Alert reader K recently sent me a link to this excellent (if occasionally grumpy) Guardian article by British author Anthony Horowitz. It’s a good article from a published author, who, like all authors (published or not), has been doing a lot of reevaluation of the role of traditional publishers. After listing some negatives, then some positives, he eventually ends in what I think of as the “Annie Hall” stance, from the last big joke, punchline and moral of that film:

ALVY: It was great seeing Annie again and I realized what a terrific person she was and how much fun it was just knowing her and I thought of that old joke, you know, the, this, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken,’ and uh, the doctor says, ‘well why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships. You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd and, but uh, I guess we keep going through it…because…most of us need the eggs.

But, as I see it, Horowitz and Alvy from Annie Hall have the same problems. Alvy believes that there’s always going to be problems with Relationships, just as Horowitz believes there’s always going to problems with Publishers, but neither is really committed to figuring out if there’s something maybe THEY are at least contributing the something wrong that’s causing those problems. Horowitz’s stance toward publishers is “But what do I get out of it?” which is what Alvy’s (and most everyone else’s) stance toward Relationships is too. Maybe the reason publishing houses and the people who work there are difficult to work with is because they have had to spend so much of their professional lives working with self-absorbed, irascible, self-aggrandizing, egotistical and megalomaniacal writer types.

Another problem with the Annie Hall stance, and this follows from the first, is that neither Anthony nor Alvy are committed to changing in any real way to try and build a unique, special, and meaningful relationship with publishers or girlfriends, respectively. They’re content to just accept as given that craziness is part of the process, there’s nothing you can do about it, and we all just have to settle for the status quo, but gosh don’t you love the status quo.

Worst of all, though, is the cocky, invisible assumption that underlies the Annie Hall proposition, namely that we all are going to have infinite chances to keep trying to make things work. It’s ok if Alvy didn’t make things work with Annie (or any of her substitutes) because there will always be more Relationships. It’s ok if authors don’t work with publishers to build a more 21st century relationship, because publishers will get by doing their thing in the way they’ve always done and always will.

I think this is the most pernicious assumption writers are making today. Most writers, it seems to me, agree that publishers do provide some good and we don’t want them to go away, but … fixing all the other broken parts of their business model should be their business. Meanwhile, we writers are just going to go over here now and publish with Apple or Amazon or publish on our own and badmouth the publishers over here… The implication here is that once publishers get their shit together, and give us some more reason to value them, then the ego-tripping writers will be ready to receive them.

Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t think the world works that way. Horowitz does nail it when he says, “I see us as being very much connected in a fast-changing market where the values we most share could be the first to be thrown out of the window.” It’s true. We are all connected. The successful writers, the unread, the publishers and even the unpublishable adorers of all things Story. If writers don’t keep feeding publishers the good stories they need to survive, we’re not going to keep having publishers around to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Maybe that won’t be so bad, it’s true, I freely admit that. Yeah, sure, maybe we can figure out other ways of doing it, but the thing is: what if we can’t? And what if we can’t, but we also can’t resurrect publishing either? What happens to the literary ecosystem then? Maybe it won’t be good and maybe it will be permanent. Maybe everything will be fine, but if there’s even a tiny chance that world without publishers will be a diminished world, I think that possibility needs to be hanging out where all the writers can see it while they’re formulating their own opinions, don’t you?