Curing Author Ignorance: Porter Anderson Talks Publishing Trends, Intelligent Writing & Editing’s Secret

Editor’s Note: I’m pleased to feature this interview with publishing critic Porter Anderson as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.

Anderson is a professional journalist, critic, producer, editor, writer and consultant.

His weekly column Writing on the Ether, which appears Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, is acclaimed by publishing thought-leaders and authors alike for its keen insights into the publishing industry’s digital transformation.

Anderson also is a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed and a member of the expert bloggers team at Digital Book World.

Follow Anderson on Twitter: @Porter_Anderson

Matt Gartland: In your recent recap of the big Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest conferences, you wrote “there’s something wrong about the stance of writers in the publishing community right now.” You’re referencing the divide between the creative and business halves of the community. What do you suspect is the foremost cause of this rift, and how should both sides approach resolving it so that it does not persist?

Porter Anderson: Right, Matt. There are two major issues here.

One lies on the side of the publishing industry. The other is vested in the writers.

(1) The industry’s traditions have created a business dependent on serendipity for product. While major publishing houses work on multi-book contracts with bigger authors, of course, the growth of the field is dependent on what I like to describe as a cracker in Georgia crawling out from under a double-wide and handing over a masterpiece to the industry.

Remember that the essential element, the fundamental ingredient of the publishing product – the story – is not what the industry makes. It develops that product, edits it, designs a cover for it, produces it, distributes it, publicizes it, and charges for it, but it doesn’t actually make it. In older, simpler times, this would be called “piece work” as in handiwork crafted by any number of unseen workers, and turned in to the central paymaster “by the piece.”

The workers, those people who do make that story-product, our writers, are flung across the world in permanent diaspora. Their only hope of finding and plying a community is comparatively new; it’s a cyber-fellowship enabled by the Internet.

Clearly, it behooves the industry to be awfully nice to these piece-workers. More important than nice, the industry needs to be supportive, instructive, transparent, and collegial with these indispensable workers, its writers. But instead, a rather unfortunate perception of disdain for writers has attached to publishing, if not always fairly.

The difficulties writers face in gaining entry to traditional publishing today can be circumvented by taking digital pathways to market. The self-publishing route is fraught with pitfalls, of course, and it shovels a lot more badly produced, prematurely released, reader-disappointing work into view than anybody cares to think about. Pricing becomes a race to the bottom as everybody tries to undersell everybody else. And online producer-retailer like Amazon turns over a far better royalty rate of return to authors than the traditional publishing houses have done – and is capable of displaying a writer’s work before an almost incomprehensibly large audience of potential readers.

A sad result we’re seeing now is that the core publishing industry is demonized by its own suppliers, the writers. Those piece-workers feel cut off from the expert information, peer relations, profits, perks, and adult status, for lack of a better term, they feel they deserve in the halls of a book business that cannot survive without the books they write.

Obviously, the industry has made some grave mistakes in creating this scenario. But it’s a two-way street, because …

(2) Authors, for their part, have capitulated. Without even realizing it.

They have internalized for a long time now, as a class, an understanding of themselves as subservient to professional industry insiders.

And once one allows a paternal and/or maternal concept of one’s business leadership to establish itself, one sees oneself as the child. Needy, unprepared, inadequate, immature, dependent.

This picture of a great many self-denigrating writers could have been drawn a decade ago. But today, it’s much worse: The arrival of the Internet has broadly exacerbated the authors’ problem.

The advent of the Internet has made almost everybody who can crawl over to the National Kitchen Table and hoist a Bic pen feel that he or she is a writer. People who wouldn’t for a moment think of themselves as accountants or automotive engineers or acoustical designers are convinced that they’re writers, capable of handling some of the most sophisticated linguistic tasks known. No training needed. No years of hard experience to worry about. “The Internet is here; we’re all writers now.”

Where these would-be writers are wrong—and this goes for a great many published people, too—is in thinking that it’s not their job to get the information, the savvy, the industry perspective, and the sheer credentialing of training and experience they need to function as professionals. Thousands upon thousands of amateurs have poured into the “writer space” in recent years, adopting the put-upon child’s petulance for an industry that won’t spoon-feed them.

