Recently, the writing community exploded over what some artists consider a scam—a publisher, BlazeVox Books, has begun asking authors they select for publishing to contribute $250 to offset printing costs. It was first reported by author Brett Ortler and has been commented on by several bloggers, including Kelly Davio and Christopher Higgs
Debate rages over the ethical implications of such a practice. But let’s face it, independent publishers, and many larger houses are in financial crisis. The vast majority of books published do not make an adequate return on investment. Publishers increasingly turn to some kind of fee (submission fee, reading fee, contest fee) and ask writers, the people who can least afford them, to pay.
The bigger issue, to me, is how disconnected the creative community has become from the mainstream world. Most art (books, opera, ballet, symphony, plays, etc.) is ignored in favor of faux art (movies, TV, pop music). The result is islands of artists forced to fight among themselves for enough money just to continue existence, to come up with clever contests and semi-scams designed to squeeze a few more pennies from fellow artists, the people they’re supposed to be helping.
Have we completely lost faith in our ability to communicate with the general public? Do we have nothing to say to them? Nothing that might entice them to read a book, attend a play, visit an exhibition of art? (I’m not taking sides here, only raising the questions. It may indeed be that the gulf between the art and mainstream worlds can no longer be bridged.) If it’s money we want/need, that’s where it is. The question is how do we access that resource.
Granted, the task will not be an easy one. The public is now weaned and raised on mass media, and rarely experiences real art, or even an opportunity to experience it. Case in point: I was listening to an NPR program on which people were relating their memories of 9/11. Two teachers came on, and both remembered that their schools asked them to turn off the classroom TVs during the attacks, so as not to stigmatize the kids. Turn off the TVs? What the f— were the TVs doing on? What are TVs doing in the classrooms in the first place?
This is what we’re up against, guys. We must consider the choice: we can turn our backs on that world and live with the current situation, risking irrelevance and oblivion (and bankruptcy, btw), or make an attempt to reconnect with the mainstream. Do we want to? (Come on, who doesn’t occasionally dream of writing that best-seller?) Are we willing to fight that fight? Get down in the muck and wrestle with the mainstream?
Yes, I can hear the purists already: the mainstream is the very world we reject through our art. We need to be separate from it to maintain our creativity. No argument there—but what I’m saying is that our finished products need to find a way to that market and show the public that creative, thoughtful alternatives exist to the pabulum dispensed through the mass media.
Okay, how? There are creative, guerilla tactics we can employ. For example, a dance company in Seattle visited large workplaces unannounced (with employer permission of course) and performed during lunch breaks—a free preview of their shows for dozens or hundreds of people. Sales skyrocketed, simply because average people got to see something they’d never experienced before, something outside the mainstream. At the Los Angeles Review and here in Michigan, we’re discussing a similar idea using writers.
On another front (and I almost hate to admit this, but it’s an idea that has promise), I recently wrote and self published a book (with two colleagues—long story—just check it out in print or ebook form) called Cyber Styletto. It’s a cyber thriller. It’s not my usual literary work, but because I am a literary writer, the work is infused with slightly higher concepts and language than would be found in many books of this genre. One of our team is a ferocious marketer, and he’s using his contacts to get the book reviewed or promoted on radio, TV and in magazines that appeal to techie nerds and other traditionally non-readers of literature. My hope is that this book might make a few want to try something a little more involved, maybe even a literary book someday. And if it works, I will make some money from the endeavor, and I will use that money to continue to pursue the art I truly want to create, as well as to help other artists pursue their goals.
We have the creativity. Perhaps we could designate a little of it towards increasing the size of our audience.