The Rise of the Machines: Notes on the Literary Apocalypse

categories: Cocktail Hour


We have reached the end of something.  That is clear enough for anyone to see.  Every month another magazine bites the dust while editors live in fear, waiting for the next purge, and agents read from Kindles, hoping they can sell one more vampire book before it all comes tumbling down.  Everyone left in publishing is 26.  The books that do still sell do so through Wall-Mart and Amazon, for about as much as a bunch of bananas, and why buy books anyway since every word ever written by humankind is at this very moment being downloaded by Google?   Meanwhile thousands of young people, still dreaming the old dream of “becoming a writer,” flock to monasteries called graduate programs.  Some of these young monks, especially those in Iowa, actually have a shot at publishing books, since, as a rule, 26 year old editors are fond of 26 year old writers, but many grow discouraged by the scarred landscape and turn their energies toward blogging or, worse, real jobs.  Meanwhile everyone involved holds onto the hope that the web will somehow change everything, though no one is quite sure exactly how it will do that.

Perhaps the clearest sign that the literary apocalypse has arrived is the ascendancy of something called Bookscan. For those who might not have heard of it, Bookscan is a robot that determines what you will read.   No, not a Kindle, which you will soon read on, or a computer, which is likely where everything we read is heading, but a scanning machine that tallies up the exact sales of an author’s book and so tells editors whether or not they should publish another.  Long gone are the days when a writer served a working apprenticeship, hammering out a book or three on their way to mastery.  Now the first attempt is judged, not on its merit or promise, but on its sales, and thus the smithy’s fate is immediately and forever determined.  Readers, who have their own lives and preoccupations to busy themselves, don’t realize that what they are reading has made it past a series of gatekeepers–agents, publishers, accountants, marketers–whose aesthetic, to use the term loosely, is based almost solely on sales.  As for the days of editors following their gut feelings, those went out with loafers.  In their stead has come the rise of the machines.

I have a friend, a so-called “literary writer,” who writes fine books that, for a variety of reasons, have not sold very well.  In his more dramatic, perhaps megalomaniacal, moments he likes to compare himself to John Connor, the rebel in the Terminator movies.  Over a drink or two the other day, he suggested that perhaps Bookscan has begun to gain self-awareness.  At first it occurred to me he’d gone off his meds, but I listened as he pointed out the similarities between the name Skynet, the computer arms system that gained consciousness and tried to destroy humanity in the Terminator movies, and the name Bookscan, the computerized system that he believes has tried to destroy him.  I was in no mood to contradict my friend.  Who am I to say he isn’t a rebel leader fighting a gritty literary war at the end of time, typing away down in the underground tunnels, his face smeared with mud, clothes torn, holding out against the deadly mechanical forces that roam the planet above?

I just nod when he rants.  After all maybe illusions are required to help us keep up the necessary energy to write books that few will read.  For my part, I prefer the monastery metaphor, since I happen to teach at one of the writing programs.  As one of the head monks, I take my responsibilities seriously.  For instance, it may seem overprotective, but I try to keep dark and dire thoughts about the publishing world out of the classroom, believing as I do that young writers develop better if they don’t spend too much time worrying about giant killer robots roaming outside the ivied walls.  But maybe I need to embrace some of my friend’s more combative approach, warning my students about the dark times ahead, lighting campfires in the classroom and posting German Shepherds by the blackboards.  Young writers like romance after all.  Together we could fancy ourselves a band of rebels, fighting an inspiring, if futile, war against the machines.  Picture a cold, dark landscape lit only occasionally by torchlight, sanctuaries where acolytes worship archaic things called books.

As I write these words it occurs to me that I, like my friend, have finally snapped.  Or at least turned a corner.  The other day I scrawled down these “Laws of the New World”:

1. Marketability is the primary driver of the New York publishing world.  This has always been the case, of course, but never more so than now.  The beancounters rule.  Any attempt to publish literature is incidental, and that literature tends to fit certain long-established molds.

