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February 27, 2003

Some of my recent theories
Posted by Teresa at 10:30 AM *

1. Folly is fractal. The closer you look at it, the more of it there is. (See below.)

2. All those dismal buildings that look like featureless boxes are not specimens of modern architecture per se. They’re our selfless gift to future generations. We’ve undertaken to provide the boring parts of the core buildings. Our children and grandchildren are the ones who will get to enjoy the finished buildings, after they’ve added decorative surface treatments and humanizing ground-level structures to suit their own tastes and needs.

3. Over the years I’ve seen way too many people—aspiring authors, e-publishing entrepreneurs, other wanna-bes—who not only don’t understand how the publishing industry works, but who are unaware that they don’t understand it, and who resist all attempts at enlightment.

My theory is that this invincible ignorance is a function of the ease with which one can construct a model of how publishing ought to work. This model will be simple and logical. It may even be elegant. Unfortunately, the way publishing actually works is so unintuitive that entry-level newbies need six months to a year of immersion training before they start to have a reliable grasp of it. Trade publishing is neither simple nor elegant. Its only virtue is that most of the time it works.

Anyway, it’s that seductively logical model that keeps people from assimilating the fact that they don’t understand how the industry works.

(This is either a digression or illustration: The trade publishing universe has a constantly shifting population of production and editorial freelancers. Some are between in-house jobs, or combine freelancing work with part-time in-house work; others are career freelancers. Basically, they’re an available pool of talented and experienced labor: editorial ronin.

Now: Remember all those e-publishing and POD startups that flourished during the dotcom boom? Hundreds of millions of dollars in startup capital, heaps of employees, painful-to-recall announcements about how they were going to remake publishing? Most of ‘em now worth about as much as a burnt-out match?

Unless you want to count a couple of former editorial assistants, office juniors, who wound up working at Simon & Schuster Interactive (which is stretching things on both counts), I know of no one with any industry experience who was hired or even approached by any of the dotcom-boom publishing startups.)

4. I’m neither a millennialist nor a dispensationalist, I consider the pretribulational rapture a deviationist non-scriptural novelty, and I have no time for vulgar conspiracy theory; but has anyone noticed that George Bush is only a few criteria short of qualifying as the Antichrist?

Comments on Some of my recent theories:
#1 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 01:30 PM:

That was a lovely twist ending.

Which criteria is he missing?

#2 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 02:43 PM:

She's got a lovely curveball going, doesn't she?

#3 ::: Chuck Nolan ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 02:52 PM:

(Risking wrath of Ms. Nielsen Hayden):

Teresa, that is not just a failure of folks relative to publishing. The world is full of folks who construct fantasy images of how stuff works, without recourse to any input from folks who know about that topic, and then act as if their fantasy represents reality. Usually, they are quite indignant when their actions result in the abject failure that those in the know could have predicted. I'm tempted to ask if that's a general human failing relative to fields in which one does not possess expertise.

Antichrist? Never thought of that, but there's a reasonable case to be made.

#4 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 03:00 PM:

At the risk of being obvious, people who have theories about publishing and how it should be run are usually WRITERS. Most of us were English or Journalism or Liberal Arts majors, three disciplines that teach you nothing so much as how to construct logical-sounding B.S. from the barest acquaintance with the facts.

#5 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 03:18 PM:

Hey Holly, if it was good enough for Aristotle, it's good enough for us, right? (Well, no. But it sounds good.)

#6 ::: Adrienne Martini ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 03:23 PM:

Re: people outside of an industry being certain they know how the industry runs...

I work at a weekly paper--and at least once a month I get treated to the theories about how and why we favor one group over another. These aren't the typical "liberal media" rants. Nope, these theories are elaborate constructions full of conspiracies and coincidence. I always find them amusing. We, as a staff, can barely agree on who should make the coffee, much less agree to the chain of decisions that would lead to any of these half-baked notions actually being true.

Which is what makes this next bit that much more amusing--we all agree with TNH's theory about Bush.

#7 ::: steve ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 03:28 PM:

So how about an entry on The Five Biggest Things People Get Wrong About Publishing? I'll bet it would be very enlightening.

#8 ::: Charles Dodgson ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 03:29 PM:

Well, other folks have noticed some sulfurous flavor to the air around 1600 Pennsylvania avenue. But for what it's worth, Bush is not the one with the gizmo in his chest designed to kick renewed life into him when his heart stops...

#9 ::: jennie ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 03:35 PM:

Respoding to Chuck,

Of course people have a tendency to assume they know how things should work. We've all concocted theories about how we would run things better. But publishing, along with education, seems to labour under unusually heavy misconceptions. Fewer people seem to construct such elaborate theories about, say, how public service contracts are awarded (except, perhaps, for the outgoing mayor of Toronto, but he's a rather special case), or how trucks get built. Fewer people, when confronted with information about the workings of these industries, will cling nearly as stubbornly to their original ideals.

Fewer people, too, insist that "everyone" or "anyone" can design a sewer system, or build an eighteen-wheeler.

#10 ::: jennie ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 03:59 PM:

Oops. That should have been "Responding". Apologies.


