Giving More Authors and Readers Freer Access to Each Other is "Reactionary," Because…Ayn Rand!


One of the more gross and annoying aspects of modern liberal intellectuals is how vital and proper they think it is to piss on every new technique that allows more people to accomplish more things, because, well, near as I can tell the dominant "thought" behind this is that it limits the cultural power of gatekeepers, which for some reason are dearly loved by people who a) see themselves as culturally "on the side" of the gatekeepers or at the very least not on the side of those making and using the techniques.

Or b), they just really get off on penning people in behind gates.

I've written on this phenomenon before as it applied to the New Republic's sneering at the terrible offense of Kickstarter (which allows people to easily and cheaply raise funds for their particular version of cool stuff) and the New Yorker being alarmed and annoyed by the "maker movement" (which encourages the use and spread of techniques and ideas that allow more people to, again, make more cool stuff). Anything that allows more choices and abundance outside a context that's political or that fails to enforce "social consciousness" just gripes some writers' guts a whole bunch. I genuinely don't get it—and neither do they get what they are complaining about.

The latest annoying example of this trend is from the U.K. Guardian, by Alan Skinner, titled "Self-Publishing is not Revolutionary–It's Reactionary" and sneers at the rise of the "authorpreneur."

Some excerpts w/arguments:

self-publishing is neither radical nor liberating. And, as revolutions go, it is rather short on revolutionaries. It is actually reactionary, a contracted version of the traditional publishing model in which companies, who produce for a wide range of tastes and preferences, are replaced by individual producers each catering to very narrow range.

No, in fact they are replaced by a wide range of individual producers producing whatever they want to for everyone in the world.

But while traditional publishing, in Skinner's read, is nicely and sweetly centralized by experts (and don't worry he writes—anyone can submit a book to a trad publisher! Well, not really), the ability for every writer to reach every reader is something much, much worse: individualistic.

By definition, self-publishing is an individualistic pursuit in which each writer is both publisher and market adventurer, with every other writer a potential competitor and the reader reduced to the status of consumer. Publishing then becomes timid, fearing to be adventurous and revolutionary lest it betray the expectations of its market. This is a natural tendency in traditional publishing but it is one restrained by the voices of its authors who are free to put their work first and entrepreneurship a distant second. With authorship and entrepreneurship now equal partners, the new authorpreneurs have thrown off the dictatorship of the editor to replace it with the tyranny of the market.

What makes an author able to put work first and entrepreneurship a distant second? Well, I guess mistakes made by editor and publishers, at times. A point that Skinner might find too vulgar to mention is that an author through trad publishing gets at best around 10-15 percent of the income from his work, as opposed to easily 4-5 times that through e-book platforms, so the amount any writer needs to sell to be recompensed for her work is actually far lower with self-publishing.

Cross-subsidies from commercial titles support poets, academics and writers of new and daring literary fiction who will never appear on bestseller lists. Such concerted action is impossible in a fragmented world where each writer pursues individual success.

One hears this a lot. He provides no evidence of it, specifically. The whole notion of "cross-subsidies" may happen on occasion, though generally when publishers print books that don't make a lot of money it's because they made a mistake, and generally a pretty cheap one, given size of most advances and lack of any expense on promotion, not because they are nobly supporting literature. The "support" that reaches writers in a self-published e-book market is enormously higher per reader/customer reached than in a traditional model.

But how do you know self-publishing is really wrong, when the weakness of assuming that traditional publishing will somehow find or distribute more great literature (presuming we are in a world where anyone is writing great literature) with more support to the author (as opposed to themselves) becomes obvious with about 10 seconds of thought? Because, Ayn Rand!

the individualism of the self-publishing authorpreneurs, is disturbingly close to Ayn Rand's Objectivism, in which the greatest goal is individual fulfilment. No wider context needs to be considered because these wider goals will take care of themselves if every individual pursues a personal objective without regard to anyone else. It is the philosophy of pure laissez-faire capitalism that rejects community and mutual responsibility.

No, self-publishing is the philosophy of "I write whatever I want, and I have the means to find out if anyone out there in the community wants it" rather than the philosophy of "God I hope I can fool an editor and a marketing board into paying me an advance far, far more than the book will ever earn back." The "wider context" he worries doesn't exist is one where authors are unfettered, get more for their work, and are recompensed based on how much the literary community writ large chooses to support them.

Better, thinks Skinner (and I hope there is no mass audience that was on his side), that authors be tended and managed by huge international conglomerates who will, as most authors who pay any attention know, take 85 percent or more of the income on your work for no consideration other than a loan (which they, kindly enough, generally will not try to dragoon out of you at any cost if it doesn't technically recoup) and are every step of the way more interested in maximising their income over gaining you either income or readers (note their general unwillingness to do or spend anything at all on promoting your work once they've paid the bills to print it and ship it to Amazon, and their desire to keep e-book prices as high as they think they can, and that's not to help the author.)

There is so little substance to his argument I can't imagine what would inspire him to write and publish this unless it's having big ownership stakes in French or German megaconglomerates. Because this guy nattering about community and attacking individualism and laissez-faire is doing so in service of arguments that don't help readers and don't help writers. They only help publishers.

I made fun of a similar gatekeeper attack on self-publishing for back in the go-go 00s. As I wrote then and as most professional authors not at the tippy-toppermost of the poppermost know:

Indeed it is true that, as Bissell and Younce write, "without an editor, marketing or publicity, [a] book will enter the world with a silence that makes a tree falling in the woods sound like Chinese New Year in comparison." What they don't mention is that the great majority of books published by even Manhattan-based publishers with lovingly crafted colophons and well-situated offices face the same deafening disinterest. While these books don't qualify as "vanity publishing," the great majority of professional published authors will find their efforts to have been in vain…..

As a service sought out, gatekeeping is noble enough. As an impermeable barrier, it's a cultural crime. Only those afraid of what's out there, or convinced they can't defend themselves, crave impregnable gatekeepers. 

That said, the cultural and technological changes of the past decade have made it easier, though of course never actually easy, for any writer anywhere to reach any reader, and for communities of affinity and communication to arise and thrive that will provide each of us with self-crafted means of "gatekeeping" about what we might like or want to read.

These new systems don't involve paying high salaries and giving midtown Manhattan offices to a bunch of people who could not possibly care less about author or reader, and that's, um, a shame, I guess.

Bonus "disgusting examples of the intellectual twists people will go through to justify state action to restrict our possibilities" in this huge Nation think piece on how marketplace choice is objectively bad for us and needs to be stopped.