Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Golden Game

This entry is going to be about several topics, but before I get into them, I want to make an offer. I want to give a copy of my novel away free to everyone who reads this blog. You can read part of it free anyway at the web site below, but for a while, you can download the whole thing gratis.

Here’s how to get your copy if you want it.

Go to

In the column beside any of the available formats, click “Buy.” This will take you to a checkout screen.

In the “coupon” box, type KD26A. That cuts the price to zero.

Once it’s “bought,” you can download it in any or all of the formats provided. This will let you read it on the Kindle, a Sony e-reader, a Nook, an iPhone, or a computer screen. All for free!

The coupon is good through March 12, 2010. After that I’m going to get greedy and start charging again.

Ok, that done, let’s see what there is to talk about.

Well, to begin with, there’s the president’s interesting Congressional Republican town meeting yesterday. I have to say I’ve been less than thrilled with Mr. Obama in recent months, given some of his appointments and his less than stellar performance as a leader since he took office. He needed to do what he’s doing now, which is to channel, while toning down and mixing with political realism, the anger on the left. He needed to do that, but month after month he didn’t. That is to say, he did tone it down, but rather too much, so that the anger, and the hope, the reason he was elected in the first place, were lost somewhere along the way. But this recent change in his behavior has somewhat restored my faith in his ability to maybe pull it off. Maybe. If he does it perfectly, he may even be able to coopt some of the anger on the right, too, because in some respects that and the anger on the left are coming from the same place. Both the disgruntled and disappointed young liberals who voted him into office, and the Tea Party folks who mostly voted against him, are disgusted with the degree to which corporate influence corrupts the government. Up to now, Obama’s actions have had the simultaneous effect of disgusting his supporters and energizing the Tea Partiers, which is something he just can’t afford. By coming out more strongly against the corporate interests and at least sounding like he stands for the people, he can conceivably reverse that. The Tea Party folks mostly won’t agree with him enough to vote for him, or for Democrats generally, but they may quiet down and do their damage to the Republicans instead (whom they by and large consider traitors to the cause). Meanwhile, if he manages to mollify his supporters, they may actually vote this fall, and the Democrats in Congress badly need them to.

One question is whether he sincerely means any of it. I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that question. But as long as the pressure can be kept up, it may not matter. There’s a pattern to what’s going on here. These difficult times are in many respects a lot like certain former difficult times, such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. (You can find out more about this idea at this web site: At all those times (we can particularly consider the latter two in view of the fact that both occurred after the Constitution had been ratified, so that presidents existed), there were serious problems, and people were ready to vote for, work for, and even fight for (literally in the 1860s) dramatic changes in the way the government operates. But the president of the time (Lincoln, FDR), although nominally on the side of reform, was inclined to be more cautious and conservative than either the situation warranted or the people wanted.

Mr. Lincoln, although personally opposed to slavery and in practice opposed to its expansion, was unwilling to come out in favor of abolishing the institution. He wanted to focus on restoring the Union instead, and felt that if he got too pushy about slavery, the effort to restore the Union would suffer. He was particularly worried about losing the support of the Union states that permitted slavery. So he soft-pedaled the whole business. His supporters, especially the ones known as the “radical Republicans” (no, at that time that wasn’t an oxymoron – the party has changed a bit, unfortunately) were disgusted. Meanwhile, the British and the French, sensing a divide-and-rule opportunity, were toying with the idea of recognizing the Confederacy and pressuring the U.S. to accept the seceding states’ independence. Combine that with Union military failures in the early Civil War, and Lincoln’s presidency looked like a disaster. But under this pressure, he moved decisively. He passed the Emancipation Proclamation and took other actions that turned the war from a simple question of union or secession into a war over slavery itself. This removed any danger of foreign intervention in the war, because, however much Britain and France might have preferred to see a divided America to a united one, they were certainly not going to come in on the wrong side of a war over slavery. The new cause was controversial to be sure, but it helped solidify Lincoln’s political support in his own party and gave the troops and the nation a powerfully moving cause to fight for. Because of this, the nation was dramatically changed in a few short years. Today, Lincoln is a revered national hero, and most Americans are unaware of the fact that the abolitionist Wendell Phillips once called him, with considerable cause, “a huckster in politics, a first-rate second-rate man.”

