The self-publishing, mediocrity debate

Guy Kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki

Stanely Mushava Literature Today

Self-publishing, as it is happening in Zimbabwe, is by and large a spiral of mediocrity whereby more and more is being produced without commitment to quality.

Zimbabwean literature is enduring an austere patch which has been widely attributed to the performance of the economy.
Books no longer constitute a household phenomenon, with lack of disposable income cited as the missing link. Although Zimbabweans do not exactly recoil from alternative pastimes, literature has become a blacklisted luxury – a sure way of reverting to literacy without literature.

Over the world, production of literature far dominates demand. Forbes estimates that between 600 000 and 1 000 000 books published every year in the US alone. On average, each title sells 250 copies.

By now, most Zimbabweans have automated the claim that they cannot buy books when they should be buying mealie-meal, although it is doubtful that basic necessities are all that everyone ever buys.

Local writing has lost touch. The didactically pitched indigenous titles which used to command massive popularity when we were growing up are apparently at the end of their tether.

A leading Shona novelist and playwright revealed in one of our previous instalments that his 14 novels and plays have earned him less than US$400 from 2000 to date, despite having raked in Z$20 000 for one play in 1991.

While a remarkable symphony of emerging voices is staking its claim on the arena under the prohibiting conditions, its notes are largely eliciting lukewarmth in our increasingly web-captive society.

With attention being redirected to effortlessly accessible media, deliberations on literature are often couched in nostalgic flights for good old days.
One cannot be sure whether the nostalgia for classics, which few people are still reading, is because they were better or because our people are now out of touch with the strivings of our literary contemporaries.

Meanwhile, writers have to settle for a mode of discourse between immediacy and durability, with only exceptional appearances capable of converging the two, and a predictable downgrade catching up.

Self-publishing is turning out to be a holy grail for budding writers who are usually muscled out of the traditional space by coy, loss-prone publishers.
New titles are being rolled the press at a dizzy pace. But self-publishing portends mixed blessings. There needs to be a balance between access and compromise on the workflow side.

On the one hand, publishing has been democratised and anyone can break into print. That means the prohibiting processes required of one to get published no longer apply as anyone can finance and control the publication of their own book.

Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch’s 2013 book, “APE: Author – Publisher – Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book”, points out the sunny side of self-publishing.
One way of busting mediocrity, according to the duo, is an approach called artisanal publishing. Artisanal publishing involves writers who love their creation to the extent of being involved in every part of the workflow.

The APE duo credits self-publishing for facilitating a new dispensation where writers are no longer at the mercy of large, traditional publishers and readers will have more books to read.

Self-publishing is also lauded for doing away with the filters and barriers that the traditional publishing world represented by traditional publishers.
The gatekeeping mechanisms of the older make the self-publishing option appealing not least because of intellectual and artistic independence.

Kathy Caprino expands the duo’s analogy by comparing the writer to an artisanal baker. The artisanal baker is an entrepreneur, making and distributing bread.
“Would you ever go up to an artisanal baker and ask, ‘Is the reason why you have your own bakery that you didn’t get accepted by a large national baked goods manufacturer?’” Caprino queries.

The point is even if a book is not accepted by traditional publishers if it is good that will be of no consequence. Artisanal publishers are up for the same respect and merit accorded other artisans.

On the other hand, zeroing in on the local industry, the standard at which local writing used to be pitched seems to be lost, itself an indictment on the current state of self-publishing.

Many technically challenged books, fraught with basic errors, which no one is assigned trim beforehand, are presented to the public in a half-baked state.
In fact, self-publishing, being publishing minus the rigours of traditional gatekeeping, is downscaling audience’s impression of local writing because few follow through the artisanal approach.

When one sees a novel, for example in low-cost packaging, with a cliché, a tasteless bouquet of platitudes and contrived plots, they are bound to miss the good old days when the tradition was more highly esteemed from workflow to reception.

Disinvesting interest from traditional publishing seems to me like a leap from one endangered domain to another, considering the less rigorous environs in which new writers are pushing their wares.

Self-publishing, as it is happening in Zimbabwe, is by and large a spiral of mediocrity whereby more and more is being produced without commitment to quality.
For example, the field of inspirational writing, which constitute the greater part of the new titles, credible and pertinent messages are being put forward but the authors are rarely concerned about maximising the impact of their work by taking heed to presentation.

I have complained before, in a separate podium, about the mass generation of ephemeral pamphlets of varying volumes instead works of enduring literary value, a weak link which compromises the vast potential for the transmission of inspirational messages through art.

Writers must stop recycling clichés in technically bankrupt paraphrases, as they short supply the self-replicating creative potential of great ideas.
There is no gainsaying the need to master the beauty, melody, colour and potency of language, foreign or native, so as to have many people at one command and to be taken seriously as voices of our age.

The dismantling of a centralised model to make for a more democratised publishing model portends good news and greater possibilities.
However, with lax commitment to quality, so many writing today are causing the retardation, even the regression of local writing.

There is a potential for a vibrant industry as new authors take charge of their work, master it for quality and stream it on the trending protocols. This will also engage the youths who mostly read very little beyond their academic work, being web-captive citizens.

Edmund Gosse, a literary critic cited in T.S. Eliot’s “Sacred Wood”, has an unsparing take on what he calls “poetasters,” a movement which self-publishing has expanded on a much broader scale.

“Unless something is done to stem this flood of poetastry the art of verse will become not merely superfluous, but ridiculous,” Gosse protests.
“Poetry is not a formula which a thousand flappers and hobbledehoys ought to be able to master in a week without any training, and the mere fact that it seems to be now practised with such universal ease is enough to prove that something has gone amiss with our standards,” he says.

Eliot, however, quickly moves in to troubleshoot the excesses of Gosse. “What exactly is this abyss? And if something ‘has gone amiss with our standards,’ is it wholly the fault of the younger generation that it is aware of no authority that it must respect?

“It is part of the business of the critic to preserve tradition – where a good tradition exists. It is part of his business to see literature steadily and to see it whole; and this is eminently to see it not as consecrated by time, but to see it beyond time; to see the best work of our time and the best work of twenty-five hundred years ago with the same eyes,” Eliot observes.

Regenerating the local canon is not so much about fetishism with classical relics as it is about identification and promotion of potential. The authors’ lot is to apply themselves unsparingly.

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