The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire

After three years of closely following and writing about the trials and tribulations of the publishing industry, I decided it was a good time to do a bit of a wrap-up on the changes I’ve witnessed.  I’ve collected together some of the writings I’ve done on this site, added quite a bit of context and produced a book telling the story of the upheaval of the industry through my eyes and experience.

Perhaps most interestingly, the book has been published through my imprint, Watershed Publications, and is now available as an ebook through Amazon.  There will be a print-on-demand version coming along in a while, as well.  I thought it extremely fitting to tell the tale of the downfall of traditional publishing by using the very mechanisms of its disruption. 

To kick off the book’s run, it will be available for free from Amazon starting Christmas Day until December 29.  After that, it’ll be priced at the very reasonable figure of $2.99.  Check it out, if you like, by clicking at the bottom of this piece.

Merry Christmas to all, and I look forward to a grand New Year for publishing as the times keep rolling forward.  With change as big as those the industry is currently undergoing, some long-standing institutions will inevitably fall, but every ending for one marks a new beginning for another.

The Watershed Chronicle:
The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire

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The publishing industry is currently embroiled in a state of flux never before seen.  It’s a battle for the very life of the industry, with forces from both inside and outside jockeying for position.  Technology has undermined many of the things that once made publishing the long-standing giant it was.  More than that, the same technology is allowing more and more individuals and smaller entities to forego the traditional routes to publication entirely.  It’s an all-out assault on what has been one of the most successful, profitable enterprises of the past century.

Author Dan Meadows has followed the past three years of this battle very closely, not with the eye of a pundit so much, but as a member of the industry just looking for some path to find a viable future for himself.  After 15 years working within publishing, he found himself suddenly on the outside looking in, with no clear path back.  With disruption everywhere, and experts on all sides of the fight speaking in sweeping proclamations, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who’s right and who’s wrong, or which way the future leads.

Over two-and-a-half years, Meadows followed and wrote about the changes sweeping through the industry on his website, The Watershed Chronicle.  This book is a timeline of that writing, and a description of his journey through exploring traditional work after the disruption, trying out new online alternatives and finally settling on what he believes is the best course.

The publishing industry has changed in the past five years in more ways than it had in the previous century, and it’s not over yet.  This book chronicles one of the most tumultuous periods in the industry’s history from the eyes of someone in the middle of it, one that has seen massive revenue losses, layoffs and a dynamic shift in the attitudes and reading habits of the public.  It is a period that may well be looked back on as the beginning of the end of the traditional ways of doing business.

Buy From Amazon

Looking Ahead: Predictions for publishing in 2012 and beyond

This year saw the emergence of several factors that could have a profound impact on the publishing industry in near future.  Newspaper revenues backslid into more losses, increasing through the first three quarters of the year, and digital revenues, while improving somewhat, are still far short of making up the difference.  A few papers found some success with semi-porous paywalls that encouraged more of their brethren to make the leap into subscription based sites, for better or for worse.  Ebooks moved up to nearly 20% of the overall book market in the U.S. and all signs point to a steady upswing in that sector.

Amazon encroached further and further into traditional publishers’ domains, and started a drive to lower prices and increased saturation in the tablet market.  Millions of new digital customers are set to enter the ebook market after Christmas thanks to robust pre-holiday tablet sales.  Traditional publishers, in conjunction with Apple, forced the agency pricing model on ebooks, driving their prices up 50% or more in many cases.  That effort also brought some backlash in the form of civil lawsuits and antitrust investigations in both the United States and Europe.  Finally, self-publishing and independent publishers made great strides toward establishing themselves as a viable player and overcoming long-standing industry bias.  All in all, 2011 was a year of great transition, and one that has served to set the stage for what’s yet to come.

Following the industry as closely as I have this past year, I’ve reached a few conclusions about what will happen now, and where the industry as a whole goes from here.  It’s nearly impossible to accurately predict the future, even the most educated guess is still just a guess.  All it takes is one new technological break-through and everything is thrust right back into a state of flux.  Some people don’t like that kind of uncertainty but, for me, I find it invigorating.

Newspapers Are Finished

I’m still amazed that there are people out there who believe that print newspapers have any kind of future at all.  I’ve even come to seriously wonder if news websites really have any kind of future, either.  The primary problem, as I see it, is that they are entirely too dependent on advertising revenue to support their business model.  We are only one more advertising shift away from this entire industry segment getting wiped off the face of the Earth.  I believe that shift will come soon, and the era of advertising supported newspapers will end abruptly.

