During most of my life, there has been only one way to get a manuscript into format in which everybody can read it, and that is through the publishing industry, owned and operated by large corporations whose expertise is in making money, not literature. They do it by making books and selling them. They do it by thinking in terms of a print-run of, say, 10,000 copies, in which the publisher’s income is dependent on how close the publisher comes to 10,000 sold. But it turns out we—those of us alive at this moment—are fortunate to be living in a time of transition, when people are moving to accept ebooks, and print-on-demand books are beginning to match the quality of and the technical achievements of books made on high-speed presses.
I am now publishing all four of my books in both ebook format, to be read on readers of all kinds, and in print-on-demand, in which books are printed one-at-a-time as buyers pay for them. This latter is a technology free of the need to sell 10,000 copies of a single print run of a book. One copy, once sold, pays the author more than a great publishing house pays the author for that same copy and pays the printer for his costs and leaves no one else left to be paid. I have written about this moment and its similarity to the invention of moveable type in the fifteenth century and about how both periods were periods of confusion—why would any community need more than one copy of the Bible?—and periods of great ferment and growth and the need to educate the book purchaser into a new relationship with books. I want to concentrate here on the ferment and growth.
These new technologies are already changing the patterns of what gets published and sold and bought and read. New York publishers are no longer the sole gatekeepers to the printed word. Almost eight years ago, I completed the last steps toward creating a digital copy of Race Point Light. Yesterday, on Thursday, June 6, 2018, I approved for sale a printed copy of Race Point Light, which now can be bought one copy at a time, which purchase completes the sale. Now it’s done, and readers have a choice of digital or print editions on all four of my books, and they can also buy them one at a time. They won’t go out of print, and I think, when I am dead and my copyright expires, they will move quickly and easily into the world of the public domain.
I don’t think we half understand the benefits we are going to reap from these new technologies. These may affect, principally, people on the edges, members like me of a minority whose books have not promised the sales that the big publishers require to stay in business. They are going to have a liberating effect on people in the minorities who want to write about their communities or about something even smaller, something, some aspect of that small community on that small planet in a small solar system far from the center of the universe, but who insist that they be heard. They are going to affect those buyers who want something more liberating than they can get from the local Barnes & Noble. We need not listen to people who say, Nobody wants to read a book about that, because somewhere in our cosmos there is a person who wants to read about that, somebody in to something different. Now we have the technology and the commercial model to write, print, and completely pay for that one book at a reasonable price. We don’t need 10,000 people to agree to buy the same book to make that book available to the one person—or the ten people—who wants it. This gives millions of people who are not part of a large minority access to literature they want without forcing them to resort to the benefit of scale. They don’t even have to belong to a minority of two.
The act of writing about Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab and Moby Dick or the story that Quentin told Shreve in Cambridge or that John Rechy told in City of Night of his travels through the underbelly of America is an heroic act. On December 10, 1950, William Faulkner gave his speech accepting Nobel Prize for Literature. He says that it is the writer’s responsibility to write of “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Faulkner’s list of the “universal truths” should be updated, of course, for the entries on his list are all deeply personal “truths.” That list should be expanded to include the conflicts not only of the heart but the conflicts of the polis, the conflicts that arise when the political system does not accurately reflect the reality of the people, when, for example, literature does not accurately reflect people of color and Asian-Americans, women, and Jews and LGBTQ people. How many novels have you read of young black men fatally shot by cops? I suggest that pain and courage be added to Faulkner’s list of universal truths which are the writer’s subject. “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.” We can leave the soul for other writers. It is that inexhaustible voice that we need to remember here. LGBTQ men and women and families of color and Asian-Americans and Jews have an inexhaustible capacity for suffering and an inexhaustible well of courage when they confront the ways the polis has oppressed them.
Writing is an heroic deed for anyone, but especially for LGBTQ people. We were told that ours was a love that dare not speak its name, a belief that effectively eliminated our right to free speech and self-expression, and Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, which was the basis for American common law, held that the thing that defines us is not fit to be named among Christians and the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature. Bill Clinton’s administration proclaimed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So the act of writing about ourselves—of speaking ourselves out loud—is a defiant deed and a heroic deed, and the more we can gain access to readers without having to go through the gatekeepers of the dominant industry, the more we have liberated ourselves. We are in the middle of that process now.
This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about reading and writing and about my books and, of course, about the LGBTQ community, who are riding on planet Earth along with everyone else as it falls through space.