Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Redistributing Distribution

There's a bit in Hoffman's Steal This Book that recommends inventing a magazine or column and getting companies to give you swag for reviews and plugs that may or may not happen. It also suggests passing along swag you aren't interested in to people who might be. Forty years past that book's publication, the methods seem even sounder than ever. The only way you can believe that the underground mag, the comix, the zine scene is less viable and present now than it was twenty years ago, is if you believe in the authenticity paper can buy you. And - look, I love paper, I'm sentimental for different sorts of paper, for the dusty smell of old paper or the way newsprint can get on your nose - paper is a deadend medium. It's inefficient and the costs, monetarily and environmentally, are too much for us.

But who doesn't have a website, a blog, or a twitter account at this point? Somewhere on Facebook or MySpace that they use as a public journal or to redistribute news items and list five things they don't like to eat? Our phones and word processors have turned even our minor thoughts and passing whims into a globally-distributed news burst. And, that's the thing. "Globally distributed" is big, but because it's electronic, because it does not hold the awe and authenticity that we have been trained to perceive with paper products, it does not appear to us in its full grandeur.

There are reasons Steal This Book has given way to Steal This Wiki and, yet, remains in print with an actual price listed on the cover.

Amanda Palmer talks about how a donation-only gig arranged through twitter, versus the high cost and low returns garnered from traditional distribution means, and it isn't a fluke, either.

Some people seem to think these methods are new, or something that can happen once but never be replicated, like the internet version of cold fusion. Scarab currently claims to be "the world's first and only mobile literary magazine" which ignores both a plethora of mags and zines online and downloadable as PDFs, many of them (not just plugFEMplug but Steam Punk Magazine , Drunken Boat) free and embracing the fact that distribution is global and many niche niceties of a more limited marketing out of date.

People can download free lit journals, free archives of artwork, and read them on their phones, their laptops, or they can put them through something like zinepal to get a printable pdf with pretty dual columns and all that good stuff. FEM's been thrown up on torrent sites, the files have been copied and re-copied, the text trimmed out with the old cut/n/paste key commands, read on phones and printed and spiral-bound. If it's online or in a digital format at all, people will find ways to take it with them and move it around as they need it, just like people will rip movies from DVDs or dub them off VHS, or use filesharing services to move mp3s about, even of the oldest, most inexplicably rare LPs.

The difference in quality between a salon in Paris a eighty years ago and the state of DeviantArt's archives, as of yesterday, is measurable on a case by case basis, individual works of art by singular artists, not by the closed door nature of one or the open registration of the other. And free does not mean that (a) the apparent authenticity of print will no longer hold weight with an element of the audience, or that (b) people won't give out money to keep getting stuff that is only free at the creators' whim. Freakangels and MegaTokyo have proven that, and by presenting their material freely first, they generate a lot of prospective glances and ambient conversation, which a piece that remains closed until purchase cannot as easily. How many people gave Warren Ellis money because they just think he's cute or are afraid he'll beat them up, versus the people who gave him (and other folks) money for print versions of his Come in Alone or Bad Signal essays and rambles, which remained free online? I'd put real money, serious money, on those print editions selling because they feel more significant, more reliable, on paper, than they do on a computer screen.

The authenticity of paper, of the press, has long been promoted as a mark of accomplishment or truth. Lovers of early America go on about "free press" and "right to print", but this meant, neither that everyone had an equal voice in print, nor that everything someone wanted to print could be. Free press is free to anyone with access to a press and funds to run it, but without access to distribution, none of that press' outpour can get to anyone, rendering the printed materials pretty much useless. When the British dissenters founded the United States, hardly anyone at all was ever likely to even get near to having access to methods of print production or distribution, and censorship was even thicker and more collusive than it is today. The authenticity, the argument of quality or veracity, which print is based on, is a lie, as self-serving to the liar as all lies.

Does that mean, I believe all work across the internet, every jot tweeted, every tittle typed, to be of equal or substantive value? Well, it doesn't mean I believe everything put to paper and carried by a major chainstore to be more valuable than something produced and released via different methods, certainly. And, it would seem reductive to draw a line in the communications-sands at print on paper, as it would have been to draw that line at the transition from scroll to book, or to mark off syllabaries as superior one and all to any other form of grapheme set. There are people who prefer to imagine and insist that visual and textual representations by themselves can be art, but hypergraphia combining text and visual is only fit for advertisements or children's diversions, but there are less of them every day, and they will eventually have to accept that position as one purely of taste, or grow so far out of the conversation as to be null. Just as people who are incapable of accepting value or use to abstract or photorealist representations are out of the conversation. People who use a particular gender, ethnicity, culture, or style of dress as the epitome of modernity, the default of humanity, are out of the conversation. People who think that print is dead and nobody reads but check their text messages whenever one comes in and spend half the morning responding to e-mails, are in danger of losing the conversation. And everyone, but teachers, preachers, and saints, will be too busy conversing and enjoying themselves to notice.

Update: As I posted this, apparently, Warren Ellis was putting up the distribution numbers on several lit mags and promoting FLURB, which is online, quality, and free.

1 comment:

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