• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The only too lonely author

You’ve spent the last six years hidden away in a small, sparsely furnished walk-up in a dilapidated old brownstone in Brooklyn. You live alone, except for an elderly cat, and you don’t go out much. Your friends and acquaintances are remarkably few; you seldom meet, phone, e-mail, or text them, and you can’t even remember the last time you Twittered or checked Facebook. You clearly don’t measure up to Aristotle’s vision of a social being.

So why this reclusive behavior? Well, because you’ve been otherwise engaged, crafting an object for the ages. You’ve been deep into the splendidly solitary business of writing the Great American Novel, or Great Zimbabwean or Yi novel if you prefer, and it’s demanded your full, unwavering attention. No time or energy for socializing, ftf or virtually. For as Herman Melville, John Gardner, Isaac Asimov, and so many other writers found, the Muse visits only when you entirely remove yourself from the human network and its built-in distractions.

Entering the tAgora to sell your wares

At any rate, now that your book is complete – all 500 pages, or one megabyte – you’re understandably eager for people to read it. So you do what novelists around the world have done for hundreds of years: you emerge grudgingly from your self-imposed exile, reconnect to society, and go about the process of getting published. In the modern world that means that you contact editors, agents, and whatever colleagues and friends you have left. In short, you formulate a strategic plan for enshrining your precious creation in humanity’s Museum of Verbal Art, that great canon of world literature situated snugly within the busy print-marketplace of the tAgora.

If all goes well with your plan – and that’s a forbiddingly large “if” – a publishing firm will accept your manuscript and you can start down the road toward production of a suitably configured artifact. After evaluation, revision, reevaluation, copyediting, design, printing, binding, advertisement, and distribution, your Museum exhibit will finally be mounted and ready for viewing. And imagine the manifold possibilities that then present themselves! People can buy your book in their local bookstores or online, or they can borrow it from their local libraries. They can read well-placed, appreciative reviews that make it sound too irresistible to pass up, or hear about its merits from enthusiastic friends in a monthly book club. What was once merely a motley set of characters and a vague plot-line might even gain admission to college and university courses on contemporary literature.

The sky’s the limit. The world is your oyster. There’s no ceiling on the growth and scope of your potential audience because, wonder of wonders, you’re now an author with a real-life book. Savor the moment: you got published.

But hold on just a moment. Is this rosy scenario realistic? More precisely, does it tell the whole, unexpurgated story? In particular, are your novel’s horizons truly limitless?

What “publishing” really means

Let’s start from scratch. Literally, “to publish” means “to make public.” Etymology and everyday usage both indicate a significant, dramatic change of status: namely, moving something you’ve created yourself from the private to the public sphere, making that something generally available and consumable by others, placing it “in the public domain.”

And it’s simple enough to understand how that easy definition gained and maintains currency. If we track your novel from the germ of an idea conceived in that Brooklyn walk-up through the 500 pages of print-out and on through the sequential stages of the publishing process, the overall trajectory is obvious and striking. It stretches all the way from an audience of one (yourself) to an in-group of a few (your agent, editor, etc.) to a post-publication audience of thousands, maybe millions (your national and international readership). Publishing your novel has ratcheted up its ability to communicate – and not just in crude numbers, but categorically; it’s now a different kind of creature altogether. The brute power of the tAgora is undeniable.

But on closer examination, this scenario also begs a number of unsettling questions, questions that we customarily ignore as part of our unspoken ideological commitment to textual reality. Here are a few of them. When we publish, do we necessarily – as etymology and usage insist – actually communicate with “the public?” Are we verifiably contributing to the public domain? Does what we create – whether knowledge, art, or ideas – truly become generally available? If not, why not? Even with every best intention and every possible effort, do novelists and their book-making collaborators simply release their precious progeny to the world? Just how public is that public, anyway?

tAgora publication

In reality, conveying your novel via the book and page is never a simple, unqualified act. Although in principle em-booking your ideas enables their consumption by a broad (we much too glibly suppose unlimited) audience, there are at least four nettlesome issues that rear their heads and spoil the media-romance:

#1. The issue of selection. It might well be the Great American novel, but that doesn’t mean your stack of paper or collection of bytes will win acceptance by a publisher overnight, or for that matter anytime. Too many desk drawers harbor collections of recyclable pages that have been serially refused, perhaps by dozens of presses, whether for real or specious reasons. Publishers make their selections according to a wide variety of criteria, many of them strictly business-oriented, so the literary worth of your efforts may not receive full attention. Because rejection rates in many cases run over 90%, the very first challenge you’ll face on the road to tAgora triumph is also one of the most forbidding and absolute. It’s a sad fact that many if not most novels are never published at all.

#2. The issue of copyright. Once a project is accepted, creators and their publishers negotiate and lock in the kind of access that prospective audience members can have to their joint product. But legal barriers, championed as a necessary means of protecting ownership and avoiding misuse of the communication, keep many users out even as they provide access to a chosen few. If your novel is owned, then access will necessarily be governed by applicable tAgora rules, whether “Big C” or Creative Commons licenses. And that means your audience will just as necessarily be limited by those same rules.