Mr. Roosevelt, like Mr. Obama, consistently fell short of his own rhetoric in his actions. He spoke in his campaign of intending to govern for the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” and to cast the “money-changers” from the temple of government. In practice, though, particularly in his first term, he was the champion of the moneyed interests, if a bit more practical than they often were themselves, and not blind to the fact that some degree of reform was necessary. Yet his early reforms were paternalistic in nature and took the form of a partnership between government and business, with labor’s aspirations largely suppressed. Things were somewhat ameliorated as a result of Roosevelt’s initiatives, more his relief measures than the economic reforms of the First New Deal. But the Depression dragged on. The economy began to grow again, but not enough to return to the prior prosperity. Meanwhile, progressives expressed their dissatisfaction and began supporting radical measures like those of Huey Long or the Townsend plan, or third-party candidates such as Socialist Norman Thomas. There was a serious threat that such political insurgency could drain enough of Roosevelt’s support in the 1936 election to throw the race to his Republican opponent. (The GOP were smooth enough to run a moderate that year, so it wasn’t going to be an automatic walkover. We’ll see if our own Republicans have the same savvy in 2012.) Under this pressure, Roosevelt rolled to the left in his rhetoric, and passed the first measures of what became the Second New Deal, including Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and other measures which created the ground rules of the historic prosperity of the postwar years. Today he, like Lincoln, is a hero to progressives, and with equal irony.

Also ironic is the fact that both these men provoked absolute, and absolutely unwarranted, fury on the right. As moderate and (to the progressives of their time) frankly inadequate as they were, their ideological opponents thought them dangerous radicals. Conservative capitalists and Republican ideologues regarded FDR as a socialist, which he most certainly wasn’t (any real socialist would guffaw at the suggestion) and as a traitor to his class, which he also wasn’t. As for Lincoln, his opponents in the south thought his election so dire and dangerous that they seceded from the country and provoked the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. We see the same irony in the way that the right regards Barack Obama: the radical leftist who wasn’t.

And this brings me around to the other subject, and also back to the universe of my novel. This irrational opposition and polarization in our politics, which has recurred in all eras of crisis such as the present, or the time of Roosevelt or of Lincoln, does not arise from anything sensible. It occurs to me that it might be something instinctive, archetypal, atavistic, a boiling in the blood to the confounding of the brain. Something the soul needs, though the mind should scorn it. Or perhaps we are all moving to the steps of a collective dance, something no one person fully wraps his brain around. Perhaps it’s as Karla said to the Star:

“I think there’s something more. I think that if we imagine utopia as an ending, we deceive ourselves. I think that it’s in our nature to strive, and when we have world peace and the end of hunger, when there is no more tyranny anywhere and the weak are protected from the strong, we’ll still be striving. But for what? I can’t imagine.”

Neither can I. But perhaps that's asking the wrong question. Perhaps it doesn't matter for what we strive. Perhaps the striving is the whole story, and the reason for it all, and the goals of our politics or our morality or our religion or anything else are just lures to keep the Golden Game in play. And so at times when passions burn hottest and the need for change is greatest, that is when the players of the Game become the most intense in their conflict. We may hope, I think, to avoid civil war this time around. But to avoid the kind of partisanship that Mr. Obama deplored in his talk with the opposition party yesterday is, at such a time as this, perhaps too much to hope for.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Decline and Fall of the Gatekeepers

In my first entry to this blog, I talked about the decline and fall of publishing houses. As I see it, that’s not an isolated process, but part of a much larger trend in communication and thought: the fall of the gatekeepers.

Who are the gatekeepers? Anyone in any part of the communication world that has the authority to say what gets heard and what doesn’t. In literature, it’s the publishing company. In the music industry, it’s the record companies. In the movies, it’s the big studios and film distributors. When you write a letter to the editor of a newspaper, the editor gets to decide whether or not it sees print: he’s acting as a gatekeeper. Anyone who can look over your creative work of communication – your book, your screenplay, your music album, your article or column – and decide whether or not anyone else will have a chance to read it, see it, or hear it, is a gatekeeper.

What lets gatekeepers do this? Because free speech was (and remains) a legal reality, the only thing empowering gatekeepers has been the fact that communicating costs money. A gatekeeper had control of the money needed to communicate, and could thus decide what to spend that money on. It was always possible to bypass the gatekeepers if you had enough money and were willing to spend it for that purpose, but few people do have that kind of money lying around, so most people had to please the gatekeepers before they could communicate.

