Choices

image

Who says we can't handle choices? Here's the absurd array of drinks available in one small town grocery store alone.

You know what I like most about publishing? That every two or three days, like clockwork, someone will say or write something that’ll get me all fired up. Today, it’s Michael Kozlowski at Good eReader with this missive “Self Publishers Should Not Be Called Authors.”

As soon as I saw the headline, I instantly had flashbacks to a couple of years ago when I wrote about how ridiculous it was to complain about self publishers calling themselves indies. It was much the same argument; “this term is reserved for your betters, how dare you self publishers presume to define yourself by a term that is clearly accurate and doesn’t convey your rightful position as an industry doormat!” I’m not going to spend too much time refuting this clear and obvious perversion of the term “author” but there’s a greater point to be made here, I think. If you really want my full position on labels, and how limiting I believe even the best of them are, go read my indie-term article.

Being an author is about the act of creation. Nowhere in the dictionary does it list a requirement for your earnings to deserve such a title, nor should it. The only people for whom “author” means something else are those purposely looking to impose a class system or hierarchy of some sort. We see this from certain corners because readers are no longer “respecting” the previous class system in the ways those benefitting from it are used to. Traditionally published authors aren’t being placed on a pedestal by readers appropriately high enough above the self published interlopers, apparently, so let’s parse some language to make it clear to these uninformed people that self published work is dreck and you’re destroying literature by buying and, gasp, actually enjoying such sub-standard fare.

Clearly, the people who pen this material can’t be real authors, they’re simply writers. Authors are a higher class unto themselves. And, according to Kozlowski, the only way to properly earn that title is to make a lot of money. Unless you’re traditionally published, of course, in which case you’re an author by default, recognized as such by organizations that require as little as 1/5 the income of self publishers for the same membership. Ack! Double standards make my brain hurt!

A decade or so ago, I worked for a free distribution boating magazine on the Chesapeake Bay here in Maryland. Our primary competition was another free boating magazine and our racks of magazines would often be set up in places right next to their’s. We did it that way on purpose. We found the best advertisement for our work was to sit it side by side with their’s and let the reader choose which they found more valuable. On average, we moved 4 or 5 copies for every 1 of theirs even though both were free for the taking. If you’re so convinced self publishing work is vastly inferior, why the interest in drawing distinctions with prejudicial labeling? Why not simply trust readers to recognize that quality, or lack of it, and act accordingly?

I’ll tell you why, because readers aren’t seeing self published material as vastly inferior in large enough numbers to suit their assumed hierarchy. So now they must resort to discriminatory labels, artificial class systems and demonization to get their preferred message across because readers aren’t reaching that conclusion by, you know, actually reading the stuff and using their own judgment on what constitutes value or quality. Rather than adapt and compete, they’d rather segregate. Here’s an earlier piece from Kozlowski suggesting just such a course for the major digital retailers to deal with self published material.

His call is in response to some indie erotica turning up in children’s book sections and the rather extreme over-reactions of some retailers. (W.H. Smith, to be specific, shut down their entire online ebook store as a response.) But look closely at his “solution” to this problem. He’s not suggesting retailers need better filters or categorizing ability, he wants to throw all self published material into a digital ghetto, as it were. How does that solve the miscategorization problem? Who cares? Let’s just cram them in a corner and forget they exist. That way, they don’t clutter up the traditional book market or steal sales away from “real” authors.

The interesting point to me is the straw man he uses to illustrate the problem he thinks needs correcting:

“…parents who buy innocently sounding books like “Daddy’s Playtime” might scar their kids for life.”

There’s that popular meme, the one about the reader/consumer too stupid to comprehend what they’re doing. In this case, one so oblivious that they don’t spend even 10 seconds vetting something they’re buying for their children, one who clearly doesn’t take that picture of the girl in a thong on the cover of Daddy’s Playtime as a clue that this isn’t really a kids book. These readers/buyers don’t exist in any sizable number out here in reality but they do in the minds of the traditional world and it’s defenders. In fact, we’re all this kind of consumer in their eyes, easily swayed by keywords and oblivious to matters of quality and judgment unless someone else explains what we want to us. Where our boating magazine’s practice of side by side competition relied on respecting our readers, this is the polar opposite. They want segregation precisely because they don’t respect reader’s judgment.

Lately, the publishing world is rife with complaints about “Tsunami’s of crap” and calls for the reinsertion of gatekeepers and some kind of minimum standard of “quality” abound. Who defines those standards of said “quality” is left vague, but you can bet your ass it’s not going to be readers they suggest for the task. Readers might decide “quality” is not what they want them to think it is. Someone else has to create this gold standard, then they can educate readers on what they should consider books worth buying and books that should be shunned. Better yet, they’ll shun those unworthy books for you before you even know they exist, thereby saving you the trouble of having to use any pesky independent judgment.

The big argument in favor of these sorts of things is that there’s just too many books out there, readers are overwhelmed and they need help finding good books before being drowned in the tsunami of crap. Sounds somewhat reasonable until you consider that none of it is true. More than that, this notion of readers overwhelmed by choices flies directly in the face of virtually every other aspect of 21st century life. People want choices, more, more, more, it’s never enough. We see it in everything from food to movies to music to television to pretty much anything that exists on the internet, which means just about everything.

Yet somehow, we’re supposed to believe books is the sole area remaining where consumers can’t handle choices and would prefer to have someone else limit them? Bullshit! The consumer overwhelmed with options is from the same meme as the ignorant or oblivious one. They don’t really exist in large numbers, only in the minds of people in the industry in who’s interest it is to limit those choices. But no one wants to be seen as condescending or insulting, even to themselves, so they paint the effort as a means of “helping” readers.

The truth is readers aren’t having trouble finding good books at all. In fact, they’re finding them at a far greater rate than they can consume. And as for quality, well, they seem to be doing just fine sussing out books they might enjoy from one’s they likely won’t, just as they always have. Their judgment seems to be working perfectly for them and their particular tastes. Which is the real problem here. When given a vastly larger menu of options, people will inevitably make choices of personal preference that don’t synch with those that the supposed tastemakers expect of them. So the tastemakers’ answer to that isn’t “maybe we should pay attention to the readership and what they’re actually showing us they want” but “they’re too distracted and ignorant to know what they’re doing and we need to show them the proper decisions they should be making to protect them from all these difficult choices.”

I think there’s a sizable number of people within publishing who truly believe the tech industry is driving the heavy consumption behavior we see in today’s readers, but that’s precisely backwards. This behavior was emergent long before the tech caught up. The shift in consumer behavior is what created the atmosphere for this tech in the first place, and it happened because a few other someones had the vision to see what regular people truly wanted and created platforms and devices that played directly to that. (Amazon, anyone?)

The tech industry isn’t driving this behavior, it’s a response to it. Big publishing, however, is still operating under the increasingly false assumption that they can, in fact, drive reader behavior in the directions they choose. The problem with that is readers no longer want to be driven, if they ever did. They’re saying, in no uncertain terms, “What we really want is more choices. Give us that and we’ll tell you what we want more of, not in a poll or survey or some social media data mining effort, but by where we spend our money.”

I’ve been around the block a time or two, and I’ve put in more than my fair share of time within publishing. One thing I can say with very little uncertainty is that, when your business model requires you to fight against or change the behavior your customers want to engage in, barring extraordinary measures like government intervention, you are going to fucking lose. And if you’re fighting that behavior while simultaneously acting as if those same customers would stop breathing right now if you don’t text to remind them to inhale, you’re the one who comes off looking ignorant and over-bearing.

The audience isn’t a passive one anymore, it’s no longer a one-way conversation, and they’re certainly not ignorant and uninformed. Arguing in favor of class systems, hierarchies and narrowly-defined labels doesn’t convey anything other than your own bias and pettiness. Personally, I’d prefer a world with no labels, one where “author” is an action and not a defining characteristic. But until then, call me whatever the hell you want. Odds are, at some point, I’ve been called much worse.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

The Editor Fallicy…Falacie…Fallacy…yeah, that’s it, Fallacy

I’d like to take a contrary position to the whole of the literary establishment for a moment, if I may. Much has been written, and will continue to be, on the rift between traditional and indie publishing. Hell, many traditional supporters throw a little shit-fit with just the use of the term “indie” as a moniker for self publishers. Some days, it seems like World Peace is a more attainable goal than bridging the gap between the established and emerging segments of the publishing industry.