2. Editors exist in a state of fear, and frightened people don’t take risks.  The days of editors of books following their guts are long gone.  It goes without saying that decision by committee is no way to find work that is original or bold.  It is now common for authors to get rejections from editors who loved their books but could not “sell” the work to “others” within their companies (Marketers, publicists, etc…).

3. For authors in this system, the first book is the only book.  Everything hinges on it.  With the advent of Bookscan and other methods of calculating sales, authors who do not sell on the first go-round are rarely given a second chance.   Which means that a “new” author trumps a “tainted” one who has likely spent decades mastering their craft.

4.  The rise of the beancounters signals the advent of science in a field that is inherently unscientific.  Of course it is only the illusion of science, the illusion of control.  How a book succeeds or fails remains as mysterious a process as ever.

5. On the other hand, books that are pre-determined to be potential successes do at least have a chance of actually succeeding since they are backed by money that tilts the table in their favor.  Conversely, other books, deemed uncommerical, are left to die on the vine.  When these books don’t sell, the original assessment appears justified.

6.  The world of big publishing only publishes a narrow slice of writers and writing, what amounts to a sliver along the whole literary spectrum.  The slice has become narrower and narrower as New York continues to adopt the Hollywood blockbuster model.

7. The few remaining media outlets for books dutifully review–or more often write human interest articles about the authors of–these limited books, rarely venturing into the world of small presses and independent booksellers.

8.  As New York turns its back on literature and experimentation, academia, in the form of Master of Fine Arts programs, attempts to fill the void.  It is easy to ridicule the role of these programs as precious or arty, but that role may grow more vital as the range of traditional publishing continues to narrow.  However, the disconnect is dramatic: the monks scribble away at work that is less and less likely to be published.

9. The web may or may not offer writers a direct conduit to readers.  While it does allow one to publish one’s work, it is without the vital aid of the editor, and without the promise that that work will find an audience.

I’m not sure what to do with these laws—maybe nail them to the front of a church or a bookstore?  And I’m not sure what to do with myself, other than hunker down and turn back to my pages and my books, trying to write clear sentences while the darkness swirls outside.  What I would really like to do is end this diatribe hopefully, pointing to the new dawn that will rise up through the ruins.  But, for the moment at least, I don’t know how to do that.

I am left only with the monkish advice I give my own students: It is the work itself that matters.

It had better be.   Because, as any John Connor wannabe could tell you, it’s going to be a long night.

  1. Scott Stahlecker writes:

    Enjoyed this reality check. As the late great Frank Zappa might have implied, “we need a Tinseltown rebellion.”

  2. Steven Stafford writes:

    As an apprentice, I’m scared. But like you said, thinking about it doesn’t help you write the book. I’m going to keep writing anyway, even if nobody reads a word I write. I’m having too much fun to stop!

    • Dave writes:

      Yup, and it can be freeing, too. Glad to hear you’re rolling along.

      • Steven Stafford writes:

        You’re right. And it also–and I know I’ve mentioned this before–like a dark night of the soul, purifies your motives. If you write just so you can impress your ex-girlfriend, this kind of thing should snap you out of it. But if you write “for the love of the game,” you won’t care that no one notices you.

        We write for the love of the game. Although I wouldn’t mind impressing my ex-girlfriends.

  3. Mara Naselli writes:

    I think the answer may be mutiny. Reject the idea that literature is dependent on New York. The New York publishing model is broken. So let’s imagine a new one.

