I attend an abundance of events around Harvard. The main calendar covers a myriad of topics from every corner of the university, and because of my job there, I often hear about events long before they happen, and my calendar quickly fills up with events I hope to attend. Most of the time it’s for novel research, sometimes to see a friend who is involved in the event, or simply because it’s just an interesting topic. I only ever make a percentage of what I hope to see, but lately, it’s been quite full: an all-day conference about Women Making Democracy in Arab Spring, a lecture on Islamic art, a lecture by Professor Andrew Delbanco about the state of higher education at the Harvard Extension Lowell Lecture, an all-day symposium on ancient Near Eastern studies, a workshop on conflict resolution, and a lecture at Radcliffe on March 27, the “History of the Book as Discipline,” by University of Oxford Professor Peter McDonald.
This lecture struck a chord with me on several levels. It was reminiscent of the Why Books? conference hosted by Radcliffe two years ago: the history of publishing, the study of publishing, and a discussion about where the industry is going. It was relevant to me as an editor, a writer and author, and as a teaching assistant and writing instructor.
Peter McDonald, who wrote a book on censorship in South Africa called The Literature Police, presented a talk on the economic, cultural, and political connections in the book publishing industry. It was framed in the context of research he did in Apartheid-era South Africa. Culture is shaped by publishing. What the gatekeepers decide is important, be they agents, publishing houses, and even government (when it comes to banning books), determines what the reader sees. Professor McDonald explained that the publishing industry can’t be examined in isolation—one must consider society, education, and what falls in the realm of literary criticism. Beyond that, the availability of bookstores and libraries also have an effect on what people have access to, and while it may not be so much of an issue in the US where ordering on Amazon.com and having a book delivered anywhere is easy, this can have a profound impact on other areas of the world. In addition, what publishing houses choose to publish, and what journals choose to publish, determines what has literary value. How they choose to categorize an author through genre and marketing can make or break an author. The small local markets have been subsumed by the global market, and while this helps some authors gain recognition they may not have otherwise had, authors can also become lost in an ocean of information. In sum, all of these aspects make up the field of the history of books. Studying the history of publishing came about in the 1980s, and Professor McDonald discussed the notes he read of a professor who made this topic into a class. It’s almost too vast to study, but it is essential, and arguably as important as studying history itself.
Echoes of graduate study resonated with me as he mentioned world-renowned scholars Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong and their studies on media. I almost…almost…dug through my old textbooks to re-read them. But I wanted to read the newer books he recommended. Such as The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, by Elizabeth Eisenstein and Merchants of Culture, by John B. Thompson. I downloaded Merchants of Culture almost immediately and have been fascinated by it. It not only provides an excellent description of the history and structure of the industry, but shows how rapidly it is changing. Whether you’re an author, aspiring writer, or work anywhere in the publishing industry, I’d say this is required reading.
Both of these works are critical in terms of showing the impact books have on us as a society. How the Reformation came to be with the invention of the printing press happening concurrently. How our views are shaped by what we read. So what is the big picture here, especially as a self-published author?
A publisher’s conception of an author’s work is essential to who reads it. And the traditional publishers these days are more about the bottom line than ever. Gigantic advances are doled out for celebrity memoirs, no matter how inane. A lot of fantastic literature is left by the wayside. If a new author is taken on, the advances are smaller, the publicity almost zero. If you want to read more about that, go visit J.A. Konrath’s blog. No one describes it better than he does. I no longer feel put on the defensive when I talk about self-publishing. I am in complete control of the category in which I choose to market my work. How I price and market it is up to me. And after writing two works of historical fiction, I’ve decided to change genres and go in a new direction for a while. I don’t have to worry about my contract with an agent being terminated because I chose to do so. I don’t have to worry about how a publishing house may stop making my books available on a whim as the newest literary fad arrives.
What I came away from the conference with was the knowledge that in this rapidly changing environment, I made the right decision for myself. I’m happy being a self-published author, and only reliant on the readers who buy or borrow my books. I see the reviews. People contact me with questions. If it’s good enough for them, I’m happy. And being an eternal student, I’m happy to get the constructive feedback, too, so that I can learn how to be a better writer. I’ve always been a fiercely independent person, who often prefers to sit in a corner alone and observe everything going on around me, and this new world of publishing, while enormously frustrating sometimes when I walk through Barnes & Noble and see some of the shallow nonsense that get featured on its shelves, has been a great boon to me. I’m in control of my own work. People can read it if they want to. And I continue to go to all these great events around Harvard, and think about what I want to write next.