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Alt Lit, the Internet, and the State of Self-publishing: Part 1

Warning: this post contains half-baked speculation, crackpot predictions, and pretentious posturing. Oh, and links. Lots of links. You have been warned!

Thanks to the internet, we live in the interesting times of the Chinese curse. The internet is as potent as it is unpredictable. As a quick glance at the comments accompanying the average YouTube video will attest, it draws out characteristics – passion, obsession, hatred, hubris – that would probably remain safely obscured in ordinary social discourse. Being international, untrammeled, and ungovernable, it is also egalitarian: we are not just the passive users of the internet, but contributors and co-creators. We help to shape the internet – albeit in a very small way – with every blog post, comment, tweet and Facebook update. The internet is inspiring, sustaining, cruel, wonderful and awful, all at the same time.

Image credit: Adone | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Image credit: Adone | Dreamstime Stock Photos

And what of the internet’s impact on writing and publishing?

For many writers and publishers, the answer is obvious: it’s an advertising tool. A chance to get books out in front of a worldwide audience, with access to an ever-greater pool of potential readers. A chance to build a potentially huge online presence, a sort of virtual HQ from which to conduct marketing and promotional campaigns. And while writers’ forums are abuzz with advice about presenting, packaging, marketing and selling your work online, still many writers seem reluctant to engage with the internet in any more meaningful sense – as, that is, a vital aspect of the cultural environment, rather than as a means to a (usually commercial) end.

But this approach – employing the web as a business opportunity, while denying it any kind of deeper cultural significance – may be a little short-sighted. The internet’s influence upon cultural and literary life, I believe, goes far deeper than “txt spk” or ever-decreasing attention spans, despite the doomsayers’ warnings to the contrary.

Image credit: Juandavo |Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Juandavo |Wikimedia Commons

For one thing, the internet offers us the possibility of creating work that defies the conventional structure of the novel or short story. My online friend Paul Sutton Reeves recently acquainted me with Geoff Ryman’s 253, an online, interactive novel consisting of sketches of each of the 253 passengers on a London Underground train, each sketch consisting of 253 words. These “chapters” can be read in any order, which arguably enables the reader to be not just a passive recipient but, in a sense, a co-creator.

The prospect of “reader as active participant” is one of the more intriguing possibilities held out by the internet. Last year, author China Mieville spoke about the possibility of readers “remixing” novels (read article here). Given the ease of file-sharing, and the universality of copying, cutting and pasting, issues of copyright may become increasingly blurred. In the not-too-distant future, the question may not be “Which edition?” but “Which mix?” Does this bring you out in a cold sweat? Or does it leave you unruffled, or even inspired?

Closely related to this is the issue of piracy, which is both easy and (probably) inevitable these days. It will most likely get even easier in the future. Are you worried about this? Should you be? Or is it just another example of the democratic, levelling nature of the internet?

Image credit: Rock1997 | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Rock1997 | Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of democratization, writers are enjoying greater freedom than ever before. Short stories and flash fiction, for example, may be enjoying something of a renaissance. Until relatively recently, the only way to get a short story published was to send it off to various publications in the hope that somebody, somewhere, would judge it worthy of being printed. Now a writer can make short stories available instantly, worldwide, whether by the usual means of uploading them to Amazon or Smashwords, submitting them to one of the many internet sites that are available for such a purpose, or just putting them up on a personal website or blog.

Noah Cicero, talking in this article about the beginnings of the Alt Lit movement, says: “A person could get a blog for free and write exactly what they wanted. And that was going to be the future.” As he also says, “Because the Internet allows for democracy, it lets people become who they want to be without having to fit into a certain mode of operation.”

All of which brings us neatly to one of the perceived problems of self-publishing. If you leave your front door wide open, sooner or later anyone who wants to will come wandering in. As a result, the stereotypical self-published book is badly-written, poorly-formatted, and stuffed full of typos and grammatical blunders. And while I’ve read enough excellent self-published books to know that this stereotype is unfair and often false, there is also – as with many stereotypes, probably – a small kernel of truth there. Egalitarianism is an attractive idea, but the consequences may not be quite so desirable. Is this inclusivity inspiring, or horrifying? Have the lunatics taken over the asylum? (And if so, wasn’t it about bloody time?)

Phew. That’s enough for one post. In Part 2, I’ll be taking a brief look at Alt Lit, a literary movement that has grown up around the internet revolution. In the meantime, I’m off to lie down in a darkened room for a while. Leave a comment, if you wish…

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17 thoughts on “Alt Lit, the Internet, and the State of Self-publishing: Part 1

  1. Interesting, Mari. Will read part two with interest. Dreadful fourth day of rectifying mistakes put into ebook by conversion company when supposedly rectifying a few old mistakes.
    *!”@&&*! I so hate reading from the PC screen. A horrid aspect of cyber infor
    mation.

