Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Amateur Publishing

Here's an interesting article. The author argues that we are or should be starting to shift from a 'published/unpublished' paradigm of writing to a 'professional/unprofessional' divide. I actually agree with most of what he says, particularly the bit about how, if you want to be a bestseller, whether you're self- or traditionally published, you have to have the best in professional-quality editing, design and marketing.

The thing is, those services all cost money. Altucher puts the cost at anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000 per book, depending on what you pay for and what you do yourself, and that sounds entirely plausible. People (like me) who don't have that kind of money to spare are stuck, if we want to publish 'professionally', with the traditional route.

One of the things I really love about self-publishing, that makes it really exciting for me from a global, sociopolitical perspective, is that it allows everyone to make their voices heard, irrespective of the arbitrary, capricious moods of New York. But if Altucher's right (and I think he is), professional self-publishing is closed to most of us.

Or at least, it is at first. Pretty much everything else I can think of that has a 'professional' division also has a thriving amateur community. There's no reason that publishing can't be the same (and, indeed, it probably already is, and has been since the dawn of the internet - it's just the tools have gotten better recently). Whether or not you think that's a good thing probably depends on your understanding of 'amateur' and your experiences of amateur activities.

It's true that 'amateurish' is a description applied to shoddy, sub-par work (usually by snooty critics). It's easy to assume that people who aren't benefitting from huge stacks of money cannot hope to compete with those who are. We make money so important in our culture that we fall into the trap of assuming it's all that matters.

But most of the actual amateurs I know are dedicated, enthusiastic, and highly skilled. My parents are amateur archers, which means they practice for 4-6 hours at least twice a week, compete for one or two full days most weekends, at least during the summer season, and spend long hours making sure that their equipment and technique are of top spec. Much the same, I assume, goes for most amateur sportspeople.

I'm also part of a thriving community of amateur bands (here are a few examples) who probably average 10-20 hours' work per week. Many of them are working towards becoming professional, but the fact that they're not there yet (which is all it means to say that they're 'amateur') doesn't reflect on their music at all.

Perhaps the most compelling example, though, is my experience with the webcomics community. Webcomics have the advantage of a clear separation from both graphic novels and newspaper comic strips - the two 'professional' spheres of sequential art. For whatever reason, people don't see webcomics as part of the comics industry (whereas all the fuss over amateur self-publishing is about the fact that it at least appears to be part of the same industry as New York), and that means that all webcomics are fundamentally amateur.

Well, they start out amateur. Those that work hard, produce top-quality material regularly, and communicate well with their fan-bases become professional. And it doesn't actually take that long; in mid-2006, a friend recommended I check out a newish webcomic called Gunnerkrigg Court. In 2012, its creator, Tom Siddell, quit his job to work full-time on the comic. My sister bought the first two (of four, all highly-recommended) hardback collections for me for my birthday this year; volume 2 has a back-cover blurb from no less than Neil Gaiman.

I highly recommend you check out the first five or six years of Gunnerkrigg Court if you think that 'amateur' necessarily means 'amateurish'. Nor did the perpetual flood of crap webcomics (the two I wrote and drew around that time included) stop Siddell finding an audience.

It's perhaps true that only professionally-published stuff should have access to the top channels in book marketing (Oprah, newspaper reviews, billboards in airports etc.), but then it's definitely true that only professionally-published stuff does have access to those channels.

Amateur publishing allows writers to develop their publishing skills, form communities, communicate with and learn directly from readers, and generally raise their craft to the level of professionals. It allows us to earn, through time spent and hard work, the services that otherwise must be paid for, for example by building a platform and then running the Kickstarter gauntlet. And it allows people who the world might otherwise never have heard from to speak.

So, I'm all in favour of a professional/amateur division in publishing (worth noting: this is a division that has existed at least since the dawn of the internet and probably since long before), provided that no-one is going to stigmatise 'amateur' as 'amateurish'.

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