What I see happening today is the end of that relationship, as the cost of communicating declines towards zero. It’s not happening in all forms of communication at the same pace, though. In book publishing it’s already here, although a lot of publishers haven’t figured out that they’re dead yet. The same is pretty much true for political commentary; a huge amount of that today is done on blogs without any gatekeeper oversight. Most likely the music industry will be next: it’s already possible to issue an album or a single song electronically and avoid all the costs, and digital music distributors publishing new work, analogous to e-book distributors, have already begun business. For the film industry, the transformation is probably a ways off yet. It’s already being done with shorter productions through such outlets as YouTube, but it still costs a lot of money to produce a major full-length movie for the big screen. It may be that a diminished big-screen movie industry will continue into the foreseeable future, but a proliferation of gatekeeper-free shorter films and independent film making has already commenced. Certainly even in the movie industry the power of the gatekeepers will decline, even if it doesn’t disappear altogether.

My assumption is that this trend – the decline and fall of the gatekeepers – is ongoing and will not be reversed. In every area of communication, it will become increasingly true that the artist or thinker himself decides whether his work goes before the public, without having to convince a gatekeeper. What I want to speculate on is what this means, for art, for thought, and for politics, because it will certainly impact all three of those.

What I see happening all centers around two developments: 1) A lot more stuff is out there; and 2) It’s increasingly interconnected.

A lot more stuff

A lot more books. A lot more music. A lot more films. A lot more commentary. A lot more political opinions. A lot more everything.

It (mostly) costs less than it used to. A hardbound book costs $20.00 or more, but e-books almost always sell for less than $10, often for less than $5, and a good percentage of them for nothing. A movie ticket runs a shade over $10, but movies can be downloaded for pocket change. An album on a CD runs $10-$20, an album’s worth of downloaded songs about $5. A news magazine costs four or five dollars at a newsstand, but news stories can be browsed on line for free, as can most political commentary.

The quality has become more variable, in both directions. Gatekeepers have kept a lot of creations from seeing daylight in the past, and in terms of quality that’s both good and bad (although in other respects, like intellectual freedom, it’s just bad, period). There are independent works of art out there today that are too creative, too avant-garde, too imaginative to pass the gatekeepers. If the gatekeepers were still effective, you’d never see them, and that would be a shame. So at the cutting edge, what’s out there is better for not having to satisfy them. At the same time, there’s a lot of stuff available today that would never get past the gatekeepers because it is, frankly, crap: poorly-written, poorly-composed, poorly-edited drivel, hashed-together films, works of art with the maturity of a disturbed teen and rough-draft finish or worse. And one must admit that there’s much more art that’s too bad to have passed muster in the old days than art that’s too good.

The same is true of thought and discussion. There are ideas in circulation on the Internet that would never have been published in the old days, and some of those are wonderful: new political philosophies, new religious concepts, new technologies. We are enriched by the availability of all this. But at the same time, the Internet is also home to nonsense, from racist and white supremacy discussion to the persistent idea that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen to the equally-persistent silliness that 9/11 was a government put-up job. The gatekeepers used to block the truth far too often. But they also would block the most egregious of lies.

Between the sheer volume of thought on the Net and its dropping price, the competition has now become one for people’s time and attention more than for their money. It’s quite possible for the average person to buy more than he will ever be able to read, view, or hear without straining the budget. No one person can possibly keep up with it all. This creates a tendency to atomization, to people walling off little corners of the intellectual sea and shutting out the rest of it. But there is, I believe, a counter-tendency in the other change mentioned above, that will prevent this from happening.

It’s all more interconnected

Let’s consider for a moment what things used to be like before there was such a thing as the Internet.

Communication happened in one of the following forms: live/in person, writing or print or recording or visual art in physical media, or broadcast. In any of these forms, a particular piece of communication was comparatively isolated from all other pieces of communication except those in the immediate vicinity.

