An interesting post last week by Alison Masters on RSA Projects considers whether internships are part of the problem or part of the solution.
I left a comment drawing a comparison between the internship debate and the destructive influence of celebrity publishing deals on the publishing industry. (Let me apologise here and now to Alison and to RSA Projects for hijacking what is undoubtedly an important debate. But it got me thinking, you see…)
As I understand it, the internship debate accuses businesses of offering unpaid work to those whose parents (a) have the contacts to get them a placement and (b) can afford to pay their living costs while they get some work experience. These interns get their placements over the heads of those who may be far more capable and talented, but can’t afford to work unpaid and can’t get a foot in the door in any case. Have I understood that right?
There is, then, a strong parallel with the mainstream publishing industry (and the media in general) and its relationship with celebrities. Far from celebrity autobiographies (sic) “maintain[ing] less profitable niche parts of publishing houses”, as one comment on Alison’s post suggested, the overwhelming evidence is that mainstream publishers have all but cut out those less profitable elements altogether. Mid-list authors, those who have been able to turn a modest profit for themselves and their publishers alike, those whose work provided the variety that used to be found on Waterstones’ shelves, have been dropped by their publishers. Equally, mainstream publishers are doing precious little to invest in first-time authors. Don’t believe me? Here’s Lexi Revellian on the subject. (Don’t want to take the word of a self-published author? Read John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture. But be warned; it is an uncomfortable read for anyone who wishes to believe that mainstream publishers are trustworthy guardians of our literary heritage.)
The results are fourfold. Firstly (and most unforgivably), it perpetuates the lobotomocracy of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Secondly, it has homogenised the mainstream offering and killed its variety – though the variety is all there in the self- and indie-published world, if one can but find it. There is some fantastic self-published and indie-published material out there, but it is swamped by dross. For the reader, paradoxically, it can actually be harder to find the good quality writing than it used to be in the old days of a well-stocked bookshop with well-read staff.
Thirdly, by forcing new and aspiring writers down the self-publishing route, it deprives them of the support structure that can nurture whatever innate talent they have. Plenty of self-published work is good on plot, but is sadly let down by incoherent grammar, bad spelling and worse punctuation. And that does no favours to a new generation of either writers or readers.
Fourthly, self-publishing has forced the author to become their own publicist. The internet has all but removed the barrier to publishing, but its effect on the barrier to audience is mixed at best. Self-publishing overwhelmingly rewards those with self-promotional skills, not necessarily those with writing skills.
A post by Dominic Basulto, on the BigThink blog, makes much of the fact that “Artists are no longer just “artists” – they are now entrepreneurs, marketing gurus and branding experts, all rolled up into one”. This, he says, is unequivocally a good thing. “When the artist is also an entrepreneur, it leads to a flowering and diversification of creativity in wonderful new ways.” Agreed.
What, though, when the artist is not a natural entrepreneur, but is still faced with the remorseless demand of the digital age for self-promotion? At best it distracts them from doing what they do best; at worst it buries real artistic talent under a deluge of hustlers.
“To get a creative project funded [says Basulto] requires a mix of marketing savvy, digital social networking prowess, and, yes, the ability to summarize your project with a pithy, viral-like video.” True again, but these qualities don’t necessarily make you a good artist or writer or musician. Quite the opposite, for many people. Here’s a case in point.
And sadly, this means that much debate that is supposedly about ‘artistic innovation’ is actually about social-media marketing technique.
What the new publishing model does do – though I don’t believe anyone is exploiting this yet – is to create a space for partnership between the kind of artist who doesn’t want to become a “hustling entrepreneur”, and the marketing-savvy social networkers. That really would be an exciting combination. Any takers?