‘Ancient of Days’ – 1794.
Slightly mad self-published poet and painter William Blake prophesies electronic publishing
It all started, as it usually does, with God.
It wasn’t a novel – well, the genre hadn’t been invented yet – but God had content that He needed to get out to people. Not just the immediate circle of friends, but everyone. So what God needed was … a publisher.
Here, the records are murky. Did God self-publish, or did he leave it up to Moses? That, we don’t know. But whichever it was, the job was well done. The Ten Commandments was an instant hit, and still today it’s right at the top of the reading-list.
Now if it had been today, I’m pretty sure God would have used Twitter. The Commandments would have slotted right in there beside:
- 10 top tweets for early risers
- 10 alternative revenue sources for politicians
- 5 books Rentokil would have ruined
But these were early days. Before e-publishing, before the printing press, before paper, before papyrus. And anyway, if the Commandments were going to make a lasting impression, then best to use something permanent. Like two tablets of stone. Or three, if we can trust Mel Brooks’ account.
So that’s how publishing started. Three elements. A creator, or in this case, a Creator, a medium for the message, and a publisher – and that was Moses.
Now wait a minute. Didn’t we say there was some doubt about whether God self-published or not? Who created the tablets – God or Moses? Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, it was God. I’d still say that Moses was the publisher. Why? Because it was Moses’ job to broadcast the Commandments. No good just to blast the message on the tablets and leave them under a rock. No, Moses had to let everyone know they existed. He had to convince people they were worth a read.
So let’s look again at the process. Three elements. Creation, actualization – giving the words some tangible form – and publishing. From the Latin root ‘publico’ – to make something public, to show or tell to the people. In 21st-century-speak, marketing.
We know who created, and who published. What we don’t know is who actualized.
History also doesn’t record the discussion between God and His publisher. Would Moses have given advice? ‘People these days aren’t reading Commandments. You need more showing and less telling. No, I’m sorry, I love your work, but I don’t think we could do it justice.’ Somehow doesn’t seem appropriate, does it? Not when you’re dealing with God.
Centuries have passed. And for a long time now, it’s all been rather different. For Moses it was all about the message. For the modern-day publisher, it’s all about money. Which is absolutely understandable. Because, let’s face it, in publishing there’s a lot to gain, and a lot more to lose. Actualizing a book, ever since the printing press, has been an expensive proposition. There’s editing, set-up, binding, the cost of paper, card and ink. To recover your costs, you need a decent run of several hundred books. Then, there are advances to pay to greedy authors, booksellers who insist on returning unsold books, staff to employ, publishing events to attend, pensions … And this is before we even begin to think about marketing.
Hardly surprising then that publishers are reluctant to take on a book, unless it’s going to be a sure-fire success. Unless it’s written by someone famous, or is particularly topical, or fits neatly into a top-selling genre. Even for God, it might have been difficult to get started today. For small gods, like us, who create little imaginary worlds of fiction, virtually impossible.
But publishers, I bring you good news. You see, there’s a new tablet, an electronic tablet, no longer made of stone. In fact there are several: you might know them as the iPad, or the Kindle, or Adobe Digital Editions for the PC. For all of these I can actualize my own work for free – and it doesn’t cost you a cent. So you don’t need to worry about it any more. All you need to decide is whether you’d like to publish my novel – remember ‘publico’ – to show or tell the people. If that’s a role that interests you – a service to the author – then good. If not, well, gods work in mysterious ways.
Stay in touch for more posts in the series ‘The Right Steamroller’ – ruminations on the future of publishing.
And to sample or buy my actualized novel, check out The Lebanese Troubles at Smashwords. Just click on the cover design here.
And don’t forget, I’m looking for reader contributions to build our index of Resources for independent writers. Got anything to add?