The Legacy of Publishing’s Ownership of Work

There are a couple of things here that you may think are unrelated but I’ll try to bridge the gap and make a coherent argument in support of my thesis. I contend that the history and very institution of publishing has lent itself to a culture of a lack of ownership by authors and artists, resulting in today’s hysterical clamoring on privacy issues.

You all have a better sense of the publishing industry since Gutenberg than I do, so there’s no need to retread. So just think about how difficult it is to turn that Titanic of a beast around in just a few short years. I’m no industry apologist–I think that’s been made clear–and I’m not saying that we should give it some time. I’m asking that we reconsider how we are framing the debate around the breakdown of the traditional publishing industry; the rise of the independent author; the risks and opportunities of technology to serve readers, established authors, and independent writers; and the implications of copyright, privacy, and ownership on all of the above. Here are some of the areas through which we have to change our perspective in order to offer thriving solutions:

Agents. While agents have no doubt played a pivotal role in mediating the publishing industry’s desire for total control of a text and an author’s rightful assertion of ownership, they have also perpetuated that very dispute. How? They haven’t fought on behalf of writers for their fundamental rights, because that is not their role, traditionally. Sure, a good agent has fought for more money, bigger marketing budget, a favorable contract that matches the author’s strengths. However, agents have supported the passive-aggressive nature of the publishing industry in recent decades by fighting within the publishing companies’ own rules.

See, what I mean by that is this issue of framing our own perception of things. We have to work outside what we know as the traditional boundaries. Isn’t that what successful technology innovators do? Next:

Ownership, Privacy and Copyright. I never thought I would get hung upon this, but every day we are seeing some outrageous assertions of ownership, and not by the authors. Where the hell are our writer-brethren taking to the proverbial streets and proclaiming their ownership of their works? Because we are seeing press releases and contract clauses and Terms of Services stating proudly that the content deliverer retains at least some aspect of the rights to the work in perpetuity, or some godforsaken thing. Come on, y’all, that’s just ridiculous.

What I’m trying to get at here is that writers have been utterly de-fanged over the years of publishing industry beatdowns, reinforced by agents. We need more Stephen King and less, well, of everybody else. (Which is to say, we need more writers who tell the industry paper-pushers to fuck off. See Hunter S. Thompson’s comment to this effect.)

It’s not rocket science. It just means operating outside the “Terms of Service” and when enough of us do so, and if we create a strong enough demand in the marketplace for our work, miraculously those terms of service will derive from our side of the dispute, not the publishers’.

Now I’m not talking about bunnies and unicorns: this is going require a tremendous amount of discipline. Which brings me to my next point:

Desperation. This is the reason why the industry as we know it has perpetuated. Writers in general are desperate for exposure and that potential big gain from a publishing contract. So what do they do? Give it all up. That’s right, they give up their e-book rights and derivative marketing rights to a marketing department full of 22 year old interns with no budget who foil that author’s attempt at success because they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. But the writer is ok with this, because they know that the risk they’ve put on the table is worth the possible reward. Wait, not it’s not. The rewards of signing with a major publishing company suck, and the chances of a $1 million book contract are nil, so why not publish yourself and instead play the lottery each week for a better chance to win? BECAUSE WRITERS ARE SO FUCKING DESPERATE THEY ARE BLIND.

I guess we could consider what it is that has made writers so desperate. Maybe it is in our personalities: we create something and put it out there and hope for accolades, because that piece of writing is an extension of ourselves. Maybe writers are just talented people who didn’t get enough love and so this is what they do. Except I’m not a shrink and couldn’t possibly assert any truth there. All I know is that when there is a mass population (there are a shitload of writers) who require such enormous public accolades, with a finite number of readers (and by extension a finite amount of money you can earn from selling your work which is in effect a measure of that public love), there are bound to be disappointments. Lots of disappointment.

Is it social Darwinism of writing? I don’t accept that because it assumes a framework from which to judge good or bad writing and assigning it a successful or unsuccessful stamp. But clearly our expectations must change or else we are all headed for continued disappointment.

Democratizing the world of reading and writing will help everyone, I’m sure of it. No more hardcover books, sold at ridiculous prices–there’s just no need. No bottlenecks and gatekeepers needed any longer, you are relieved of duty. The internetz can enable this democratization of the book and content marketplace, but let’s just keep aware of the vultures who prey on writers’ naiveté  or their unwillingness to blaze their own trail, instead of following the trail of peanuts right back to the monsters that ripped out their teeth.



Filed under commentary, essay

15 responses to “The Legacy of Publishing’s Ownership of Work

  1. Some people act baffled when I say I don’t want a publishing contract. But why would I? What the hell can a publisher really do for me as a new author in this publishing climate. They’d more likely screw me over.

    Giving it up to a trad publisher is like a Victorian virgin giving her virginity to a handsome rake with a bad reputation that hasn’t promised her marriage or any other security.

    What promises does the industry make to an author when they sign them? Next to none. And what is the damage if they drop them after that? Well everything within the trad pub world. I don’t need that drama.

  2. forgot to subscribe to the thread.

  3. Wonderful post – excellently argued – and I will add, this applies to pretty much everything in our world today. I see our society as dammed up – we’ve stopped evolving and we keep spinning around in the same rut. Look at politics, see what’s happened in the UK – here, everywhere – the world needs a new way to live, to move on from corporate thinking and getting and spending – but no one is brave enough to make that first step into a new society.