There is not one single trait of the physical newspaper that gives me any belief that they have even the slightest capacity to survive long-term.  They are expensive, inefficient and extremely limited.  In short, they are an anachronism.  The most recent surveys I’ve seen indicate that the percentage of people in this country who get their information from newspapers is down to 14% and falling precipitously.

News websites are also at severe risk of obsolescence.  Paywalls, ultimately, won’t be anything more than a temporary block to stave off the inevitable.  I’m just guessing here, but I suspect we’ll see a combination of elements pick up the slack when the inevitable finally happens, including mobile apps, easily accessible streams and standalone digital publications.  All of this will be dependent on finding customers to pay for the actual content, and the innovative and best quality content will win out in the end.  It’s a shift that will decimate the larger industry players because total revenue numbers will plummet with the loss of advertising.  I also anticipate that we’ll see the rise of truly independent journalists producing and selling their own wares under their own banners rather than working for a New York Times or a Wall Street Journal.

I believe the long-view will see a reversal of sorts of the consolidation run that happened in the last few decades of the 20th century.  The industry will fragment back into many smaller and even individual entities that will create an extreme diversity in viewpoints, products and delivery mechanisms.  I suspect the small local newspaper will likely have a slightly longer shelf-life than the large metros or nationals, but even they will be on the clock eventually.

Basically, my belief is that, as bad as things have been for newspapers over the past decade, we haven’t come close to seeing the worst of it yet.  But out of that Armageddon will emerge the potential for a far greater, more independent, more democratic news and information ecosystem.

Print Books Aren’t Quite Finished, But Close

The way elements are lining up heading into 2012, if I were a book publisher who depended on 75% or more of my revenue coming from print sales, I would be scared to death.  Digital reader sales across all devices are up 200-300%.  Amazon alone has been selling over a million new Kindles every week leading up to Christmas.  Ebook sales were in the miniscule single digits as a percentage of the overall book market just two years ago and now, some estimates have that up to as high as 20% in the U.S.  Through agency pricing, major print publishers have pushed the prices of their ebooks up to three or four times that of the growing self-published sector and, simultaneously, brought antitrust investigations and civil lawsuits in both Europe and America down on their heads.

The big-box retailers they used so effectively are gone (Borders) or at risk (Barnes & Noble) after having weakened independent bookstores to the point that a rapid drop in print sales could be the final straw in wiping most of them out.  Christmas of 2012 is poised to see literally 15-20 million new ebook customers entering the retail market.  And none of this even speaks to the digital expansion into foreign markets that is coming but yet to really kick into high gear.

I suspect that losses in the print book sector will happen quicker and more severely than those of newspapers.  They won’t have 8 or 10 years to map out a gradual digital transition; more like 2 or 3 years, if they’re lucky.  All this being said, print books will not vanish entirely.  I expect there will continue to be a high-end boutique market for very high quality printed material.  The overall market share, however, will be miniscule in comparison to traditional levels.

What we have here is the beginnings of a vicious downward cycle.  Declines in print book sales will cause a loss of book stores and physical retail outlets which will cause more losses in print book sales which will cause more losses of bookstores which will cause more losses in print book sales, etc., etc., until this segment of the industry is virtually unrecognizable.  In the end, I suspect bookstores will be winnowed down a great deal, 80% or more forced to shut their doors.  The ones that are left will cater to the boutique end of the consumer spectrum, and will convert to more of a literary cultural gathering place generating revenue through principle means outside of strictly print book sales.

At the end of the day, I believe that we will end up with the creative destruction of the long-standing print book industry replaced by a much larger, vibrant, much more independent industry that exists principally in cyberspace.

Amazon Won’t Be The 10-Ton Guerilla For Long

Read any blog, news site or publishing industry pundit and you’ll hear all about how bad Amazon is.  I, as an independent writer, am perplexed by other self-pubbed writers frequently ripping Amazon and their business practices.  They have done more for us than any other entity in recent memory, possibly ever.  The argument that self-published writers should somehow support traditional publishers in this perceived battle with Amazon simply defies logic.  If traditional publishers could squash all of the developments and advancements Amazon has brought about for us in the past few years, they would do it in a heartbeat, make no mistake.  To now turn and ridicule them for continuing to press their advantages against traditional publishers is not only hypocritical, it’s short-sighted and potentially self-destructive.  Big Six publishers aren’t really our friends, and they don’t deserve our unquestioning support in this conflict.