For example, consider a book. To browse or buy a book, you went to a bookstore. To learn about it beforehand, though, you would not go to the same bookstore. You would go to a magazine and look up the book reviews. If the book you were thinking about wasn’t reviewed in that magazine, you would have to look through another, and so on. Or you could ask a friend who had read it. Maybe, in reading the book, you were reminded of something you had read in another book. To check that out, you would need to put the book down (marking your place), and go hunt through the other books in your library to find what you were remembering, and that’s only if you could remember what book you had seen it in. Or maybe it suggested an idea that you didn’t have anything on at the moment. For example, say it said something about the Alger Hiss trial of 1948. (I just looked up that date on line, by the way – something that in my example could not have been done.) In order to find out more about Alger Hiss and his trial for espionage and perjury, you would perhaps go to the public library, or place a phone call to a history professor at the local college. All of which would take time.

Today, if you run across a term or an idea or a reference that is unfamiliar, it’s a matter of seconds to search for it, and that’s if a link to a source isn’t embedded in what you are reading so all you have to do is click. The tendency arising from this is for broadening, not narrowing of scope – for people to acquire at least a passing acquaintance with the unfamiliar, to a greater degree than ever before. I mentioned white supremacy above. That’s a completely foreign ideology for me, as for most of us, but on a couple of occasions when I had nothing better to do, I satisfied my morbid curiosity by searching for it on line and browsing through web sites such as Would I have researched white nationalism prior to the Internet? Probably not, and even if I did I would certainly not have encountered discussions with people who actually believe such tripe.

On the other hand, people who do actually believe such tripe will find it equally easy to expose themselves to its counterargument. And that brings me to an out-on-a-limb prediction.
The fall of the gatekeepers means an increase in intellectual freedom, and one consequence of that is an amplification of idiocy. White nationalism is a good illustration of this, because budding racists can find each other even though there are fewer and fewer of them to be found. There might not be another nascent neo-Nazi for a hundred miles, but our young thug can find quite a few other people equally deluded on line with a few seconds of searching. BUT – what I also believe is that while idiocy is amplified, its life expectancy is reduced. A movement such as the “birthers” (those who believe that Obama is not a U.S. citizen) can coalesce very rapidly and reach a certain size, but it can’t easily be maintained, because it is too easy for people who consider this idea to be confronted with the evidence and counterarguments to it. And so fairly quickly, it dies out except among a die-hard few.

Test this. Do a Google search for “Obama birth certificate.” You’ll get lots of hits, but hardly any more recent than about August 2009. Only a very few holdouts such as World Net Daily still post much about the birther conspiracy theories, indicating that only a very few people are still interested enough to make this newsworthy. Since the conspiracy theory first became prominent in July-August 2008, after Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, this suggests a “main sequence” life-expectancy (as it were) for such absurdity of about a year. That’s pretty good intellectual damage control, I’d say.

The political implications are legion for party loyalty, the ability of lobbyists to influence events (Supreme Court decision or no Supreme Court decision), and the ability of politicians to make deals in smoke-filled rooms. But this is getting long, so I’ll leave more on this subject for another day.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Morphology of Religion

What is religion good for? I don't mean that as a rhetorical question. Religion is good for some things, or it wouldn't be such a persistent feature in all cultures.

In asking that non-rhetorical question, I would like to avoid simplistic, pat answers such as "it reassures people and calms their fear of death," or "it explains things that primitive people found beyond comprehension." Not all religions even include a concept of the afterlife, and some that do have afterlives far scarier than death, such as the Christian Hell. Actually, death isn't all that scary. Dying is, because it usually hurts, but death itself is no more frightening than sleep - unless one imposes upon the imagination horrors such as Hell. Death is something to be regretted if it comes too soon, not for its own sake, but because of lost opportunities, but it is not something to be feared, and many religious beliefs tend to generate, rather than calm, fears of death.

As for primitive explanations for natural phenomena, we should understand why people want to explain things in the first place. It's not just for mental comfort, but also for practical reasons. "Why didn't my wheat grow?" is best answered by "because the rains didn't come" or "because the crows ate it," as these admit of practical solutions: irrigate from the river; plant the seed deeper; make a scarecrow. A religious answer to questions like these might prompt the working of magic (such as prayers or sacrifices), which could do some good, but is no substitute for practical solutions in the material world, although it may enhance those solutions' effectiveness. Religious explanations for things completely outside human control may offer some mental comfort, but no practical utility, and this quite minimal benefit cannot explain the persistence of faith.

