Am mentioned in Sam Jordison’s “Literature For the MySpace Generation,” The Guardian, Wednesday 7 February 2007
Sam Jordison discovers how a new wave of publishers and writers are harnessing the power of MySpace and print on demand to bypass their bricks-and-mortar competitors to find new audiences
Journalists have an appalling track record when it comes to predicting revolution in the publishing industry, particularly when related to new technology. It was only at the turn of the millennium, for instance, that we were confidently forecasting that the rising “e-tide” would wash away the old publishing houses. Electronic books were going to make the traditional ink and paper product seem as ludicrously old-fashioned as Moses’s stone tablets. Meanwhile, the free transfer of data on the internet was going to make publishers’ distribution networks entirely redundant and loosen their grasp on copyright so completely that most of their revenue streams would dry up.
Of course, since then, almost the exact opposite has happened. Numerous mergers and acquisitions have ensured that the big houses have a tighter grip on the market than ever before, while the internet has actually generated new millions and new markets as blogs and popular websites have been bought up and turned into successful product. And has anyone ever seen an e-book?
Bearing all this in mind — and remembering that it takes a special kind of fool to augur change in the book world anyway — it’s with considerable nervousness that I’m now going to make my own assertion. A shake-up may well be coming — and it’s thanks to the opportunities opened up by new technology and the internet.
Leading the charge is Heidi James, the 33-year-old owner and sole employee of Social Disease, a new kind of publishing company. It does most of its marketing and talent scouting on the internet and relies on new print on demand technology to keep its costs sufficiently low to ensure that, even if it can’t compete with the publishing behemoths, it won’t be crushed by them anytime soon either.
James sums up Social Disease’s raison d’être as: “Zadie Smith is not fucking interesting”, and neither are Monica Ali and the dozens of other writers of similar social comedies that emerged in the wake of White Teeth’s huge success. “All this postmodern irony is just so dull,” James explains. “And I realised that I really hate the homogeneity of the publishing world where it’s next to impossible to get genuinely interesting work published. The big publishing houses would have you believe that there isn’t a market for new and exciting work that takes a few risks and makes a demand on its readers, but that’s bollocks. Absolute bollocks.”
To prove this point she set up her own company, taking its name from the Andy Warhol quote — “I have Social Disease. I have to go out every night. If I stay home one night I start spreading rumours to my dogs” — and promising to bring back the element of risk that James claims has all but disappeared from conventional publishers’ lists.
“I don’t believe that people are stupid,” she declares. “I do believe that readers are out there. I know that people are interested and like to be challenged, it’s just that no one is prepared to challenge them at the moment. And if the product’s not there, how can they buy it?”
The plan of how to do this is beguilingly simple: there isn’t one. James is the only person in the company, so there are no shareholders to answer to. Social Disease’s costs are negligible: a small amount for cover designs and the time investment necessary to edit the books; and because it’s print on demand, there are no setup costs associated with each print run, the writers receive a healthy royalty for each book sold and profits can be ploughed back into design and marketing.
James claims there has been a significant takeup from independent booksellers, including such major players as Foyles. Meanwhile, the books are easily obtainable through Amazon and a growing community on the social networking site MySpace is already clamouring for the kind of writing that Social Disease promotes.
The implications of all this are intoxicating. Next time a John Kennedy Toole — whose suicide has been directly attributed to the fact that no one would print his masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces — comes along, their work can not only be published online, but stand a significant chance of finding a home with publishers like Social Disease who would risk nothing by promoting them.
However, if the advantages of this kind of small-scale, DIY publishing are clear, so too are the drawbacks. Print on demand is not yet able to provide the economies of scale of traditional print runs (the unit cost of a print run of one book is the same as for 10,000) and Social Disease is never going to make the kind of profits or pack the same marketing and distribution punch as the big publishing houses.
It’s also worth noting that James’s first novel, Carbon, is to be published by more conventional methods (via Wrecking Ball Press), although she does point out that one of her writers, Paul Ewen, recently declined the overtures of a bigger publisher to sign with Social Disease. More importantly, she says, her aim isn’t to make money and sell a product. It’s to nurture new talent, promote new writing, give writers a platform and at the same time offer the public choices that big publishers can’t or won’t.
Alongside James there now stand a growing number of like-minded readers and writers, exploiting MySpace’s networking and self-promotion opportunities as confidently as their counterparts in the music industry. Away from the prying eyes of the marketing departments and bean counters, the kind of community that publishers would love to create for themselves has been spontaneously growing up.
Most attempts have been doomed to failure because the website just doesn’t offer the same advantages to the printed word as it does to music (after all, it’s far easier to listen to a three-minute song than to read a novel, or even a short story, on the site’s notoriously badly designed blog interface). Nevertheless, these literary MySpace pages, complete with links to samples of their work, attract a large network of online “friends” who share similar tastes and interests.
Chief among these are the Brutalists and the Offbeat Generation, who between them boast hundreds of MySpace contacts (including countercultural figures like punk renaissance man Billy Childish, as well as the usual handful of bizarre tribute pages to dead heroes such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs), and whose message boards contain adverts for a bewildering array of literary events and websites offering samples of all manner of new and obscure writers’ work.
The Offbeat Generation is not, as its spokesman Andrew Gallix (the editor-in-chief of the long-running online literary magazine 3:AM) points out, strictly speaking “a generation” (since its writers range in age from 18-40), rather it is a bunch of people “united” because they “feel alienated by a publishing world dominated by marketing”.
The Brutalists, meanwhile, is a cheerfully sweary conglomerate of writers who also claim to be “united by our disgust with mainstream publishing world that consistently rejects us.” As they explain in their online manifesto, Brutalism “means writing that shows no quarter. Writing that rages and burns across the page — writing that doesn’t worry about causing offence, breaking taboos, cutting to the heart of it. Writing that may shock and shake the reader into submission rather than gently caress them. We’re not anti-intellectual or anti-literary but we are anti-apathy and we exist in a highly agitated state.” Pleasingly, they also note: “When they call Pete Doherty a poet — arguably a near contemporary in terms of age/background/interests/location — we can’t help but laugh.”
Both groups have a growing MySpace presence, are widely read on the net and — crucially — both are using that impetus to publish their own anthologies and launch their writers through independent publishers (including, naturally, Social Disease).
At the moment, much of the material you’ll find if you trawl through the links on their MySpace pages are reminiscent of the kind of mini-zine literature that used to be sold in places like the ICA and Tate Modern shop, demonstrating an overpowering influence of Huysmans and Bukowski and labouring under the belief that getting drunk is some kind of artistic statement.
However, as Heidi James points out, web publishing has the distinct advantage in that it’s free. And, whereas in the old days you had to spend your £5 before discovering that you didn’t like the writing in the mini-zines, with the net the worst that can happen is that you’ll hurt your eyes. “There’s also every chance that you’ll be find something you like, you can put it in your favourites to watch how the writer develops and follow the links he or she provides to more like-minded authors. That’s the beauty of it.”
What’s more, while there is a lot of chaff, there’s definitely also some wheat to be found, particularly around both the Brutalists and Offbeat Generation. Even the best writing could arguably benefit from the nurturing attention of a stern editor, but there’s no denying the abundant energy, passion and pleasingly warped imagination of writers such as Matthew Coleman, Ben Myers, HP Tinker, Tony O’Neill and Andrew Gallix — not to mention Heidi James herself. There’s every hope that soon one of them might produce something rather special — and that, if they continue to expand their influence as rapidly as they have been doing in recent months, mainstream publishers will have to sit up and take serious notice.