogs use the agency’s resources to handle rights coverage of their issues, case-by-case basis).

      So absolutely, this idea can be as fraught with potential pitfalls as anything else. And I feel sure (OK, I’m only guessing, lol) but I THINK that the majority of authors might still prefer to work outside a standing arrangement. The collective may be only for a certain type of writer who wants to access a fairly regular menu of publishing services and really merge her or his efforts with, say, that publishing wing’s PR program to ramp up discoverability, etc. Other authors will want no such “ties that bind” and might feel cramped in such an arrangement. All good. We each have so many things to figure out about ourselves, let alone each other, huh?

      One point you make does hit home for me, and I appreciate you bringing it up. While I’m not in favor of seeing the industry somehow become a nightmare hive of silo-ed conclaves, each harder than the last to break into, I do worry that — as we’ve all discussed in many ways and times — we have to many folks trying to write at the moment. “Too many books!” as Don Linn so refreshingly is willing to say. We’re way over-market, and of course, that’s nobody’s fault — the digital capabilities for self-pub have coincided with the Internet’s (odd, if you ask me) way of making so many, many people think they should be writing and publishing. This means “too many books!” And “too many writers!” trying to produce them. So while getting into that elitist honeycomb is clearly all wrong, if the bar of quality goes higher, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m willing to hustle for it and work harder to hit the right level if it does.

      Thanks again for commenting, especially when you had to basically do it twice! Much appreciated –
      -p.

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  8. Bernadette says

    I agree with what Josh about the possibility of elitism coming into play. The idea behind a brave new collective with a “collective board” who makes decisions on what is worthy work, spawns at least the possibility of an elitist approach, it all seems so very Ayn Rand.

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    • Porter Anderson says

      Let me introduce you to John Galt, Bernadette. :)
      Yes, exactly. See my note back to Josh. You’re both right. It’s a real and present potential in thinking about such an approach. I may be looking for love in ALL the wrong places with this collectives thing, and I guarantee it’s nobody’s perfect solution — there is none. But I love this dialog, with smart comments like yours and Josh’s. This is the way rational growth occurs. We compare notes, assess dangers, decide (each for her or himself ) what’s an acceptable risk and what isn’t, and look for our chances to implement what we hope is our best course. Not easy, and I appreciate your serious, sensitive involvement. That’s what we need from everyone.
      -p.

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  9. says

    Once again, Porter, you’ve given me a lot to think about, more than I could possibly address in a comment field. But I’ll pull out the notion of an author-acquired publisher. I know of authors out there assembling boutique publishing “houses” for themselves and friends, but I will take from your post you’re referring to something that would compete with the major trades.

    I’m reminded of United Artists, a motion-picture studio that, I believe, originated in just the same form of protest, from a time when studios all but owned actors. My recollection is that it thrived for awhile, then evolved into just another studio, then fell into disrepair. I am speaking purely from recollection here, not mastery of facts, but it would seem someone looking to take this idea of an author-led publishing house further might want to examine that precedent.

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    • Porter Anderson says

      Cogent as ever, Patrick, and many thanks for reading and commenting.

      My sense for the arc of the UA experience is much as you describe. Let’s take it as the basic understanding for our purposes here of a situation in which a group-directed effort eventually lost its purpose and devolved into pretty much what had gone before.

      I’m of course not saying that such a thing couldn’t happen again in the sort of collective I have in mind. However, if we go back to the Magnum model and remember that it’s got 65 years on it, I think we see a key in the fact that its membership — like our imagined membership — isn’t in the “club” in order to create work collaboratively.

      Actors in film (or on stage) are, of course, almost entirely dependent on each other and on their other colleagues in the theater and film arts. Unless UA had been formed as a house of one-person shows, the absolute requirement of collaboration that film places on a creative endeavor was inescapable.

      By contrast, photographers — like writers — don’t join a cooperative, as Cartier-Bresson called it, in order to work together. The Magnum photographers meet only once a year. (They gather in New York, Paris, or one of their other “official” cities where they have an office.) That’s it. They’re out and about as free agents all over the world doing photography. Every time they shoot a portfolio, they send it in to Magnum HQ (the closest office to them) and it’s ingested into the Magnum archive, cataloged, and then it’s ready for the rights/sales/loans/leasing people who handle all the legal business of providing those photos to various clients happen. It’s a library of photos, basically. And the “agency” aspect of it is in the handling of requests for use (either free or for pay) of those heavily protected, copyrighted photos from around the world.

      For writers, the services would be different, of course. Authors would want the sort of publishing support I’m envisioning, that traditionally done by a major house. Developmental edits if desired, copy edits, cover design, formatting and production to all platforms, distribution, PR, the works. A very successful collective working this way might eventually develop that “known brand” cachet I’m thinking of — say, Hemingway House has one blockbuster after the next and gradually readers learn they might want to watch for the next Hemingway House book because its writers are getting a reputation for really solid work.