#11 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 04:04 PM:

I, too, am curious about what strange theories Teresa has heard about revamping the publishing industry. I come from a printing family, and work for a trade publisher, so I know masochism when I see it and I wouldn't dream of going into the publishing business.

However, as a writer I'm curious about something:

Musicians cut their own CD's, build up a following. Comic book writers self-publish until somebody notices them. Why are writers treated as lepers if they self-publish, either on the web or on paper?

I'm not just talking about bookstores refusing to buy a self-published book, I'm talking about all those "how to get published" books that warn you not to post anything on your website because no one will touch it. I know there's an assumption (usually accurate) that people self-publish because their work sucks, but are there any legal/rights issues to publishing one's own work on the web and then selling it to a major publisher?

I've never seen a satisfactory answer on this. It seems to me that the web and POD publishers offer an unprecedented "minor league" opportunity for writers but I don't dare try it.

End of self-serving rant. I've just been thinking about this for a few days.

#12 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 04:09 PM:

Opinions aren't unanimous on the characteristics of the Antichrist. It depends on whether you prefer using scripture, scripture plus gematria, or scrpture plus gematria plus Nostradamus. That last combination can of course prove anything.

#13 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 04:17 PM:

The Antichrist is a cheerfully delinquent 11-year-old boy living in rural England, and has an overactive imagination. This is well known. (Overactive meaning that while any 11-year-old can decide to play flying saucers, when He does, they land on the front lawn.)

#14 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 04:42 PM:

Everything about the Apocrypha I learned from:

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 04:50 PM:

Holly, Patrick just bought a novel from one of those lepers.

Anyone can write and sell a book that tells you how to get published. What it tells you doesn't have to be true.

Let's talk about bookstores. The main reason they don't handle self-published works of fiction is that almost all of those works are bad. If self-publication is "a minor-league opportunity for writers," recall that the minor leagues are for players who aren't good enough (yet) for the major leagues. Think about the worst books that get published each year by legit houses. Odds are, self-published books are worse than that. You wouldn't buy or read books that bad. Why should anyone else?

There is no publishing system clever enough or revolutionary enough to force people to read books they don't enjoy. If you can write fiction that people enjoy reading, you can get published.

Self-publishing also has structural problems. POD isn't set up to print enough copies fast enough for brick-and-mortar bookstore chains to stock them.

Many of the e-publishing and POD startups I've seen don't mention bookseller discounts at all, and some of those that do offer 20% discounts. The normal bookseller discount is 40%.

I've heard reports that one of the vanity houses doesn't even use standard ISBNs, which makes their books unsaleable by any normal means.

That's not the whole list of problems.

#16 ::: Rachael ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 05:33 PM:


I too thought about the misconceptions people have about education when reading this post. I am always amazed at the strange notions people have about what really goes on during a school day, what should go on in the classroom, and how totally unwilling to change their views when presented with facts, research, etc... they can be.

In regards to self publishing:
is a very funny article about how self publishing can go wrong.

As a non-writer I often wonder about a self publishing movement akin to the independent record lable movement... I would love to see a "Rightous Babe Records" version of publishing, and I agree that probably most self-published books are bad, but the market place will tend to weed those out. Is the printing and distribution side of books somehow more difficult for an independent to manage than in recording? Or does the lack of a book world version of radio keep the good self-published books out of the hands of readers?

#17 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 05:35 PM:

jennie sez: Oops. That should have been "Responding". Apologies.

Well, damn. I liked 'respoding'. I assumed you were promising him some pretty decent china, to replace broken bits (speculation about how they got broken deleted here).

wE al lmake typose.

#18 ::: Greg van Eekhout ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 05:53 PM:

Maybe one key difference between DIY music distribution and DIY publishing lies in the fact that publishing lacks the equivalent of the live music venue. Yes, there are poetry slams and open-mic nights, but on the cultural landscape they seem about as influential as, say, mimes in public parks. Going out to see unknown musicians playing in public is, for many, a way of life. But relatively few people go out to see uknown authors reading in public. I don't, anyway. And I like writers.

#19 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 05:55 PM:

Well, I was under the impression the AntiChrist would be Jewish which Shrub certainly is not. Didn't we decide on rasff that Gary was? Or was he only running for the position?


#20 ::: Chuck Nolan ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 06:04 PM:

I kind of like respoding, too. My china collection has seen better days.

Jennie, I was thinking specifically about some people I am acquainted with who constructed an elaborate fantasy about the how job market in education worked. When they acted in accordance with their fantasy, and failed to get any interviews, there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth regarding the way the process was "fixed" and only those who knew someone on the inside could get hired. At the time, I was intimate with one of those on the inside, and nothing she said about how the selection process actually works was heeded. This, coupled with Teresa's original post, made me wonder if we were uncovering a more universally applicable principle.

#21 ::: Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 06:32 PM:

Charles Dodgson made Teresa's last point a few months ago here. And very elegantly he put it, too: have a look.

