Internships, celebrity culture and the new publishing model

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?

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13 Responses to Internships, celebrity culture and the new publishing model

  1. Alison says:

    Ben, I feel its only right that as you were kind enough to give me a mention and comment on my RSA blog, I should return the favour. Partly what I was trying to get across about internship culture is that is assumes that people trying to develop careers in the creative sector are not only able to work for free but it follows are young, free, single, childless, tech savvy and unhindered by disability, life crises and responsibility. That leaves out an awful lot of people, and to me begins to feel like a culturally embedded form of discrimination. I don’t know so much about publishing, but I see it may suffer from similar ills and may be rooted in the same set of assumptions, that technology is the accepted medium for all and self promotion and celebretization (I made that word up) is second nature. Creativity comes in many forms, and if we want to protect the whole creative diaspora, we would be wise to be sensitive to that.

    • Ben Bennetts says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Alison – says the mortgage-paying father of four daughters! Thank you for your comment; I had somehow managed to mis-read your RSA post in the much narrower context of the political argument about internships. My apologies.

      I think there are several parallels between the world of internship that you describe and the world of publishing. You have identified many of them here; certainly the culturally embedded discrimination rings true, whether it is discrimination on the basis of age, personal circumstances, level of techno-savvy/techno-hostility, or whatever.

      This is a problem in society in general and not just with the publishing/media industry media or with those offering internships – though the media have certainly contributed. In terms of “assumptions that technology is the accepted medium for all…”, the great danger is that the medium swamps the content – and we need creativity and freshness in content as much or more than in technology.

      As I said at the end of my post, I do think there is scope for a new kind of partnership – one that brings together people with very different skills, and places a proper premium on those skills – whether it’s the shy artist and the social-media guru as I suggested, or whether it’s the web technician, the storyteller and the war veteran coming together in Beth Wanono’s idea based on RSA Animate (http://linkd.in/mBy79N, assuming you have LinkedIn access – let me know if not).

      I’d love to know how this fits with the connected communities work. Best – Ben

  2. Dan Holloway says:

    As for “any takers?”, Richard Nash is the closest, though he’s disappeared a little. And to be fair, I really wish I didn’t have to duck and cover any time I mention James Frey
    If you remember, i wrote over 18 months ago about the need for curators of the kind the art world has (http://agnieszkasshoes.blogspot.com/2009/11/literatures-new-art-so-whos-jay-joplin.html). I also absolutely agree about the fact that tech has produced nothing new – people are simply using it as a new means of distribution for old ways of doing. I genuinely think there’s been nothing new since Duchamp.

    The fact we have no takers is one of the reasons I started eight cuts gallery

    As for internships – not only are they pernicious, I struggle to see how they are legal. There are lots of glass ceilings in the world that are subtly masked. There is nothing subtle about internships – they are basically a way of ensuring only the rich and uncommitted can have best access to certain careers. Wearing my other hat as a campaigner for equality I fail to see how there can be any defence for them

  3. Dan Holloway says:

    To add a link – this was the post I wrote about the lack of innovation using new tech

    http://yearzerowriters.wordpress.com/2009/10/25/the-schlock-of-the-new/

    • Ben Bennetts says:

      Thanks, Dan. The concept of curators is an intriguing one, yet I wonder whether I’m still not expressing myself quite coherently. The eight cuts approach is still about the self-publicist, about the writer getting out there and interacting with a live audience. That works well for some writers and some audiences – you are a supremely talented stand-up performer yourself, one of the very few with both the performance skills and the writing skills – and your writing is, if I may say so, particularly well suited to live performance. Not all good writing is.

      My question remains (and I’m going to keep asking it), what about those who have the writing talent but not the self-promotion skills or the performance skills (or indeed the ability, willingness or inclination – for whatever reason)? How does their work get out there? Or are they condemned to obscurity because they can’t do the live gigs and won’t spend their lives on social media? That is where the curator is really needed.

      You are right; it’s quite hard to pin down what Richard Nash is doing these days.

  4. Excellent post, Ben.

    The ability to self-promote is important, sure. So is writing. You need both, but writing is more important.

    You could come up with a sophisticated viral marketing campaign which hit all the right people, but if your book is terrible, they either won’t buy it, or they will and they will leave stinky reviews, and not only will they never buy one of your books again, but they will tell the world to do the same.

    However, if you have no marketing skills whatsoever and you are just toiling away, year after year, putting out exceptional book after exceptional book, but only a handful are buying, it’s only a matter of time before that catches fire. If you have built up a backlist of exceptional work, it’s only a matter of time before a group of vocal readers discover one title, and then the rest.

    Maybe I’m just an optimist.

    Dave

  5. Ben Bennetts says:

    Optimism is a vastly under-rated quality, Dave. I like the idea expressed in some of the comments on your post, that e-books have greater longevity than print, that it matters less how long ago something was published. I hadn’t seen that particular benefit before.

    • That’s a HUGE benefit. Today, a book has maybe 6 weeks (at most) to sell before the bookseller will send it back to the publisher. Whereas, self-publishers are seeing a completely different sales pattern – a slow build. This isn’t possible in trade publishing anymore. Books are returned or warehoused if they don’t sell well straight out of the gate. It doesn’t give much chance to a quieter book or one on a slightly more obscure topic.

      I know lots of self-publishers that sold only a handful of copies in their first few months, who are making enough to write full time now. However, if they had posted those early numbers in a trade deal, their career would have been over before it began.

  6. Ben, I tend to agree that the opportunity for self- publishing may not be such a welcome opportunity for many authors. There is certainly scope for new models, perhaps co operatives or similar as is starting to be created in recorded music. The RSA could have an important role in bringing such people together….

    Colin

    • Ben Bennetts says:

      Colin, I agree entirely about a role for the RSA. It is about bringing together a mix of strengths and skills, which is exactly what the RSA is so good at. Where to start?

  7. Ben Bennetts says:

    Just come across this excellent post by Monty Joynes, which I think proves my final point. And this 2003 article from The Atlantic, too.

  8. Pingback: Merchants 1, Culture 0 « Things Unrespected

  9. Tom Stronach says:

    Ben, There was me jumping in on my rant to your comment on the BIg Think when I should have read this post first. I think we basically agree. I have put a second comment and I still think that some of them may not now be associated to you, I do think that there is a snobbishness in the publishing industry, or so it seems to me. I need to read the Alison Masters post you refer to and maybe do one of my own as I think internships are, as you say, a means for the well of to take jobs from those that MUST and NEED to work!

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