Publication is to Quality as Bacon is to Jupiter

The city of Victoria should have the motto, “the buddy system rules.” There are layers of unofficial and official associations. It’s little surprise that when it comes to government their support for the arts, that the buddy system comes into full bloom. Fixtures in the community advise the city and help to build its systems and rules. Those become criteria for everything from how late you can run an event, to who gets arts funding, to who can be considered “legitimate.” The anointed ascend, the unwashed masses are grumpy and marginalized.

This came to the forefront when local poet, performer and artist, Missie Peters wrote a letter to the City of Victoria to voice her concerns.

The City said they would consider her points. In a local magazine’s online version, a long-time resident / current Poet Laureate appears to have made a catty attack on Peters. I have to say “appears” because when I weighed on the topic, I had the courage to show my face and use my real name. The poster of the attack logged in as, “poetlaureate”-- as the title transfers to a new person soon, this attack on one of our citizens and artists will transfer to the new Poet Laureate as the view of the Poet Laureate vs. Miss Peters.

People pitched in comments and the battle lines were drawn. Quickly people thought they could be clever by suggesting that relaxing the criteria would mean that everyone and his dog could apply. With the current accepted criteria, a dog is unlikely to get voted Poet Laureate, but they can pass the eligibility requirements. The current restrictive criteria excludes good poets who have not been published, but it does allow a published dog to be eligible. Spoken word is out, the LOLCats book is in. Really.

From the guidlelines: "publication of at least two volumes of work (NOT SELF PUBLISHED)" is the publication hurdle. It doesn’t address ghostwritten works (I’ve done enough ghostwriting to know that I do the writing and they get the by-line). They made a point of spelling out “not self-published” but not “self-written.” So if your dog cannot write, you can spot Spot a few bucks he can hire John Updike to author a book of the pooch’s behalf.

The dividing line of being published was gamed a generation ago. Self-publication has always been possible: show up at the printers with galleys and money and voila-- you can be published. That hurdle has been dropping for years: Lulu, Vistaprint, Amazon, Smashwords, etc.. There is a long list of ways that you can be self-published. So, publication in print had to be qualified to omit self-publication.

The “publication by a third party” requirement is a boundary that can be jumped easily even if one doesn't create good work. When I got an agent, suddenly it went from me pushing out manuscripts, to my agent calling with book offers from topics I had yet to pitch. We went to a writer’s group once and noteworthy authors were in the room. As we left, I was asked “why aren’t we getting our stuff published?”-- the answer is that we didn’t stay in the room after the meeting. Mingling is when deals get done. If you befriend an editor-- like really get up their ass-- it’s surprisingly easy for bad work to get published. That’s not a guarantee of a career-- typo-ridden dreck will not get to print; and a bad book usually will not have a bad follow-up.

Some of the prolific, well loved and well-paid writers have embraced the future. They’re publishing via Amazon. By taking the paper out of the equation, all you have left is profit and speedy delivery. Publishers are stuck: dinosaurs like the City of Victoria equate paper publication with authenticity. I have to say that I am vain enough to grab a copy of my published stuff as soon as it comes out, so I’ve been sucked into the idea that paper = authenticity. And when I publish my own work, when I get my paper copy, I feel a bit underwhelmed. I’ve been scammed by publishers.

It’s ironic that in a era where Photoshop and laser printers can allow us to create new perfect forgeries, we still put a lot of trust in paper. Victoria’s criteria that a third-party used their printing press on a poet's behalf trumps the popularity and quality of the work.

We’re putting anyone not on a heart-lung machine onto a bike. We have three types of trucks speeding down our roads collecting different categories of garbage. Children have to go all OCD to make for litter free lunches. We’re obsessed with environmentalism. But when it comes to publishing, we only legitimize publications inked onto dead trees and driven to air conditioned stores. It’s the worst form of split-personality I’ve seen. We're rewarding an environmentally reckless approach to disseminating ideas. But it's easier to couple value in a writer to the risk that a publishing house would take to publish their work. Because a publisher rolled the dice on a $50,000 print run
doesn't make the work necessarily good. Likewise, jumping through the aperture of publisher approval doesn't prove that a Poet Laureate would show poise and good judgment in her role. Have you ever read a bad book? A publisher made that for you. Publication is to quality as bacon is to Jupiter.

All that said, paper publishing isn’t going away tomorrow. Heck, there’s still a typewriter shop down the road-- things don’t disappear overnight. Publishers' trickle of printed words will continue for some time, maybe generations. Paper doesn’t need a battery, so it has a lot of life left.

But that doesn’t change what’s happening now. Most of ideas put out there are going out digitally. Publishers and backwards thinking writers can denounce other mediums and publishing models but that won't change the dynamic of how ideas are being spread in the world today. Antiquated thinking usually detriments those same thinkers in the long run and those who embrace and capitalize on change benefit.

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