On self-publishing: OK, OK, we believe you, most self-published writers suck. (Alas, far too many commercially published ones suck, too.) But what about Holly's point: that self-published musicians and comics writer/artists are often very good? (They are, too.) I think I know part of the answer, because Teresa offered it once before: that the commercial music industry is dysfunctional to a degree unparalleled by anything in the book industry.

#22 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 06:36 PM:

TNH said: >Anyone can write and sell a book that tells you how to get published. What it tells you doesn't have to be true.

I gots no argument with your remarks about bookstores and distribution. What I'm talking about is stigma and perception. Apparently, I have a misperception about what's considered acceptable submissions, stemming from books about publishing written by the kinds of people Teresa is talking about.

But that raises a variation on my original theme. How did Patrick find his leper? Would an editor be more likely to look favorably on a slush submission or somebody's published e-book that's getting a lot of buzz or somebody's serialized novel posted on his/her own website? And how would you find out about said website in the first place? As Greg said, publishing lacks the live venue of the music industry. That's what I meant when I said that the web could be a minor league.

The issue *is* one of visibility. Even in the minors, one has to be chosen. It's still a job, not a glamorous one, but something. And many writers desperately need an audience. We need the feedback, the fans, the criticism. Writer's groups are nice, but we need readers, too, people who are going to love the story for it's own sake and not nitpick about whether "anymore" is one word or two.

Personally I'd rather be pimped by Tor than pay for Vantage press to perfect-bind my manuscript; for one thing, Tor has better cover artists, but on the other hand I'm a very hands-on person, and I hate sitting waiting for months and months while my MS rots in closet somewhere when I could be drumming up interest. (Forgive me, St. Teresa, that wasn't directed at you. This time.)

So. Reclaiming the thread of the original post, Teresa, you just put your finger on EXACTLY why the wanna-be's don't understand the industry and why they believe they do: it's because other wanna-be's are writing books full of erroneous information about the industry. Not too long ago I read a book that advised NOT to send SASE's with your submissions because "that was just making it easy for the agent to reject your work."

#23 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 07:02 PM:

Another key difference between DIY publishing and DIY music distribution is that if someone like our distinguished hostess or her husband says a book is good, there’s a good chance it’s true; whereas if a major record label executive says an album is good, the smart thing to do is plug your ears.

#24 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 07:03 PM:

(Okay, you have to extrapolate a bit to get to the DIY part, but you know what I mean.)

#25 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 07:18 PM:

Oh dear. My oxen have been gored. (Teresa, of course, knows this and is waiting for the inevitable fight between me and Jim MacDonald to break out. :) )

FWIW: I always offered money to publishing regulars when I had the money to spare. Of course, since most VCs seemed interested in handing it to other folks than me for some very silly reasons, I rarely had it.

AFWIW: I predated the dotcom boom by at least three years. I outlasted it by 18 months, and was only really wiped out by rebound effects from 9/11. All without VC.

AFWIW: Many people IN the publishing industry didn't know any better either. Remember LivingBooks? Putnam New Media? Viacom New Media? Byron Preiss New Media? Time Warner Electronic Publishing? from Bookspan/Bertelsmann? Bookpage, with Time Warner as an investor? XLibris, with RH as an investor? Fatbrain/Mighty Words, which was bought out by B&N?

Traditional publishers and people with lots of publishing poured a lot of money into e-publishing as recklessly as the folks outside it. There were (and are) lots of people who were completely clueless about the way their own industry worked-- or who were just as dumb about the Internet as Internet people were about publishing.

#26 ::: Rachel Heslin ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 07:32 PM:

About Theory #2:

I have a sort of sad fondness for Dingbat Architecture, which describes those drab little boxes of apartment buildings which had really funky, 3D metal stars or asterisks or other geometric shapes stuck to their flat, otherwise featureless facades in an attempt to make them Hip.

#27 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 09:02 PM:

Might I suggest that another crucial distinction between DIY music and DIY publishing (beyond the very real financial disinsentives to signing with a major) is ideology? DIY music has been associated with punk rock since the Buzzcocks; there were indie R&B acts before that. Putting out your own music -- and extolling putting out your own music -- has anti-establishment cred dating for half the history of rock music. Fugazi, probably the single most influential punk rock band still performing, has been out there very visibly a) making a living and b) preaching a DIY ethos since the late '80s; for a while (and possibly even currently), MRR and Punk Planet wouldn't review major label albums. The subculture views DIY as a real, legitimate alternative, perhaps even one that's better than recording for BMG.

In contrast, I know that when I think of self-publishing, I think of Bircher conspiracy tomes, poetry about one's cat, and self-help books. Where's the breakthrough, artistically legitimate writer saying "this is what you should be doing"? Stories about undiscovered masterpieces -- and here I am specifically thinking of A Confederacy of Dunces don't end with the writer doing it herself; they end with an editor recognizing it for the triumph that it is.

#28 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 09:28 PM:

Re: Antichrist, I was thinking just the other day that Marvin Olasky (who converted to Christianity from Judaism) comes awfully close.

#29 ::: Father Bojangles ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 10:19 PM:

Sweet...never saw it comin'...but a bull's eye, none the less...


