My Content Machine is Broken

I’ve never ‘required’ a textbook for my classes; given that I’m usually on about digital media, my classes are usually based on online resources. However, this past year, Michael Bhaskar published an excellent book on his theoretical model for understanding publishing, The Content Machine, and I thought this would make an excellent required reading for our grad students.

So I ordered a class set through the campus bookstore, and of course they were late arriving, but by the second week of class, everybody had a shiny red copy of The Content Machine — except two students, who came to me, puzzled, saying that something wasn’t right. Inside the red cover of their books was something else: Broken, by Traci L Slatton.

My Content Machine is (literally) Broken

Broken, on closer inspection, is a ‘paranormal romance’ involving angels, set in Nazi Germany (which explained the swastika on the title page). A little more digging showed that Broken is published by Parvati Press, which turns out to be an imprint created by Ms Slatton herself, for this and nine other books. You couldn’t have asked for a better setup: Inside my publishing textbook is a self-published paranormal erotica story. There’s the contemporary publishing landscape in one perfect image. Or, as I like to say, my Content Machine is Broken.

I wrote to Michael Bhaskar, who expressed considerable shock at the story. He wrote to Anthem Press, his publisher, who wrote me immediately, apologizing profusely and offering replacement copies. According to Tej Sood at Anthem, they inquired at the North American printer (Lightning Source, apparently), who pulled all copies of The Content Machine, but found no ‘broken’ ones. As far as I can tell these were the only two of their kind… an easy enough mistake between the printing and binding machines, the two books almost exactly the same length, and evidently, working through the same short-run printing service.

No, I protested, I didn’t need replacements (we had enough to go around); we’re a publishing studies program and this was a perfect teachable moment. I just wanted to share the wonderful irony. Indeed, we’d spent a good amount of time talking about the episode in class, and investigating Broken and Parvati Press.

So I wrote next to Traci L Slatton, as she deserved to hear about this too. So I wrote her the whole story, saying, “Isn’t this rich? What wonderful irony…” and so forth. Ms Slatton, whose eyes are firmly on the ball, was unmoved by all that. She replied very simply, “Would your students like more copies of my book?”

I replied, yes, there is interest in your book here. She promptly sent me a box of ten — free of charge — and I distributed them (with their proper covers) to my students. Traci also suggested, in one of our exchanges, that the students might be interested to hear more about Parvati Press. At this point, I would be a fool to say no to all the riches that had fallen from the heavens on us, so I arranged her to join us in by Skype (she is in NYC) in early December.

Traci turned out to be a fascinating and engaging speaker. She told us of her route to being a publisher, which began with an expensively produced coffee-table book by her husband, who is a sculptor of note. She also spoke of her frustration with what she calls “legacy publishing” and her belief that indies can do a better job of what was traditionally known as the midlist. She told us that she takes production values, cover design, editorial development, and such traditional concerns very seriously — that this is what separates “indie publishers” from the “self publishers” who don’t care about quality. And she told us that she currently had a number of authors in the pipeline, that now that she knows the ropes and how to put books together and bring them to market, she was in a position to provide this service to others.

In short, she rather perfectly embodied the values and virtues of publishing that have animated publishers through the ages; there’s no difference between Traci Slatton and the founders of the houses we now think of as “traditional” publishing — from Random House to ECW Press. Nothing, that is, except a much shorter path to market than the old guys had to contend with — and, maybe, less of a sense of entitlement?

In Canada especially, we like to celebrate our indie publishers. Many of the houses that make up this sector of the industry were founded in the 60s and 70s. Today, lots of people look with scorn upon the ‘self-publishers’ who flood Amazon with poor-quality books. I would remind them to look carefully, for along with the lemons you will find an indie publishing renaissance, featuring innumerable people who deeply care about the values and virtues of publishing, and who are animated by that same tradition. I for one welcome our new indie overlords.

BTW, I am in possession of two copies of My Content Machine is Broken (I had to wrestle one of them back from the SFU bookstore, who tried to return it). So far Bhaskar is the highest bidder. 🙂

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