THE BLOG
06/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

And Then the Panel Came to Blows: Notes on a Publishing Party

Recently, I attended a cocktail party and panel discussion at Maxim's downtown. The party was for people involved in Chicago publishing, and came on the heels -- two days earlier -- of the forming of The Chicago Literary Alliance in Uptown, a networking group for writers and publishers in the city. The Maxim party was larger and more well-heeled than the CLA, including people like Rick Kogan and Donna Seaman, local literary celebrities who would probably not have dragged their asses to Uptown to drink wine from plastic cups (despite this being one of the great pleasures of a literary life) because their days of needing to "network" have long passed and they were probably home chilling with their families. But I digress.

At the Maxim's party a small controversy arose. During the Q&A part of the panel discussion, ACM editor Jacob Knabb made a comment to the effect of how technology and alternative media/networking sites are actually beneficial to publishing and literary culture, because it is so much easier to form communities now -- online -- than in the past. His comment was very much in response to the doom-and-gloom tone the panel had taken towards the current publishing climate, with the decline of books-centered print media (and print media in general), the layoffs in New York's publishing world, etc. At Knabb's comment, Rick Kogan, who had delighted the crowd earlier by reminiscing about sitting on Nelson Algren's lap as a child, responded immediately that he felt online community was not remotely the same as face-to-face conversation, could never take its place and that in general he had no use for it. To which Knabb said of Kogan's view (and I was sort of drunk on free wine in actual wineglasses, so I am paraphrasing here), "That's why I'll have a job in five years."

To which the crowd freaked out as though a call to arms had been issued and Danielle Chapman, the heroic organizer of the evening, appeared to panic and immediately ended the panel and ushered the crowd into the other room for cocktails.

Well. That was a bit anticlimactic.

Later, my managing editor at Other Voices Books, Kathryn Kosmeja, who is a smoker and therefore always privy to the off-stage conversations of other smokers, reported that Knabb and Kogan were congenially polluting their lungs together outside and engaging in a respectful and animated exchange of ideas. Which, of course, is no surprise. Both men have contributed a great deal to Chicago letters, and both have no doubt been subject to far bigger skirmishes than a differing view of new technology. The unfortunate part of the story is that the rest of the people at Maxim's were not privy to that discussion, which touched upon what is probably the most important issue in literary culture today.

Though Knabb is no doubt more knowledgeable about the online community than I am (he is only seven or eight years younger than I am, but that gap makes a huge difference when it comes to tech-savvy among 30-to-40 year olds) and Kogan, of course, is a Chicago institution when it comes to both print and radio journalism, their dialogue -- both onstage and off -- got me thinking about what new media, and the decline of old-media, really means for writers and publishers. The issue, of course, is extremely complex and full of both pros and cons.

Pros:

Well, Knabb said it all, really. With Web sites, online news forums like Huffington Post, online literary sites like Bookslut and networking tools from email to Facebook to Twitter, the world has shrunk and everybody can be friends with everybody, exchanging in a free-flowing fountain of ideas ranging from political to artistic.

Clearly there is no downside to that (well, unless you count members of Congress "Twittering" during a State of the Union speech, which, of course, borders on the comical and absurd.) This leveled (and free or low-cost) playing field has made it easier for writers and independent publishers to promote books and create word-of-mouth through blogs or MySpace or book trailers on YouTube, reaching thousands (or more) people in ways that once required an enormous marketing budget or publicity engine.

As a result of new technology and online media, book reviewing is no longer a small, elitist club but open to anyone who can give good blog, and indie publishers are taken every bit as seriously as the Big Boys when it comes to putting out important work and getting it reviewed. Print on Demand books can sell big on Amazon and other sites, even if they have little bookstore presence, and online books can become cult phenomena. Writers around the globe, if they have access to computers, can enter dialogues and submit work to magazines (even most agents now take electronic submissions if the writer queries first) and this expands the literary world's multiculturalism in a way that is not p.c. and cloying but truly organic and vital.

Yes, most of us in the over-30 generation do feel the need to draw the line at how much of this new technology we let into our lives, and not everyone wants to Twitter her every thought or replace the feel of a paper page in her hand with a Kindle. Still, these options have leveled the field in a way nothing else ever has in the dialogue-formerly-known-as-High-Culture and, as Knabb said, made true global access possible.

