I used to include in the programme of the Blue Metropolis
festival an event – sometimes two or even three events, for they always
attracted a good crowd – called Becoming a Writer (which continues with this
year’s event featuring Daniel Allan Cox, Doug Harris, and Kathleen Winter).
I invited writers who had recently published a first book, or one who had recently made a splash. On stage, in front of
a rapt audience, they talked about how they began to write, how they finished a
book, how they got published.
That last bit is what interested audiences the most, the
reason being that some untold percentage of festival-goers were aspiring
writers with a manuscript or two tucked away in a bottom drawer at home.
One of the great mysteries of life as an aspiring writer
always used to be how it was possible to get a publisher to say, “Yes, I will
publish your book.” Until very recently, a writer wasn’t really a writer until
and unless a publisher said – or more likely wrote – those magic words. So
aspiring writers would sit at the feet of the published writers on stage,
hoping for insights that would help them cross the threshold -- and transform them
into professional writers.
Things have changed. Today, as essayist Adam Gopnik said here
in Montreal at a talk entitled “Why Write Now?” at Concordia University on
March 4, “there is no such thing as a bottom drawer anymore.” Like
most truths, this is an exaggeration. Some of us still print up our
manuscripts. Most writers have written work that has not seen the light of day.
It’s easy today to put every word you write online, though. I don’t have to wait for an editor to decide he likes my
piece before I post it. I could publish my next book myself if I choose to do
so. How well I would do at that depends on a number of factors, one of which is
the market I could create for my book. Which is all the more reason for a
writer to have a website. This week, New York publishing guru Mike Shatzkin said that the publishers who
will succeed in this digital age will be those who can establish direct contact
with their public. That includes writers who choose to publish their own work.
There are still plenty of gatekeepers around, but they don’t
have the godlike powers they once had. Publishers, magazine editors, and literary
agents still make their selection of what they will accept and promote,
festival directors still have decision-making power over invitations, and there
are still reviewers in influential publications. Not that many, though, not any
more. And the publications themselves are a lot less influential than they once
were, in part because there are so many more places to publish reviews today
than ever before.
What is possible today – and was not possible until recently
– is that writers can now do it all themselves. There used to be a stigma attached
to self-publishing, back in the days when most of the writers who paid to
publish their own work had been turned down by
professional publishing houses. That is no longer the case. It used to be
difficult, or at least expensive, for self-published writers to market and
distribute their work. That is no longer the case. It used to be that
self-published titles were rarely reviewed. That, too, has changed. Just a
couple of weeks ago author Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 publishing deal,
figuring he would do better for himself if he published his new work himself.
Some writers will choose not to self-publish. They may
prefer not to spend the time it takes to edit, publish, market and sell their
own work. But if they do wish to self-publish, it is now possible to do so
without losing face and without losing money. That’s the game changer.
How exactly does it change the game? And what is a writer to
do? These are some of the questions we are asking ourselves these days, even as
the ground continues to shift under our feet.