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

Porter_Anderson

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 indispensible 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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Margo-L-Dill/1120457568 Margo L. Dill

    I COMPLETELY agree–we will never get rid of author ignorance because just about anyone can get on a WordPressing program nowadays and type out what they think is a masterpiece. However, there are so many opportunities–free and at a low cost–to learn the business. Go to blogs, go to a writing conference, take an online class, buy a book about it, GET AN EDITOR if you are going to self-publish. Great post!

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      Thanks Margo! Yes, as Porter so powerfully states it, being a smart business person as well as a talented writer is now longer an option. Hence the rise of the “author entrepreneur,” at least in some degrees. The art of writing is still vital, but not at the expense of business sense.

  • http://twitter.com/ByRozMorris Roz Morris fiction

    So much to chew over here, Porter – it’s at least four posts in one!

    A few thoughts…

    Publishers can behave very badly indeed towards authors – I wish I hadn’t had experience of it, but I have. And it’s much worse than what most aspiring authors who are querying see – it goes way further than a few heartless rejections. But much of the problem depends, as it always is in these cases, on the personalities. You get tossers in every industry, pardon my French. You also get decent, mature professionals who you can forge a good working relationship with if you behave likewise. And sometimes you have to show you won’t take any nonsense.

    Porter, I love the way in these recent posts of yours that you’re calling for respect on both sides. Too many people in the creative industries are not actually creative, they think they could do the creative job just as well. They don’t understand that those of us who are creative don’t copy other people, we actually invent. I’ve had meetings where people have said to me ‘there’s nothing new under the sun, everyone copies everyone else’, as an excuse for regurgitating an old idea. To which my reply was an icy: ‘speak for yourself’.

    But then, the only way to get the respect of people like that is to know the business as well as we know our own jobs. Then they take us seriously.

    Love what you said about voice (how did a post get so wide-ranging?!) Writing is an art we get better at with age. A writer’s voice becomes richer, more supple, more assured. More simple too. Like a singer.

    • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

      Thanks for these good comments, Roz ( @ByRozMorris ) — and we have Matt to thank for the wide-ranging nature of the post since he asked a series of questions that took things in several important directions in the interview, a nice job.

      I think one reason I’m being so careful these days to try to be sure that authors see their responsibility in the respect equation as much as publishers is that I’ve known many news executives whose view of journalists became jaded and disdainful. And every time I tried to assail them for it, I realized that some of the journalists right in front of us were handling things in ways that could make St. Francis take to shooting birds.

      It really is a two-way street, and crying foul on the publishers is rarely completely fair and almost always will backfire on the writers. So, in the same way you do so much to demonstrate professionalism to authors (particularly in the self-publishing camp), we have to ask everybody — in the publishing core and in the talent pool — to reconsider, reflect, and take responsibility for their own stances and ways of working.

      Eventually, I think we can get to a much healthier spot with all this, but it won’t happen right away and we’ll need some trust on both sides.

      Here’s to mature voices, too, they never go amiss at times like these. :)
      -p.

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      Terrific comments Roz. Thanks so much!

      Yes, Porter really hit a homerun with these insights. It goes to show that when you combine writing skill and business acumen, you become an authority that demands respect.

      To your points of shared respect, I agree and relate it to the leveling of the playing field and a harmonizing of the ecosystem. Various people of different talent and professional etiquette levels have their own niche in this universe. But with the indie movements, this environment feels more in tune with natural forces rather than contrived doctrines and outdated standards.

      Ultimately, there is no substitute to intelligence and hard work, as Porter illustrates beautifully.

  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    Right, @Margo_L_Dill — there are so many avenues to getting the info, instruction, and professional services an author needs that we really have to hold the writing community to this — and try to raise the standards, at some points, through sheer peer pressure. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      I love this follow-up point, Porter, about raising standards. One of my big talking points lately is that “indie” and “professional” aren’t mutually exclusive ideals. Quite the opposite; a professional indie author (or editor, or producer, or publisher) is an incredibly respectable and worthy standard to pursue. And this isn’t a fixed standard. In fact, we should always seek to improve our abilities through continuous improvement. I feel in fact that “indie” avenues promote better, deeper continuous improvement because the ecosystem within which we’re all operating is more natural.

      Thanks again for sharing your fabulous insights!

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  • Diane Krause

    (Apologizing in advance for my lengthy comment — this post struck a chord with me!)

    I enjoyed this post so much that I re-read it three times. I’ve only recently met Matt and am honored, Matt, to add you to my circle of influence and am excited to be working with you. I’m relatively new to Porter Anderson, having “discovered” you/him via Jane Friedman (of whom I am a big fan).

    I’ve always loved writing, and love reading just as much; perhaps more. Once you’ve read a few hundred (or thousand) books, you get much better at distinguishing excellent writing from poor (or even mediocre). So, while I share the dream of someday being a published author, I only want to see my name in print if I can produce something that’s worth reading. My “reader perspective” is always engaged. Therefore, I’ve spent a great deal more time being a student of the craft of writing – and, more recently, the business of it – than I have actually writing. (I do realize I’ll have to shift that balance in order to actually produce anything!)

    I pretty much knew the basics of traditional publishing, but as I tried to educate myself on digital publishing and self-publishing, I found my head spinning. I’ve read Konrath’s blog and the blogs of other disenchanted traditional authors. I can certainly see how digital publishing opens up new avenues for them, with better control, and I get that. They don’t scare me, because they’ve already established credibility.