    1. Glad you liked the post, Lucinda! I’m sorry to hear about your ebook conversion woes, too – this may well be one of the less attractive aspects of the e-publishing scene…

  2. When first I learned of indie publishing, I felt such a rush of hedonistic anticipation. No longer would there be some nebulous gatekeeper choosing what books were fit for me to discover, no longer would beautiful novels be shunted aside for big money makers. I envisioned a literary flowering, a time of intense experimentation, brilliant discourse, and (of course!) mind-blowing reads. The first indie book I started, I bought at a Farmer’s Market. The author had a booth and a stack of paperbacks. He charged too much, but I passed on the local honey and bought the book.

    I felt subversive, cracking it open the first time!

    And then I felt dismay.

    It was not very good, and I did not finish it.

    Not all indie books are like that, but I’ve hit a bad string of them that are terrible, especially in the speculative fiction genre. I used to post a review for every book I finished, but there were a distressing number of books that never got a review because I never got past the elementary mistakes of the first couple of chapters. What was a thrill has become a bore. Where is the experimentation, the discourse, and the stories that will keep me up all night? All that aside, where is the editing, story continuity, and spell-checking?

    There are some great indie books, but the truth is, indie publishing has turned out to be a less about creating good books, and more about the platform, the “author’s brand,” and sales numbers. What felt like the egalitarian dream has turned out to be just like, well, everything else. The really good stuff is few and far between. The truly excellent remains rare. Publication, even without the gatekeepers, is a bell curve with the bulk of books falling into the fat center of mediocrity.

    I will take this opportunity and point out that your book and others, like Peter Labrow’s THE WELL, were the fulfillment of my dreams of finding excellent indie books! I just wish there were more like that, but that is a little like wishing that the normal distribution of genius would suddenly shift just for me, and that’s not likely!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    -aniko

    1. Thanks for the comment, Aniko. To some extent, I agree that ‘indie publishing has turned out to be a less about creating good books, and more about the platform, the “author’s brand,” and sales numbers.’ Part of the problem, I think, is that there were a few high-profile commercial successes (Amanda Hocking, John Locke), and that ebooks suddenly acquired a dubious reputation as a sort of get-rich-quick scheme. However, I’m rather optimistic that this will change, not least when those who are in it solely for the money realise that, generally speaking, there is not an awful lot of money to be made. I think and hope that that will leave a core of dedicated writers who will see self-publishing as far more than a business, or who will at least realise that if they are to treat it as a business they have to at least make sure that the ‘product’ is as good as it can possibly be!

      ‘The truly excellent remains rare. Publication, even without the gatekeepers, is a bell curve with the bulk of books falling into the fat center of mediocrity.’ – I agree. And of course, the challenge for anyone seeking quality self-published books is finding them amongst that sea of mediocrity (and worse). At the same time, self-publishing still sends a shiver of excitement through me, because I remain convinced that there are some really great things being done out there – not as often as in the perfect world of my dreams, but enough to convince me that the new openness is a good, and even a necessary, thing.

      The internet and self-publishing has changed things and will continue to change them, whether we like it or not, and at the moment there’s something of a chaotic atmosphere, which can be both wonderful and alarming. Whatever the downside, I think this has at the very least presented us with sudden, unforeseen, exciting possibilities. We do indeed live in interesting times, and personally I just can’t wait to see what happens next… 🙂

      1. Oh, I agree! The openness is a good in that everyone has the option to share their stories. There are many fine novels that I might not have encountered if not for self-publishing options and the convenience and cost-savings of electronic books. I just wish the technological advances had come at a time when our species seemed to be a little more rigorous in thought and philosophical inquiry. I keep wondering if the people who lived in the “Dark Ages” knew they were in the Dark Ages, and then I wonder if we aren’t ourselves in the start of another. It takes effort to find the intelligent glimmerings anywhere, and every awful book I read that has tons of positive reviews pushes me a little farther towards believing that, yes, this is darkness. It is an airy, open darkness – a bit like the night sky. The voids are the majority of my experience of the internet and publication (of all types). The beautiful books and smart bloggers and intelligent discourse in comments or in editorials are the stars. I guess I wish that there were more stars, an infinity of blinding, blissful light.

        I am a snobbish misanthrope in search of books that fulfill their promise to me as a reader. I love and envy your enthusiasm that “…[you] remain convinced that there are some really great things being done.” I wish I felt that way about the literary world!