#30 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 10:31 PM:

Teresa wrote: "Anyone can write and sell a book that tells you how to get published. What it tells you doesn't have to be true"

Yeah, but... that just means that 'get-published' books fall in with all the rest of the business porn that will tell you how to market/manage/inspire the employees/innovate/invest/deal with change/ace the interview/start that restaurant/develop the killer app etc.

Someone should establish a site that would go back to the business books published 5 years prior and see how they've fared in the meantime. (And there could be a community, and forums, and with advertising revenue, we'll all be billionaires!)

#31 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 11:01 PM:

Many self-published books make money. There are just so many more that don't that the ones that do tend to not get so noticed. Self-publishing is a perfectly viable method for anyone who wants to take the time and trouble to do it. And many successful S-P books are picked up by major publishers. I've worked on several of them (I didn't think they were very good, but that's another story.)
I think self-publishing is actually an increasingly viable alternative for established authors as well, though like any business venture it can have its perils. (Mark Twain went broke starting his own publishing company.) I think the independent record company model has some lessons to teach book publishing, as does the independent film model. One can idependently produce a product, then if it catches on, tie into large-scale marketing and distribution networks.
I also know quite a few instances of authors who have made deals with publishers to produce their own camera-ready pages, and thus been able to get thousands extra in production money. This obviously has pitfalls too, but if you're a Mac genius, like a woman of my acquaintance who typeset and laid out her boyfriend's coffee-table book with him, it can really work out financially.
Also, just as a low-budget independent film can play on only, say, 20 screens nationwide and still ultimately make money, if one produces a book cheaply and sells in a limited market, one can make money on it, Not everybody can be Elmore Leonard or Stephen King, but there are many niches...
W the antichrist? wouldn't that make Poppy....Satan?

#32 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 11:20 PM:

Steve, it's an important distinction. The nearest thing the publishing industry has to an indie label are the micro-presses that tend to spring up to serve a regional or niche market. I'm specifically thinking of Yard Dog press, which publishes stuff too weird for the mass markets.

And that's why I've got to take issue with the idea that "if you're good, you'll get published." That's horse hooey. You get published if somebody thinks you're commercially viable. Period. Now I'm not saying that being commercial is a bad thing; God knows that my favorite books are page-turning fluff. But you can't tell me that Moby Dick would get picked out of a slush pile in this day and age.

And in re: the e-publishing question... I'm still working that one out. That experiment was like communism.... good idea, noble idea, didn't work out because of human nature. For some reason we've got the idea that the internet should be free, and nobody's real keen on paying to read stuff on line. But the porn industry flourishes online, and they use that free-lure to bring people in. My husband says that porn users would go looking for it anyway, but I say porn is like fast food; you may be hungry, but you take what's convenient, and when one is hawking a product that people want anyway, the only challenge is access: making sure you're the first and last option your customer sees.

And that brings me back to Steve's point: writers don't have the amateur venue that musicians have. You can invite people to come hear your band, but reading is a solitary activity, and getting the manuscript to your audience is a distribution problem --which the net can solve.

The primary disadvantage to net distribution, as the music industry knows, is piracy. Okay, fine, but porn peddlers know that if you give people a taste, they'll usually cough up money for more. And readers, as we know, are addicts.

Furthermore, although e-publishing didn't fare well, there are a number of ezines that have stuck around and even gained some respect. Most of them operate with little or no budget, but then what else is new in publishing?

I know I'm treading over well-trampled ground, here, but I think that we simply don't understand the advantages and the limitation of the internet. Basically it's a high-tech catalogue. We don't yet have wetware interfaces that will allow it to be much else. I'm not proposing that e-publishing replace traditional books; God forbid. But good grief, look at all the millions of words that get ground out on this and a thousand other blogs. You can't tell me that people won't read on line. They just don't want to pay for it.

Ok, fine, Holly, so why don't you start your own zine or cyber-book-rack or whatever? Two reasons:

First, I and all my writer friends are terrified that anything we self-publish, even on our personal sites, will never garner more than a sneer from a professional editor, no matter how many hits we get. Second, I know what kind of dreck I'd get submitted if I started to advertise. Oh, yeah. I've been workshopping for a few years, I know what's out there. I'm a writer, dammit. If I wanted that kind of punishment I'd go into publishing.

#33 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2003, 11:26 PM:

Porn succeeds as a for-pay venture because of two things; it's more convienent via computer (the whole search space in one place, no need to go talk to wierd people), and it's essentially visual, something computers are pretty good at displaying.

Books don't benefit from either of those; yes, you have the whole search space, but a book is much more convient to read from than a screen with current tech, and even the very best screens aren't as good as the printed page for presenting written matter.

And, well, there are different expectations for amateur night and small intimate music venues than there are for large concerts and records, but a book is a book is a book.

I don't think the entertainment analogies hold very well.

#34 ::: Adrienne Martini ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 09:27 AM:

Re: Marvin Olasky

I actually had to take one of his classes in J-school at UT. He is more frightening in person, if you can believe it, and gave memorable assignments, one of which involved deconstructing the NYT for proof of the liberal media conspiracy, which exists just to further the goals of the moral relativists who are bringing this great, Xtian God-fearing country down. Ah, the wonders of the tenure system. I should dig out his reading list when I get home. And, to bring this back around, lots of those books, iirc, were self-published.