These are the writers who are so easily misled by motivational and inspirational bloggers, the ones who want you to start each day with a tearful singing of Lena Horne’s “You have to belieeeeeve in yourself.” If everyone belieeeeves in himself or herself fervently enough, we’re told, then he or she will be a great writer.

This, of course, is crap. Writing is not self-confidence. It’s skill and talent and intelligence.

So let me sum up this picture for you.

On one hand, we have a publishing industry that’s accustomed to cherry-picking the rare successes of a largely amateur pool of piece-workers and making a good show of what they find. That industry is ill-prepared for the digital transition’s new economic pressures, and even less for the sudden ability of those piece-workers to take themselves to market as self-publishers. Even worse, the rise of Amazon creates a probably insurmountable rival. Seattle can woo those piece-workers to its easy publishing and sales capabilities, while cornering the buyers with the best service, convenience, pricing, delivery, and discoverability in history.

On the other side, we have crowds of largely unprofessional, untried, unseasoned would-be writers who threaten to choke the system with amateurish material. Those who do have the professional acumen to understand the business have little access to industry information, perspective, and guidance that publishing insiders have.

Both sides of this situation share the responsibility for the very peculiar state of publishing today.

This is why I’ve recently called on our major organizers of superb industry-core conferences — O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change and Digital Book World — to consider producing similarly informative, progressive events for authors, something quite different from the craft-and-how-to writing conferences we have now.

But get this very clearly: If such events are created, it will be up to the authors to step up to the plate and attend. This is the coming-together we simply must see in publishing, source-content creators (writers) arm-in-arm with producers (publishers).

As I started out saying, this problem is a two-way street. And so will be the solution.

MG: You have an incredibly diverse and accomplished career; you’re a writer-journalist who’s also been a critic, reporter, editor, news anchor and senior producer. Throughout these experiences, what’s been the one constant truth about “good writing” that transcends the form or function of words?

PA: The transcendent quality you’re asking about, Matt, is an amalgam of two things: intelligence and voice.

I use the term “intelligence” in relation to the formulation of IQ, meaning adaptability. It doesn’t refer to encyclopedic knowledge (although nothing’s wrong with that). It means having the capacity to take up a linguistic challenge—whether it’s an essay or a grocery list—and adapt your expressive forces to its needs.

Intelligence, then, is an ability to look at a “writing situation,” if you will, and say to yourself, “OK, in this instance, I need to lay out these three points in such-and-such order and then communicate so-and-so message about them.” That’s adaptability. Assess and fulfill. And you can get a hell of a good read with no more than that. Many in the academic world, for example, can get this part of the job done extremely well. Much good work in journalism is created through this application of verbal intelligence. The writer assesses what’s needed and fulfills that.

But what they put across, while factually accurate and structurally pristine, might be deadly dull.

That’s where the step beyond comes in. Voice. This is the contextual mode, the style, the humanity of the intelligence behind a written work.

And I believe that voice is the factor we can’t teach. You can learn it. Over time, using your intelligence to gather in fine subtleties of expression, you can build some voice. This is why, occasionally, a rather plain-spoken friend will astound you with the most artfully turned phrase. What a powerful writer does is amass such a vast array of consciously accessible subtleties, colors, shadings, structures, effects, protocols of verbal expression that it’s no longer that every-now-and-then wonder. It’s always. The voice finally roars into its own, pervasive, persuasive, exultant life, flinging wry asides one way and drilling channels of meaning another.

One of the most magnificent achievements in all writing is the accomplishment of a singular, radiant voice. Plied by a rich intelligence, a fully realized voice is the most beautiful, bravura performance of all.

MG: Having served as an editor and managing editor, I take it you well appreciate the role that a quality editor plays in the development of a compelling story. What do you believe most people misunderstand about the role of editors, and what do you foresee their influence becoming in the digitized new book economy?

PA: People who chafe and complain about good editing are too shortsighted (or too naïve) to understand that what is changed or cut out is never missed by the reader.

