In the UK Bookseller’s Futurebook section, Tom Chalmers asks: “Where to put the entrepreneur in publishing?” with particular emphasis on the more entrepreneurial aspects of self-publishing. In these digitally disrupted times, it seems, the entrepreneurial spirit is a panacea for the industry’s ills.
“The need for urgent change is now, in the majority of places, accepted, as is the understanding that much innovation and new drive comes from entrepreneurs,” Chalmers says. “But if we have entrepreneurs, how best to use them? The answer is slightly more complicated than just a welcome mat and ‘let me know if you need anything’.”
Chalmers broadens this definition, though, to embrace self-published authors. “We are seeing authors, who are great promoters, tireless in their engagement on social media and peer sites, relentless networkers who, aided by the low price points dominant in the ebook charts, sell their books in the tens of thousands,” he affirms.
“Often they have been driven upwards more by entrepreneurial zeal than unforgettable writing ability,” worries Chalmers about the self-publishing best sellers. The question is, though, have writing and entrepreneurship ever been exactly strangers to each other, before or after the advent of ebooks and self-publishing?
For a modern-day, and probably not especially edifying, example, look to James Patterson – multiple best-selling author, pro-book trade pundit, and evidently rich enough from all that hard scribbling to endow various foundations, good causes, etc. Oh, and a penetrating reader and critic might discern just a dash of entrepreneurialism – not to mention charlatanism – in his bunko antics. I strongly suspect that Patterson does not lose too much sleep over “the quality of writing, the skew away from reading a book that will stay in your life forever” when it comes to his own writing procedure.
And if we want to list the great writers – by literary standards as well as commercial ones – who were also untiring entrepreneurs, let’s start with the example everyone defaults to: Charles Dickens. From his editorship of Household Words, which he owned half of and which he pushed out enough of his own works through to count as hard-copy self-publishing, let alone his own reading tours and philanthropic efforts, here was a writer as at home with his shoulder to the wheel as with as his hand on the pen. Or look at Dickens’s predecessor Sir Walter Scott, with his impresario-like stage management of King George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1818, or his program after 1825 to write and tour his way out of bankruptcy. Or Alexandre Dumas , who practically ran an (unacknowledged) studio of assistants and collaborators to keep up his huge bestselling productivity, and who made and spent fortunes with equal facility. Or … or … need I really go on?
Point made, I hope. The entrepreneurial spirit has never been foreign to writing. The idea that self-publishing somehow erodes the quality of literature, as Jonathan Franzen and others maintain, through all the demands on those poor overworked writers to go and promote themselves, is a joke. Many writers have done this throughout every epoch. A profession that depends upon you loving the sound of your own voice is naturally going to attract a healthy share of egotists and self-promoters. Sometimes it’s hard enough to even get them to shut up. Deal with it.