#35 ::: Sheila ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 10:20 AM:

I'd imagine that another difference between self-publishing books and music would be the short-run production costs:

Say I'm a musician here in Manchester, NH (I'm not, but let's pretend). I can get an audiotape recording of my music digitized for about $20 at a place on S. Willow St.; then using my own computer and a stack of cd's from the local discount store (.40 each if a spindle costs $20), I can burn 50 copies, make labels and stick them into cases for a total investment of less than $100. (If I don't have a computer with cd burning capacity, one of my friends surely does.) The quality won't necessarily be stellar, but I can still sell these (provided my music's good and I've got gigs) for $10-$15 each.

If, instead, I write a 192 page book, POD is going to cost me easily five times as much and I'll probably have to sell the books for $30+ dollars.

As Jill Consumer, I'm much happier paying $10 to get a cd from the musician I've just enjoyed listening to, than $30 for a book I haven't read (and no one I know has read either).

#36 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 11:17 AM:

I should have never tossed POD into the equation. My parents have been printers for more than 30 years and I've known for nearly that long that printing a single copy of something is more expensive than printing a big batch. I guess my thought was, a writer could advertise, provide free samples of his/her work, then POD a copy if someone wanted the rest of it.

Frankly, I've been doing some research on the web this morning and I'm about ready to toss my whole argument. It's depressing. I found a couple of sites devoted to e-books and some of the sample synopses(?) I read were laugh-out-loud ludicrous. These were sites that charged self-published authors a small fee to have their stuff advertised on the web.

I also found (which I knew were there, but needed to be reminded) many, many self-promoting sites; kind of a resume on the web. I didn't bother to check into those.

It's all about advertising, isn't it?

Sorry to take up so much space on your blog. I'll let you get back to dissecting Bush now.

#37 ::: jennie ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 11:28 AM:

Regarding analogies between the music industry and the publishing industry, dawned on me, last night, on the subway ride home from my editing class, that I had classified zines as the publishing analog to the self-produced recording. I'm going to stand by that analogy -- zines tend to be low budget, as do home studio CDs; zines are usually self-produced, so, by definition are self-produced recordings; zines tend to be locally distributed and promoted, so do the musicians who record the CDs. As several people have pointed out, the analogy falls apart when you consider the promotion/distribution end any further -- the whole selling off the stage thing doesn't happen with zines.

Regarding e-publishing and using the web, I think what I'm divining from the various comments here is that a writer can certainly use the web to "get the word out." Expecting that getting the word out on the web will result in getting paid for your words, however, is as likely as expecting a free clip of your music on the web to result in a flood of orders for your CD.

Your tolerance of my typo is appreciated.

#38 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 12:29 PM:

I'm going to stand by that analogy -- zines tend to be low budget, as do home studio CDs; zines are usually self-produced, so, by definition are self-produced recordings; zines tend to be locally distributed and promoted, so do the musicians who record the CDs.

But Jennie, a zine is not a book! Both indie music and indie comics are producing the same type of media as their major-label rivals. Nobody sees a physical distinction between a Sleater-Kinney CD and a Nickelback CD, or between Bone* and X-Men. But Cometbus, which is just a monstrous zine compared to most, usually clocks in at what, 80 pages? When was the last time you bought a book of that length aimed at adult readers? My all-time favorite zine, Murder Can Be Fun, was usually 30 digest pages or so. I suspect that much of this has to do not so much with the inability to write at great length -- I mean, there must be thousands of pages of Cometbus by now -- as a constraint forced by the postal system and the infeasability of borrowing your employer's Xerox machine to duplicate a dozen copies of that 800-page opus on Milton.

When Pagan Kennedy or Al Hoff (Girl Reporter) or Darby from Ben is Dead wanted to cash in on their success/expand to a wider audience, they published books (which were, admittedly, largely compendia of their zines). To me, zines seem not so much like books as like pamphlets, which is a medium that has largely been abandoned, or like "little magazines", which aren't so commercially viable themselves.

* I will ignore the fact that most indie comics are black and white.

#39 ::: jennie ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 01:32 PM:

Steve, I'm aware that a zine is not a book!

I will concede that my analogy falls down in a few spots -- since I hadn't articulated it until last night, I knew it would take some thinking through.

But I don't think it's accurate to say that an indy-produced CD can _in all instances_ have the same _content_ as a professionally produced one. It's a matter of genre and scale, just as it is with literary publishing. As a folk musician, I can record my own CD -- go into a friend's studio, record all the tracks, do the effects, play around with some software, and I get a CD that looks a lot like any other CD (and will, I hope, sound better than some). The music I'm recording is all original or my arrangement of traditional material, so I don't have to worry about rights. I can play most of the instruments I need, or convince friends to do it for me for cookies and favours. I can desktop the jacket. Low overhead.