But there is one area where both sides are in complete agreement. That is the absolute, irrefutable necessity of having any and all writing vetted by an honest to goodness editor. And who could argue with that, you ask? (If you didn’t ask, I apologize for putting words in your mouth but I kinda need that rhetorical response from “you” to keep the narrative flow going. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this next thing) Who could argue with that, you ask? I can!

Now before you get all up in arms and pissy, nostrils flaring, uppity defensive of something everyone seems to agree on but the implications of which very few people actually consider, let me explain. If you can’t or won’t edit your own work, both for polish and content, you’re not only lazy, but you’re not a complete writer, either. Three…two…one…ok, now you can get all beside yourself with righteous indignation. I mean, come on! Everybody knows that even the best writers churn out barely literate crap until the sainted editor gets his/her red pen into it. Plus, who would want to live in a world where writers are able, or even *gasp* encouraged to release their work bypassing the filters of the all-seeing, all-knowing editor? I shudder to think of the implications of seeing the raw, unfettered power of the writer’s creative muse. I imagine it would be a little like looking directly at an angel, their transcendent light far too bright, burning mere human eyes right out of their sockets. Our minds would turn to jelly without editors to properly harness all that writerly power.

Seriously, though, I am really sick of reading about how writers can’t possibly string together so much as a tweet, let alone an entire novel without someone else hanging over their shoulder steering the course. That’s what editors do, after all. Were you fully aware of that? Editors take other people’s material and structure it to suit either their own preconceived notions or the fiscal necessity of the platform they’re editing for. That’s the gig. Book editors are a little different than periodical editors in that they tend to shape the content to their perceived needs in their particular market sphere rather than a homogenized “style” or publication “brand.” Same difference to the writer in the end, though. I’d still like someone to explain to me how an editor who steeped within the structure of traditional publishing is going to be all that helpful to an indie. Sure, they can shape your book up into something that might resemble something else that once worked in the traditional realm, but if you’re an indie, you’re not really selling into that distribution area. You know how much real world market experience those former and current trad editors have selling digital independently? About as much as my great grandfather, and he’s been dead since 1954.

Then there’s the little matter of whether many editors are even qualified to dick around with an actual creator’s work in the first place. Let’s not kid ourselves, the phrase editor, in some circles, might still hold a bit of prestige, but from my experience, that editor you’re working with is, more often than not, a result of the “those who can’t, teach” school of thought. People become editors for one of three reasons, generally: 1) they’re a failed writer and had to pay the bills somehow, 2) they don’t have the balls to be the writer and it’s much easier–and usually pays better–to manipulate the work of others than produce it yourself, or 3) they are a successful writer who developed their own skills after years of dealing with semi-competent half wits who likely suggested adding some foreshadowing to the table of contents or some other such absurd idea at one time or another. There may be other ways to get that editor title next to your name (some folks go to school for it, I hear) but those are the three big ones. If you’ve got a #3, then you’re golden, but the other two are sure-fire paths to fucking up whatever artistic vision you lacked confidence in so much you turned to a stranger who’s primary claim to career fame is “I fixed some typos in so-and-so’s #1 bestseller back in 1996.”

Editor is the very definition of a fallback career option. Just like nobody ever says, “I wanna be a junkie when I grow up,” nobody says, “I wanna be an editor when I grow up,” either. Editor is the consolation prize in the literary job market. Ask yourself, is that the kind of person you really want impacting your career, someone who slid into a position filled with tedious shit-work just because it was kinda sorta in the same neighborhood as the dashed and discarded dreams of their misspent youth? Not me and you shouldn’t either.

The editor fallacy is willfully perpetuated by the traditional industry. It’s a ruse designed to keep writers down. I’m not kidding, read some of the criticisms floating around. You would seriously think writers turned out little more than random chunks of directionless text that no mere mortal could possibly make sense of if an editor didn’t mold it into shape first. Are you gonna take that? I mean, you fancy yourself a storyteller yet you don’t know if the story you’re telling sucks or not without third party involvement? Why should I plunk down my hard earned cash for the offerings of your literary vision when you don’t even understand or have confidence in it?

My point is that the notion of the infallibility of the editor, and their necessity in shaping a writer’s efforts can be an insidious one. It devalues the writer. If a book is a house, it makes the writer’s output akin to raw lumber and lifts the editor to the role of carpenter. The traditional industry thrived on this relationship dynamic for years, it helped keep writers in their place at the bottom. Otherwise, they, as a group, might have wanted something outrageous like being fairly compensated for work that produces every single dollar in industry revenues.

It’s a new world now. You are the raw material, the carpenter, the plumber, the electrician and the painter. At best, the editor is the day laborer who comes in and sweeps up the leftover dirt off the floor before you move in. Do you think carpenters ask the advice of a broom jockey on hanging joices joists? Would an electrician appreciate getting notes from the sweeper detailing how he could run the wiring to the ceiling fans more efficiently? Don’t get me wrong, writers aren’t infallible by any stretch, either, but there’s one key difference…you’re the fucking writer!

In the old model, the perception in a lot of ways, was that the writer works for the editor, true or not. In the new model, the editor unquestionably works for the writer. Big difference. Now, when your editor suggests that you rewrite chapters 8 through 14 and add a talking sewer rat as comic relief to break up the tension in your drama about an unjustly convicted man’s experiences with prison rape, you can feel free to snort coffee out your nose, laughing hysterically as you work on cancelling the check you paid him or her with. The old way, you’d laugh a bit then cringe at the inevitable realization that you’ll probably end up doing it if you ever wanted to retain any hope of seeing that book in print.

Look, it’s your book, it’s your story, no one on the planet knows it better than you. If you’re going to be a storyteller, believe in the stories you write. That doesn’t mean don’t seek out input or listen if somebody offers up some interesting ideas. But even then, ideas are just that. You’re the one who has to take the grains of inspiration from those ideas and shape them into the story you want to tell. You can’t rely on anyone else to do that for you, otherwise, it’s not your story anymore.

I’ve been a bit harsh on editors here, unfairly so in some ways, but I’m making a point. The editor is no longer among the gatekeeper class you need to appease. You don’t have to do everything they say, and you definitely don’t work for them. Editors are a tool for indie writers that, if properly utilized can be beneficial. Got that? The editor is at the service of the writer. And even then, they’re still only one tool of many. And don’t ever forget that they work for you now.

A truly great editor is almost worth their weight in gold. My descriptions of editors in this piece are obviously exaggerated, but make no mistake, those people exist. Very likely in far greater numbers than anyone will openly admit. Where a great editor can add quite a bit to your efforts, a lousy editor can do just as much, if not more to destroy and detract from your work. And there are an abundance of lousy editors out there, more than not, I believe. Editors are no different than any other field of endeavor. There’s four or five bad to mediocre ones for every good one, and out of every 50 or so good ones, you might see one reach exceptional status. The key is to recognize the difference. If you’re not confident in your storytelling prowess, if you can’t defend the merits of your work and the artistic choices you make, you’re actively making your work susceptible to the heavy hand of a bad editor.

Despite what you might think with my prior insults, there are quality editors out there available for hire, and in the right circumstance with the proper context, they can help polish your work. But any old editor isn’t necessarily a good editor. One of the worst things that can happen to a person is to fail on someone’s terms other than your own. Giving an editor, any editor, even the good ones, carte blanche to screw around with your story is setting yourself up to fail through no fault of your own. Unless, of course, you consider changing key elements of your story against your artistic judgment to appease an editor a fault of your own. I do.

