This is... Literary Idol?

on Monday, January 18, 2010
Technology and fads... Is there anything they can't ruin? Video killed the radio star and the internet killed the CD star, all of which I got to witness firsthand in my previous incarnation as a budding punk rocker. My band was always a step behind - when we were signed the single format had been consigned to the scrapheap and so the label tried to launch us with a DVD. Nada. When we started churning out albums, they would sell ok but nothing compared to how much they were burned or downloaded. For the past ten years the industry has been in a terrible downward spiral thanks to two things - technology and the need for instant financial gratification.

It got to the stage that having a record deal meant very little. Anyone could record good quality albums in their home, and even if you got past that, most music was illegally downloaded anyway. In principle I never had a problem with that (apologies to the labels that signed my band along the way). Music as art ought to be shared and I like the idea that somebody might enjoy my songs enough to want to grab them irrespective of the possible consequences (are you listening Lars Ulrich??). So long as a few of those who did so subsequently came to a show or bought a t-shirt, I figured that I still ended up alright.

Of greater concern to the classic music model of nurturing an act and supporting them through a career was the gradual emphasis on letting the public choose who they wanted to make famous as epitomised by shows like American/Australian Idol, X-Factor and other such dross factories. Appealing as it may seem, artistic democracy is a farce. It is nothing short of laziness on the part of record companies who no longer seem keen to go out and find emerging talent the old-fashioned way. These shows are geared to identifying and moulding a quick sell; flashes in the pan that are good to generate an instant buck but that can easily be tossed aside to make way for next year's product. The charts are dominated by a never ending cycle of these industry puppets. Even worse, their contracts are structured such that these poor kids rarely get to see any of the money they generate.

Indications are that the book world may go down a similar path. The Napster-cum-Bittorrent issue is already live, with e-books being easily pirated and downloaded to the various whizzbang reading devices. That means a book that will most likely have taken several years to complete, with several creative minds toiling over its gestation, can be stolen in seconds. Even the legally obtained copies are presenting a problem, with the various online bookstores locked in a price war, each undercutting the other, leading to e-books retailing for well under the production costs for publishers. Advances are down and royalties will no doubt follow suit.

If that wasn't worrying enough, there are also indications that the lit world is succumbing to Idolmania. I was recently included on a group email from an aspiring author who asked me (amongst God knows how many others) to check out his new novel on a site called The site purports to serve a number of purposes. Firstly, it claims to be a literary community, where unpublished writers can upload their manuscripts and have others read and comment on them. In reality, it is just a forum for usually talentless hacks to blow smoke up each other's arses in the hope of having others reciprocate. Secondly, Authonomy claims to be an important step to being published. The site is an initiative by Harper Collins (one of the big guns) who have pretty much devised a way to cut down on manuscript readers and editors (a.k.a costs). The idea is that people upload their books, then pimp out the link to all and sundry in the hope they will have enough hits to reach the Top 5 for that month. Those five successful manuscripts are then read by the the slack folk at Harper Collins. Of course, this "popularity equals publishability" rationale didn't quite work for the music industry. National Youth radio station Triple J used to have a show called Net 50, where the most popular songs, as voted by their website users, would get played each week in a countdown. There was, however, a slight problem. The site was bombarded by requests from bands' street teams, which totally skewed the results. Triple J had to abandon the show. My Authonomy author was hip to this and, in the email, requested that suckers "try to refrain from mentioning my mass-backing scheme" in any on-site comments. I should also point out that "popularity stacking" also killed Myspace. It used to be that record labels would check how many friends a band had to gauge sales potential. Then along came bots and wanton Myspace pimpage, signalling the death of any credibility the site might once have had as a reliable indicator. Check out Authonomy and try to pick the difference. I certainly can't!

Even if Authonomy didn't face similar risks, who is to say what's popular is what ought to be published? I get that publishers are there to make a profit, but they also have a responsibility to foster good writing. It is no surprise that Authonomy is overflowing with novels about lovelorn vampires, secret codes and child wizards. And they are the ones that get read. En masse!

Budding literary authors have enough trouble getting their books in print. If this is the way the industry is going it will only get worse. Again my hope lies in independent publishers and independent bookstores. While the rest of the book world falls under the spell of the technology genie, they will hopefully stay true, continuing to take risks with new and exciting young writers. Otherwise, your reading future will be dictated by whatever Simon Cowell flicked through last time he unfolded his banana lounge, coated himself in coconut oil and sipped a watermelon daiquiri on some Spanish beach. And let's face it, not even Dan Brown wants that!


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