But if I have a Grand Vision for a new recording of Beethoven's Fifth, I can't do it in my friend's studio. Producing that CD is going to require much more serious capital than I can muster, even assuming that I have an orchestra ready to work for free. I'm going to have to get the rights. I'm going to have to find a place that will fit a symphony orchestra, and pay for that. I'm going to need more microphones, different recording equipment, a technician who knows more than my friend, and will probably want paying. So a CD of Beethoven's Fifth is going to need to be professionally produced, probably (though not inevitably) by a label.

But it's still a CD, right?

#40 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 01:52 PM:

Heh. Sorry, Jennie, that exclamation point in my opening sentence made me sound more strident than I intended.

Your point is granted as regards the impossibility of recording orchestral music on a shoestring budget, but I'm not at all sure that it applies to indie -- as opposed to self-produced -- CDs. Inner Ear or Dub Narcotic seem to produce punk rock that sounds every bit as professionally recorded as something on a major label. But the self-produced CD done on home equipment rather than something like what the Secret Stars have in their Grange Hall seems like a better parallel, and I tend to agree with you more there. I want to say that it's something like not being able to independently produce a photography-heavy coffee table book (graphically-laden books being where my minimal publishing industry experience lies), but that'd be factually wrong.

#41 ::: Zack Weinberg ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 02:09 PM:

Jennie: Did you know that both the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra now have their own record labels? Precisely because they couldn't get the major labels to publish their recordings.

#42 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 02:23 PM:


Don't worry about the exclamation point. I don't consider them inherently antagonistic.

Most of the indie musicians I know personally have made their own recordings, and fall somewhere in between the home recording studio and the independant studio label. I've not listened to many punk rock recordings of any sort. So my zine/independant recording analogy was a bit too loose, and it's an analogy rather than a direct parallel. Ok. Fair nuff.

My point with the last post was that some content lends itself better to low-budget production in any medium, while other content does not.

Zack. I didn't know that about the orchestras. Makes sense though. The recording industry has not seen many labels willing to invest in new classical recordings, of late, except for the almost guaranteed sellers by superstars like Charlotte Church, Andrea Boccelli, and their ilk. Here, the CBC is still recording symphonic music, but that's a rather different situation.

Independantly produced symphonic CDs does throw another wrench in my analogy. Of course, symphony orchestras also have *enormous* fund raising offices andcorporate sponsorship, and are running on an arts-organization business model. Publishing houses run on a different business model, and record labels on a different model still.

#43 ::: Sheila ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 02:38 PM:

Steve: That's an enormously interesting site, but was that book really independently published or only semi-independently?

IOW, did Kelly pay for the printing out of pocket or did he simply(!) do nearly all the pre-press work ($720 just to scan his images) which caused his publisher to realize that it would be a bargin book for them to publish?

If this is an independently published book, it's at least an order of magnitude beyond what the typical writer (or photographer) can afford: the semi-prozine of independent book publishing, perhaps?

#44 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 02:57 PM:

I know I said I was going to shut up, but I just reread Steve's previous post and I couldn't resist this.

Steve said, "putting out your own music -- has anti-establishment cred dating for half the history of rock music."

Then he said, "In contrast, I know that when I think of self-publishing, I think of Bircher conspiracy tomes, poetry about one's cat, and self-help books."

And I thought, hell, doesn't that sum up the internet? the anti-establishment spirit and the crackpot conspiracists? we all want to believe that the free-market system will triumph and those silenced voices will rise, but 99% of the time those voices aren't worth listening to. I give up.

#45 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 03:19 PM:

Jennie: not down here, they don't! Or at least many of them don't; the Boston Symphony Orchestra does quite well, but the smaller symphony orchestras in New England like the Plymouth Symphony and New Bedford Sympony run on a shoestring. As noted in one of the Rittenhouse blogs recently, the Savannah Symphony Orchestra had to cancel a fairly major performance recently because they ran out of money.

It's hard to appreciate just how deep a toilet classical music in the US has fallen into from outside the country, but it is, well, quite deep. I've been hanging around with a violist who is heavily involved with the classical music community in Boston, where it's about as strong as it is anyplace in the US, and learning about this. Publication of classical music recordings is almost entirely funded on a "vanity press" basis in this country.

A background factoid to this is that I've met two violists in the Boston area and both were apparently quite impressed that I even knew what a viola was and where it fitted into the spectrum of classical strings. Contrast this with Canada, where I had at best an indifferent education in classical music and would probably have been considered rather ignorant as a guy who couldn't reliably remember whether an oboe had a single or double reed -- here I'm cultured for knowing that reeds are involved in producing oboe sounds in the first place!

#46 ::: Hard Pressed ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 03:44 PM:

Hmm... Well, I was an editor with a large publishing house for a few years (Macmillan Computer Publishing--mostly with Sams and alpha books, before alpha moved to NYC), and I've self-produced a few CDs with my bands (The Sidecars and Get Off Downtown, which you guys have never heard of).

I'm not sure what people don't "get" about publishing. The only thing I found confusing is that whole "remainder buyback" business model. It seems you blow a whole lot of capital on excess print runs, and that means the whole organization runs on razor-thin margins, tiny salaries, and "ronin" proofreaders and copyeditors. But I'm not a businessman, what do I know?