Editor skills aren’t some magical capability that’s unattainable to writers. Anyone with the right motivation can learn quality editing. It’ll surprise you how much improvement creeps into your work just by having an editor’s mentality in the back of your mind. This isn’t to say you should do everything yourself, although I am one of the apparently few people who believes you can successfully do it that way if you’re willing to be meticulous and put in the time. It’s always better to have multiple sets of eyes go over your work. Just don’t ever forget that you’re in charge. It’s your story, your world, you make the rules.

I’ve said before that many people, probably most, don’t truly understand the dynamic shift going on right now. Many of us still approach the new possibilities as simply an extension of the way things were always done. It’s not. Digital is a genetically different business than traditional, though they may appear similar today in the early stages, they really are quite divergent, and growing more so as time and technology expands. Old models can be adapted and find a niche, but nothing translates easily and without effort. Don’t hold to any particular dogma, and that especially includes slavish devotion to an editor.

Tell your stories, the way you want. It’s been a long time since writers have had that ability on a wide scale. And don’t listen to the naysayers screaming in comments sections all over the web about having your work “properly vetted”. That’s a holdover from a past that, quite frankly, limited and exploited the writer. It also served to homogenize much of the content. You ever wonder why so many cookie cutter books, both in substance and tone, exist? That, my friends, is the work of editors. Nobody can steal a writer’s voice more effectively than an editor. Nobody can suck the life out of a story better than an editor. That’s not to say editors don’t have a place, they do. It’s just a far less influential one than it has been.

Editors are not higher on the literary food chain than writers. They are little more than a hired hand to provide a specific service on the writer’s terms. They are your employee. You’d do very well to remember that, even if you have to block out the shouting of those who don’t yet see that things have changed.

Oh yeah, about that “lazy and not a complete writer crack,” sure, I was shooting over the top, just trying to get your attention, but I’m sticking to it. Prove me wrong. Please.

Published in: on August 25, 2012 at 9:46 pm  Comments (14)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Two Theories: Why can’t we in publishing all just get along?

For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand the resentment toward self publishers by some in the traditionally published writing community. I get why publishers don’t like it–it’s opened up massive amounts of new, lower-priced competition that threatens not just their sales figures but the entire cost structure of the industry their large infrastructures depend on. Simultaneously, it’s also given writers, who were essentially a captive supplier, leverage to fight against potentially onerous contract terms and even the capacity to walk away from a deal, which was virtually unthinkable even five years ago. I totally get the rhetoric from publishers.

Writers who dismiss or otherwise demonize self publishing, on the other hand, I don’t get at all. These are new opportunities for you to make money. They are opportunities that can get you better terms in your contract, or more money if used properly. It also has the potential to drive the industry toward more writer-friendly terms for a change. There is more access to more readers the world over than ever before and it can all be done keeping most of the proceeds in the actual creators’ pockets, something else virtually unheard of on a wide scale until very recently. As a writer, it makes very little sense to me to fight against this tide.

So I figure there has to be a reason for this. I’ve had two somewhat conjoining theories bouncing around in my head lately and I can’t decide which is more likely. It may well be both, or it could just be as simple as abject fear of change.

My first theory is of the writer’s ego. One of the most commonly referred to benefits of traditional publishing is the validation factor. In some circles, being chosen by a publisher is worn as a badge of honor and used equally as a bludgeon against those who either haven’t yet achieved that contract or who eschew that entire process. Imagine all those years of effort trying to convince the gatekeeper set of your worth, all the mountains of rejection, humiliation, restrictive contract deals you’ve subjected yourself to just to get inside those walls.  Then one day, very suddenly, a whole bunch of other writers start skipping that path altogether, and worse yet, a significant and increasing number of them are selling books and making money at rates only the upper echelons of traditional writers exceed.

What good is that validation you slaved away earning when another writer who doesn’t have it can sell books right next to yours with almost no definable difference from the reader’s point of view? The strength of that validation certainly isn’t what they’d been led to believe it was their entire working lives. Even more, the new ways are much more democratic. It doesn’t matter what school you went to, or if you even went to school at all. It doesn’t matter how many prestigious writing programs you’ve been involved in or how many literary awards you’ve won. A poor housewife from Nebraska who penned her first novel eight weeks ago has a (relatively) equal chance of being a best seller as the most critically acclaimed writer out there.

The writing world has always had an ugly elitest side to it. That was never an issue when virtually all the successful writers were part of the same pipeline, born of that shared experience. But now that large numbers of writers outside of that framework are finding success, it’s not only threatening the business model of their publishers, it’s threatening their very self image.

When outside validation becomes crucial to your worldview, anything that undermines those doing the validating becomes a target. So theory number one is that some writers are resentful because self publishers are finding ways to avoid the crap they were forced to subject themselves to, and their memberships in the exclusive traditional publishing club no longer carry the same cache they once did, and may well be declining by the day.

The second reason is simply laziness. Well, not laziness, exactly, but complacency and a lack of desire to try new and different things. Given the proliferation of comments I’ve seen coming from trad writers characterizing self publishing as a short cut and a lazy choice (Google Sue Grafton for the most recent example) I am beginning to believe they’ve got it backwards. Look, the stark reality is that it’s much more difficult to do this stuff essentially by yourself than with the backing of a giant corporate publisher. To suggest otherwise is to be purposely naive. If you happen to be one of the fortunate writers inside the gates who moves books, you get lots of support the other 95% of traditional writers don’t even get, let alone self publishers. The notion of tossing that off and self publishing is to take on significant responsibilities you currently pass on. In that respect, it’s the traditional writers who are shying away from extra work. Not saying they’re wrong for doing that, given their situation, they’re not. My problem comes when they cast aspersions on the work ethic of others when they, themselves, stay away from these activities because of the added risks and extra effort necessary.

Let’s be honest here. Writers like Grafton, Ewan Morrison and Scott Turow do little more than just write. Even the smallest one-person self publishing operation is doing much more than just writing. Criticizing other writers as lazy or taking shortcuts looks like sour grapes when their paths are far more ambitious than yours, requiring more effort in numerous directions than simply writing a book and sending it to your editor (I know, I’m oversimplifying, but just look at the bitching by trad writers about publishers making them actually, god forbid, promote themselves more to readers. Self pubbed writers accept that as a matter of course).

For serious self pubbed writers, it’s not simply about writing the book. It’s also about publishing the book. And it’s about selling the book. Three inter-related but very different activities. And, to top it off, writing the next book and starting over again. That’s a lot of interconnected hats to wear, and the ones who do it successfully wear them all very well. Lazy’s got nothing to do with it. Lazy writers who flock to self publishing will find themselves discouraged, overwhelmed and out of the picture soon enough. Self publishing is not an easy answer, a shortcut or the lazy way. It’s incredibly difficult to do well. For top tier trad writers to point fingers and call self publishers lazy shows their ignorance of what’s actually involved. Or maybe it’s not. One of the oldest political tricks in the book is to accuse your adversary of the very weaknesses you fear in yourself. But why are we adversaries in the first place? It doesn’t have to be that way. And you certainly don’t have to be openly resentful to those looking to blaze new trails you have no interest in, and willfully taking on the extra work that entails.

Do these writers have a point that there are a lot of shitty self published books out there? Do some writers take the relative ease of getting something live and for sale now and abuse it? Absolutely no doubt. But in case you didn’t notice, there are people like that in every industry and every walk of life, even traditional publishing. I’ve read a lot of shitty books, seen a lot of shitty tv shows and movies, heard a lot of shitty music on the radio over my lifetime, and you know what they almost all have in common? They were vetted by a media company gatekeeper. Shitty work happens in all creative pursuits, no matter how big the bank account of the producer. No one is immune to it. The ratio of great work to crap is always gonna lean heavily on the crap side, no matter the system. Basic human taste and subjectiveness guarantees that.

I think the problem can be illustrated with a simple mental image. Imagine Grafton, Morrison and Turow kicking back catching some rays by the pool inside the gated publisher walls. Suddenly, the gates swing open, and all the outside rabble comes pouring in, doing cannonballs, splashing water everywhere, their shouts and laughter almost deafening. Just generally throwing the relaxed, exlusive poolside scene into chaos. Now, those three are no longer the fortunate few who get the pool to themselves, but just a couple folks in the big crowd diving in. If I were in their shoes, I might resent that kind of development, too. Ah, who am I kidding? I’d be grateful for the company. I’m sure the conversations at that poolside were getting kinda stale before those gates burst open.

