Monday, March 20, 2017

New Publishing

Today I discovered, serendipitously, that one of my favorite authors has a line of fantasy novellas out which I had not even heard of, set in one of my favorite of her fantasy worlds. Lois McMaster Bujold has four novellas set in her Five-Gods world, which was first presented through three novels: The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt. The new series, seeming to be a nice mystery-fantasy genre blend, features a mage-detective named Penric. I went on a minor spending spree, made affordable by the prices of digital material independently published. I am now looking forward like mad to burrowing into the set.

The first Bujold novella of a 4-book series.
The discovery was serendipitous as I am in the middle of attempting to assemble a Patreon account for my own works--a bold venture, though I increasingly wonder why I have not attempted it before. Many years ago, when the Kindle was mere promo from Amazon and people were swearing that there was no practical way to distribute digital reading material, I was out proselytizing what to me was the absolute certainty that digital was soon going to hit its stride and change the world. I got brushed off repeatedly by people who knew better, and have been laughing ever since, while making such living as I manage working in that realm.

My argument then, as now, is that digital publishing, by removing the physical constraints of book sales, offers all players a brilliant new playing field. A digital book takes up no real space, needs no real world storage, can be delivered in the blink of an eye anywhere the internet itself runs. The production costs approach near-zero if you start with the assumption that you were either going to write that book anyway, or that you already had done so. It's harder to protect your rights, but it theoretically should be easier to protect your payments, either by self-publishing or by demanding automatic bookkeeping reports, sale by sale and book by book. An author's midlist now need not ever go out of print in any practical sense. Combined with print-on-demand and backed with a wide range of crowdsourcing schema, an author is no longer at the mercy of an often rigid, predictable publishing industry.

Digital publishing and digital distribution of hobby writing have changed the very nature of writing, creating opportunities and at the same time presenting crippling challenges. If publication is near-free for everyone, quality control is almost destroyed. Brilliant hobby writers flourish, offering free material for the honest joy of being read. Dreadful, incompetent "professionals" charge unpredictable and often overblown prices for badly written, badly edited nightmare material. A range of professional digital publishers, from reliable houses to horror-story versions of the old vanity press abound, and sorting them out remains a problem. As for the difficulty of promotion in this environment? Consider that an author I love and follow was able to get four books I definitely want to read into digital print, and I only found out about it as the result of a side search that showed me related of which rang alarms for me.

To me this is a time of great excitement. When a novelist--even a noobie, unfledged novelist--can fund and promote a book through Kickstarter, or develop their own brand using a Patreon page, or find a digital publisher online, without the difficulty of going through the old pro publishing gatekeepers, then all bets are off. In time, creativity will win out. Genres will mutate, forms will alter, literary assumptions will be challenged...and that's the stuff of fantasy and science fiction itself.

One of the hardest things facing science fiction and fantasy writers in this era is trying to keep even remotely up with the wonders unfolding around us. We are facing changes so profound that our minds can't predict what comes next, or what it will mean to "the human condition." What does it mean when we all have voices? When every one of us has the hope of being heard--and millions of competitors shouting to compete against?

The changes generated in the late 1800s and early 1900s have only come to full flower now, when we register what industry, travel, and modern medicine made possible. Much of our society's current turmoil is rooted in the results generated by the changes modern science and technology made not only possible, but inevitable. We struggle with impermanent communities, fragile families no longer bound by bitter necessity, biological freedom from what were once eternal norms--illness, unwanted pregnancy, high infant mortality. A look at today's newspapers shows the long-term effect of shifts that began between two and three hundred years ago. The culture shock is profound.

Then I ask myself what shock is still to come, as our genes are unlocked, our ability to communicate with the world made very close to being both free and easy, our medicine so advanced we can imagine almost anything without being too extreme: chimeral bodies, ageless bodies, selective health.

As in the world of new publishing, all bets are off, and anyone's guess may prove good. We live in interesting times.

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