      But even that kind of (happy) cachet is hardly necessary. The more important role of the collective, in my mind, is this provision of the publishing services that we all fear are being upended so traumatically as we watch what I’m afraid will be the demise of some of our most traditionally revered houses. Mike Shatzkin in his careful way has begun alluding to this possibility, you know, speculating that within about five years’ time, the Big Six may not be Six anymore. Terrible to think about.

      And yet, the current situation isn’t working either, we all know that. We have yet to understand what Amazon’s eventual presence will be. This, clearly, is a crucial bit of information we’ll have in time. Combined with how the other surviving publishing forces stack up (majors, smalls, universities, etc., plus self-publishing’s many potential shapes and contours), I’m guessing that there may be a worthwhile potential in something along the lines of the Magnum model that services its author membership. Each author is going about her or his business and simply contacting the collective’s offices when it’s time to line up a copy editor or a meeting with a designer, etc.

      Probably because the Magnum example is world-class photography (Josh and I have commented on this, too), I suppose that my initial idea for this probably is of a cooperative of authors who need major-class services, as you suggest. Doesn’t have to be that way, though, and I, too, know of several instances in which writers have started working together in one format or another (Bob Mayer and Jen Talty’s work comes to mind first off).

      I’d like to see us save some of the publishing expertise that may be lost when the rowers tip the boat, if you will. By that, I mean that if a large publisher (or several) go down, it might be possible to rescue and retain some of that remarkable talent if authors’ collectives can devise what their needs are and look for chances to bring in folks who otherwise might have to leave the industry.

      Those are some thoughts for now. And again, this idea isn’t revolutionary nor meant to be the be-all and end-all. The best thing is the dialog we’re all having, thanks to folks like you, so thank you again, and hope your weekend is going well!
      -p.

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      • says

        The Magnum idea makes sense, although you then started me thinking about ASMP and PPA, two professional photography organizations I’ve worked closely with professionally, and the steps they took to provide value for their individual entrepreneur members. That led me to thinking about The Author’s Guild, and if there’s some role they could play.

        But then I went a bit farther along, considering the branding power you’re talking about here with these individual authors. Imagine if a handful of power influencers among the top authors formed their own type of Oprah Book Club, except they only endorsed books that were both a must-read AND published by a publisher that followed whatever guidelines this group felt publishers should follow. They could, in time, create a situation where smaller publishers netted big-boy sales, and that might put pressure on the major trades to compete on contract terms.

        As I type, though, I wonder if the benefits would trickle down to all of their authors, and I suspect it would not. Well, we’ll keep thinking on this, I guess!

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        • Porter Anderson says

          Hey, Patrick –

          Good thoughts you’re walking through. Certainly, there are many scenarios in which market pressure can be envisioned being created and waged among collectives. As concepts that must support genuine business decisions, these are important considerations, and each criterion has to be examined in that light.

          Just briefly, I cannot at this point say that I think there’s a lot to be expected from the Authors Guild. Its various positions and statements on issues in the last few months (per this section of my latest Ether http://ow.ly/9RCzz ) have been anything but promising and, at times, seemingly quite perverse. None too sure what’s going on there, but that, of course is (in theory) a service group and the kind of developments I’m thinking about here are solidly commercially based and built for actual production.

          Overall, I’m not sure much of the old “service organization” (ex-union-era) model of outfit is going to prove viable in the digital era. Where for-profit operations can generate assists from such structures, they’ll create and maintain them. But I think the days of that kind of “soft business’ response are numbered. Digital just dislikes intermediaries, you know.

          Thanks again for all your good input, great to have it!
          -p.

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  10. says

    An appealing idea, at first glance at least, not unlike United Artists (mentioned above).

    I wonder if an authors’ collective would suffer the same fate. Start as idealistic, make a big splash, morph into the nightmare group project on steroids where a few doers get stuck with the heavy lifting. When the doers get tired of working for the glory of others, they bring in professional management so they can return to writing. Bam. Another old school publisher is born.

    Could be fun while it lasts.

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  11. Porter Anderson says

    Hi, Mari,

    Great of you to read the column, and thanks for your smart comment.