    The ones that scare me are the ones you referenced, Porter. (“The Internet is here, we’re all writers now.”) I’m a member of an online networking group, with a “writer’s” sub-group, and I see this in action. I even read a book that was widely touted across Good Reads (with a gorgeous cover, by the way), and was profoundly disappointed. My fear is that social networking contributed more to the success of this particular book than quality of work, but that’s an entirely different issue.

    Forgive me for taking so long to get to my point, which is this: while I love the fact that writers have more and better opportunities, it creates a bigger burden for readers looking for quality writing. Yes, I believe there’s validity in the gripes about agents, editors, and the big, bad publishing houses. But as a reader, they’re our guardians and gatekeepers. If they get pushed out, who’s going to look out for us, the readers?

    Consider me a cheerleader for your team, Mr. Anderson, and I will continue my mission to get better at what I do, and become better educated about the world I strive to be a part of. And, I won’t whine. To that end, I’m excited to be attending my very first writing conference this month – The Write Stuff conference in Allentown, PA, which I chose because it features James Scott Bell. I desperately wanted to get to the Writer’s Digest Conference, but wasn’t able to make it happen. I followed on Twitter, though, and am already saving up for 2013. Perhaps I’ll have the honor to meet you there, Mr. Anderson.

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      Diane, thank you for such a wonderful and well considered reply.

      I love the themes you emphasize, namely – as an astute reader – that the quality of books is ever so important, and that new publishing practices and distribution models (with reduced barriers to entry) are subjecting the high standard of a “book” to a lesser one.

      Granted, not all books published by traditional publishers were great, even good. As in any industry, there’s always politicking. That said, I agree that traditional publishers did (and still do) act as filters, allowing us proud bookworms to concentrate on particular imprints or houses as trusted badges of quality and integrity.

      I proudly support the causes of independent authors and the self-publishing mechanisms fueling the shifts in publishing. Equally, I support the need for ways to ensure quality and integrity, which more befit the legacy publishers than anything else (at least presently). It’s all a bit weird because we straddle that fine line between self-publishing avenues and traditional outlets, seeking to embrace the best of both worlds without the spoilage of either. All this makes for fascinating, if complex, debate – which we all need to continue to engage if we all (writers, readers, publishers) are to figure this “whole thing” out.

      The future – I sense, and certainly hope – will have filters as well. They simply won’t all be traditional publishers. The more lesse quality books pervade into the reading ecosystem, the more natural demand rises for “curators” and curating services to distill the ocean into a manageable inventory of books to select from.

      This speaks to the “professional” ethic of writers, a subject I’m quite hot on lately. Simply because a writer can self-identify as an independent and pursue self-publishing means doesn’t absolve her of the responsibility to write (and produce) the highest quality book possible. In fact, the climate and circumstances of the publishing landscape demand, in my view, that writers challenge themselves more than ever. How else will they hope to escape the noise and be recognized as a writer of integrity, worthy of attention, respect and loyalty?

      Mr. Anderson did indeed do a fabulous job exposing many of these points in truly accomplished writing fashion. I’m thrilled he was able to share such powerful and sharp views with all of us here.

      Best-
      Matt

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  • http://twitter.com/adoptedreality Laura

    I’m intrigued by the idea of a conference that brings together (self-published) authors and publishers. I’ve written a book, I’ve gotten myself immersed in internet book marketing, and it’s a real jungle. In a good way, there’s a lot out there to do oneself, and there’s a lot one can pay for.
    Rising from the sea of ‘writers services’ are groups and websites that inspire, and try to give away free advice, but with no guarantees. Then, they ask you to pay for their important services, again with no guarantees of book sales. And I think they have the best of intentions, I’m not talking about scams. But it’s that mentality you mention: Yes! You’re a writer! You can do it!
    But, I want to see results. I want to see what actions actually lead to sales.
    I think there may be a middle ground between good authors doing all of the marketing work themselves (and keeping a large percentage of what little profit they make), and publishers insisting on their former model.
    I’m curious as to what the next wave of indie book publishing will bring …

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      Hi Laura- Thanks for your comment. Yes, I too like Porter’s idea of a “bridge” conference where writers and publishers can network in an environment that balances the creative demands of books with the business realties of publishing. To your other points, I agree with you on seeking middle ground. As an author entrepreneur, folks like yourself should look to embrace your own responsibilities along with partners that are willing to work equally hard.

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  • stephanie jones

    There were some very interesting points made in the article. Porter touts an end to author ignorance just a few short paragraphs where he describes writers as crackers from Georgia, crawling out from under their double-wides, although he did describe the hypothetical work a masterpiece. He wants books that have an editing credit.

    As a writer I need to “Know what Amazon is up to.” What does that even mean? Up to? An editor may have requested some clarification here. As a reader, I certainly want more information, but I don’t want to have to crawl out of my mobile home to ask.

    Among the bullet pointed suggestions there are several good ideas, with absolutely no reference or direction on how to obtain this necessary knowledge. If you want authors to be more educated, don’t just tell them they are stupid, give them some direction.

    In the end I feel more than a little insulted. It’s people like this, with these attitudes that are driving authors to self-publishing. I would never trust this person to give me an honest opinion of my book. It would probably not be literaryite enough for him… and it would be dusty. You know, from being under my mobile home.

    (Irony alert… I do not live in a mobile home, although I am from Georgia.)

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