One important distinction to be made with regard to musicians self-producing CDs: I am always delighted to sell a CD to someone in the audience, but the primary reason for a performing musician to produce a CD is that the CD is an important tool for getting more gigs. A single high-dollar private-party gig can easily pay for a 250-disc run from a service bureau with a few bucks left over. We probably comp as many CDs to club owners and booking agents as we sell to fans and listeners. The equivalent for a writer would be to self-publish a book and give away half of them in order to get on the lucrative lecture circuit. (And in fact, I think that was a common practice in the glory days of the lecture circuit.) But the lecture circuit hasn't really been lucrative since the 1890s or so.

#47 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 03:58 PM:


Symphonies here aren't universally appreciated or solvent either. Scarcely a week goes by without the CBC reporting that either the Calgary Philharmonic or the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is in dire financial straits. I'm not certain why this is, other than that orchestras are expensive creatures to feed and keep. Dire though its straits may be, however, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra still has a significant fund-raising office. Its those fund raising offices and the money they garner from sponsors, philanthropists, and humble, everyday supporters of the arts who have extra money that keep arts organizations able to produce concerts and recordings, as much as they are able. Without them, you get cancelled concerts, starving musicians, and sad patrons. It's probably not impossible to support an orchestra on a free market model, but it's certainly not common.

#48 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 04:38 PM:

Then he said, "In contrast, I know that when I think of self-publishing, I think of Bircher conspiracy tomes, poetry about one's cat, and self-help books."

Boy, I seem to be putting my foot in my mouth today, don't I? Holly, that was absolutely not meant to represent my judgment of all self-published books or any single self-published author, but rather the fact that there's no movement out there saying that "microbooks" (or whatever atrocious term will get slapped on) is a legitimate choice for aspiring authors to make. For both comics and music, I can name critically successful examples of people stepping outside the major-label system, but I can also name people who have done it who promote it as a credible choice for artist to make. Shellac's Steve Albini (who produced Nirvana's In Utero) is a prominent example from the music industry; Dave Sim (who put out a guide to self-publishing) probably holds a similar place in the comics industry.

A book of poetry published by Black Sparrow Press or a book of leftist political philosophy published by AK Press may not actually sell many more copies than the same books that are self-published; I'd be quite surprised if the median book of poetry sold more than one or two thousand copies, actually. But where are the artists who are doing it and making the case that it is a respectable choice?

And I thought, hell, doesn't that sum up the internet? the anti-establishment spirit and the crackpot conspiracists? we all want to believe that the free-market system will triumph and those silenced voices will rise, but 99% of the time those voices aren't worth listening to. I give up.

I think that's a fair assessment of the general view of the Internet circa 1998, but the rise of the weblog has chipped away at that. People know what a weblog is; there are prominent champions of the medium asserting that it's a credible choice for authors; there are a few successful writers in other media who write weblogs. Weblogs have developed their own counter-dominant ideology which asserts that a weblog is a real, good, credible outlet for writing, and it's been repeated enough times that it's starting to take hold; witness Dave Winer's fellowship at Harvard, which I find somewhat incomprehensible otherwise.

#49 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 04:43 PM:

Sheila, I don't know anything about Asia Grace other than what's on that (fascinating) page, but I'd guess that Taschen put up at least a portion of the money for the printing.

#50 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 04:48 PM:

<request>Sheila's mention of the term "semi-pro-zine" makes me want one of the sf-y types to weigh in on the subject of amateurism vs. professionalism lest I continue nannering about punk rock and exhaust Teresa's patience. How does the Hugo nominations distinguish?</request>

#51 ::: Rachael ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 05:14 PM:

So what about small independent press publishers who publish mostely books by their friends who are good writers but not commercially viable for some reason? Where would that fall on the "not put out by the publishing industry therefor clearly bad literature" spectrum? Two of my favorite books in the past year were published in this way... and would speaking at literary conventions be the writing parallel to coffee house gigs?

So, what is it that people mis-understand about publishing? It seems as though at least a few good anecdotes are behind this. C'mon, give us the goods!

#52 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 08:30 PM:

Speculation that GWB is the Antichrist has been going on among believers in end times prophecy for a while now. A common alternate opinion is that the Antichrist has not yet appeared, and that GWB is merely one of the ten leaders of nations who will support the Antichrist when he or she shows up. When the EU gets around to electing a ruler of all Europe, that'll be your guy.

#53 ::: Cowboy Kahlil ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 09:15 PM:

"In contrast, I know that when I think of self-publishing, I think of Bircher conspiracy tomes, poetry about one's cat, and self-help books."

Sounds like a situation briefing where the Almost-Antichrist develops his extremely foreign fresh daily policy.

But the AntiChrist? Eddit Haskell's Sociopathic Twin perhaps, but the only folks worshipping him are those warblogger kids kicked out of the Star Trek convention and a few journalists who know their righty screeds pay more. No self-respecting AntiChrist would settle for that, or nearly getting beaten by McCain.

As to your industry rant, isn't it time we demythologize business schools and return to the era of apprenticeships?

