Do Authors Need Tenure?

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The tenure system works precisely because it insulates scholars from market pressures and encourages them to pursue work motivated by passion, intellectual curiosity, social and political change, and the desire to bring new things into the world. If we want a vibrant literary culture, we need tenure for novelists and poets.

Creative writing programs currently provide tenure to a small number of authors, especially in the fields of literary fiction and poetry, which partake in the European High Art tradition and enjoy an elevated cultural status. But it’s no less urgent to nurture talented authors working in genres like fantasy and science fiction. Without a tenure system that embraces a diverse set of authors, we risk letting our speculative worlds, our visions of alternative and future realities, become stale and shallow.

The sticking point is how to select and vet the tenure recipients. Should tenure go to authors with a record of success in the marketplace? Should the public vote? Should we create an annual Olympics of the Written Word? Should we leave this up to panels (and to go further down the rabbit hole, how do we select the panelists)? A lottery?

Regarding the question of who pays for all of this, I’ll refer you to Lee Konstantinou’s excellent “Two Paths for the Future of the Author,” written on the bustling floor of the Frankfurt Book Fair (a thoroughly market-driven space, if there ever was one) in 2013.

LitStarter

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It seems the old models for books are changing. Increasingly, audiences expect content to be free, and there is more competition for their limited attention. As we have been talking about future business models for writers and readers, I have started to reflect on my relationship with Kickstarter. I teach interactive device design classes, and do a fair bit of hobby electronics myself, which is why I’m a regular backer of various electronic device projects that are on the site. Could we start a KickStarter exclusively for writing and reading?

On some level, people are already using KickStarter to fund book projects. I backed my friend Jon’s project to make an exhibition and catalogue, etc. called All Possible Futures recently. A little search/research shows that our very own Andrew Losowsky is involved in a project called HRDCVR, “a book-shaped magazine for the new everyone” which currently has 129 backers for $8,369 pledged of its $150,000 goal—I wonder if that will take off.

Of course, this means we’ll have to have trailers for prospective books. Wait. What? There are already trailers for books? (Who knew?) Trailers will work a lot better for famous writers, or writers with famous friends. And of course, you need a budget, roughly $10k—which, let’s face it, if a writer had on hand they probably shouldn’t be blowing it on a video. Would a sample paragraph be enough? Could we train people to read book treatments?

The other thing that Kickstarter demands is a schedule. Every writing project has a schedule, but it isn’t usually the readers who are watching the clock. Maybe this is why projects like Longshot work, because the schedule is so limited, and the success or failure is thus carefully proscribed. There is a kind of work that is suited to this type of sprint, but maybe so many other works that aren’t. Definitely not something for the modern-day Joseph Hellers. Although, maybe Joseph Heller could have been ferried through his many dry years on the contributions of so many high-school-required-readers-turned-fans.

I do think that a site dedicated to featuring literary projects would be better for both readers and writers than a site where you end up finding a cool book proposal when you were just checking in to see how the LED cat sweater you backed is doing. Maybe more experimental work would happen because people would more easily find the audience their weird project ideas resonated with. Maybe the plaintive customer service inquiries from backer/readers would be an antidote to writer’s block.

Is There a New Economy among Readers, Writers, and Publishers?

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We’ve been talking around ideas of a digital economy, starting with Jan Sassano’s suggestion that corporations like Twitter and Facebook make their money from the value that we, their users, give to them for free. How do we get rewarded for the value we’re bringing to them? (As a musician and ill-paid actor I once knew put it succinctly, “Money is such a nice way of showing your appreciation.”)

We’ve tried brainstorming ideas, though we keep getting caught up in digressions (which has been described as “the only way anything ever gets said”). There’s clearly no obvious answer to this question. Early this afternoon, after someone mentioned Socratic dialogue, I joked that maybe we should create the “Socrates app,” an app that would interrogate you and engage you in a Socratic dialogue. It would be a sort of ELIZA program with an edge. (No, I don’t have any idea how this would really work. But it’s an app! Apps all make lots of money, right? Right.)

Maybe I should crank up the Socrates app right now and have it ask us: “And how do you intend to make money?” Or maybe that’d just be too much like your skeptical parents shooting down your brilliant career plan.

We’ve tossed around ideas about control vs. influence (fame and celebrity of authors and other creators), thick data (deep-diving data about individuals), meaning vs. statistical quantities, and what Jan called the public experience of reading. That last led Wendy Ju to ask, “So, should publishers become special-events planners?”

We’re hardly the first to point out that writers today have to be self-promoters, and that live events have a major role in the ecosystem of publishing. The balance varies: a poet who is published by a small press may actually sell most of their books at live readings, while an economist or business consultant might give away their books as a sort of calling card when they do a public lecture or workshop, which is what they really get paid for. (Does Edward Tufte make his living from selling his books, or from presenting his one-day courses? Both, perhaps.) Academic authors often get their real reimbursement in academic credit and kudos, which translates into professional advancement at their institution, rather than through the pittance they’re actually paid (if any) for an academic book or article.

So is the future of publishing going to be live events? Public reading? Online interactive discussion, annotation, and response? Dan Gillmor said that he gets great value from the comments on his writing that come back to him from his readers, that in fact it adds to and improves his writing. There’s a big difference between applause and laughter at a live event and the approbation of comments on a blog or website, but they’re both response. And neither one pays for the groceries.

Is it possible to be a professional reader? If social media services ought to be paying us for participating in their game, should publishers be paying us to read their books? Or for allowing our responses to be measured, and aggregated and analyzed by the publisher? Maybe. How would that work?