#3. The issue of fees. An exchange of assets, normally in the form of fees to be remitted, almost always stands between prospective audience members and their use of tAgora artifacts. In the most familiar case, we pay bookstores for their brick-and-mortar objects, and online access also characteristically involves payment. It’s crucial to remember that anyone or any group who cannot afford that fee – no matter how “fairly” we try to price the commodity or user-license according to our scale – is effectively ostracized by this procedure. Your Great American novel simply cannot be read by anyone who cannot afford the tAgora entry fee. Given the way the world unfortunately works, this exclusion will disproportionately affect those millions of potential readers outside the moneyed, libraried, wired West.

#4. The issue of distribution. Just as constraining as the imposition of fees is the highly problematic matter of distribution networks. Your novel not only has to be afforded by prospective third-world readers, in other words; it also has to physically reach them where they live. It’s one thing for U. S. readers to visit the local Barnes and Noble, or order their books online with the firm expectation of two-day delivery to their doorstep. It’s quite another, as a Nigerian colleague recently explained to me, to try (and fail) no fewer than five times to have a particular title shipped from a U. K. publishing house to his Lagos address. Things are rapidly changing, and the coming years will see an improvement in book availability as eReader devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad play a larger role by leveraging eAgora delivery strategies. But financial as well as physical access to these groundbreaking devices, not to mention limited content even on Google Book Search, will no doubt remain obstacles for some time.

oAgora and eAgora publication

Much of the Pathways Project addresses oAgora and eAgora publication in one way or another. For example, eCompanions and eEditions were created to take advantage of the basic OT-IT (Internet Technology) homology in order to better understand and represent oral traditions. They serve as answers to the question of Why not textualize OT?. Other nodes, such as Online with OT and those describing the stand-alone book and media suites, point out ways in which media can be productively combined.

But as a guide to general principles, consider how the four issues cited above translate outside the tAgora.

In the oAgora

The oAgora has of course had its own publication strategies in place for a very long time, ever since that marketplace opened for business sometime during the first month or two of homo sapiens' species-year. In this arena, “to publish” has a far broader and far more flexible meaning than in the tAgora. Telegraphically put, when communication is emergent and demands an immediate and present audience, it cannot resort to asynchronous strategies. When performer and audience are co-creating the reality they share, that reality cannot be predetermined or owned. The participants are constructing an experience together, as they proceed, navigating through shared pathways in a joint, continuing effort rather than depending on a one-time, one-way transferral of brick-and-mortar items for later perusal. So, because they co-create, they effectively co-publish.

The four issues associated with tAgora publication take on very different shape in this scenario. Selection, the first hurdle that your Great American novel had to leap, is at once a more mutual and non-finite phenomenon in the oAgora. Stories, for example, will not survive if they lose their function for the audience, or, as was the case in our fieldwork in the Former Yugoslavia, if the audience disappears altogether as other activities become more crucial. Even critical audiences are important partners in what is always a mutual project.

Over time, oral traditions undergo a kind of natural selection, with the key being the survival of the most functional and most enjoyed. Over the generations that these stories are told, they may well go in and out of societal favor and cultural usefulness, as the behavioral codes they teach, for instance, win, lose, or regain their currency for the teller(s) and audience(s). Selection isn’t “once and done,” and the decision on continued viability is a cultural decision that is made again and again through the generations.

Correspondingly, copyright, or legal ownership and protection against change, isn’t in the cards in the oAgora. All other things being equal, publishing in the oral traditional marketplace is first and foremost driven by sharing, not by sequestering. Of course, different cultures attach a variety of rules about who can perform, who can attend, when the performance can happen, and so forth, but the essence of oral tradition lies in its ongoingness, its continuity. Enforced stasis amounts to discontinuity and death; absolute individual ownership means that the chain is broken, that the pathways are no longer viable. oPublication demands the antithesis of tAgora-type transactions, and for that same reason, the imposition of fees is also foreign to the oAgora.

The matter of distribution is especially interesting. In contrast to the barriers erected in the tAgora, oral traditions propagate themselves and spread throughout societies over generations, again subject to cultural constraints for the specific genre. Some people may be pre-selected or restricted on the basis of gender, age, or societal membership, but traditions actively depend for their continued vitality on being shared – and not just among existing members of the society at any one time but through the multiple generations that have collectively navigated their richness. Distribution is, in other words, pre-programmed to reach all who need to be reached. Small wonder, given that well-integrated network, that the impulse to textualize – to translate from the living reality of the oAgora to the museum of the tAgora – almost always comes from outside the society, from beyond the interactive network.

In the eAgora

Self-publication provides an easy alternative to restrictive tAgora procedures. You ePublish your novel yourself, so it’s evaluated and accepted by none other than you. Very soon it will become available universally as an open-access, free-of-charge entity. On the surface this strategy looks promising: problems associated with selection, copyright, fees, and distribution vanish. In the simplest scenario, this means that the 90% rejection rate diminishes to zero, the built-in delay of months or years compresses to a mouse-click, and anyone in the world can read your novel without charge. In short, everybody and everything can get published in virtual space – right now and without further impediment.

