On the Future of Publishing

Agent Nathan Bransford says it’s a great time to be an author and entrepreneur. I’m cheering in the same crowd.

Having worked with some remarkable, professional authors who self-publish their work, I know that a savvy writer can put out a book and at least break even. It makes me wonder what would happen if literature became more local, and more democratic. Editors, agents, and book designers aren’t going away, but I can’t help thinking that more of the profit would end up in writers’ hands if they wrote with local audiences in mind (geographically local, and/or to their circles online), and self-published.

We get at truth through specificity, and I hardly think our work would suffer if we practiced paying better attention to the struggles–class, political, social, and personal–closer to home. This could be my own frustration surfacing. In my own writing, I grapple with adapting foreign subject matter to a very Western form of storytelling; when I get stuck, I get antsy, and wonder if I am overlooking equally important narratives on my doorstep. Maybe so, yet I would not be writing about the Middle East if I didn’t believe that our country’s failures did not resemble certain other human rights failures abroad.

Speaking from a creative perspective, we writers receive our inspiration locally. By setting out to write local, too, we could expand our readership. From a human perspective, local literature builds community. Portland claims as heroes its local writers–Ursula Le Guin, Diana Abu-Jaber, and Kim Stafford, to name a few. From a business perspective, I believe marketing our books would be easier and more successful. Word of mouth is the best advertising we can have, and from a spiritual and ethical perspective, it serves us to let our best work speak for itself and to avoid the cheap language of marketing and self-interest.

Self-publishing, and likely e-publishing, remove several filters that separate writers from their audiences. I can’t help thinking that we can reinvigorate literature by writing more directly and urgently to a tangible audience–to the communities in which we already participate. I see many aspiring writers who write to agents and publishers, or to the literary canon. What good is that, really? It sets young writers on a path to failure and frustration, rather than encourage them to say something helpful to their readers about the shared world.

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