#54 ::: Chip Hitchcock ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2003, 11:16 PM:

Steve: the rules on amateurism in Hugos are complex, involving (inter alia) size of print run (8000 for pro?) and whether anybody makes significant money off it. There's also room for choice; Dave Langford declared Ansible a semi-prozine recently (and I'm still not sure how much he was kidding originally, but he's sticking by a decision no Hugo committee has chosen to make -- or even been pushed to make, so far as I know). Bear in mind that this applies only to magazines; Hugo nominations are popular choice, so they tend to go to more visible work than, say, World Fantasy Award nominations (which are partially juried), but there's little else to prevent small-press fiction from being nominated. (NB: I don't have useful links on the machine I'm writing this from; can anyone post a link to the WSFS rules?)

Hard Pressed -- remainder buyback is easy to understand: the physical production cost of a significant run of books is a small part of the cost of preparing, designing, selling, ... (and an even smaller part for mass-market paperbacks, which I'm told are mostly cranked out on a very small number of huge high-speed presses, which makes them so cheap that unsold copies are stripped and trashed because they're not worth the handling cost to return). The salaries and office rents aren't recoverable, but at some point a stack of unsold books is ]worth[ more (directly and in lack of storage costs) as recycling than as the additional income the publisher thinks they can bring. (They're helped in this decision by the fact that a lot of bookstores take a lot of books off the shelves after a few weeks or months, meaning few people will see the books to buy them.) At this point a publisher can offer the books to the author -- maybe for the price a recycler would pay, maybe for what Buck-A-Book would pay. (That's how NESFA wound up with many copies of Davidson's The Phoenix and the Mirror, back in the distant past; the members at the time thought they could at least keep the book available (because they got out and around more than he did?). The first index was a different story: the ]publisher[ didn't pay his printer.)

The usual answer to "why does/doesn't someone X?" turns out to be money a large part of the time; it's just that people don't know/see where the money goes (witness the comment about small presses not understanding that bookstores get a 40% discount). (And that's on books; specialty or transient items are discounted even more heavily.)

#55 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2003, 05:27 AM:

Dave Sim (who put out a guide to self-publishing) probably holds a similar place in the comics industry.

Well, there's a lot less self-publishing in comics these days than there used to be. Part of that is the general collapse of the comics market, which makes it hard to sustain a small publishing firm; and part of it is the major publishers wising up and realizing that they needed to start giving the talent some better deals. Meanwhile, Dave Sim has found God and gone insane (not necessarily in that order).

#56 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2003, 03:18 PM:

Also, there are small publishers like Top Shelf to go to. Well, OK, in the '80s you had small publishers like Eclipse. And even smaller ones like Aardvark-Vanaheim.

#57 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2003, 04:11 AM:

Here's the definition for semiprozine from the WSFS constitution:


Any generally available non-professional publication devoted to science fiction or fantasy which by the close of the previous calendar year has published four (4) or more issues, at least one (1) of which appeared in the previous calendar year, and which in the previous calendar year met at least two (2) of the following criteria:

(1) had an average press run of at least one thousand (1000) copies per issue,

(2) paid its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication,

(3) provided at least half the income of any one person,

(4) had at least fifteen percent (15%) of its total space occupied by advertising,

(5) announced itself to be a semiprozine.


Ansible is now a semi-prozine, because Langford meets (2) (by his own declaration, he sometimes buys drinks for contributors) and (5) (he declared that it's a fanzine). (1) is also possible, but it's hard to determine the exact circulation of Ansible, especially since there are so many electronic copies distributed.

#58 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2003, 11:02 AM:

"First, I and all my writer friends are terrified that anything we self-publish, even on our personal sites, will never garner more than a sneer from a professional editor, no matter how many hits we get."

Yeah, we professional editors sneer all the time at self-publication. Imagine, people writing weblogs and putting out fanzines and small press books. Sneer sneer sneer.

Still, this is beside the point. It's true that I've occasionally found good, publishable writers by "following my nose" on the net. It's also true that this has never been because those writers were standing around being Aspiring Writers at me.

#59 ::: Rachael ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2003, 02:51 PM:

Patrick, could you "unpack" that for us? What does it look like when someone stands around being an Aspiring Writer? (Do they dress up in tattered old tweed coats with leather patches on the elbows? Do they furrow their brows and try to look both witty and hopeful, urbain and enthused? Do they clutch their manuscripts in perspiring fingers and talk transparently about the weather?)

#60 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2003, 03:12 PM:

Patrick, that's why I asked.

#61 ::: Holly ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2003, 03:41 PM:

Er, that sounded terse. I meant to say, "thanks for clarifying that for me."

#62 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2003, 07:05 PM:

I don't think Holly was saying that you, or other editors, sneer at people who produce fanzines or blogs, but that she and her friends are afraid that material that has been published on the net will be impossible to sell, even if the editors think it's good.

This may not be true--but it's a different concern.

#63 ::: Lis ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 12:03 AM:

What precisely are the criteria for qualifying as the Antichrist? I'm afraid that my theological background didn't include much in this field, but now I'm curious...

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