So what does religion give people? I'd say that there are two main benefits, one individual and personal and the other collective and social. I'm more concerned here with the collective and social benefit, but to get the other out of the way, I'll simply say that spiritual experience is real. Individual identity is in the end an illusion, and masks our true position as one with everything else in existence. However dimly, most people occasionally have perceptions of this, and it is a very moving and powerful experience that is extremely difficult to articulate or to understand rationally. Religious teachings give it a framework by speaking of consciousness and intelligence beyond human limitations, in one form or another, embracing and supporting the human soul. All such teachings are metaphors, none are literally true, but they have the virtue of saying to a person who has undergone a spiritual experience: yes, you have touched upon something real. You are not mad. So long as religion does this, and so long as nothing else does, religion will exist.

The other benefit of religion is the articulation and reinforcement of common values. And this brings me to the title of this writing: the morphology of religion. Because common values are not a constant. They change, and so religion also changes. We have seen this in relatively modern times, as Christianity has morphed from a religion that accepted (for example) the existence of slavery into one that condemns the practice, or as Islam, in being transmitted from the Middle East to western nations, sometimes loses its most misogynistic elements. But a much larger change occurred in the distant past, long before either Christianity or Islam existed, as our ancestors settled into farming communities and began building cities. In doing this, they entered a material reality requiring radically changed common values.

All of the so-called "great" religions, including without limitation Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, and Shinto -- I'm sure I've left some out, so if you're a follower of one of those I did, please accept my apology -- emerged during the time of agrarian civilization, after the founding of the first cities but before the industrial and scientific revolutions. So did many other religions that have not survived, such as the polytheistic faiths of the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Gauls, and Germans of antiquity. Certain features were common to all agrarian civilizations, mandated by the material circumstances that defined them. These included a universal elevation of a hereditary warrior-landholder elite (and normally but not quite universally a monarch above them all); a base class or caste of forced laborers, most commonly slaves but sometimes serfs or peasants; drastically low status for women, who normally subsisted as the subordinate property of men, their only real purpose in life to bear children.

Most basic of all, so universal that it is seldom noticed, was a belief that man is superior to and dominant over nature. This belief was not held in precivilized forager-hunter societies, but it's necessary if humans are to cut the earth with plows, kill the plants that nature has bid to grow in certain ground, and replace them with other plants of the farmer's choosing. It's equally necessary if humans are to enslave animals for meat, hides, milk, eggs, wool, and labor, rather than taking wild, free prey like other predators. Many of the other institutions of agrarian civilization follow from this basic change, either logically or by association. As man is dominant over nature, so some men are dominant over others, and men over women, and the Gods over men. As for the status of women, that follows pragmatically from the increased food production available with agriculture as compared to foraging and hunting. An increased food supply means that it is possible to have a larger population, and since it is possible, by competitive necessity it becomes mandatory. As we know in modern times from studies of how to reduce population growth, women who control their own reproduction tend to have smaller families. Conversely, women who don't control their own reproduction - women who are the brood-slaves of men - tend to have larger families, and so when large families and high birth rates are what is desired and needed, the status of women necessarily falls.

All of the so-called "great" religions, as well as others from the same period that have not survived, have teachings that reinforce these values. The institution or sacrament of marriage is one of these. Marriage in origin was a most unequal relationship, a transfer of female human property from a father to a husband. That our thinking about it has changed is a good example of religious morphology. But it was always an institution that encouraged high birthrates. By making a woman the property of a man with sexual rights to her person, and insisting that her purpose in life, the only reason she exists at all, is to bear children, this institution made sure that many children would be born, and born into a situation in which they could most effectively be raised. The sexual morality common to the "great" religions also reinforces this breed-to-the-max desideratum, channeling all sex into heterosexual relationships that are best for raising children, and often condemning sex for its own sake, as well as homosexuality and other non-procreative sexual acts.

We are again in a period of transition, as our ancestors were when they let the plow replace the foraging basket. Today, we must be concerned with human mismanagement of nature and damage to the natural world, and so "man as overlord" is not a very useful mythos. We are also past the time when maximizing birthrates is a good idea. Exactly the opposite is true today. And so, to one degree or another, the so-called "great" religions are all changing, and new religions are arising to express spirituality and common values in less anachronistic fashion.