I was lucky to have this made clear to me early in my career in journalism. At first, I’d mourn the sentences or paragraphs that a desk editor pulled out because a story was running too long. Then I started noticing that when I read my pieces in the paper the next day, I missed nothing of what had been taken out. Our editors were so good that they had knitted a tighter fit for my work and no one would dream to say, “Hey, I wonder if Porter originally had another paragraph in here.”

As soon as I got hold of that idea – that the missing is not missed – I’d learned to love good editors.

I believe that if we want it to happen, we can create a day when publication finally gets to such a level of quality and respect—something like that enjoyed now by top filmmaking—that powerful editors will become sought-after members of creative teams. A new book, for example, might be “Produced by Matt Gartland with Editing by Porter Anderson.”

This could be terrific, a bracing era in which writers at last function as auteurs, fully in command of their own work, calling forth what resources they need to produce in whichever media and formats they choose, and assembling great alliances of extraordinary collaborative artists – such as revered editors – all credited as proud and honored colleagues.

I look forward to this day. May we get there quickly.

MG: Being the avid journalist investigating the dynamic worlds of writing and publishing, what is your greatest hope and most significant concern about where the technologies and trends are leading us?

PA: My hope? That the digital revolution will enable publishing coups of serious, meaningful, enriching writings with widening, engaged audiences waiting for them.

My fear? The digital revolution has a bad track record for depth, quality, artistic integrity, serious content. Because it creates vast, easy, inexpensive means of distribution, it raises whole and seemingly irresistible markets for quick-fix, stupid entertainment.

This is what we’ve seen happen to journalism, of course. The digital capacities to track eyeballs and viewership and readership and listenership have so empowered news media marketing departments to sell Big Data to advertisers that those advertisers’ wishes too frequently drive journalistic decisions. Do you cover the Security Council in an emergency session? Or idiot outfits at the Grammys?

My fear for publishing is that the digital means to unload paranormal romance or vampires or zombies or whatever is our genre-of-the-week all over the market in endless, fetching formats will woo the reading population farther and farther from literature, from serious work.

The last thing our global culture needs is more entertainment. But unfortunately, entertainment is what usually has triumphed on the energy of digital capability.

MG: What’s the #1 piece of actionable advice you’d give to writers who seek to gain traction in the rapidly shifting and (at times) confusing world of indie authorship and self-publishing?

PA: Learn the industry from the head down. By that, I mean find out what’s going on in the centers, the business hubs of publishing.

If you’re really a writer, what you need to know now is:

  • What publishers, big and small, are up to, including Amazon;
  • How new models of production and business and author-publisher relationship are shaking out;
  • How much progress e-reading is making in the market;
  • What the remaining print numbers are;
  • Who the key players are who can affect where things will go;
  • What it means when a Big Six publisher sues a digital publisher over the rights to produce an e-edition of a book;
  • What’s really involved in trying to publish yourself and which parts of it you simply must get professional assistance with.

In short, learn the business. Not in spite of its transitional status but because of it. The last thing you want to do is spend five years putting together a really marvelous project, only to find that it’s utterly out of sync with the industry, the audience, the money, and the times.

There’s no excuse for author ignorance anymore.

That Internet that makes everybody think he or she is a writer? Its truth is at your fingertips. Digitized and waiting to make you smarter. Use it.

More about Porter:

In his three-decade career as a journalist, Anderson has worked with CNN USA, CNN International, CNN.com, CNN.com Live, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald and other media outlets. He is also a former United Nations diplomat (level P-5, Laissez-Passé), assigned to Rome as Creative Advisor and Multi-Media Manager for the World Food Programme. He also has served as Executive Producer and Creative Consultant with INDEX: Design to Improve Life, the Danish government’s program in humanitarian design, Copenhagen.

Anderson holds a BA from William and Mary; an MA from the University of Michigan; and an MFA from Florida State. He has done special readings in the psychology of the arts at the University of Bath, England. He is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, and supports the Museum of Modern Art and WQXR Classical’s one-of-a-kind contemporary live stream Q2 Music, an NPR affiliate in New York City.

Images provided by and used with permission from the interviewee.