        May your belief and hope continue to strengthen, and may they someday transform even the bitter likes of me! 🙂

        -aniko

      2. All agreed, Aniko – indeed, amongst those who know me personally I have something of a reputation as a ‘snobbish misanthrope’ myself, so our opinions may be closer than we think!

        I like the ‘darkness of space’ analogy, which in many senses does seem to fit the internet perfectly. And the great things that I referred to generally have to be sought out there in the darkness, as very often they don’t tend to shine very brightly. You’re unlikely to find them on the bestsellers lists; indeed, in many cases, you won’t even find them on Amazon or the like.

        Still, a dose of scepticism is a very healthy thing. May your sense of disappointment constantly remind me that the world of the internet and self-publishing is not all sweetness and light! 🙂

        Mari

  3. I love this kind of post, Mari! I have read some Geoff Ryman myself. His brutal novel,*Was*, is a dark vision of the Kansas life of Dorothy from the *Wizard of Oz*. The story is quite hard to take, actually, since he portrays this originally charming character as the victim of ruthless sexual abuse. It put me off his work completely.

    The notion of “which mix” positively horrifies me. I am an unashamed elitist and a huge believer in keeping up standards. The best among us should lead, not the man on the street. The idea may sound noble, but egalitarianism is always a recipe for utter mediocrity or worse. Facing mountains of dreadful books self-published by people who cannot write is bad enough. Having good books mangled by the average Joe is a prospect too depressing to contemplate. Must we suffer remixed editions of War and Peace or the works of Charles Dickens?

    Aniko’s brilliantly expressed disillusionment with indie publishing is extremely widespread. The remedy is high-quality reputable review sites that put out reliable evaluations of the best self-published works. But think what this means: we are right back to a filtering system. These sites will replace publishers as the new upholders of standards. There is simply no way to escape from the reality that someone somewhere has to screen out all the egalitarian junk. (And right away, many extremely crappy writers are going to complain loudly about being shut out.)

    The pirating of intellectual property is becoming an ever more serious problem, and it may be the case that there is no way to stop it. Should the pirates triumph, all remuneration for intellectual work will have to be by donation. Like many others, I use applications such as PhotoScape and the ebook handler, Calibre, which already work this way. I just filed my income tax return using online “donation ware.” For a fascinating take on this kind of system, try Cory Doctorow’s wonderful novel, *Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom* (free as an ebook). Doctorow portrays a near-future society that uses something called “whuffie,” a currency based on your reputation. Do some good and your whuffie score soars; get nasty and it plummets! Politicians in our own time are already on the system. 🙂

    I’m looking forward to part two of this post, Mari.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful (and thought-provoking) response, Thomas. I’d agree that the idea of a remixed ‘War and Peace’ is a rather alarming prospect, but at the same time I think that the remixing process has already begun, to some extent, in fan fiction and the rewriting (and writing of sequels and prequels) of classic novels – ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ being a case in point! Again, the law of averages suggests that most of it will be junk – but then again, there is the exciting possibility that occasionally someone will come up with something truly fresh and interesting. For example, one of my favourite books, Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ was a prequel to ‘Jane Eyre’. Rhys took liberties with certain aspects of the classic novel, such as moving the date of the action in order to fit in better with her version of the story, and so – arguably – ‘remixing’ it to a degree. The resulting book was, in my opinion, wonderful.

      Of course, ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ are two distinct works, not an ‘original’ and a ‘remix’ as such. However, I think they’re relevant to the discussion here. I’d suggest that the original version of a work will always be prized as such, just as most remixes would be dismissed (and often for very good reasons). However, occasionally someone might come up with something quite wonderful – something that, far from detracting from the original, actually added to it in some way.

      I agree that some form of ‘filtering’ is probably inevitable, too – and, from the point of view of the reader, at least, probably necessary. However, I think that this will be less rigid and exclusive than the traditional gatekeeping system, simply because of the scale of the internet, and the range of tastes and interests it can represent. Some sites (Awesome Indies being a good example) already list self-published books that are on a par with traditionally published novels, in that they tick all the boxes that, conventionally, we expect to be ticked – clear plot structure, good formatting, a minimum of typos, etc. A less conventional self-published book – but not necessarily a bad book – might not be included on such a site, but hopefully would come to the attention of another site that might include rather more experimental writing. (I’m not aware of any such site – if anyone knows of any, please tell me!)