Moaning and Groaning: Publishers’ supporters get more hard line after being shot down by the DOJ

So I’m catching up on my reading of industry news and I noticed that, since the DOJ pretty much laughed off the anti-settlement brigade’s rhetoric, the tone in some circles has gotten even sharper, more filled with doomsaying than it was before, and it was already pretty severe. Personally, I found a lot to like about the DOJ’s response to comments, which is something I very rarely say about any government agency. I especially appreciate that they weren’t swayed by the 10 to 1 ratio against that the traditional publishing backers’ letter writing campaigns generated.

I still believe there was a fatal flaw in their logic. In encouraging people to parrot the anti-Amazon party line, it created a raft of letters that failed to address the principle matter of law in the case, worse yet, it may have vindicated it. Very few, if any, of the letters substantively refuted the claims of collusion, instead using unsubstantiated claims of Amazon’s predatory pricing as justification for the publishers’ actions. In this way, many of the comments, while attempting to defend the publishers, essentially admitted collusion took place. It’s like saying, “Yes, your honor, we did it, but we’ve got a really good excuse.”

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this kind of approach carried no water with a group of prosecutors. If anything, the arrogance of it seems to have further emboldened and entrenched the DOJ in its beliefs. This could end up being extraordinarily bad news for Penguin, MacMillan and Apple if they actually force an annoyed DOJ into court.

But that’s an issue for a later date if the holdouts don’t come to their senses and settle before they end up spending absurd amounts of money defending a pricing scheme likely to be obsolete before the first witness is ever called.

I’ve got two articles I read this week that, I think, illustrates both the attitude of superiority and the over-the-top, end of days hyperbole that’s making the rounds now that the industry seems to be realizing Uncle Sam isn’t going to do their bidding, no matter how many campaign contributions they make to Chuck Schumer. It’s a sad commentary on the state of things these days when buying a congressman is an easier accomplishment than competing in the market.

I’ve taken five points from each of these two articles to discuss. The first is a particularly single-minded post by Dennis Johnson, co-founder of the publisher Melville House, a staunch traditionalist.

Before I begin, let me say that I find it odd that such a virulent supporter of publishers founded a company named after Herman Melville, a man who largely had a tenuous if not outright bad relationship with publishers. Most of his books had to be published in London initially because American publishers wouldn’t touch them, and even then, they were never able to generate significant sales despite the fact he wrote some of the greatest works in the English language.  Rather infamously, Melville was paid a grand total of less than $600 for his masterpiece Moby Dick. I’m sure if he were to rise from the grave today, Melville would have more than a few choice words for publishers, particularly considering his actually burnt the unsold copies of an epic poem he wrote after he couldn’t pay for them. Comforting to see some things never change, like publishers’ contempt for writers.

1. “At the start of agency, for example, Amazon controlled 90 percent of ebook sales. There’s nothing “highly speculative” about calling that a monopoly.”

Except for the fact that Amazon’s large share came about because they took a then-under utilized ebook market and drug it into the mainstream essentially by themselves. No major publishers paid much heed to it at the time, very few competitors showed any interest in jumping in before Amazon charted a course, and certainly none on their scale. Once Amazon started making real money, though, that 90% share dropped significantly, just as you’d expect a trendsetter would when a previously empty playing field started filling up. It wasn’t like Amazon entered a thriving ebook market and swiped that giant share of business from others. They essentially created the market when almost no one else had the interest, desire or the balls to do it. He’s right, though, partly. It’s not “highly speculative” to call Amazon a monopoly in that instance, it’s outright bullshit to do so.

2. “The Sherman Antitrust Act, and its descendent the Robinson-Patman Act, clearly define loss-leader under-pricing as a predatory tactic rather obviously intended to “drive out competition and obtain monopoly pricing power.”

So when does the DOJ actions start up against every retail business in this country? Loss Leader pricing is so commonplace we barely even notice it any more. Its use is far from being “rather obviously” about driving out competition, either, far more commonly used on a day to day basis virtually everywhere things are sold, as a means of bringing customers into your store.

On the other hand, what the publishers did with the agency scheme was retail price maintenance, which up until 2007, was illegal in essentially all its forms. A Supreme Court decision (which overturned damn near a century of precedent, by the way) granted a limited allowance for the behavior under the “rule of reason” which Apple and the publishers flaunted by colluding pretty much in public and gloating about how their plans were going to screw Amazon, inhibit the ebook market and raise prices on ebooks. The publishers are only in legal trouble today because of their egos, stupidity and total lack of discretion. That and, unlike Amazon, they actually broke the law.

3. “The DOJ cited arguments from David Gaughran, writing on behalf of 186 self-published authors who thanked Amazon for ‘creating, for the first time, real competition in publishing by charting a viable path for self-published books. But when was it, exactly, that publishers prevented authors from self-publishing?

Is he kidding? Certainly, anyone with the money could publish a book, but getting that in book stores or retail outlets dominated by traditional publishing was an entirely different story. Publishers’ entire business model was one of dominating the channels of distribution. What good was publishing a book if you were essentially locked out of the principle sales channels?

Preventing writers from having any access to the market was their stock in trade, creating a ready supply of material they could pay as little as possible for, which is why writers get such a low portion of revenues today when they are principally responsible for the product. And, really, anyone who thinks there was anything close to a viable path to self publish pre-Amazon is either dangerously ignorant of reality or purposely being disingenuous.

4. “The process of public involvement was, apparently, meaningless. But there are better things to remember right now. For one, take this for what it is: The DOJ has found its own case sound. The good guys, meanwhile, have yet to have their day in court.”

So the DOJ was supposed to take a vote and ignore the law because a large number of traditional publishing’s disciples said so? The truest thing in the DOJ’s response was that the overwhelming majority of anti-settlement comments came from people and businesses profiting directly from the price fixing scheme. Like I said, I’m actually impressed they saw through it.

In truth, I think the public involvement stage was very useful. It illustrated the biases of those supporting the publishers who, despite their numbers, produced no compelling arguments for a lessening of terms. It also showed that the truly independent voices who, not coincidentally, are finding success without the need to break the law, were heard even though they could have been swamped by traditional publishing’s comment generating machine. If anything, unlike many other areas of life these days, this looks like the powerful corporations flaunting the law will be held to task while consumers, innovators and legitimate competitors in the market will win the day.

5. “The ludicrous charges, the fact of such paltry and pitiful support for them, the wide variety of opponents — the entire industry and then some — roused to speak out — all provide reason for hope.”

Yeah, reason to hope you guys hurry up and go bankrupt. Seriously? Ludicrous charges? Pitiful and paltry support? No and no. The charges look pretty damn sound to me. And evidently, those of us who choose to disagree don’t matter. Hell, we’re not even in the industry, apparently, despite selling books professionally. For money. To actual readers. See, it’s not that public input didn’t matter, it’s that public input he disagreed with didn’t matter, and it certainly shouldn’t have mattered enough to beat back their superior numbers and unsubstantiated inflamatory rhetoric. How dare the DOJ side with the law and actually aggreived parties who have paid tens of millions more for ebooks than would have been possible without collusion! They sent 800 carbon copy, Amazon-is-evil letters, didn’t the DOJ get the memo? Won’t somebody please think about the culture?

Shortly after reading that piece, I read this one by John Barber of the Globe and Mail. The hits just keep on coming in this one, including cameos by everbody’s favorite bitchy traditional writers, Ewan Morrison and Scott Turow, proving that even the Atlantic Ocean can’t keep arrogance and stupidity apart.

1. “Authors are losing income as sales shift to heavily discounted, royalty-poor and easily pirated ebooks. Journalists are suffering pay cuts and job losses as advertising revenue withers. Floods of amateurs willing to work for nothing are chasing freelance writers out of the trade. And all are scrambling to salvage their livelihoods as the revolutionary doctrine of “free culture” obliterates old definitions of copyright.”