Amazon itself, no matter how large or powerful they get, is not any more immune to the disruptive forces that exist than the traditional publishing industry.  This isn’t simply an age marked by a sudden dramatic shift from one paradigm to another.  We’re at the very earliest stages of an era of constant, ever-present disruption.  No one in the internet age is too big to tumble.  Long-term monopolies, like the traditional publishing industry maintained, may well be nearly impossible to establish in this new era, and the only way in which they would keep that control and influence is to represent the values of the people they aim to serve as best as possible.

I believe that retail alternatives will emerge as the ebook market continues to expand and mature.  Formats will become more standardized, or at least easily transferable from device to device.  They will have to; customers will ultimately demand it to be so.  I expect we’ll see some specialized, genre specific retail and self-publishing outlets emerge over time.  Take romance fiction, for instance.  Imagine a retail site that caters specifically to readers and authors in that genre.  Or mystery.  Or horror.  Or science fiction.  Or historical non-fiction.  Or journalism.  The possibilities are endless.  As long as writers and publishers maintain the ability to publish across all retail outlets and platforms, there truly are no limits to the retail alternatives that could and will come about.  Today, they may well be the dominant player, but the history and nature of the internet itself suggests that will not always be the case, especially if they get too large or too onerous in their business practices.

In the end, I expect what we’ll see is a few large retail ebook stores in the vein of Amazon, and many, many smaller, very targeted retail options all over.  I also fully believe that, as authors themselves fully realize the potential of maintaining connections to their own fan bases, there will be an array of direct sales possibilities developed, as well.

Following “The Rules” Will Be Even Less Important

If you read enough online about publishing on any side of the spectrum, you will see that nearly everyone is going to tell you about “the rules.”  There are rules for breaking into the traditional side and rules for breaking into to the independent side.  There are rules for how you should write, what you should write and what you should do with your material afterwards.  The main problem is that if you read enough of those, you’ll find most of the rules stated out there conflict with other rules somewhere else.  The thing is, we are well on the way toward a time when, basically, there are no rules.  There are an ample variety of ways to go about getting what you want done, and the only thing that matters is what you find works for you.  And even then, things are changing so rapidly that something that works today may not work tomorrow.  Hard-and-fast, overly rigid ways of thinking can hang about your neck like an albatross, wherever you stand in the current publishing ecosystem.

As I said earlier, we now live in an era of constant disruption.  Flexibility, adaptability and experimentation are today’s ultimate keys to success, and that will only get more important, whether you aspire to traditional print publishing or independent digital publishing.  The great thing is that writers are generally pretty creative people.  Who could be better poised to take advantage of a circumstance where all the lines have been blurred and there are multiple paths to your desires than the creatively minded?

The next few years will likely see the final death of the old, established ways of doing business.  The transition will continue and we’ll eventually have a system that is very different than what we’ve been conditioned to expect.  The future, in many ways, is very bright.  Change can be frightening, but it can also be liberating and exciting.  Don’t weep for the things lost to the shifting sands of progress, revel in the new and innovative possibilities instead.

Read more about the digital disruption to the publishing industry and what all the changes mean for the future with author Dan Meadows’ new book The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire, available now.

Published in: on December 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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Start the New Year Off With Some Quality Fiction

With the post-Christmas shopping rush about to kick in, I thought I’d make a few suggestions for all of you out there looking to add something to your new holiday toys.  Below is a list of my fiction work, available at Amazon and various other online retailers.  Nothing beats a good book to kick off 2012.

Bad Timing

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Life is hard. We’re all broke these days, struggling to make ends meet. Our money is burning through us faster than we can earn it, eaten up by our credit card interest, balloon payments on the mortgage, or upwardly spiraling gas prices. Then your car breaks down.

You’re girlfriend is cheating on you with the guy she met at the gym, or you’ve caught you’re husband fooling around with his secretary. The kids just got suspended for something they put on their Facebook page, and you’re dog got sick and died, but not before ringing up four grand in vet bills. Then next week, the company you work for is set to start downsizing.