    Enterprising editors could decenter literary publishing away from New York and into intellectual, creative, and regional communities through non-profit publishing ventures. This could have several advantages:
    (1) lower overhead; rent is cheaper in Chicago, Minneapolis, Omaha . . .
    (2) diversification of the dominant aesthetic, which has become distorted by unsustainable business models and meaningless measures of “success” (i.e., bookscan)
    (3) creation of sustainable creative communities of readers and writers while also pushing forward creative and intellectual debates (a market-driven model, by definition, is impotent on this count)

    There are some excellent examples of presses already doing this, and while it isn’t easy, those beacons are rich sources of new and surprising literature. Perhaps through developing these new communities (there’s no such thing as a “general” audience anymore, anyway), we can also find new ways to pay authors more directly. If the costs of production can go down through smaller scale production and new distribution channels, then perhaps we can afford to pay our authors a suitable price for their work.

    It’s senseless anymore to depend on out-of-touch behemoths to support literary work. Large publishers no longer dominate the channels of distribution or marketing. Their once-strong advantage in production and inventory has also diminished. So why should they dominate literary taste?

  4. Eric Taubert writes:

    Great read, David. I would venture that aspiring writers need to look towards the business models that have been put in place by independent musicians in recent years. The rise of the internet has crushed the writing world and the music world, while simultaneously creating brave new opportunities for the ambitious among us. In the past, the relatively few publishers guarded the doors to these industries. If they didn’t promote you, no one knew your name…they were the only avenue to success. You needed the sanction of the gatekeepers to sustain a creative-based life for yourself. Now the gates have been knocked down. Social media affords us all the opportunity to create and grow our networks of interested followers. The newborn ease of self-publishing and internet distribution allow us to give attractive physical form to our creations. Cream always rises. If you’re good at what you do…you will find your niche following. The good news is, you can make a living from a niche following…this is what our musician friends have taught us. With no need to pay for executive offices, senior editors, receptionists, janitors, and the like…we get to keep more of the profit made on each book. In the music world, about 50 cents of each $15 CD went to the artist…under the new paradigm, about $11 of each $15 CD is profit to the artist. You no longer need to go platinum to make a buck. If you can find 3,000 people to buy your CD – you can make an honest living at it. You may need to supplement with live shows and waiting tables at the local diner 2 or 3 days a week…but it can be done. Our definition for success needs to change. The old model — million dollar book contracts — was not sustainable. We need to be happy, making a middle-class income, while given the opportunity to do what we feel passionate about. We need to wear more shoes along the way. We need to teach ourselves more skills. We need to e the writer, editor, marketer, publicist distributor, etc…OK, maybe not the editor — plenty of them are out of work and would probably love the freelance gig. We need to be DIY and have an eye for detail. We need to care about our fans, and interact with them. It’s more work than ever…but it can be done. If we do it well, we still run just as much a chance at major success as we ever did in the past…which is, to say, minuscule.

    We sell our books direct to our readers. We freelance articles on mundane topics. We freelance copy for local businesses. We scrape by. We make as much as we would if we worked at the dreaded “real job”. But we’re doing what we love.

    This model works especially well for regional literature about places people love. I see authors self-publishing books about Sanibel Island with success…some people love Sanibel Island, they want to read about it when they’re on vacation here, they want to read about it between their vacations here. Local authors are writing fiction, setting it on Sanibel, and selling books as a result. Even you, I love your writing, but I almost surely never would have heard your name if you hadn’t written a book about Cape Cod — that’s what I was looking for when I bought Wild Rank Place. I assume it would also work well for books on narrowly defined topics…topics with built in audiences. Even when we do it ourselves, it’s still about marketability and sales…we become the beancounters. We rule.

  5. John Jack writes:

    I’m neither a polyanna nor a cassandra, no more than I like being a devil’s advocate for the sake of mere opposition or contention. What I am, I fancy, is a synthesist, a humanist secularly. I understand bin Laden’s motivations. He wants to be emperor–caliph–of the Muslim world and force his Sharia law views on the globe. He came out like that because of traumatic, alienating, and reactionary childhood influences. Because I understand his motivations doesn’t mean I agree with them or condone them, quite the opposite. From childhood traumas monsters are made.