    As I’ve just been saying to Patrick, there of course is always the danger of a group effort falling apart. The different in UA and this, though, is that the film folks were working together. Authors, like the photographers of Magnum, wouldn’t form a collective in order to create big joint projects like films (except in some kind of specific project-driven situation). The photogs at Magnum are all independent and meet only once a year. The rest of the time, they’re all over the world shooting, then sending their stuff back in to Magnum where the service is the handling of their work with the media, etc. Authors would work similarly — everybody off in his and her corner of the world working, maybe a meeting a year (might be done as a Google Hangout or Skype call), and the service they’d avail themselves of would be whatever suite of publishing things the author needed. (Edits, cover design, formatting, etc.). This is a lot less likely to come apart because none of the authors is “carrying the load.” The publishing staffers at the center are the daily presence of the collective — the authors are independent, in and out as they need to be, in person or electronically.

    Make sense?
    -p.

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  12. says

    Porter, thank you – not only for mentioning my piece, but for pulling this issue into the limelight this week.

    The collective is a very attractive solution, providing – as Mari has wisely pointed out – it doesn’t degenerate into another bad old monolith. When I first heard how Magnum worked I remember thinking it was a terrific model for authors.

    There are models for this already. For instance, I’m a member of a UK collective called Authors Electric http://ht.ly/9RDRn . We’re authors who have been professionally published and are now bringing out works of our own on Kindle and other platforms.

    It’s early days yet and we’re not using it as a publishing imprint – but who knows where it might go. The core is a blog, where we each post once a month, but we have only just begun to discover what we can do. As a collective – with several major literary awards between us – we can approach the national press with a lot more clout than we carry individually. We can also communicate directly with readers who would like to try independently published books but aren’t sure where to find good ones.

    Some people here have mentioned cliques and elitism. Entry to Authors Electric is by invitation and places are limited because each member has to have a spot every month. Vacancies do come up when members move on and new members are vetted – because our most important asset is quality. Without standards for membership, we have nothing.

    Each collective will have its own rules, of course, and will get the followers who value them. :) Thank you again for an exciting week in the Ether!

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    • Porter Anderson says

      Hey, Roz, and thanks for this extremely pertinent comment.

      Your Authors Electric — which I know — is a great example, I think, of the potential for a collective to evolve in one very promising direction for such efforts. If it aids the writers to bond together and eventually to create the kind of service structure we’re talking about (along the Magnum lines, where the authors remain independent as far as their work goes but the central collective services handle issues of publishing details and so on, however the members set it up), then that’s a highly workable prototype in my mind for us all to keep an eye on.

      I’d say, then, that the keys here to what we’re thinking about include:

      Author independence (no one commits to projects “together” or to any particular form or frequency of output)

      Membership control (as you say, whatever the charges of elitism, without actual demonstrable tests of standards on each member admission, what value can the collective’s “brand” have?)

      Lightweight requirements on members (as with Magnum’s once-a-year membership meeting)

      Potential services including in-collective publishing services (this being the element I’ve discussed of a collective actually engaging publishing personnel to output the membership’s work).

      I’ll be in touch with you shortly, having just been given Hangouts On Air approval by Google — I want to see if you’d like to join me in an international Hangout discussion online about this concept, could be interesting.

      And thanks to you, too, for your very agile and provocative follow-up to Jonny Geller’s good work this week — you were able to focus a lot of good thinking with me on one of the less happy aspects of publishing. With a lot of luck and some clear heads, we might be able eventually to resign perceived Old Publishing arrogance to the dustbin as we move past the era of big-house control and contempt.

      As I was saying to Viki Noe above, I think we’re only now in the “catch” of the crew’s stroke, when the boat is most easily jostled and destabilized by the transition. There could be some surprisingly fast turns of events just ahead and some profound consequences to follow. Having an image in mind, a construct to examine, at the ready, as we navigate this passage is the best possible idea. Hanging on is always good advice. Eyeballing a destination is even smarter.

      Here’s to it, and thanks again!
      -p.

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  13. says

    Such collectives already exist for certain aspects of a writer’s world. A group of us here created the Houston Bloggers Collective for many of reasons you cite: to support, encourage, and (on-line) publish our writings. It’s an amazing effort from which we all benefit, newbies and old-timers alike.

    Only question on your post above: who decides “best”

    Hear ye on the bullies, too. We need all voices – bleeding edge, cutting edge, and leading edge – to clamor with persistent vigilance as the revolution births itself. We each bear an obligation to, amidst the chaos and cries, remember who is what. And why.

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    • Porter Anderson says

      Hi, Melanie, thanks for reading and commenting!

      I’m glad you have the Houston Bloggers Collective, it sounds like it’s doing some great things for you guys, more power to you. Certainly, that’s the kind of community I hope we’re all benefiting from these days (the Writer Unboxed crowd being another), and these are all terrific.

      What I’m proposing here as a future possibility, though, is not necessarily a community. It may, in fact, not include a scrap of way-to-go support.

