Monday, June 7, 2010

David vs. the Publishing Goliath

In this past year leading up to the BEA I’ve read a flurry of articles how the rise of the eBook is heralding the demise of the publishing industry. On the surface they resonate as depicting anyone venturing down the road of self-publishing as latter-day David's, banding together and swinging their keyboards in an attempt to topple the publishing world of Goliath. As I read through them a second time it occurred to me they were more a critique on the writing process itself, and how much that landscape is changing. Self-publishing is a time-honored means of expressing oneself, the eBook is merely its irritating little brother. Criticize it all you want, but it’s not going away. Take it under your wing and you can mold it into a productive member of the family, not an adversary.

Since the cave dwellers of Chauvet, man has always found a way to express himself. Whether with a brush, or a quill, or a keyboard, it’s still the quality of that expression that determines the authors place. That sense of place may not occur instantly. It may need to be out there for years before someone stumbles upon it and sees the true value in what you’ve done. It could also be discovered and looked upon as rubbish, but that is the risk you take when you strive to be heard.

The idea of self-publishing is certainly not new and it helped launch the works of many noted writers. What would General Washington have used to inspire his troops if Thomas Paine hadn’t self-published Common Sense? Children are still captivated with the tales of Hans Christian Anderson and Beatrix Potter, while adults continue to marvel at the works of Audubon, Poe, Eliot and Joyce. And the list goes on. I doubt anyone would dismiss Capital Offence because it was originally self-published, and we should thank Christopher Paolini’s parents for lending him the money to publish Eragon. These, and many more, are all writers who had something to say and had the tenacity to forge ahead to bring their work to the public. And our lives have been enriched as a result.

In the shadow of these successes are the multitudes of writers whose names most of us will never know. Writers who felt they had as much to say as their contemporaries, but whose talent to string the words together only captured the attention of a handful of readers, and not the millions achieved by others. That aspect of writing hasn’t changed. A web site, a blog, and advancements in technology may make the process easier, but it will never replace talent and relevance. Along with this, the desire for acceptance by your contemporaries should also come into play. You should remember here acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean someone agrees with you it only means they welcome what you have to say.

Twenty-six letters arranged one way is nothing more than the Alphabet. But in the right hands those same letters can be arranged in such a way as to whisk you off to exotic lands; they will bring tenderness and awe behind the tears that streak your cheeks; a smile that will linger throughout the day; or solace when nothing else has worked. Like my father used to tell me, “Anyone can purchase a set of Arnold Palmer golf clubs, but it doesn’t mean you’ll be walking down the fairway at Augusta any time soon.”

Do we really think giving writers more opportunities to express themselves will topple the industry? I doubt it. If anything, it may serve to introduce a future Eliot or Joyce whom might otherwise have gone unnoticed. The publishing giants and their irritating little brother will learn to get along, as they’ve done in the past, and the written word will go on.

Photo Courtesy