Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Pollyanna Principle

This one's running a bit long and chaotic, which is why I started writing it Sunday night and still haven't finished it. Here's what I've got so far.

In response to last week's In Praise of Brilliant Amateurs, BC asks:
While nothing lasts forever, why so optimistic about the business side? While there are great aspects to the internet/long tail phenomenon for the consumer, I am not as optimistic for the creators.

As long as legions of would be "pro creatives" vie for the same dollars it will be a buyers market. This is true in almost all creative fields: writing, acting, music, art, video games, etc. The economics are bleak for all but the few anointed ones.

On the other hand: So what?

Opportunities for creative expression are everywhere. You don't get paid for Sunday school lessons, playing guitar with your friends, journaling, telling stories to your children and their friends or writing Christmas letters, but that is not to say that you are not compensated.

Bruce admits that success is often it's own worst punishment. On one side lies the sophomore curse, on the other Michael Jackson. Why then break your back pursuing professional creative success? If you want to feed yourself -- plant potatoes. If you want to express yourself -- pull out your fiddle. Combining the two is risky.
First off, I have to agree completely with the latter three paragraphs. If you don't need to make money off your art, great! More power to you. Have fun, and go wild!

But as for the initial question: why so optimistic about the business side? Partly it's out of pure Pollyanna positivism. I've tried despair; it didn't get me anywhere. I've tried bleak — and maybe I didn't try hard enough, because this year's Booker Prize winner was praised by the critics as being "exhiliratingly bleak," a concept I still have trouble wrapping my mind around. I'm impatient with nihilism; I've been known to laugh out loud at Goths. So why not be optimistic? At least you'll have a better time of it as you stagger along on your weary journey through the Wastelands of Misery to your final destination in The Black Pits of Despair. Me, I'll probably go there singing:
"Since my baby left me,
I've found a new place to dwell.
It's down on the end of Lonely Street
at Heartbreak Hotel..."
It's not pure cockeyed optimism, though. I'm sustained by a few bits of actual, if perhaps useless, knowledge. One is that the novel is a fairly recent invention; the mass-market novel even more so; and the idea of actually making a living solely by writing mass-market novels is scarcely older than I am. As a living author, Twain made most of his income from his travel writing and lecture tours. Dickens wrote most of his great novels as weekly serials, frequently changing the direction the stories were going in mid-stream in reaction to reader comments and fan mail.

Another thing that sustains me is that I have the good fortune to be old enough to remember the days when there was such thing as a mid-list, and it was possible for a writer to have a career and make a living — not an extravagant living, but a living nonetheless — writing novels that sold only 10,000 copies in hardcover or 50,000 in paperback. Of course, that was back in the old days, before the dark times; before the rise of the Publishing Empires, when publishing houses were often idiosyncratic and idealistic operations run by colorful personalities, without proper guidance and hobbling from marketing consultants, focus groups, and certified MBAs. These days, while the names of those old verbal crusaders linger on, they most commonly do so as imprints or wholly owned subsidiaries of vast multinational media conglomerates, and the battle cry of "L'art pour l'art!" has been replaced by "NY Times bestseller list or die!"

So I have to believe it's possible for smaller, nimbler, and more creative publishers — operating with far less corporate overhead and waste — to carve out adequate livings in the market spaces that the Imperial Elephants have abandoned.

I have more sympathy than you might think for problems of the vast multinational media conglomerates (hereinafter referred to as "VMMCs"). After all, we've all seen the examples of the Danish cartoonists, Salman Rushdie, and Theo van Gogh. In this long-tailed, flat-world age, why take the risk of publishing a book in the U.S. that might cause angry mobs to loot your local TV affiliate in East Whackistan or burn down all your theme restaurants in Greater Nutjobia? Why do that when your marketing consultants will tell you your best R.O.I. comes from publishing more books exactly like last year's bestsellers, and by sticking to offending and alienating those whom it is safe to offend and alienate: Christians, conservatives, patriots, and the petit bourgeoisie?

No, far better to publish more novels about crusading lawyers, oversexed doctors, child-abusing serial-killer priests, and the social problems of young lesbian vampire career women living in Manhattan. Do that, and at the end of the day everyone goes home happy, and no one ends up dead on the sidewalk with a five-page letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali stabbed to his chest with a butcher knife. be continued, maybe...