Books Were Once Like Razor Blades
Remember fanzines? Dating back over a hundred years, they were the first scalable form of self-publishing. Students with access to moveable type printing presses would delight in composing anthologies of short stories or news tid-bits and running off a hundred copies or so. In the 1920s, writers of science fiction bypassed the limited space in Amazing Stories and produced their own works in the first of many genre fanzines. Other fanzines brought together horror film fans, fringe music scenes, political commentators, and conspiracy theorists. These xeroxed works were the successor to the coffee shop and the precursor to the internet.
After the web gained popularity in the mid-90s, the fanzine moved online. Websites and blogs filled the same function, except now these works were permanent and the potential audience went from hundreds around town to The Residents of Planet Earth. Fanzines were read and then lost, discarded, recycled, forgotten. They had a limited lifespan and a limited audience. They were as disposable as razor blades.
Recently, we’ve seen a group of authors argue that books aren’t like razor blades (an insult to people who make things for a living, but set that aside). But maybe these old-fashioned writers are on to something. Because books were indeed like razor blades just ten years ago. They were printed once, and then they gradually wore away, whether through use, by rot, or the fact that most went out of print.
Like fanzines and razor blades, books started off fresh and then wore out over time. Once a novel went out of print, you’d have to scour used bookstores or online book resellers to find a moldy copy. The first weeks and months of release were everything. Books were disposable. They disappeared.
The ebook and the print-on-demand paperback are to novels what the internet and blogs became to fanzines. Books are now preserved for all-time. It’s ironic, I think, that the company most responsible for preserving the written word with both Kindle ebooks and Createspace print-on-demand paperbacks is seen as a threat to reading and writing. It would be like accusing the internet of getting in the way of connecting people and aiding in the exchange of thoughts and ideas.
Some people seem eager to get back to the grand old world of limited-run printouts stapled together and scurrying away on a breeze. These are the people who profited the most from that scheme, the middlemen and the 1% of authors lucky enough to be included. Clay Shirky nailed it when he posited that the old guard is terrified of the popular acceptance of reading. The fringe has the potential to go mainstream, which will mean more people getting lost in books, more writers earning a living, a growing culture of literature, and a widening of voices and genres. Those who valued their participation in the rarefied airs of literature’s fanzine days are understandably disturbed by this. Democratization is almost always resisted against by the chosen elites.
Ignore the naysayers, for they are on the wrong side of history. The changes taking place have massive and positive implications for writers. Every book you write will be in print for the rest of time. They won’t grow old. They won’t grow dull. They are no longer like razor blades. Every undiscovered book was launched today. They will launch every day. New readers will come of age; old readers will rediscover a lost love of reading; the next generation of readers are being born right now.
If you take the complaints people make about the self-publishing of literature (the spewing volcanoes of crap and other offenses against people’s artwork and free expression) and apply those same complaints to the internet, what you have is China’s attitude toward the World Wide Web. Do all the unbrowsed websites and blogs get in the way of surfing your way to TMZ.com? Absolutely not. But those sites and thoughts are out there, representing the free expression of their creators, and all it takes is one set of eyes to find them, love them, share them, for those sites and blogs to take off.
Write knowing that your works will never expire, and that no one can deny you the right to publication. This was the attitude fanzine authors used to stoke their passions for over a century (and still). It’s the power of this democratizing force. Books are now forever; they remain fresh; they’ll never go out of print. It’ll be decades before most people adequately appreciate this. Get ahead of them by writing today.