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February 3, 2009

An abbreviated (and late) posting today – Super Bowl happy fun time resulted in a full night’s sleep, so no time this morning (or energy, let’s be honest) to do a post.  I did see some interesting things today worth linking to, re: publishing in general, and Google’s role in assimilating all extant printed material into their Borg Collective.

Andrew Sullivan linked to an article on “self-branding” in publishing, and his own comments as a published author are worth noting:

My own view is that the publishing industry deserves to die in its current state. It never made economic sense to me; there are no real editors of books any more; the distribution network is archaic; the technology of publishing pathetic; and the rewards to authors largely impenetrable. I still have no idea what my occasional royalty statements mean: they are designed to be incomprehensible, to keep the authors in the dark, to maintain an Oz-like mystery where none is required.

The future is obviously print-on-demand, and writers in the future will make their names first on the web. With e-distribution and e-books, writers will soon be able to put this incompetent and often philistine racket behind us. It couldn’t happen too soon.

The article by Jill Priluck states that:

…the proliferation of digital media that is arguably the biggest threat to traditional publishing also offers authors more opportunities than ever to distribute and promote their work. The catch: In order to do that effectively, authors increasingly must transcend their words and become brands.

Now, as someone who takes pride on the extremely high level of immunity I’ve cultivated to advertising and marketing “messages,” the word “brand” is a hot potato.  It calls up the kind of d-bag hipster who thinks manipulating people and preying on their insecurities is cool because he does it – “we’re really stoked about The Brand, we’re already Building Buzz around The Brand” – the kind of d-bag who puts a spycookie on your computer and calls it “Tribal Fusion” ‘cause, you know, we’re using this info to fuse the tribe man, it’s all good.  It calls to mind the places I’ve worked where “rebranding” became the magic wand that would fix all the real, infrastructure and administrative problems by fixing a conceptual problem, “our corporate image.” I once worked at a hospital in San Francisco during a merger – Children’s Hospital was merging with Pacific Presbyterian Hospital, and they hired a “brand consultant” to come up with a new name.  He came around with his shaved head and sat and steepled his fingers in deep thought in meetings, and what did he come up with?  For $50,000 1991 dollars, well, Children’s Hospital was on California Street, and Pacific Pres was on Pacific Street, and he came up with the name…California Pacific!  It takes a genius! 

Perhaps it’s from having imbibed too much George Orwell and Doris Lessing, but the more abstract people’s speech becomes, the more “luminous” their prose, the more I wonder what’s behind the cloud of language they’re kicking up.  “The Brand” isn’t a loathsome concept because it’s crass and commercial – it’s loathsome because it seeks to condense so much meaning into a small, easily understood and thus more easily saleable package, eliminating any information that might provide nuance or dilemma.  “Iconic brands” become things beyond objects of desire; they become things you purchase that define who you are, to yourself and to others.  Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO is must reading if you want to hear from someone who’s really done their homework on this.

From the article:

In today’s fickle marketplace, the Internet—with blogs, videos, Twitter, and other promotional tools like Amazon’s Author Stores—is the modern-day equivalent to hand-selling…In a way, authors are empowered in this new model, provided they can leverage their networks into living, breathing communities who have a stake in—and benefit from—an author’s ballooning platform.

But it comes with a price. When authors are beholden to a brand, they ally themselves, almost like actors and athletes, with agendas and meanings that are well beyond their control. In their desire to fulfill the dictates of a brand, authors can compromise their integrity as writers, especially if they cubbyhole themselves.

The Chick Lit genre provides numerous examples. The Nanny Diaries, published in 2002, sold more than 1.5 million copies and was made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson. But the author’s 2004 follow-up, Citizen Girl, pitched as social satire—male bosses filled in for Park Avenue socialites—was a flop. The authors, who reportedly were unable to sell their idea to Random House, settled on Simon & Schuster’s Atria—and satisfied the beast that was the brand. Lauren Weisberger, “Bridget Jones,” and Melissa Bank suffered similar trajectories—some worse than others—and their careers as writers have waned.

In my previous writing life, my own “brand identity” became my prison – “gay novelist” was my “brand.”  Trying to do something outside of that “dilutes the brand,” which publishers’ sales and marketing departments do not like.  I don’t plan on writing a sequel to this book, nor do I plan on writing another novel centering so heavily around technology.  It would be a shame if authors broke free of the chains of conventional publishing’s physical chains (waits of a year or more for finished books to see print, for royalties to be “accounted for,” for decisions to be made) only to remain imprisoned by the smothering embrace of “brand identity” and career paths and policies that serve only the world’s marketing departments.


The other article of interest today was from the New York Review of Books.  The whole thing’s worth reading, covering Google’s book scanning project and the fallout thereof.  But what I found most interesting, to be honest, was some info on the history of U.S. copyright I was unaware of.  It discusses the role of the Enlightenment in spreading the ideas which the founders used to make the Constitution, and their ideas on balancing authorial rights vs. the “public good”:

Our republic was founded on faith in the central principle of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters: the diffusion of light…This faith is embodied in the United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 8, establishes copyright and patents “for limited times” only and subject to the higher purpose of promoting “the progress of science and useful arts.” The Founding Fathers acknowledged authors’ rights to a fair return on their intellectual labor, but they put public welfare before private profit.

…As the authors of the Constitution knew, copyright was created in Great Britain by the Statute of Anne in 1710 for the purpose of curbing the monopolistic practices of the London Stationers’ Company and also, as its title proclaimed, “for the encouragement of learning.” At that time, Parliament set the length of copyright at fourteen years, renewable only once. The Stationers attempted to defend their monopoly of publishing and the book trade by arguing for perpetual copyright in a long series of court cases. But they lost in the definitive ruling of Donaldson v. Becket in 1774.

When the Americans gathered to draft a constitution thirteen years later, they generally favored the view that had predominated in Britain. Twenty-eight years seemed long enough to protect the interests of authors and publishers. Beyond that limit, the interest of the public should prevail. In 1790, the first copyright act—also dedicated to “the encouragement of learning”—followed British practice by adopting a limit of fourteen years renewable for another fourteen.

Darnton then goes on to note that today (thanks, it seems, to the efforts of Disney to prevent Mickey Mouse from going public domain) copyright

lasts as long as the life of the author plus seventy years. In practice, that normally would mean more than a century. Most books published in the twentieth century have not yet entered the public domain…As things stand now, for example, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, published in 1922, is in the public domain, whereas Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, published in 1927, will not enter the public domain until 2022.

There has to be a happy medium between this sort of ball-and-chain approach to material, and the shrug of the pirate who says authors and artists “shouldn’t be allowed to sit around making money on something the rest of their lives, they should have to make something new” (synthesis/paraphrase of more than one Slashdot comment I’ve seen).

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