We’re all living through the 21st century version of the Great Depression, and you have to take off your shoes to get on a plane. But here are twenty-five stories about people who, whatever your problems, are much worse off. There are bodies to hide, ghostly Indians out for blood, cannibalistic homeless people, ever-present blizzards, soul-crushing isolation, loneliness, man-eating trees and much more.

So the next time you start complaining about your cell phone bill, or the dent left in your car door at the grocery store parking lot, remember that you’re not one of these folks. Life is still hard, but it could always be worse.

Buy in print from Amazon

Buy in print from Create Space eStore

Buy for the Amazon Kindle

Buy for the Barnes & Noble Nook

Buy for the Sony eReader

Buy from the Kobo ebook store

Buy from the Diesel ebook store

Buy in various digital and mobile formats from Smashwords

Buy in the Apple iBook Store

Devil’s Dozen

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Obscure (adj)  1. Lacking light, dark  2. Not easily perceived  3. Undefined, ambiguous, cryptic, hidden

Most of us dwell in the occasional bright places between the shadows, trying to find a few rays of light to lead us out from the darkness.  But all too often, the undefined gloom becomes as a black hole, so dark with such a gravitational pull that no light can break through the veil, leaving us to only stumble around without clarity or vision.

And once we become trapped, unable to see the way, we discover that there are other things in the dark with us.

Strange (adj)  1. Of another place, foreign, alien  2. Not previously known or experienced  3. Quite unusual or extraordinary  4. Peculiar, odd  5. Distant, cold in manner

Some of these things in the dark with us are benign or even friendly, fellow travelers just searching for the path home.  But there are the others, malignant and evil, that use the dark to prey on the lost and helpless.  Those are the ones you need to watch out for because, sometimes, lost in the blackness, you can’t tell the difference.

This book is a collection of 13 tales of people getting caught in the dark, and whether or not they can find light enough to escape it.  Violence, madness and death await those that fail, and sometimes, they’re the lucky ones.  Being trapped in the dark can be terrifying, you can pull yourself together and find a way out or you can collapse in on yourself, lost forever.  These tales are like guideposts, a path through the dark where some have fallen by the wayside.

But before you start reading, you have to ask yourself one simple question, are you afraid of the dark?

Buy for the Kindle at Amazon

Buy for the Barnes & Noble Nook

Buy for other devices or formats at Smashwords

Buy from the Apple iBookstore

Buy from the Diesel ebook store

Buy from Sony ebook store

The Watershed Chronicle’s 13 Days of Halloween

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Halloween is my absolute favorite time of year!  It’s so much fun that I had to stretch it out into a two-week long celebration of all things creepy and frightening.  Every day for 13 days leading up to Halloween, there is something scary good to do.  In The Watershed Chronicle’s 13 Days of Halloween, there is a little something to entice even the most hardcore horror fan.

Horror is such a pervasive genre in our culture, and it’s all covered here.  From the spookiest author ever, Edgar Allan Poe, to the most terrifying actor, Vincent Price, to the most ghoulishly brilliant director, Alfred Hitchcock, their best and most horrifying works are covered.  There are real-life ghost stories, a look at where some of the most popular rituals of Halloween originated, and rundowns of the best movies, books and television horror stories ever devised.  To top it off, there’s even some ghostly fiction, culminating in a never-before-published short story by yours truly.

October is a time of year like none other if you enjoy being scared out of your wits.  But what happens in October doesn’t have to stay in October.  Halloween is the best of all holidays, and there’s no reason you can’t celebrate year-round.  This book can help.  Happy Halloween!

Buy from Smashwords

Buy for Amazon Kindle

Watershed Tales

This is an ongoing series of individually published, longer-form (5,000+ words) short stories available for sale.  Each tale is an independent, stand alone story for only 99 cents. 

The Long Walk

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What happens when your conscience is over-ridden by your orders?  Is it better to simply do as your told, even when you find the actions abhorrent?  And if you do, despite your better judgment, what kind of consequences will follow, if any?

In The Long Walk, a young cavalryman gets assigned the duty of escorting some particularly violent prisoners to their place of execution.  The manner planned for the  deaths of the condemned is particularly horrible, but no one questions their actions or orders until it’s far too late.  Honor doesn’t supersede duty in the unforgiving desert, and the results are severe.

Buy from Smashwords

Buy for Amazon Kindle

Kingdom of the Sick

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It’s often been said that money can buy happiness, but that’s not always the case.  Sometimes, great wealth can create far more problems than it solves.  For Ashley Blair, daughter of wealthy businessman Charles Blair, trouble and torment has been the story of her life.