But in addition to this, another change is happening through the process of intellectual globalization. We now have what amounts to a global conversation taking place, and the subject of religion naturally arises as part of it. It's no longer feasible for a religious belief to isolate itself from the impact of ideas from outside itself. And so we see such things as Christian churches adopting meditative practices from Hindu and Buddhist sources and labyrinths and other symbols from Neopagan ones. We see people who consider themselves spiritual and religious not confining themselves to a single faith, but picking and choosing elements from among various offerings to, in effect, craft their own approach. In such a climate, an exclusivist, "We have the only true way" approach to faith becomes increasingly untenable.

None of these changes are comfortable ones for traditionalists and purists. And that, I believe, is why we see phenomena such as radical fundamentalist movements in Islam or Christianity. These people see their faiths threatened by the changes of modernity, and they are right to do so. But theirs is in the end a lost cause, because there is no way to turn back the clock on the material changes that are driving the process. And since one of the two purposes of religion is to articulate and reinforce common values, and common values must and do change to be relevant to material circumstances, so religion must and does change as well.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pretentious, no?

I just created this blog today, and had to think of a name for it. Well, the dragon is my personal totem in a deeply spiritual sense, so I decided to work that into it. I tried "Dragonsmoke" - taken. I switched to "The Dragon Belches," which is perhaps more honest and certainly more amusing in a silly way. Then again, I don't imagine I'll actually be doing any belching here, or if I do it's not something that will find its way into print, and you will never know unless you're watching me type.

But I will certainly be doing a fair amount of talking. I do that a lot, and in fact there are those who say that the hard thing is to shut me up. So although pretentious, "The Dragon Speaks" may be the most straightforwardly honest title after all.

I'll hold forth on just about anything: politics, religion, the occult, and creative writing and publishing being my most common topics. Whatever strikes my fancy will go here, although your comments (whoever you are) may inspire me or move me in directions I hadn't considered before. I'm no expert on anything and will deny being one on principle even if I am; all ideas must stand on their own two feet, without artifical propping-up by people's opinions about their sources, and if I were God writing with a finger of fire on stone tablets, the words that appeared would be "Think For Yourself." Still, it's possible that what I have to say may provoke some thought. If so, I'll have done a good job.

I suppose it's traditional to introduce oneself in the first post of a blog. Very well. My name is Brian. I am old enough to know better. I live in California, but that's only in the flesh; my mind lives everywhere. I am an aspiring novelist; links to my book (or in future my books) appear here ( and you may browse the early chapters for free as if perusing a volume off a bookstore shelf. I should say rather that I am a novelist, and what I aspire to is to be able to make a living off it. These days there's no need to wait for a publishing-company's seal of approval, and if it's finished it can be published; then the reading public gets to decide whether publishing it was a good idea or not, and after all that makes a lot more sense than having some self-important gatekeeper making the decision before anyone has a chance to read a word.

And that brings me to the first topic: publishing, and what's happening to it.

There’s been a certain amount of talk floating around about the “end of the book” as a result of the rise of the e-book. That may ultimately happen, and from a reader’s perspective it makes a difference, but from a writer’s standpoint it’s not really the most important thing happening. Far more significant than whether we will in the future be publishing in print or digitally is the end of three institutions that have dominated writers’ professional lives for a long time: the publishing company, the literary agent, and the bookstore. All three of these are in decline, and there is no reason to believe that the decline will not continue into nonexistence.

Bookstores are an old story and I’ll not retell it. Suffice to say that for purchases of new books, on-line bookstores make so much more sense than brick and mortar that the writing is on the wall. There remains a niche for the used book store, but that doesn’t matter much to writers, except insofar as writers are also readers.

Since the literary agent is a function of the publishing company – an agent’s job is to negotiate with publishing companies on a writer’s behalf – agents will stand or fall by publishers. So from the writer’s perspective it all comes down to the publishing house.

There are three technologies impacting the relationship between writers and publishers. These are e-publishing, print-on-demand, and on-line marketing. The combination of these three technologies makes it feasible for any author to self-publish. Not to succeed necessarily – you have to write well (usually) and appeal to the fickle and unpredictable reading public (always) to do that – but any writer can today put his work before the public absolutely free and without having to meet the approval of a publishing house. It’s wrong to focus the question on the e-book in my opinion, and I say that in spite of the fact that I firmly believe that e-books are the wave of the future in literature. But it doesn’t matter whether I’m right or wrong about that, because what is true about e-books in terms of impact on the writer-publisher relationship is also true about POD, provided that either of them is matched with free on-line marketing, which of course they are.