Being as he made several points here, I’ll address each in order. First, ebooks are only royalty-poor because publishers want them that way. And, to be fair, print books are pretty damn royalty poor in most instances, too. Next, do you know who’s not seeing pay cuts and job losses as advertising flees newspapers? The CEOs, who are “suffering” with giant bonuses and golden parachutes for all those job losses they’ve instituted while simultaneously playing the fiddle on any kind of digital transition as their industry segment burns to the ground.

Third, as conglomerates bought up any and every publication they could find during the acquisition rush years ago, many publishers began getting tight with freelance budgets. Even at the height of profitability before the bottom fell out, prices paid to freelancers were stagnant or negative. Once the advertising revenue started to fall, they used it as a convenient excuse to put the screws to writers even more than usual. The flood of free content he refers to was largely spurred on by publishers looking for ways to spend as little as humanly possible on content, quality be damned. The issue isn’t that there’s work out there available for free, it’s that publishers refuse to pay even modest wages for quality writing despite the fact that content is the only reason they have the ability to attract any advertising at all.

And, finally, who’s perverted the concept of copyright more, the “free culture” people, as he calls them, who advocate sharing and the rights of consumers or the media companies, who lobby for laws like DMCA and SOPA, and push through things like the Mickey Mouse rule that now has copyright extended to life of the creator plus 70 years?

The extensions and increasingly stringent punishments for even minor infringement has created an atmosphere where it makes a lot of sense to argue that copyright needs to be looked at anew. The parts of copyright law that support derivative works and allow creators to build off of the progress of those before, fair use and the first sale doctrine, and the public domain and furtherance of culture have all been imperiled by the steady rights grabs of media companies who have been engaging in a systematic effort at maintaining copyright in perpetuity for decades now. If you’re going to cry about copyright being broken, don’t do so while advocating for those who actually broke it.

2. “(According to best-selling UK author Ewan Morrison) The result will be the destruction of vital institutions that have supported “the highest achievements in culture in the past 60 years.” In short, he predicts, “There will be no more professional writers in the future.”

I’m sure when Morrison uses the term “professional writers”, he’s referring to people like himself. We can only hope for a future with as few of those kinds of “professionals” as possible. It’s not his writing talents I have issue with, I’ve never actually read any of his work, it’s that he has some ridiculously backwards, elitist ideas along with a generous helping of contempt for anyone who circumvents the traditional getekeepers.

Morrison has said some pretty crazy stuff, for instance, this piece in the Guardian where he argues against social media but makes some larger points about traditional and self publishing. Be sure to read the comments because he has numerous additional points there, including a rather entertaining discussion with Joe Konrath. My favorite part is when he excoriates Konrath for daring to encourage others to eschew traditional and embark in self publishing by saying, “It is unfair and cruel to propagate a model for others which can only ever work for the few.” After I stopped laughing and wiped the tears from my eyes, the full audaciousness of that comment really sunk in. After all, Konrath has a long, long way to go to rate with traditional publishers in propagating models that only work for the few. The sad part is that it seems Morrison doesn’t even get the rich, creamy irony.

These statements are what I’m talking about when I say the rhetoric has gotten more severe. The highest institutions of culture will crumble and working writers will totally vanish. Talk about self-important! Publishers largely gave up their mantle of cultural protectors, if they ever had one in the first place, when they became little more than profit engines for larger conglomerates. It’s pretty obvious, too, yet Morrison seems to believe that writers should willingly accept lousy royalties so these publishers can keep exploiting them to the benefit of their parent company’s bottom line. Being self published and actually keeping a fair share of what your work earns is selfish, according to Morrison. Of course, he just might see it that way because more and more writers earning outside of traditional may jeopardize his next advance. Besides, if publishers weren’t portrayed as purveyors of culture, then there’d be no moral argument for their survival, and that would make for even more specious rants, if that’s possible.

3. “(Author Scott Turow) has drawn heavy criticism from digital partisans for defending the diminishing rights of “legacy publishers” currently under U.S. Justice Department investigation for allegedly fixing ebook prices.”

Diminishing rights? I wasn’t aware publishers had the right to colluded and fix prices. Didn’t know they had the right to rip off authors through shady corporate finanglings like Harlequin just got sued for. Wasn’t aware they had the right to snatch digital rights from contracts signed 30 years before anyone had ever heard of an ebook. Most of all, I didn’t know they had the right to operate largely free of genuine competition.

If publishers are diminishing, it’s likely for two reasons; writers have other choices now and are sick of being treated like chattel and paid slightly worse; and they’re clinging to a business model that is servicing a shrinking percentage of their customer base. But that’s the common denominator in the anti-Amazon camp, the stark refusal to admit publisher’s culpability for their own problems because it’s so much easier to make excuses for your own failings when you can pretend to be a victim.

4. “Nor is self-publishing profitable for the majority of authors, according to a recent British survey. It found that half of the writers – many no doubt lured by well-publicized tales of spectacular success achieved by a handful of fellow novices – made less than $500 a year for their efforts.”

No one was ever lured into traditional publishing by the tales of success of other writers, right? I’m sure that’s never happened. And let me just reiterate an earlier point: Herman Melville made less than $600 in total on Moby Dick. Using dollar figures in this way, especially with no context in comparison with traditionally published writers, makes for compelling soundbites while providing very little actual insight. Besides, there are a whole lot of self published writers. That survey means half of them made more than $500 a year. I’d be willing to bet that percentage isn’t far removed from traditional but I’m sure we’ll never hear about it.

5. “The livelihoods of serious writers will continue to depend directly on the health of traditional publishers, “the venture capitalists of the intellectual world,” according to Turow.”

So only writers with traditional contracts are serious? The rest of us are just dicking around out here then, huh? Writers like Turow and Morrison may have their livelihoods depend on the health of traditional publishers, but there seems to be a large and growing infrastructure that’s circumventing their control. That means the health of said publishers isn’t really a major concern in that segment. In fact, it may be just the opposite.

With fewer market obstructions from the traditional end, and less product from that side, it could well increase opportunities for success amongst those who aren’t dependant on them. But that doesn’t matter because those people won’t be serious, of course. Everyone knows you can’t be a serious writer unless you give up most of the proceeds, all creative control and any conceivable rights to your work until your great, great grandchildren are old and gray. It’s just crazy talk to say otherwise.

Sunday Randomness: Thoughts on DOJ suit, indie poaching and writer autonomy

Over the past few weeks, my mind has bounced around several issues relating to the book industry without settling on any particular one long enough to formulate a blog post, so I thought I’d patch a few thoughts together in semi-brief snippets.  Well, brief as much as I do brief, which is to say probably not very.  Here we go:

1. The defenders of the price fixing publishers in the DOJ antitrust case are totally full of shit.

On a few instances, I’ve directly broken down what I felt were the misguided defenses of the allegedly collusive agency pricing agreement of the largest publishers and Apple. At this point, it seems a futile exercise because the rationalities used to defend the action have become increasingly rigid and pertaining of such twisted logic that they’ve ceased to even make enough sense to try and honestly refute.  Just in the past week, I’ve read numerous letters from the Author’s Guild, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of Author’s Representatives, Barnes & Noble and numerous pundits to the DOJ decrying the proposed settlement terms for the three accused publishers who want to get this overwith and move on.  I’ve also read the responses from Apple, Penguin and Macmillan–the three principles left defending the case.

Somehow, no one involved in this case knew anything about the actions of anyone else involved yet they simultaneous knew that agency wouldn’t fly, and they personally wouldn’t have entered into it, if everyone wasn’t on the same page.  So we’re left to believe that all of these various large corporations independently took actions they knew required others to take identical actions to work, yet none of them knew what the others were doing.  Yeah, ok.  Totally reasonable.  I’m more convinced now than I was before that those who fight this all the way are screwed.

