Thursday, October 13, 2011
The book scene these days
I sat beside a husband-and-wife team last night, a couple who'd traveled all 99 counties in Iowa, photographing and writing about the people they met and the towns they visited. Slowly they accumulated enough information to choke even the most loyal Hawkeye. That book was, for them, a total labor of love; they were working out their own dream, and I'm sure--no, I know--it was an absolute joy for them to accomplish. They met people and went places they'd never seen before, even though they were never all that far from their own Des Moines backyard.
The result--and they had copies in front of them last night--was a huge book, a Sears catalog of Iowa, resplendent with photographs--hundreds of them--and unending copy. They interviewed people and wrote up their institutions as if each was equally important in the kingdom of corn, to the gospel of Iowa. An amazing book--really, printed in China because nobody in America will do that kind of work at the price. Selling price?--$38. I'm not kidding. Almost obscene that it would be that cheap. But they're not interested in making money.
No publisher would ever begin to take such a project on, unless it were written by V. S. Naipaul or Bill Bryson. That book had to arise from a vision, a dream, and it did. Somehow--maybe they mortgaged the house--they paid for it.
The guy on my other side got dumped when the newspaper he worked for downsized. That was two years ago. This guy, a wonderful personality, virtually spit game details from every last football game he'd ever witnessed--and he'd been at thousands in his career as a small-town sports writer. He could do play-by-play of state championship ball games he'd watched three decades ago, I swear. His first lay before him, a novel that simply put to work all that detail--it's a high school tale about an four-sport jock who, despite his obvious talents, has his eyes on higher ground
No publisher would touch it. No one ever heard of the writer--who'd buy it?
So he did it himself.
I sat beside three people who were peddling their own books last night, books they'd bought and paid for. In a room full of Iowa writers, most of the circle was self-published.
We live in an amazing world, literarily. Today, anyone can be a writer. Today, anyone can be a photographer. In neither case can what anyone does become a profession--oh, sure, I'm sure there are stories of people who published their own books and eventually turned a buck or even a million. People win lotteries, and Las Vegas will occasionally crown an upstart. Such things happen.
But the rule these days in writing, in photography, in music, in almost everything that used to be judged by someone else is that anybody can do anything, as long as they can heave the bucks up on the table--and the heft of those bucks keeps going down and down and down. These days it's easier than ever to be a writer.
The internet has democratized the arts, taken choice-making out of the hands of aestheticians and critics and musical experts and even scholars, and put it instead in the hands of entrepeneurs with websites and gaping pocketbooks. There are still lots of gate-keepers in the business of publication, but their positions have been made more and more treacherous by the wild democracy of the web.
Both my neighbors last night were proud as peacocks, as well they should be. Both of them had a vision, worked to get it done, forked over the cash for real hard copy, and sat there hawking their estimable wears, not a publisher in sight.
What's equally interesting, however, is how few people cared. We were at an association of state librarians, hundreds of people who work with books. Only a few dozen walked over. That's just as much a part of the story. In the information age, the flood of information makes information itself less important somehow.
Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:51 AM