Our Revolution is being Digitised... by Cally Phillips

I’ve previously blogged about the publishing ‘revolutions’ of Caxton and the 19th century (now aptly named the Great Age of Print by fellow AE’er Julia Jones) and here we are at our own revolutionary stage.  The Third Step to revolution is upon us.

The problem is of course that we are in the middle of it and so reflection is all but impossible.  We are in the middle of our own history, so I’m just  going to throw out a few thoughts and observations – deliberately provocative maybe -  like a Molotov cocktail into the comfortable drawing room of the publishers launch party!  (Besides, I’m kind of busy being a publisher at the moment… that’s another story.)
At school, all those years ago, I remember sitting in a history class drawing a pyramid diagram of Russia immediately prior to the revolution.  It looked something like this

Although I’m sure there were other stages in it (I’m afraid I can’t find the original but you get the drift.And apologies for ropey picture... software and time issues)
It occurs to me that our current ‘revolution’ has its own pyramid. (Or pyramids… you can get quite carried away with this so I’ve tried to keep it simple.)

The point that such a crude picture aims to get you thinking about is:  In the world of pyramids the people at the bottom exist (in relation to those at the top) simply to serve the people/entities at the top.  They have no value in and of themselves (within the pyramid). This is what I call a ‘stark reality’ pyramid!  You can take some solace and read it as a publishing pyramid if you like, and just determine that you will rise through the ranks from indie to mainstream to ‘fame’ stage – I call this the ‘writers aspirational myth’ because it’s what keeps so many of those at the bottom plugging away -  but note that even if you do rise up the pyramid like a snakes and ladders board, you’ll actually just be serving THE LIKES OF Amazon (who are currently the publishing Tsar). It’s the people at the top who a) cash in and b) are in control. Don’t forget that.  And of course you may be quite happy with that.   

But whatever way you look at this (and please bear in mind this is just knocked out for blog chat not a well developed theorem!) we Indies are (in pyramid land) at the bottom of the pile. We are the peasants. We are the worker bees who keep the whole thing going so that those at the top get fat.  You may be happy with that.  Plenty of people are.  Bread today but jam tomorrow… I’m here to tell you that there IS NO JAM tomorrow for most of us. Not unless we make our own jam to a quite different recipe.

My point is that for our digital revolution to BITE we need to escape from the pyramid and change the shape of our world. Note, not just our ‘industry’ but our world – as writers and readers. The relationship is (at least for us) symbiotic.

I think it’s fairly obvious how as writers we sit (comfortably or uncomfortably) at the bottom of the publishing pyramid at the moment but perhaps it’s not quite so obvious that in pyramid world we have no more status as readers.

This pyramid suggests that as readers we actually exist (in pyramid world) to serve the publishing establishment.  You may not like that.  You may not care.  Too political? You just want to read a book. Yes, but what book? And why?

The digital revolution is making it possible for us to ‘consume’ our fiction fix in a variety of ways. And at a range of prices including that nirvana – FREE.  So many of us can’t get beyond how good it is to get stuff for free.  You can’t beat free now, can you?  Well, I think that depends what you are being offered for free.  There is plenty of ‘free’ stuff out there. This is good and this is bad.  There is now no need ever to pay to read anything ever again – as long as you only read that which is put out for free.  This looks like CHOICE but it’s a gilded cage kind of choice really isn’t it?  Any colour as long as it’s black (or a shade of grey) any book as long as it’s free.  

This is where we writer/readers face a dilemma – in our case, what’s good for the reader is not so good for the writer.  That’s why we should (in my opinion) engage with ‘our’ revolution.  We are not just readers, not just ‘consumers’ , we are also ‘producers’ and as such our revolution gives us an opportunity not to be alienated from the product of our labours.  The possibility exists as writers to throw off your chains and find another pattern to the pyramid (which means creating your own world view and sticking to it because believe me folks global capitalism, which is the world we live in, is firmly welded to the pyramid structure) but you cannot do this if you are still looking enviously or amibitiously up that pyramid hoping to become ‘the next big thing.’ 

In a revolution you have to get off the fence. You have to pick sides. You have to make choices.  And there are complex issues.
I want to read free books – you say.  

I want people to pay for my books – you say. (after all, I did put so much time and effort and skill into the creative act.)

Already you can see there’s a bit of a contradiction in terms here. And it’s for each of us as writers to try and work out our own position so that when posterity asks us ‘what did you do in the revolution?’ you’ll be able to give a sensible answer.

Of course what would be nice is if you could respond with what you did FOR the revolution.    For me personally, I’d rather work for the revolution than for the pyramid. As writer and reader.

Note I’m not advocating any particular kind of revolutionary stance here – it’s personal after all and damned few people want to copy my path – but my central point is it’s time to get off the fence and start BEING actively revolutionary about it.  First notice your chains, then shake them off.  Perhaps it’s time for us all to ask ourselves some difficult questions – to each find our place in our revolution.

I hope that for many of us, reading is something beyond  ‘consuming digitised product’  and more about seeking out ‘the path less travelled’ in fiction/literature/reading matter. If we do nothing but fill our boots with what we are told is good we are not only missing great opportunities but I suggest we are actually complicit in oppressing ourselves.

 The digital revolution allows us to explore beyond a) the mainstream and b) the free (or dirt cheap). It allows us to look for things we enjoy, connect with all kinds of work that would and will never be accepted by the ‘mainstream’ or Tsarist empires because it’s not earning a buck for them.   I could go on for hours about the subtleties of how we are being manipulated by ‘the pyramid’ as writers and readers but then that’s what I have in common with Fidel Castro… I can bang my drum for hours on end.  I won’t though. Not here.  Here it’s just about suggesting to all you writers and readers out there in blogworld that it’s possible  to be so much more than a passive consumer.  Of course you read for your own gratification, edification, enlightenment and enjoyment.  But you don’t just have to eat or read ‘Soma’.  (Brave New World) You can leave Plato’s Cave.

That is your real choice in this revolution – whether you stay in pyramid world or whether you try to create something really new – blood will be spilt in the process, I promise you, even if it’s just metaphorical or economic blood.

Please note. I’m not calling Amazon the devil.  And I had a lot of time for Tsar Nicholas. There’s a lot of good about both of them – but I doff my cap to no power based on economic or political authority – and that’s the kind of FREE I believe in.

Vive la revolucione! 


Nick Green said…
Are you basically saying, "Don't give away your books for free?"
It's dangerous at the top. That's where you tend to get your head chopped off by the people underneath who want to take over your top spot!

At least the peasants at the bottom have the freedom to roam the fields they work and plant a few secret crops. The worst place to be in these pyramid thingies is in the middle, because then you get squeezed from above as well as below.
Dan Holloway said…
So much to applaud here, Cally. And I'm instantly engaged by any reference to Plato's cave. Yes - we should be seeking things out not simply grabbing things from what streams past us on the digital sushi belt. And when we find things that truly excite us, we should tell people about them. and never be afraid to be called idiots for not sharing other people's tastes
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Plato's cave. The most telling image ever thought of. Fine stuff, Cally. It stirs me like a bugle call.

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