As for the settling defendants, how happy do you think they’ll be if all that impassioned anti-settlement rhetoric coming from traditional publishing interests works and they get thrust back into the roles of active defendants?  The folks arguing to kill the settlement may, in effect, be giving a death sentence to one or more of these publishers.  Besides, given the fairly obvious collusion, settling this and moving on seems to be the best possible approach.  Fighting this will be a long, drawn out, expensive war of attrition that Amazon and others will feast on by continuing to reshape the market while they waste precious time, coin and focus defending a failed price fixing scheme that, really, only served to benefit the upper, upper echelon writers and publishers anyway.

Those fighting the settlement are still harping on about the diverse literary ecosystem arguments, as well as the death of literature, choices for readers, copyrighted expression, vibrant competition and numerous other doomsaying phrases, despite the fact that there’s ample evidence that none of those things are true.  Somehow, according to them and some numbers from B&N that I find just slightly fishy, agency pricing has caused ebooks to drop in price now, even though it actually upped prices 30-50% in many cases, and despite the small matter that the scheme was put in place with the specific intention of raising prices. 

The part I like best, though, is the one where some anti-settlement mavens have decided it’s ok to punish the collusion (if any existed, of course) just so long as the DOJ doesn’t end the resulting agreements from that collusion.  This is a great precedent, and I say bring it on!  How awesome would it be to be able to rob a bank, get caught, be punished for the crime but you get to keep all the money?  Hell yeah!  I might even consider doin a couple years for auto theft if I knew the $150,000 Maserati I stole was waiting for me on the outside. 

This is an absurd argument. Agency in this case never, I repeat, never could have been instituted the way it was without the collusion of publishers.  It could not have happened.  In what alternate reality does it make any sense at all to let the results of an illegal conspiracy, that could not have existed without said conspiracy, stand?  Sorry guys.  I know you all are pretty desperate for someone to step in and check Amazon so you won’t have to be inconvenienced by, you know, having to compete or anything, but there is simply no logical reason for these agreements to be left in place.  Besides, they’re only locked out of agency for two years.  That doesn’t sound aggregiously irresponsible. Actually, it sounds like a fitting punishment to me, being barred for a time from the very actions you colluded to bring about.

Of course, I also don’t happen to believe that the death of their price fixing scheme will result in the dire consequences some predict. Actually, I believe just the opposite. Agency pricing, used as it was by the parties it was, had a negative effect on the ebook market as a whole. I think it slowed adoption, slowed growth in the sector, limited any pretense of actual retail competition, and took a pretty good sized chunk out of the wallets of readers unnecessarily. But again, all of that is what they wanted, and it’s exhibit A for how and why they had to collude to get it. Don’t buy the B.S. line about agency fostering competition or protecting a vibrant bookselling ecosystem. This was nothing more than a poorly executed scam to protect the print ecosystem they control by way of hindering the real competition from the digital side, nothing more.

As a side note, the DOJ has apparently been eating their Wheaties. Now, they are also pursuing an investigation into most favored nation clauses in cable tv contracts and looking into whether data caps instituted by ISPs, many of whom also sell cable tv, specifically target streaming services to protect their cable bundling packages. Yet again, here’s an industry–cable tv–that would rather keep its customers paying more to stay locked in to what they want (bundling) rather than give those paying folks what they want (unbundled pay to watch only what they want when they want.) The ebook antitrust suit along with this new effort are, alone, reason enough for me to vote Obama even though I’m not a big fan for many reasons. A Romney DOJ, I don’t hesitate to say, would drop these efforts like a bad habit and that would be an enormously bad thing for anyone not a corporate titan or busying themselves suckling at the tit of one.

2. I don’t really understand why indies would sign traditional deals once they start finding real success.

Call it the Hocking Effect, or the Fifty Shades of Greed, whatever, but it seems like the hot new thing in traditional publishing circles is to poach self published writers once they begin to show some serious sales. I understand why publishers are doing this; they’re struggling, losing ground, their power base is fading, and their ability to produce new literary superstars is failing. What I don’t understand is why the self published writers, having generated their own success stories, are turning around and handing that success over to a corporation under pseudo-exploitative terms before they ever realize the full benefits of their efforts. Upfront money is the obvious answer, but to me, that seems short sighted. There’s also the “I wanna be in bookstores” excuse, but that’s just as short sighted as the money angle, if not more so.

The only way this makes sense to me is if the writers in question didn’t really want to be in business in the first place, and only entered self publishing out of necessity. I’d just like to know what degree of low self esteem do you have to suffer from to hand over your own, independent, hard-earned success to corporations and bookstores who wouldn’t have given you the time of day before you busted your ass to earn your own way?

Now, I don’t want to begrudge anyone making this choice, everybody’s got their own reasons for the decisions they make, but if I get to the point where I’m finding enough independent success that publishers come calling, they’d better have hat in hand with contract terms where I’m in creative control, I make most of the profit, and my rights are only limited to the book(s) in question and then only for a limited time, five years tops. The industry is simply changing too much, too fast to sign lifetime copyright agreements. In short, I’m trying indie for real, not as a backdoor for a contract. My intent is to find success. The very last thing I’ll be doing is sacrificing my rights, my freedoms, my money for corporate free riders who wanna piggyback on my hard work. Not gonna happen.

There are some indie champions out there who’s work I respect very much, like Dean Wesley Smith, for instance, who believes the bookstore system can still thrive and ebooks will top out at about 30% of the total market. As much as I love his writing, and agree with much of what he has to say, this is one area I have a very different view. I just don’t see how bookshops have much of a life left. Digital isn’t going to stop at a third of the market. In the long term, I believe it’s going to be the market. If print somehow manages to hold on to 30%, I’ll be surprised. Technology is pushing hard in the wrong direction for purveyors of paper and ink. It’s really just a matter of time before print is winnowed to two categories–print on demand and the high end specialty craft books that are more display objects than reading material.

How far are we, truly, from book kiosks like redbox video rental machines? Yes, we have the Espresso machine today, but it’s still in the early stages and still very expensive. The cost of that is only going to fall. And once we can buy a print book or two at reasonable prices from a boundless catalog during a trip to the grocery store, what’s the point of dedicated book shops on a wide scale? Make no mistake, POD is the future of printed books. That makes the bookstore argument from indies ring a bit hollow to me. I’m not convinced bookstores on any significant scale will still exist in 10 years. From a business standpoint, the last thing I want to do is have my work locked up in a system designed and built to exploit a sales avenue that is on the way to obsolescence. Maybe I’m wrong and bookstores will be thriving for years to come, but that’s even more reason to limit the length of any traditional contract. I just don’t know. And if they’re still there in five or ten years, nothing’s stopping me from signing another contract. But if they’re gone, or severely diminished and I’m in a lifetime copyright contract, I’m screwed. I’d prefer not to be screwed.

The book selling market we have today was close to unimaginable five years ago. What will it look like five years from now? Can anyone say with any degree of certainty? Stay flexible, my friends, and don’t get locked into long term deals with anybody. Unless, of course, they’re handing you a truckload of no-strings-attached money. Then all bets are off. And when I say truckload, I’m talking well into seven figures, paid in full, up front. Probably not gonna happen, so my original point stands. Build for your own success, and when you find it, don’t sell it out for short term gain, especially in a market changing as rapidly as this one.

3. Does anyone represent the interests of writers?

The Authors Guild sure as hell doesn’t. Neither does the literary agent group AAR. Bookshops don’t. Publishers don’t. The DOJ antitrust suit is about readers not writers. About the only group that actually gives a damn about writers is readers, and then only so long as you’re producing work they want to read. For the one absolutely essential class of participants in publishing, writers sure do get shit on quite a bit. We’ve been turned into fodder used and tossed aside to provide a living for any number of middlemen. Yet somehow, we don’t get to benefit from our work until all these other groups get theirs. Whatever tablescraps are left over, then we might see some. Maybe.