    The publishing industry is an industry, a multicultural agglomerate of business and cultural practices determined to make a profit. The Big Six Sisters do surprisingly well at what they do best, provide a mass appeal product at as low a cost as fractions of percentage points profits allow. That’s the big box commercial paradigm. Large volume, low cost, low per unit profit, economy of scale. High-concept content has wider commercial appeal than low-concept content. High-concept is more widely audience accessible from being superficial.

    Aristotle bemoaned the rise of high-concept spectacle’s appeal to the masses, wondered about the future of dramatic poetry in a mob-driven entertainment marketplace. Oral poetry replaced orational debate arts–the Attic Orators–in cultural preeminence before Aristotle’s time. In his time dramatic poetry was ascendent, supplanting epic and lyric poetry. Stage play narratives based on planned, written scripts soon ascended into preeminence and dominated for a millenia before moveable type placed written narratives within reach of everyday masses. The novel became ascendent, not really achieving preeminence over stage plays until the introduction of trade and mass market paperbacks in the early Twentieth century, right before being superceded by screenplays. All to brief a time by any standard. Meanwhile, folklore traditions have been holding their own on every front since the dawn of language.

    Poetry all but vanished except in insular cultural circles. Technology is reinvigorating poetry as a commercially viable culture. More and more poetry Web sites are popping up, publishing poetry, discussing poetry, promoting poetry. Sad but true, poetry reading is an acquired skill, one that’s all but forgotten, but on the rebound due to the Internet. If the way of literary literature is the way of poetry, so be it. It’s not as dark as all that. There’s emerging outlets that will preserve and reinvigorate the ways of the poet.

    Also sad but true, reading in general is an acquired skill that requires self-commitment to move beyond simple literacy. Most readers won’t acquire advanced reading abilities until late in college, if ever. The sort of reading skills needed to reasonablly appreciate literary literature are not commonly developed in a population, maybe about a couple hundred thousand readers out of three hundred million people, maybe at least one percent. The norm is seventh grade reading ability. Government laws for medicine packaging, roadway signs, and general safety content require fourth grade reading level ability.

    It’s all part of a greater machine known as culture, as much a technological progress trap as humanity’s mastering fire. Fire users enjoyed a higher standard of living than cold campers, but cold campers got burned less often and didn’t suffer from smoke-blackened lungs. Compromise and trade off. Publishers make compromises and trade offs, like favoring commercial viability over artistic appeal.

    I’ve been surveying arts and crafts shows, galleries, and municipal events like state fairs and regional festivals for years. There’s been a steady state of participation and attendance since a major boom in the mid ’80s. Recently, attributable to the poor economic climate, there’s been a resurgence of participation and attendance. One art show I participated in enjoyed a five hundred percent participant increase and a two hundred percent attendance increase this last year. (I won my first ever art award, and sold the winner, too, in a more competitive environment than I expected and was tickled that I won under such fierce competition. It wasn’t a best in show winner category, but second best.) has virtually replaced the Writer’s Digest guide to digest publications. They track three thousand digests. There’s at least another fifteen hundred that don’t meet Duotrope’s criteria, like having a digest Web site and no reading fees charged for general submissions. Ecotone is indexed at Duotrope, for example. One machine is replaced by another machine.

    To my humanist way of thinking, the publishing marketplace is like life, an ever-shifting chiasoscuro lagoon of treacherous shadow and light dappled reefs and shallows and deeps and shorelines and beachheads. The future I see for publishing is the big sisters do their thing, the big brothers do their thing. We who sit on the porch with the big dogs sit watching, waiting, contributing to the dialogue as best we can, and get off the porch and run with the wolves and sheep and feral dogs and rabbits when we can, when we want to, and have our own kind of whatever fun wherever it may take us. The publishing marketplace is a many splendored miasma. The machine is now so many more tentacled arms and wisps of potentiality than it’s ever been. And it’s as alive as humanity makes it, sentience and sentiment-wise.