      If we stick with the Magnum example, the distinctions (or at least some of them) are:

      * The collective is a commercial venture, a business about business.. This sort of collective can handle most of the business end of an author’s moneymaking career. (Short of cashing the checks, lol.)
      * It’s formally set up as a corporate entity, not a club. I think 501c.3 might be a viable mode (non-profit), but I’m not sure there’d be any real advantages.
      * By “business center,” I mean that it handles the actual publishing and other business needs of its authors. There is paid staff, etc., supported by some percentage formula of what comes in from membership sales. And as I’ve hinted at earlier, I think, there clearly is a chance for the inclusion of literary-agency services here, too — author management, as well as publishing services.
      * One goal may be — if agreeable to the membership — generating enough publicity and attention for the collective that it becomes known for its authors’ work and takes on the role of a brand, a seal of approval. A member may then want to identify her- or himself as a “Tropic of Miller” writer. Indeed, members might be
      required to identify themselves as such, thus ensuring that the logo of the collective is carried by each member into the marketplace. I’m guessing we could hear someday, “You know, I really like the poets I’ve read from that Dickenson’s Daughters group a lot” — then you’re growing readership based on the collective’s good name.

      I’m glad you’re asking “who decides what is ‘best?'” Answer: The members do. Or a person or committee the members designate. Just as Magnum photographers strictly control who is allowed to join them and benefit from their coveted insignia, so must authors.

      To many, this sounds elitist, I know, and nobody wants to see folks’ feelings hurt. But the truth of life is that in every endeavor, some people are better than others at one effort or another.

      If it’s any consolation for “gatekeeper” haters, I think it may help to remember that should an author’s collective form and operate at a vaunted level, as Magnum does, the gatekeepers will, at least, be the authors, themselves. Not publishers, as has been the case so far. This time, the artists will choose their own.

      This is one way professionals can communicate to the world what they offer and where its values may lie to the consumer. In a world of digitally enabled amateurism, the need to distinguish and delineate quality grows hourly. I’m a big fan of ATP professional tennis (the Sony-Ericsson Open at Miami is on this week and next), and one of the striking things about that highly individualized sport (a factor I like) is how clearly these players understand that ranking is ranking is ranking. Nobody complains that they all should get to be #1. How absurd would that be? What, because they’re all nice guys and great players? And how crazy would it be if the ATP were suddenly rushed by amateurs who claimed that they were as good as the top pros, and that they should have full access to these tournaments because they love the game? “Everybody’s No. 1! We’re all beautiful!” Can you see it?

      Writing is equal opportunity. Success is not. We don’t all get to be hits. And while fairness doesn’t always prevail, dropping standards and tossing out the criteria of proven excellence will get you nothing but overwhelming mediocrity.

      I think any initiative such as Cartier-Bresson’s Magnum easily can be assailed as elitist. Every time kids on a playground choose up sides, somebody’s hurt. Winners need to be able to create cooperatives like Magnum, they have specific needs for services in their “big” careers, it makes sense. And remember, other groups of authors at varying stages in their own careers can come together for the benefit of shared support services that match their needs, too. There’s no limit to how many collectives are out there and how they choose to admit new people. Many artist collectives are in place and operating right now, in fact, often running art galleries that show only their members’ works. If you want into one of these artist collectives, your work is going to be reviewed by those collectives’ members. That’s how it works. These are not unknown models.

      The important thing to realize is that while any given collective’s criteria for membership can look restrictive, the concept of such collectives is not. Hey, one cooperative could well be named The Rankest of Amateurs. :)

      Make sense?
      -p.

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  14. Marj Helmer says

    This a concept that can keep every one employed. My question is how Magnum pays for the services it provides? 15%? From everyone? More means tested, with 20% over X? The newbie pays less? Why would a power author want to spend time reading the slush pile for the next member? There has to be a vetting process which has to be paid for. Production costs. Publicity. Your concept incorporates the current process, but you envision one which is more respectful. It is my understanding that sales and marketing has the veto power in the current process. I like the new blogging that gets the name of a good work out there. That a good reviewer can create a demand. That a good work can become an in demand title by many remarking on the story and the quality. A trusted blog reviewer can drive the market. Marj Helmer writes novels in Minnesoat

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  15. says

    Hi Porter,
    I am coming late to this conversation, but it offers a lot to think about. I like the seal of approval idea. I would love to get together with a group of authors who write books similar to mine, have them put out by a publisher that is working with us as a team to put out a high quality product and connect us more directly with the audience most interested in our books. It would be great if authors who were already well-known and successful could join with others, just starting out (like me) :) and work to increase the readership of all books in the “coop” for lack of a better word.

    You mention earlier how writers are “alone” and that’s how I feel most of the time. Lost in all the chatter on the net.

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