      1. I’m an admirer of Jean Rhys myself, Mari. Are you aware that there is a marvellous film version of *Wide Sargasso Sea*? Rhys used her own life as a source of background material for the novel. She was from the Caribbean island of Dominica. As a student of deeply troubled people (and Rhys certainly was disturbed), I have read a biography and her incomplete autobiography.

        Writers being inspired by a favourite author’s work and adding a sequel goes back a long way so I’m reluctant to see the practice as part of the new self-publishing paradigm. There are respectable sequels to Daphne du Maurier’s *Rebecca* and Margaret Mitchell’s *Gone with the Wind*, to name just two. (And isn’t the New Testament a sequel to the Jewish Bible?) What is new is the sheer volume of such works from indie authors trying to capitalize on a famous writer’s name or characters. I do agree that occasionally some among these novels may prove to be outstanding extensions of the original work.

        I think the massive output of indie writers will make filtering more important in the ebook age than it was in the print era. I like your suggestion that specialized websites might single out avant-garde novels and promote them. The small presses filled this role in the traditional publishing world, but lacking good distribution, few of them survived for very long. The books they published are often collectors’ items.

        A good place to learn more about experimental writing in general is
        experimentalwriting.weebly.com
        There are loads of links to websites that specialize in avant-garde and experimental writing.

  4. Ah-ha, Mari, the promised post appears! And plenty of food for thought you’ve given us here.

    ‘Remixing’ in literature has, of course, existed for hundreds of years. What were Shakespeare’s plays if not ‘remixes’ of older tales? There’s a world of difference, though, it seems to me, between a literary genius undertaking such an enterprise and any random individual who wants to doing so.

    I tend to agree with the others commenting here that the advent of the self-published e-book means that we’re drowning in an ocean of words – most of which aren’t very good. It makes finding those drops in the ocean that constitute literature of merit – whether conventionally or self published – all the more difficult to discover. Egalitarianism may be desirable socially, depending upon your world view, but artistically, the results are likely to be dire. If you write, it’s in your own interest to recognise the elite nature of the activity. If you don’t aspire in your writing, if you don’t push yourself, your work will never improve. It’s become all too easy to rattle off some tens of thousands of words and present them before an audience. I’m a firm believer that there’s an apprenticeship to be served. It involves reading widely and deeply and writing many hundreds of thousands of words before your work can possibly be fit for public consumption. And yet, and yet… Somewhere out there, there must be bold and brilliant books that commercial publishers wouldn’t have put out, but how are we ever to find them?

    As to that other Geoff Ryman book, I couldn’t comment, having only read ‘253’ – sounds unpleasant, though.

      1. Hi Paul, and thanks for your comment! Firstly, I must apologise for any errors that slip into this reply – I am typing this on a smartphone, as I’m currently away in Florence for the weekend!

        I’m not sure I’d disagree with anything you’ve said. I’m really pretty dismayed by the numbers of people who are self-publishing just because they can, without having served any form of ‘apprenticeship’ whatsoever, and indeed without having even take n basic pains to ensure that their books are ready for public consumption. I think it’s that ‘goldrush’ thing again. I hope that the current chaos will settle down a bit in the future. And yes, I think there are very good writers who just can’t get a foot through the door of the conventional publishing industry (often for commercial reasons) for whom self-publishing is a godsend. The question, I think, is not whether good self-published books exist – I’ve read enough to be convinced that they do – but how they can be brought to people’s attention.

        I’m not as naive about self-pubbing as I’m sure I sometimes seem. I’m very aware of the many problems that exist, which is why I don’t blame those readers who choose to steer clear of self-published books. It will be interesting to see what happens next… 🙂

  5. Inquisitive and positive about the possibilities is how I would have described your view of the changes in the book world, Mari. As an English writer of fiction, not writing in a genre or about London and currently failing to interest traditional publishers, self-publishing has its temptations for me too. If I were to do so, though, I don’t see how any potential audience that I might have would ever find my books among the millions of other e-books out there. And therein lies the problem from both the writer’s and the reader’s point of view. It was in large part the flood of poorly written books deluging the doorsteps of traditional publishers that led to their putting up the shutters against unsolicited manuscripts. All of which is a little frustrating if you happen to take the craft of writing seriously as I know you and the others commenting here do.

    Florence? Very nice! Enjoy your weekend.

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Paul! Yes, it’s a tricky situation, isn’t it? Unpublished writers have a hell of a time trying to interest publishers in their work; self-published writers may have bypassed that problem, but they then face the other problem of trying to interest readers, which is possibly even more difficult…

      Florence was absolutely lovely, by the way! I’m planning to put photos on my Facebook page soon, if anyone’s interested…

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