We’ve been infantalized, conditioned to believe that we’re dependent on these hangers on or else our work would never be good enough to see the light of day. We can’t edit, we’re told. We don’t have the skills to recognize quality design, they say. We would never sell anything without a publisher marketing it for us, so I’ve heard. Many writers have even allowed themselves to be sold so far down the river that they actually accept the “validation” of being published as a badge of honor rather than the condescending slap in the face it actually is. Even higher education ingrains in us the belief that we don’t deserve or simply won’t earn a good living, perpetuating the starving artist model.

When so many writers simply don’t believe this is a business first, last and always, and that we are the fuel it runs on, and that we deserve fair treatment and to be paid on par with our level of importance to the industry, we’ll continue to be second class citizens, fresh meat for the publishers’ grinder, as it were. I can’t say this enough…digital has flipped the script. Writers and readers are all that matter, everyone else is in the process of being marginalized. They’ll fight it tooth and nail, of course, but that doesn’t mean we have to help.

Writers are the publishing industry, period. Everything else about it built up around us and our work. Over time, we became trapped inside this framework of termites that continued to eat away at our creativity, freedom and bank accounts to the point that many of us actually still believe publishers positions should be higher than writers in the ecosystem. They’re not and they shouldn’t be. The changes going on today have given us the opportunity to leap back to the forefront. We gave that position away once, we shouldn’t waste this second chance.

The fact that there really are no institutions that represent writers ahead of the ecosystem that exploits us should tell us all we need to know. There are none because we controlled ourselves, we willingly abdicated our proper position in the industry and allowed others to dictate how, or even if, we work, live and survive. Nobody’s looking out for us because we’ve never demanded it, and we stopped looking out for ourselves long ago. In the digital future, the cliche “Content is King” is more true than ever. And he who makes the content should be wearing the crown. We’ve got a chance to usurp the throne we once abdicated. Let’s not waste it.

What’s an Indie?

Lately, there’s been some hard talks and consternation floating around the net decrying the chip on some self publishers’ shoulders. The self versus traditional publishing conflict is juvenile, counter productive and mostly pointless, we’ve been told. And you know what? In many ways, those folks are right.

Just as an aside, given that I did it right there in that last sentence, I read an interview with a supposed prominent book reviewer who said one of the things he hates is when writers use conjunctions to start a sentence. I say “supposed” because I’ve never heard of him and, frankly, I care about as much for the pet peeves of critics as I do for the pie in the sky throwback dreams of publishing executives, which is to say, I don’t. I love starting sentences with conjunctions! If used judiciously, they can add pace to a narrative flow. Is it grammatically correct or technically proper? Absolutely not! But you know what? (there, I did it again) About 99.9% of readers aren’t sitting there with your novel in one hand and the little green style book from a college grammar course in the other. Narrative writing is about rhythm and pacing much more than technical perfection and, if the voice is compelling, most readers don’t care if your work would be thrashed with a red pen by an English teacher.  Besides, I don’t see anyone quibbling about the grammar in a Bob Dylan song. This is art, folks, not a technical writing essay. The rules don’t always apply.

Anyway, back to my original point, those people who tell us to knock off the hatin’ war of words between self and traditional publishers are right. There’s no percentage in it, as an old boss of mine used to say. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize. Traditional publishing and its defenders do an ample job of providing fodder for criticism. And I’m sure self pubbed writers provide ample grounds for the traditional folks to attack. In saying that, however, there’s one point of contention I just can’t get past. (By the way, I could’ve started that sentence “But there’s one point…” Quicker, more concise, makes the same point without the roundabout language and punctuation…sorry, I’m just carping now. Bastard! Disparaging my use of conjunctions! Who does he think he is?)

The reason I can’t simply say enough is enough with the self-trad conflict is that traditional publishers would, by and large, wipe us out if they could, and roll back all the progress, freedom and leverage writers have gained over the past few years. There’s no question that self publishing is a threat to their established business models, which have long been built upon an exploitative relationship with writers. It’s kind of difficult to play nice and polite with someone who you know would kill you and all you stand for if they had their druthers. While many self pubbed writers, myself included on occasion, have voiced opinions to the effect of hoping the traditional dinosaurs die off and quickly, I don’t hesitate to say most of us really only want some modicum of freedom and equitable treatment. I believe most of us would happily work with publishers offering those attributes. They, on the other hand, would sooner see us rot on the vine before they deign to offer more favorable terms to writers. Admittedly, they’re not going to have a choice in the matter before much longer, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept or turn a blind eye to mistreatment. Hopefully, someday soon, these conditions won’t be as they are today, and the giant pissing contest will well and truly be over with. But today, too many publishers still don’t respect writers and would still rather put us back in the cubby holes they’d carved out for us than to welcome us to the table as partners or equals. That’s barely grounds to form a mutually beneficial business relationship, let alone a lasting friendship. Show us some respect, and you’ll have it returned in kind. Keep dissing us, and the battle will rage on unabated.

There’s one issue I’d specifically like to address because its been on my mind since I read this missive by literary agent Sarah LaPolla. In it, she does seem very supportive of self publishing in some ways, although a bit condescending in places. Then again, that could be my biases showing, reading a slight where none was intended. Like this line, for instance:

Now, self-publishing really can be the way toward a career in writing, albeit a modest one.

Did she have to toss that “albeit” qualifier in there? I read that and felt like a little kid being patted on the head by his kindergarten teacher. “Sure you can be anything you want. You might even grow up to be a baseball star. Or President of the United States.” Really felt dismissive. Like I said, though, her piece read much more supportive of self publishers than most coming from that side, so I’m willing to accept my biases as my own and not take offense.

However, I will take on one particular statement she made:

AND STOP CALLING YOURSELVES INDIE. You’re not that either. Using “indie” interchangeably with “self” only confuses people who want to self-publish and pisses off actual independent publishers. There is a clear difference between publishing with a small press (“indie”) and using a vendor (“self”). Misusing/stealing pre-existing terms doesn’t give you credibility; it makes you look unprofessional.

To begin, she started her sentence with a conjunction. Some people hate that, so I hear. Plus, ALL CAPS? Really? Why are you yelling? Let’s use our inside voices, please. My problem with this is that, just like the traditional publisher side no longer gets to tell us how high to jump unless we allow it, they also don’t get to tell us what we can call ourselves.

“Real” indie publishers are pissed? Aw, now I feel bad. Some self publishers are confused? “I want to self publish. But wait, that guy there said it was indie publishing. But this guy over here calls it self publishing. I’m so confused! I give up!” The way I look at it, when small presses started co-opting the term indie, self publishing wasn’t a viable or realistic path. Hell, it wasn’t even called self publishing, it was given the dismissive moniker of “vanity publishing.” In that environment, the small presses unaffiliated with the giant conglomerates were the independents.

Today, however, that dynamic has changed. The giants still roam the Earth. The small presses are still small presses but the independents have changed. The individual self published authors have become that. The problem isn’t that self publishers have stolen a label from someone else, it’s that the circumstances where it made sense to call a small press “indie” have changed. Logically, it makes much more sense to label the independently published author indie than a small publisher. One is clearly more “independent” than the other.

Ultimately, I don’t care for labels on the whole. I’m a writer. I’m also a publisher. I’ve worked for small publishers, large publishers and myself through self publishing. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to label one of those “indie” it would have to be self publishing. This opinion comes not from pre-existing terms, but from genuine first hand experience. And maybe some of us wouldn’t try so hard to escape stigmas if there weren’t people out there equating self publishing with a giant steaming pile of unreadable crap.

Ultimately, labels, whatever they happen to be, are limiting. We’re not self publishers or indie, we’re just publishers. The end process is the same: produce work, refine work, sell work. That’s what publishers do. Traditional, small press, indie, self, what have you, all are publishers. A label, even one as seemingly cool or edgy like indie, eventually becomes a defined ceiling for what you are. Personally, I much prefer not having that ceiling, certainly not giving it to myself. So, if I were to re-word her point, I’d do it thusly:

AND STOP CALLING YOURSELVES ANYTHING. Labels are meaningless and self-limiting. The work is what’s important. After all, what’s to be gained by having to listen to a bitter rep from some small press somewhere bitching and moaning about you stealing their term “indie”? Nothing, I tell you, nothing at all.