What services do publishers provide to writers? There are three of them, traditionally: editing, printing/binding, and promotion/distribution. But with respect to any of them, the question arises of whether the author employs a publisher for these services because it’s actually desirable to do so, or because he has no choice. And I would answer that for all of them, a traditional publisher was always employed only because the author had no choice about it. Printing, binding, promotion, and distribution were expensive in the old model, and required a large outlay of capital with no certain return. A writer who did not have a lot of money to spend had no choice but to submit his work to a publishing house, and let the publisher decide whether it would be published or not.

POD, internet marketing, and of course the e-book have changed that equation. The cost per volume using POD is the same as with traditional printing, but since it’s now possible to print only when an order is received, there is no up-front capital expenditure. Of course, e-books have virtually no cost of production at all. And with distribution happening primarily through on-line stores, there is no real need for a traditional publisher’s distribution network, either.
That leaves editing, and this is a genuinely valuable service. I see plenty of e-books on the market that could have used a good editor, not to mention a good proofreader. But does this service need to come from a publishing house? Does the writer need to pay for it by handing over control of whether he will be published or not, and the lion’s share of the proceeds if he is? Not at all. A pay-for-services model of editing (available through most self-publishing outlets) makes much more sense from the writer’s perspective. Or, if the writer doesn’t have the funds for that, he can find another writer on-line and exchange editing services, because all an editor really is, is another literate person seeing things from a different perspective that the author perhaps missed.

Given all of this, plus the decline of traditional publishing and consequent caution of publishing houses, why on earth would any aspiring author ever submit his work to a publisher? The way things are now, with fewer and fewer titles being published each year, the odds against one’s work being accepted are simply monstrous. And if one beats the odds and one’s work is accepted for publication, one still signs a contract giving an enormous percentage of the proceeds to the publishing company. And even then, most books don’t succeed, because publishers aren’t really all that good at predicting the reading public’s tastes and desires. Aside from editing, about the only advantage of traditional publishing is that the publisher pays the author an advance. So you get your up-front money and you roll the dice, and if your book doesn’t sell enough to pay back that advance you won’t publish another. You’ve inadvertently (and legally) swindled the publishing company of funds, at the cost of your writing career.

Does that make sense to you? It sure doesn’t to me.

On the other hand, with self-publishing nobody pays anything up front, except the self-publishing outlet’s overhead costs. The writer gets no advance, but by the same token modest success is not, in that model, the same as failure. Royalties are higher, typically about $4 per volume with print-on-demand, or some 70% or more of the total sale price for e-books. If you publish a traditional book through a publishing company and sell 200,000 copies, you might get $400,000 in total royalties depending on the book's retail price. Do the same with a POD volume (and that’s no more or less likely than doing it through a publishing house, except that you’re guaranteed to have the chance to try), your royalties will be about double that. Publish a traditional book, sell only 1,000 copies, and you’ve flopped; the publisher has lost money on you and will not want to publish anything else you write (however, since the publisher probably paid an advance of at least $5,000, you’ve made that much). Sell 1,000 copies POD, and you’ve made $4,000 and are free to keep writing and publishing. Your return on that one book is less, but it’s made honestly, not by taking unearned payment from the publisher, and your career is not over.
Why, then, would any author ever choose to publish his work through a publishing company? Honestly, I can’t see any reason at all, except that some haven’t figured it out yet, or think that self-publishing is an admission of defeat. It's not. It's a perfectly rational decision. It's the thing to do even if you can get published traditionally.

If you’re a new author, self-publishing is the way to go because (let’s face it) 1,000 sales represents a more realistic projection than 200,000 for a first book, and you don’t want to kill your career. On the other hand, if you’re already successful, and publishers are drooling over the chance to publish your books which are always best sellers – then self-publishing is still the way to go, because of the higher royalties and greater control over the process.

It’s only a matter of time before all authors figure this out and publishing houses can no longer get any business because nobody will submit to them. We will have self-publishing outlets in the future, and we will have professional editors, because that’s a genuine service that’s needed. But the publishing house is going to disappear altogether. And that means the literary agent will go, too.

More next week, on who knows what? Fly free.