The family home, and an almost ethereal garden hidden on the property, has been the one constant in her ever-shifting existence.  Now that her father is nearing his own death, and the vultures of her siblings are circling to pick his bones for their inheritance, Ashe needs the solace of her childhood secret more than ever.  But will she find that peace she desperately desires?

Buy from Smashwords

Buy for Amazon Kindle

Faded Summer Leaves

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You hear so much about the innocence of youth, but in truth, youth isn’t all that innocent.  The same mean-spirited viciousness, rage and emotional trauma adults suffer through exists for the young, as well.  And often, the lack of experience of youth amplifies the problem.

Growing up is a hard row to hoe sometimes, and for a small, scrawny little kid like Tommy, it can be even tougher.  But everyone has their limits, even someone who you wouldn’t think could ever stand up for themselves.  A group of young boys on an afternoon fishing excursion is the stuff of sweet anecdotes and quaint paintings.  That is, until things go sour.  On this particular day, Roy, the town bully, really should have kept his mouth shut.

Buy from Smashwords

Buy for Amazon Kindle

Journalistic Integrity

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Reporters and war correspondents regularly put themselves in harm’s way all in the name of journalism, ratings and informing the people.  Most times, things work out; sometimes they go horribly wrong.  When a military madman rises to power in a former Russian province after the collapse of the Soviet Union, threatening Moscow and London with some old Soviet nukes he’d managed to get his hands on, it looks like the story of the century.

A bevy of reporters from all the major news agencies in the world make their way through the war-torn countryside in pursuit of an exclusive.  But when they find what they’re looking for, these newsmen discover that instead of covering the story, they are about to become it.

Buy From Smashwords

Buy From Amazon

The Garden

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Isolation can do strange things to a person, and there can be no place more alone than the depths of space.  Duane’s an astronaut on a 20-year mission to test technology for mankind’s greatest exploration ever.  His ship, being fully automated, leaves him with lots of time to fill.  The large garden that provides his food, water and oxygen for the journey is his only distraction from the tedium.

But several years into his mission, he loses contact with Earth.  The constant loneliness begins to dredge up memories of his unhappy past, and the garden that provides not only the elements for his survival but also his sanity, is threatened.  Will Duane find within himself what it takes to survive and make it back home or will he be lost forever?

This edition of Watershed Tales also includes a short bonus tale, Travis Walton Never Had It So Bad, a story of planetary exploration and how very wrong things can go.

Buy From Smashwords

Buy From Amazon

Quit Complaining! All the arguing in the world’s not putting the self publishing genie back in the bottle

In a not altogether unexpected development, there seems to be a backlash brewing over the growing self publishing trend.  I say not unexpected because it was, in fact, very predictable.  Disruption in any industry goes through this same process, and in an industry as long-standing and entrenched as publishing, one can only expect that it will be worse before it gets better.

Coming from newspaper and periodical publishing as I have, I’ve already been down this road once before.  When independent blogs and online-only news alternatives first starting gaining traction a decade or so ago, they were readily dismissed within the industry.  Bloggers were portrayed as jobless losers spouting off meaningless drivel from their mom’s basement.  News sites were called out as thieves and opportunists who simply rode the coattails of the established press.  And most of all, this new development in mass communication was meaningless because the legacy industry was self-anointed to be obviously far superior, and it was only a matter of time before these two-bit pretenders shriveled up and blew away.

Well, newspaper publishers, with all their elite, high-minded proclamations and arrogant superiority complexes, woke up a few short years later to discover that the interlopers hadn’t faded away, but had grown exponentially in both numbers and sophistication.  And they also found that 50% of their annual revenues had vanished in a matter of less than five years.

The book publishing industry was largely immune to that disruption cycle for one primary reason; they still maintained a monopolistic access to the market and no true, viable, mass market alternative yet existed for their principle money maker– the printed book.  But now, with the proliferation of affordable and increasingly popular tablets, that barrier against the crashing tide of digital disruption is washing away more and more each day.  To make matters worse, for newspapers, there was no simple means for the writing talent in their employ to generate comparable revenue online.  With ebooks, publishers’ pool of writing talent has a vast network of possibilities at their disposal to do just that.  Uh oh.