Of course, the millions of blogs that are read by no one except their creators testify to the inherent liabilities associated with this kind of unchecked process. Even the most energetic surfers quickly find themselves awash in unfiltered content, and the usual measures of likely quality – publication by a reputable press, pre-publication reviews, and so on – are entirely lacking. So you can certainly go ahead and publish your novel on the web without having to scale familiar tAgora barriers, but there are crippling complications. Who will actually want or be able to read it? Who will “hear of” or even find it? Your public will immediately and dramatically enlarge – more accurately, it will explode – to include everyone worldwide with a browser and a connection to the Internet. But that global, unfettered democracy introduces some awkward new challenges into the picture.

Happily, solutions are being developed that avoid the all-or-nothing dilemma. Many of these solutions cluster around what might be thought of as the Golden Rule of media deployment: use multiple media in an integrated suite, with each medium assigned to handle what it’s best at facilitating. This rule advocates nothing more than common sense: use the right tool for the job, as Corey Doctorow has advised.

A simple example is the creation of a sponsored gateway or portal for eAgora publication, with gatekeepers representing an association or company or readership with some sort of independent standing. Instead of getting lost in a morass of undifferentiated material, your novel would bear the trademark or “imprint” of that portal, to which surfers could turn to locate vouched-for content. (One example of this kind of gateway is the open-access, free-of-charge website for the journal Oral Tradition.) Once the gateway gained credibility, prospective readers could subscribe to its contents via an aggregator or feed-reader, receiving notice when new novels were posted. Much of the needle-in-a-haystack problem – ever a threat in our Digital Age of Plenty – could be solved in this way.

The difference between this kind of ePublication and the usual tAgora publishing arrangement amounts to what media critics have identified as the Long Tail. Because eAgora products aren’t priced on a per-pixel basis, any such gateway could potentially afford to house a theoretically unlimited list of publications. Costs, storage, and other brick-and-mortar challenges wouldn’t scale in anything approaching the same way as in the tAgora. Even with adjudication and preparation (copyediting, design, etc.) standing between aspiring authors and that wide wired world of readers, the selection filter could allow a great many deserving novels to pass through its hallowed portal, many more than conventional tAgora publishers could afford. (And of course the sponsoring group would be able to set the filter calibration as they saw fit, to control the size and focus of their site’s content, as well as impose modest fees for their contribution to sponsorship and preparation.)

What’s more, this model has implications not only for your novel, but also for the publication of expensive reference books, magazines and professional journals, and even the books and articles that support the awarding of tenure and promotion in our colleges and universities. And there are myriad other models, such as Project Muse at Johns Hopkins University Press, which eLicenses professional journals to libraries, folding multiple subscription fees into user licenses and leveraging the digital medium to put texts in the “hands” of readers without trafficking in bulky items. But whatever the model, the key is meshing media to best advantage, creating a hybrid, multi-agora system that optimizes the communication of knowledge, art, and ideas.

What’s in it for you? Well, thanks to such a media suite you could reach beyond the tAgora and get ePublished, achieve sponsored eRecognition, and reach the international, non-denominational ePublic that only the Internet can offer. All by becoming a multi-agora citizen.

Getting sequestered

So let’s take stock. Congratulations are certainly due on the publication of your novel in the tAgora! But your emergence from the brownstone idea-factory into the celebrated world of print – the ritual ceremony of “getting published” – has also meant, counterintuitively, that you’re getting sequestered. Why? Because in committing your novel to tPublication, you’ve automatically curtailed as well as expanded its possible audience, constrained as well as increased its availability. Ironically enough, you’ve made sure that a certain very large segment of the human population will never be able to read your epochal saga without extraordinary, out-of-agora intervention. Yes, by publishing you’ve engaged a public, all right, but conventional tactics have unavoidably narrowed that public to “the usual suspects”: those who can gain admission to the tAgora.

...and getting unsequestered

But all is not lost. If you’re willing to become a citizen of multiple agoras, to mix media in effective proportions, and to commit to communication beyond textual ideology, the way is open for your novel to make its mark in a much larger world. In the coming years entities that offer novels – and any other texts as well – via such hybrid channels will have the chance to combine the best, most useful features of the eAgora and the tAgora. They will have the opportunity to ensure that audience and communication are optimized without regard to geography, culture, demography, or other limiting factors. Just as eEditions have made oral traditions available in new and engaging ways, bringing oral performances back to life for a far more diverse audience by resynchonizing the event, so the eAgora can promote increased participation by a truly international, non-predetermined readership.

So we can hope that the eAgora eventually puts your Great American novel in the virtual hands of anyone in the world who wants to read it. That would be a boon not only for your novel but for myriad other texts as well. And in the process, who knows? We may succeed in engaging a suitably diverse and representative readership, something geometrically beyond John Milton’s elitist notion of a “fit audience though few.”

We may even manage to recover the root meaning of “to publish” – which is emphatically not “to sequester,” but rather “to make [truly] public.”