J. Robert King

Camelot Now

Sarcasticalious from Flickr

Most historians agree that King Arthur was real.

It’s not because they have found Camelot or have dug up a mythic sword in  Glastonbury. It’s because there must have been someone like an Arthur who could stand in the power vacuum between Rome’s collapse and the Anglo-Saxon’s invasion. Someone must have fought hard enough that the Pagan raiders settled down to become Christian farmers.

So, Arthur was real.

But no historian believes that King Arthur was actually a king, or that he ruled a group of knights on horseback, or that he had a stone castle called Camelot, or that he knew anyone named Merlin or Guinevere. These were Medieval extrapolations on a Dark Ages man. When those stories were told, society had regained its equilibrium and had made Arthur its mascot.

But he was never anyone’s mascot. The true Arthur lived at a time when society had utterly broken down. He fought on, nonetheless.

And I’m suggesting, at least as far as publishing is concerned, that we have Camelot Now.

It’s not that we have white walls and purple banners, shining knights and chivalry–no. Those all are the inventions of civilization. Instead, we have Arthur, or a number of them–pragmatic, gritty, hardworking people who are standing up to imagine a new way out of this present Dark Age.

That’s where publishing is right now. The great empires are crumbling around us. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Harper Collins, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times–who would have thought that such august empires could collapse in the space of a decade? But that’s what’s happening.

In the time of empires, the collective means everything and the individual means nothing. How many times have you dealt with a juggernaut corporation staffed by clueless nebbishes? Somehow, the worthlessness of the individuals did not impact the power of the whole–much as the worthlessness of a given Roman soldier had no impact on the might of the Roman Empire.

But when the Roman Empire fell, there was no overarcing power. Suddenly, the collective meant nothing and the individual–the Arthur–meant everything.

In publishing, we’re living in such a time. The major publishers are imploding, and yet everyone (including yours truly) is writing a blog, as if we are all trying to be the New York Times editorial page. We’re all on social media, promoting ourselves and our works as if marketing departments had never existed.

We rightly understand that the empires can no longer save us. They cannot save themselves. But we also rightly understand that we cannot save ourselves. We need someone bigger, better, stronger.

That’s what Arthur was–a dux bellorum. He was a clear-eyed, hard-edged, pragmatic warlord  who could rally others to his side. At best, Arthur had an earthwork fort and a small band of warriors around him.

No, that’s not true.

At best, Arthur had vision and charisma. In the power vacuum left by the collapse of Rome, in the mini-ice age that settled over Europe, in the time of plague that would claim a third of the population, in the time of the Viking scourge–this Artus imagined a better world and led others to it.

That’s why this is Camelot Now. It’s not a golden age. It’s a dark one. But the best advice for getting to the bright world on the other side is to find someone with vision and pragmatism and charisma and lend your blade.

Sure, you may just be a thug now, but people looking back will think you were a knight in shining armor.

May 21st, 2010
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6 Responses to “Camelot Now”

  1. Steven Says:

    Great entry, Rob. A truly interesting take that’s more than the simple echo chamber I keep hearing about print’s imminent demise.

    Can I be the Geoffrey of Monmouth to your Arthur, should you take up the banner you’ve set up here? 😉

  2. Philip Athans Says:

    Outstanding, Rob–preach the truth, brother.

    The implosion of the big players might have been inevitable, but seeing it happen is still surprising. The survivors will be lean, mean, niche-content providers, which should open the media world in general up to smart, creative people working outside the dying system to create a new system of their own.

    I’m looking forward to it.

  3. Curtis Says:

    These are exciting times. I love it when everything we thought was nailed down comes loose. Bring on the “lean, mean, niche-content providers populated with smart, creative people….”

    “Prints imminent demise.” Being a contrarian by nature this theme, to my lights at least has been to easily adopted by to many to quick. To me, it has the ring of the untrue.

    There are a couple of choke points in publishing that need to be broken up for the river to flow again. A handful of beavers have had it their way for a long time.

  4. Rob King Says:

    Wow! Great comments, everybody.

    Yes, Steven, I think the situation we are in is tremendously complex, not a simple either-or proposition. What *does* seem clear to everyone is that publishing is going through a sea change, the same sort that swept over the music industry ten years ago. What exactly the changes will be is uncertain, but it seems clear to me that the publishing giants that were built for another world will have a great deal of difficulty surviving in the new one.

    Phil summed it up perfectly: “The survivors will be lean, mean, niche-content providers, which should open the media world in general up to smart, creative people working outside the dying system to create a new system of their own.” When the dinosaurs died, the world went over to these little scuttling shrewlike creatures who could survive a nuclear winter and inherit what remained. There were fruits hung a hundred feet off the ground that could be reached only by the neck of a brachiosaurus. But when they were gone, tiny pre-primates with grasping fingers learned to shamble up trees and feast where only the big boys once did.

    I’m hoping that I’m one of those little climbers.

    And, Curtis, I agree with you that print is not dead. It never will be. But it will be greatly diminished by what is happening. This is a new Guttenberg moment. When the printing press first arrived, scribes no doubt thought it couldn’t replace them. How many scribes do you know today?

    I *do* look forward to this new world. Perhaps it is because I vainly think I’m smart enough to adapt and thrive in it. Perhaps it is because I wasn’t all that thrilled with the old world, in which the little hole I dug in the stream bank kept getting squashed flat by those lumbering sauroopods.

  5. Curtis Says:

    Don’t know how much information swapping you want to do here. Maybe none. Anyway. As we all know, after the best and the brightest converge on this brave new world of books we/they will still have to deal with the age old problem of distribution. This guy, in a few words, gets at it best of any I have seen of late by way of an author who has been in the trenches of online book moving for awhile.


  6. Rob King Says:

    Bransford’s analysis is an excellent one. I hadn’t thought about the current predominance of the Kindle platform breaking down as other e-readers take off, requiring someone to sell e-distribution rights.

    I also agree with him that this sea change will not occur with a single stroke. Many, many small changes are mounting up together to form this big wave. That’s part of the reason it’s so hard to predict its direction.

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