What can there possibly be not to like about all that? As both a fiction writer and the editor of an independent press (i.e. lots of heart and energy, but almost no budget), I embrace these possibilities and regret only that my limited knowledge makes it hard to keep up with them. This is the future of publishing -- and of communications in general. The matter is no longer a debate but a given, and anyone who cannot get on board will soon become a dinosaur. So here I am: I blog; my next book will experiment with POD; Other Voices Books is talking about releasing titles electronically along with print. On Facebook, I have nearly 500 "friends," and I spend so much time on email that I need a 12-step program. Clearly, I am among the converted.

Con:

And yet . . . where is the money?

OK, let me preface this with the disclaimer that I realize it has in fact become widely regarded as gauche for writers (unless you are Audrey Niffenegger) to even discuss money or act as though we give a fig for its existence. But let's look at the facts here: it has always, always been very difficult for artists of all stripes to make anything resembling a living with their art, and most people do need to make a living. Now, with the onslaught of online media and independent publishing, and the decline of the dominant New York publishing industry and print newspapers/magazines, what was once "difficult" is now almost impossible.

These days, it has become pretty much a given that publishing your book with an independent press means no advance and -- with bookstores' outdated Depression-Era model of payment (where they can over-order books at no financial risk, the publisher later being slaughtered by the costs of returns) -- often no royalties either. But fine: it was always hard for writers to earn a buck, and at least now more can be published since indie presses are thriving, right?

But what about literary journalists? What about the Rick Kogans and Donna Seamans of the future? Well, with online sites and collective blogs increasingly taking the place of any kind of paying print media, "journalism" is totally up for grabs and increasingly an unpaid gig. While your readership may knock the socks off what you'd have found writing for a small, local paper, at least that small, local paper would have paid you for your contribution, and with that payment -- and many others like it -- a book reviewer or cultural journalist could piece together a living, maybe even finding a longtime situation like writing a column or becoming a staff writer or editor.

Now, with the Tribune declaring bankruptcy and layoffs afoot at one of our few thriving cultural magazines, Time Out Chicago, journalists both locally and globally need to be willing to contribute work for free if they wish to be heard at all. Gone are the days when the Trib used to pay you 400 bucks to review a book -- or the Chicago Reader may have paid you 4 grand for a long, wonderfully rambling cover story. Cover stories are shorter and book reviews are fewer (if a paper even includes them anymore at all.) More people are writing and reviewing and in literary dialogue than ever before -- but everyone is broke!

And is that really "community-building?" At its worst, rather than becoming a more global and inclusive community, the cultural community becomes one where those who can afford to be most "active" and vocal are those who do not actually need money due to being supported by a well-off spouse or a trust fund -- circumstances that, in a Depression, become even more rare than they already were.

So how many hours a day can someone really spend writing (or editing) fiction or poetry, blogging, or contributing articles to a non-paying forum, if that person also has to work a 50-hour week somewhere else just to pay the rent or astronomical health care costs? Looking around at Chicago's literary culture, I have to admit that a great number of its most prominent players are unpaid for the bulk of their work running lit mags and presses or churning out books. Some are also academics, but unless they have tenure, the pay is so slim that you would, frankly, earn more working full-time at McDonald's.

Those of us embracing technology will have jobs in five years, yes -- but will the jobs actually pay? Or is this trend relegating the entire world of literature and journalism to the subcategory of "hobby," since it can't butter the bread in an intensely capitalist culture?

These are old questions, but new media has made them more extreme.

In the end, of course, there are no easy answers. Those of us wedded to the literary life have to continue to take -- and take advantage of -- the good with the bad. We have to continue talking, and disagreeing and at times haggling about the future of books and those who write them and publish them and review them, and try to transition our way out of the current disasters in New York publishing, where imprints are disappearing and longtime editors and publicists are being rampantly laid off. We have to take what appears to be calamitous and turn it to our advantage, shrinking the globe and spreading the word and letting our voices be heard in alternative forums that have made the impossible, for many writers, now possible.

And this: for many years Chicago's book publishing community was almost nonexistent, but now new independent book presses like Featherproof Books and So New are popping up like wildfire to fill the gap left by New York; now Chicago is host to almost back-to-back AWP Conferences and Pilcrow Literary Festival is helping to also organize writers independent of the academy; now and organizations like the Chicago Literary Alliance are being formed and swank parties for publishers are being held. Imports from Aleksander Hemon to Cris Mazza to Elizabeth Crane have made Chicago their home, and with writers from Achy Obejas to Bayo Ojikutu, we are truly a multicultural literary city even when not online. Something is afoot here in the Second City, and the gap in New York leaves our writers and publishers a space that we are more than capable of filling. If Chicago's literary figures -- known, emerging, and yet-to-come -- truly work together, this may just be our moment to put Chicago (after a long hiatus since Algren had Kogan on his lap) strongly back on the literary map.