Lately, I’ve engaged in a few such discussions on various industry-related blogs, and I’ve seen three main arguments made against the self published barbarians at the gates of traditional book publishers.  While there are grains of truth to each, all three are widely being misrepresented to defend the old guard ways and over emphasized to demonize the forces sweeping change across the publishing landscape.

1. Amazon Is Evil

This is a big one.  Amazon is being portrayed as The Great Satan by those in and around the industry.  It makes sense, from their perspective, as Amazon is the most visible entity leading the disruptive influences currently threatening the industry’s revenue streams.  But they’re not evil, they’re a competitor.  I know it’s been a while since traditional publishing saw what actual competition looks like, but come on!  Amazon understands the possibilities that now exist better than most publishers and they’re acting accordingly in their own interests.  Most of all, they’ve made the brilliant move of treating writers as partners in the enterprise rather than necessary fodder for their profits.  Are they doing this out of the goodness of their hearts or because they just love writers so much?  Of course not, but it doesn’t change the fact that what they’re offering today gives us the very real possibility of altering long-standing industry norms in our favor.

Amazon clearly isn’t perfect, but, as a writer, they’ve done more for us in half a decade than traditional publishing has in the past century.  Is it possible that, if they gain a stranglehold on the market, the arrangements with writers will be cut back precipitously?  Certainly it is, but that day is not today, and they’d have to cut back a helluva lot to get from 70% to the 15% or so traditional publishers pony up.  Besides, who says Amazon will ever get that dominant?  Remember, a decade or so ago, Microsoft was on the cusp of putting Apple out of business, and now, they’re saddled with three generations and counting of lousy operating systems and Apple is the most successful tech company in the world.  Things change fast in the internet age.

This is a totally false argument, and one completely self-serving to those who wish to perpetuate the status quo.  You really expect me to believe that it’s in my best interest to shun Amazon based on what they might do in some hypothetical future in favor of what are clearly one-sided deals with publishers that we unquestionably know are happening right now?  Really?

2. Self Published Works Aren’t Worthy

This is the book world’s equivalent of the bloggers as basement dwelling losers argument.  To be sure, there are heaps of not-ready-for-primetime ebooks out there and more coming every day.  But that was to be expected.  This is a major new development, folks.  Regular people have never, I repeat, never had the ability or the access to do the things we all can today.  Of course there is a flood of works being thrown out there.  It’s not a bad thing, in fact, it’s a necessary part of the evolution we’re undergoing.

This will sort itself out. The people putting these works out are gaining valuable experience in the process with their successes and, more importantly, their failures.  Some will learn from it and improve over time, some will lose interest and drift away, but just as the blogging world evolved and improved, so will the ebook world.

I’ve seen opinions recently that suggest only work that the traditional industry would publish should be suitable for self publishing.  These opinions are basically to the effect of, “if they rejected you, then your book sucks and how dare you subject the world to work the established industry deemed unworthy!”  What a load of garbage.  I would argue just the opposite.  If the traditional publishing world shut you down, and you truly believe in your work, that is precisely what self publishing is for. 

This notion that the publishing gatekeepers have somehow cornered the market on literary quality is bogus.  They don’t know what makes a bestseller anymore than you, I or the crazy homeless guy up the street spouting off about death rays from the crocodile people who live in the sewers.  It’s a volume business to them.  They select a variety of books that fit their preconceived notions of saleable material and throw them out there.  If one hits, it pays for them all and then some.  It’s like the lottery, in a way, and the quality of the material really isn’t at issue, possible marketability within their defined distribution networks is.

That market structure is different now and, as ebooks grow, it’s getting broader every day.  A sub-niche book that didn’t make fiscal sense for a large publisher in the past can make perfect sense to a small independent today.  And if you need the vindication of a self-serving corporate publisher for your worth as a writer, you may need to take a little time and work on your self confidence.  Publishers don’t vindicate writers, writers vindicate publishers.

None of this is to say we shouldn’t strongly encourage a level of professionalism.  At the very least, proofread, proofread, proofread!  Creative and artistic choices are one thing, but basic spelling and grammatical errors are an entirely different matter.  It’s in your best interest as a writer to produce prose as clean as possible so readers are judging your ideas and not your execution.  Self publishing is publishing, after all, and if you’re going to play with the big boys, you need to be vigilant and definitely sweat the small stuff.