    We are devastated by our inability to really change, to admit that what we have doesn’t work, doesn’t fit with our changing ideologies, our perception of reality and that most of what we have built our lives upon is a shambles and must be swept away so we can start again. People are terrified of doing this. Terrified of what the change really means.

    So I think what’s wrong with publishing is simply symptomatic of this greater problem – we’re all sucking at a teat that has long since dried up. There are plenty of us priming for a revolution, but no real leaders. I admit to my own fears. I know why so many on different sides of the fence want to stick with what they know, what has always worked for them – why so many would rather regress than try to take one more step further. They’re worried it’s that straw that will break the camel’s back. What they don’t get is – the camel isn’t really there and we’re all broken anyway.

    At some point our wheels will stop spinning and we’ll have to act, in a very big way – but a revolution needs people. Building support needs more than making the argument, it needs vision – one everyone can grasp. You’re at the starting point here. Go further.


    • gosh, DJ, you always have a way of making things sound so much smarter. you’re smart.

      so much of human nature comes down to our ability, willingness, and acceptance of change, so you’re right that what we’re facing in the arts and writing community is a resistance to and unwillingness and frankly, a lack of knowledge of what is ahead. not all of us can be trailblazers, which is why i realize i’m being a little hard on *all* indie writers to get their shit together (including myself) and blaze our trail.

      people like to group. they enjoy it. they are comfortable in it. even through the democratized internetz they still find groups: communities. cracking those communities and making people realize there’s more to reading than vampires, for example, is a challenge that few individuals can handle.

      so strength is in numbers, but those numbers must be qualified with excellent writers and great work.

      great, motherfucking work.



  4. Absolutely. By far the most critical thing is the readers. Focus on developing a readership. If you have that, you have all the leverage. Publishing through a traditional publisher is merely a means, not THE means, to the end of connecting to readers.

    • Thanks for coming by, Richard.

      While of course we all agree that it’s about the readers, that oversimplifies matters too much.

      I know you can be more specific!

      Part of the success of any writer–established or not–is in making that connection to readers both through the works and in the marketing that we all know and hate.

      Thinking and acting innovatively to reach those readers is where most of us independent writers are getting a little stuck right now.

      Thanks for reading.

      • Well, I feel there’s way too much bad/generic marketing advice. Honestly, I feel that one either gives very high level advice, as I did above—the key asymmetry is reader access, or one gets highly granular, with a specific writer/a specific book. Telling people to blog and tweet is more specific, but literally worse than useless, in that some writers are ill-suited to one or other form, because of style or writing habit.

        OK, well one thing I can say, though I fear you’ve heard me say this before, is that you focus on building readership through shorter items—fiction or essay or hybrid—published online at venues suitable for your writing, be it “literary,” “SF,” “romance,” etc. It’s virtually impossible to build a readership entirely from scratch, you need to reach out to like-minded mini-institutions. Offline, too, like reading series, writing/book groups, etc…

        Beyond that, I just can’t say, my belief is that readers are highly idiosyncratic (so are writers!) so discoverability is going to be mediated through highly social readers (who may well be writers)

  5. marchorne

    In a SENSE, I don’t think there is anything wrong with traditional publishing as part of a balanced breakfast. There should be a business that throws ‘spaghetti’ at the wall using marketing, disposability and distribution and that has big winners and many more small losers. That is a sensible mass entertainment business. It’s oversized now and will downsize appropriately. In the meantime, other models will emerge around it.
    The problem is that right now this machine is entirely identified as what publishing is and could ever be.

    • Ok, yes, balanced breakfast indeed. That’s why I keep saying we (ha, we…) need to reorient the way we think about publishing our work. And as Nash says and I agree with wholeheartedly, those new models are emerging slowly now with different formats and types, instead of heavy-duty first run novels, we’re putting out flash and short fiction, pod casts and webcasts, and other funky stuff.

      BUUUUUUT, that’s also an area rife with privacy and copyright issues, and there IS such thing as overexposure. You can’t just plaster your shit everywhere indiscriminantly. I think I spelled that wrong. Because readers absolutely sense our desperation, or our inability to find (or create) that “niche.” Readers are a smart bunch. They are who are are writing for, dammit.

      Thanks, babe.


  6. Marchorne,

    You make a really good point! I think I wouldn’t be bugged at all if everybody acknowledged trad pub was ONE option, not THE ONE TRUE WAY ZOMG.

    Publishing is a little fundamentalist for me at the moment.

  7. >>>That’s right, they give up their e-book rights and derivative marketing rights to a marketing department full of 22 year old interns with no budget who foil that author’s attempt at success because they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.

    LMAO!!! Or, plainly, DON’T DO A THING until someone ASKS them for subsidiary rights.

    And you are leaving out the mantra that most pre-published writers chant in their head daily, which leads to the Desperation.

    That mantra is: “…get me out of this fucking job and away from these people get me out of this fucking job and away from these people …”

  8. The crumbling publishing business model (always critically flawed!) took egregious advantage of the very talent off whom they made their money! I see the new technology empowering writers as almost a second coming!

    Lenox, I promoted this post on my Writers Welcome Blog Check it out…

  9. Pingback: The Legacy of Publishing’s Ownership of Work | Publetariat

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