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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Modern Medici

“Self-published? Ah, I see. Well, we don’t work with that class of material, if you get my meaning.” So said the book review critic, and therein lies a tale.

A few centuries ago, no artist in any field could get anywhere without a patron. Someone had to pay for the time and material. Getting large amounts of metal or marble for sculpture, acquiring the exotic pigments and physical placements necessary for painting, even paying the artist for the large amounts of free time necessary to work raw materials into form was expensive, especially in a subsistence-level economy. Only the wealthy could afford to commission art work.

But, as Julian Simon documented over and over again, the cost of materials always drops over time. As the cost of materials dropped, the need for patrons in most areas of art also dropped. When an artist can afford to buy his own materials, he generally dumps his patrons.

After all, patrons are messy to deal with. They have a vision for the artwork, the artist has a vision and the two visions often clash. As soon as it was practicable to drop the patron, the patron was dropped.

So, today no one turns their noses up at a "self-published" sculptor or painter. But they still turn their noses up at self-published writing. Why? Because, until just this century, it still required a ton of money to print a book.

Ever since writing was developed, creating a book has been a high-cost business that only the wealthy could afford precisely because so many techniques had to be mastered in order to produce a printed book. And this is the difference.

Until recently, writing was unlike the other areas of artwork. In other areas, the patron supplied the raw material and the location where the art would be displayed, but the artist supplied all the technique. The printed book, however, is its own piece of artwork in which the writing is but one part of the total composition.

Consider: to print a book used to require not just a writer, but several experts in various technical disciplines all working together. Even if a writer had the money to buy a printing press, it was unlikely he would have the arcane knowledge necessary to run it himself. He would need to supply skills like typography and typesetting, layout, graphic design, and book-binding, not to mention the cost of both the printing press and its operators. These are all aspects of technique just as surely as the writing is. Like a soloist in an opera, the writer was just the best-known person in the process.

But, computers have changed all that. The printing business was the last artistic discipline to have a high cost of entry. It is only within the last five years that the entry-level cost has dropped to the base level that has been current in other areas for centuries.

In this respect, the great publishing houses that remain on the scene today might be likened to the Medicis and the Church curia. They are guilds whose historically significant presence and power is slowly being undermined. Apart from the marketing aspect, upstart artists no longer need a publishing house patron to insinuate itself into the artistic process. They can do it all on a cheap laptop.

Some say that this loss of patronage, of publishers, will inevitably erode the quality of printed material. Perhaps this is true. Certainly there is no shortage of execrable canvas and sculpture artists today. On the other hand, it is clearly the case that “professional” publishers aren’t exactly producing stellar work either.

Can anyone really defend most of the latest best-sellers as examples of the writer’s art? Harry Potter? Mitch Albom? Or the piece de resistance: Dan Brown? Please.

Brown's blockbuster was as badly-written and badly-researched a screed as any third-rate scrivener might ever hope to produce. It hit the bestseller’s list primarily because it hit the right cultural buttons with the 10,000 critics who received advance copies of the book. For the uninitiated, a 10,000 book run is what a publishing house normally sells of a single book. LIke the Medicis of old, Doubleday had so much money to burn they could gave away a full print run just for publicity. In short, Brown's work just proved that, like a Chicago election, a best-selling book can be bought.

So, while many argue self-published works are not of high quality, this is simply the Medici art patron attempting to hold sway over a process that is increasingly becoming independent. As with the canvas or the sculpture, attacks on the quality of self-published works is a fig leaf for the real animus against the self-published.

Established publishers have a vested interest in retaining the vestiges of their guild. That is, they have a vested interest in making sure their customers regard all competitors as non-functional or marginal. As computer technology mushrooms the number of competitors, this will become increasingly difficult to do. With the computer, technique has been rendered into a material cost, and material costs have been pushed into the dirt.

Unfortunately for writers, the same thing that happened to the other art disciplines is also happening to writing. Just as few people spend much time in art galleries anymore, so fewer and fewer people in each generation are reading. That is, as the cost of entry into a discipline drops, the general interest in the product also drops. With writing, as with every other artistic discipline, people are interested in the unusual, and if everyone is special, if everyone can publish a book, then there's nothing special about getting a book published.

Today, the fascination is with Hollywood and, to a lesser extent, the Internet. Movies still costs far more in material and skills than most individuals can cover on their own, while computer programming is still an arcane discipline that is not yet amenable to being rendered into a commodity. But video costs are coming down, as is theater attendance, and web sites have mushroomed, making it difficult to stand out in the very large crowd.

Here's the great irony. The self-published book will eventually destroy the modern Medici.

But when it does, no one will care, because no one will be reading.

5 comments:

becky dobbs said...

"...and when everyones super; no one will be."
-Syndrome from The Incredibles

Becky

P.S. Yes I know I shouldn't be quoting a cartoon character. But hey when the quote fits.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Actually, that movie was EXACTLY what I was thinking of when I wrote the line.

I *LOVE* the Incredibles. What a GREAT family flick...

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

And The Incredibles was just what I was thinking of when I read that line!

Great minds think alike, eh? ;)

Rhys said...

One of the biggest problems is: huge amounts of illiteracy = making life easier for totalitaritarian governments. And that's troubling because totalitarianism (of one sort or another) is where our governments are heading.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Given that we are no longer a representative democracy, but a judicial oligarchy, I would say we are as close to a totalitarian society as I hope to see.

Sadly, I am certain it will get worse before it gets better.