3. Readers Need Gatekeepers

What list of industry self-justifications would be complete without a little underestimation of the collective intelligence and capability of your customers?  How in the world will the great unwashed hordes of people figure out what to read if publishers and reviewers don’t tell them?  And if you offer them too many choices, people will simply collapse in on themselves and huddle up in a tight little ball on their living room floor until someone comes along to take all those extra options away, right?

That must be why the pizza joint up the street has 27 different varieties of pizza on display to buy by the slice.  I recommend the Thai Chicken Pizza, by the way.  Do you think traditional pizza makers would’ve thought to put barbecue chicken and peanuts on a pie?  Or how about the fact that there’s 236 off-the-wall fruit concoctions right next to the traditional O.J. in the grocery store juice aisle?  I guess that’s because people are easily confused by too many choices.  If anything, the whole of American life these days indicates we want significantly more choices, not less.  Why would books be the lone exception to that?

One of the more arrogant developments I’ve seen of late is the characterization of Amazon’s offerings as “the slush pile.”  For those that don’t know, the slush pile is the less-than-endearing term publishers have long used to describe the stacks of largely unsolicited manuscripts they’ve accumulated and treat pretty much like three month old junk mail.  This descriptor used against Amazon is a term of derision directed as much at the authors of said material as it is at the giant retailer.  The general point of this is to suggest that readers aren’t interested in wading through the slush pile.  Interestingly, though, this seems to ignore two big traits:  people’s desires for ever-larger arrays of options, and the long-established book selecting habits of readers.

I’m a voracious reader.  Every time I go into a book store, I get lost in there for hours.  What am I doing during that time?  Well, I go to a particular section, scan along the shelves, pick up anything that catches my eye, read the description on the book jacket, maybe flip it open and try out a few pages and, if I like it, it goes in my cart.  Once I’ve exhausted that section, I move on to another, rinse and repeat, until I have an armload of new reading material.  How, exactly, is that any different from how I shop on Amazon or other online booksellers?  I search for some subject or genre, scroll through the results, click on any that catch my eye, read the description and, maybe, pop open a sample to check out a few pages.  If I like it, click, it goes right into my cart.  Same thing. 

In such an atmosphere, there is simply no such thing as too many choices, particularly when I can narrow down the field at will through basic search terms.  Thinking that readers need someone to winnow down the options for them is simply arrogant, and it flies right in the face of the clear behaviors of their very own customers. 

Book reviewers are another class of industry hangers on who seem to believe they provide a valuable and irreplacable service that readers would simply be lost without.  All too often, they cling to some of the same bigotry against self published works, frequently refusing to even consider reviewing them.  That’s fine by me.

I buy a lot of books, both print and online, and I honestly don’t recall the last time I actually read a book review.  I’m not totally convinced I ever have.  If you’d like an example of the lessened impact of critics, look no further than the film industry.  Every year, there are lots of movies that make tens to hundreds of millions of dollars while simultaneously being widely savaged by film critics.  Their opinions simply don’t carry the weight they once did, and have little, if any, bearing on the success of the movies they review.  But don’t say that to a film critic, you’re liable to get a big bucket of gooey buttered popcorn in the face.

People seem to be finding their way to the theater and figuring out which movies they want to watch just fine, thank you.  And they’re doing the same in droves with books.  Readers don’t need gatekeepers for one simple reason, they are gatekeepers.  The only ones that truly matter, in fact, and they know it.  Underestimating your customers and overestimating your own worth are two clear signs of an industry in trouble.

Anyway, the point of all this isn’t to argue that self publishing is a panacea that will make all writers millionaires, conjure up world peace and cure cancer.  It’s also not to declare traditional publishing deader than a 48 year old virgin’s social life.  It’s to point out that many of the criticisms making the rounds these days in defense of the established industry aren’t all that viable and they don’t  really matter, anyway.  They can say whatever they want, self publishing is here and it’s not going anywhere.  Traditional publishing needs to realize that this is the new reality and adapt to it, like it or not.  All the excuses and fancy justifications in the world isn’t going to stop what’s coming.

Newspaper publishers have already tried that and it cost them half their business in a relative blink of an eye.  Traditional publishers need to stop hating and figure out how they fit in to the market of tomorrow.  Otherwise, they, too, will wake up one day soon to an infinitely smaller slice of the pie.  And those barbarians they feel so superior to today will have evolved three or four generations ahead of them.

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