And stop using all caps. Using all caps doesn’t provide added emphasis to get your point across. It make you look screechy, angry and unprofessional. Conjunctions to start a sentence, however? I’m totally cool with that.

The Five-Tool Player: Writers should break with tradition to become the industry’s versatile superstars

For writers these days, many things have changed. We all know it. More opportunities exist now than ever before and many of them necessitate acquiring and putting to good use skills we’ve never had to really consider before. This can be seen as a liberating development or a very concerning one, depending on your point of view. If you’re a newbie looking to break into publishing, these new skills may be seen as simply an essential part of the process. If you’ve already had a 30-year career, and developed a process that you’ve got down cold, it may well be that the new realities seem like just an added pain in the ass, extra work you never had to worry about before now dumped right in your lap screwing up the system you’ve been perfecting for decades. But that doesn’t change the way things actually are. To quote a fairly popular sci fi property, as many writers and publishers are learning every day, resistance is futile and getting more so every day.

There are an ample number of writers out there on the web more than willing to share their knowledge, insights and advice to anyone who will listen. Hell, you could spend ten hours a day reading up on all the different takes on what new writers need to do to find success these days and not run out of material for weeks. Yet even with many of these writers steeped in the new order of things, a few long standing beliefs about the role writers should play continue to be perpetuated. These notions, while rooted in some legitimate facts, I believe are holdovers from the previous regime where writers, in many cases, allowed themselves to be underestimated and infantalized. It’s understandable, as we could avoid tasks that sometimes included drudgery we didn’t want to deal with and it simultaneously allowed the publishing industry to build up additional layers of “necessary” assistance helping to cement their self-proclaimed central positions in the content creation process.

While writers today have the potential to be freed from the shackles of the traditional industry in many ways, we also can be freed from the layers of unneeded outside “help” that have been accepted, largely, as weigh stations between writers and readers over the years. Here are my opinions on three of the biggest, and often most controversial, myths of the writing process that, thus far, seem to be tagging along into the new reality.

Marketing is too time consuming for writers

It’s too time consuming to promote yourself and your career? You know what else is time consuming? Getting up and going to a job for eight to ten hours a day every day for your entire adult life. You want to build a career in the entertainment industry, you’re going to have to do some heavy self marketing. You can’t expect someone else to do it for you, no matter how much they claim it as an advantage of throwing in with them. To be sure, publishers have an ample history and the resources to take care of promoting your works. That’s not at issue. What is at issue is whether or not you, personally, will be graced with any of those resources or efforts. Far too frequently, the answer to that question in no. Besides, one of the first things publishers are looking for these days in an author is a platform and/or a following. If you don’t already have one, you can be damn sure they’ll require it of you. Don’t care for blogging, tweeting, facebooking, pinteresting or what have you? Too bad because you’ll be doing it anyway, either for yourself or at your publisher’s behest.

You don’t have to fight it, however, and it doesn’t have to eat up all of your time. Blog once in a while. Tweet occasionally, leave some comments on other sites. And write. One of the truest statements I’ve seen come out of self publishing thus far is that the best marketing you can do for a book is write another kick-ass book. Everything else can be handled in increments.

You don’t have to spend eight hours a day pouring over Twitter, just a little time and effort when you can. Remember, everything you do online, no matter how large or small, adds to your digital footprint. That footprint is where fans and customers are ultimately found. A blog post once a week or so, a few tweets a day, a comment or two on any articles of interest is all you really need. Do those things consistently and, before you know it, you’ve built yourself a platform.

Once you have that, everything else you do simply adds to it. Do a blog tour, create an online site for direct sales, do a Goodreads promotion, etc. Whatever you come up with, and there are nearly infinite means of exposing your work to new potential readers, it all adds up. You don’t need 12 hours a day of marketing, just consistency. You’re books aren’t on a limited time schedule any more, you’re promotion doesn’t have to be either. And don’t ever forget that each new piece you publish is, in effect, part of your marketing efforts. Overlapping duties is a great way to save time.

Writers can’t design professional quality covers or art for their work

I like graphic designers. Some of my best friends are designers. They each have a certain artistic flair and approach uniquely their own, and many of them do magnificent work. But one thing I’ve learned is that the real artistry in design for publication is knowing how to manipulate the software. It’s not an unreproduceable skill, it’s a learned one that experience helps grow. Maybe you can’t draw, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manipulate art, images and fonts into a compelling piece. And that goes doubly for layouts for ebooks and print. Learn a little html, and you can easily crank out well formatted books in any digital file-type you like. Learn InDesign, or some other page layout software, and you can do print layouts for POD quite easily. You’d be surprised how easily.

Design seems like such an intimidating process, particularly if you’ve never tried. But once you get the hang of it, you soon find yourself stretching the basic skills and pushing yourself to figure out how to do some cool effect or other that you’ve got envisioned in your head. As your skills grow, you’ll be amazed how many things you can pull off on a professional level of quality that you had always thought was unreachable to you.

Developing the basic skills is the easy part. Learning to fit various design elements together seamlessly and effectively is tougher. Practice, practice, practice is the only way, and believe me, you will be glad you did. Adding an artistic-execution eye to your work also helps fully develop your understanding of a piece and can aide you in better marketing for it. Just as great writing is an important element in promotion, so is great art, particularly a stellar cover. Learning design isn’t impossible, far from it, and it can add to your overall package, improving both your understanding of the work and how it should be promoted.

Writers can’t edit their own work

This is a big one. You see it repeated everywhere, from the most jaded traditional publisher to the most optimistic indie. To that, I say, “Nonsense!” This, to me, has never made a lick of sense. You’re the writer, you crafted these sentences yet you can’t properly copy edit them? Absurd! Of course you can. More than that, you should. A writer who relies on others to produce clean copy free of errors is only doing half the job, in my opinion. One caveat to this is that it is always better to have multiple sets of eyes look a piece of writing over before it is unleashed on the world. Is it better enough to justify dropping some heavy coin down for it? That depends. If you develop the patience and skill to produce clean, grammatically sound copy, then it may not be in many instances. But this isn’t something that just suddenly happens. You aren’t born with magical typo-seeking editor skills. You have to work at it, but once you do, you can eliminate or seriously cut down on the need for extensive outside copy editing.

Now, what I’m talking about here is strictly editing for mistakes. Typos, grammatical problems, perspective errors, etc. Editing for plot and story content is an entirely different matter. For that, you absolutely need extra points of view. But, and here’s the crucial thing, you don’t need a professional editor for the content side of the equation. All you need is a beta reader or two or three. Someone you trust to read analytically and take notes. They don’t have to pour over the manuscript word for word, just for overall concepts, plot flow and character issues. I would even argue that having content reading done by actual readers is preferable to professional editing in that sense. Your target audience is regular readers, after all.

The two largest justifications for the belief that writers can’t do their own editing are that you know what you were trying to say with your story so well that you can’t see what you actually said, and that typos will slip by because your mind tends to be too familiar with your intent so it fills in whatever blanks you may have left. These two occurrences, while somewhat related, do have merit from a certain point of view, but there’s a solution to each. For content, beta readers will see what’s actually on the page (or the screen, if you will). If there are flaws in your logic, portions where characters acted against type or unrealistically, or holes both large and small left in your plot, your beta readers will point those out. For the technical side, there’s a straight forward solution as well. Write the story, do a thorough read through or edit and then put it aside. A couple weeks or a month later, pull it back out and pour over it nice and slowly, word for word. With a bit of practice, the distance you put between drafting and copy editing removes the familiarity blunders and lets you see what anyone reading the piece would see.

A good editor can be worth their weight in gold, but they can also be rare. An average or mediocre editor doesn’t bring very much to the table you can’t do for yourself and costs you extra money. No one knows and understands your particular style like you do. No one can properly follow the pace, tone and feel of your sentence structure better than you. If you have an editor you’re comfortable with, both in terms of what they bring to your work and what it costs you, by all means, use them to your full advantage. But don’t confuse any editor for a good one. And the more capable you are of crafting and polishing your own clean copy, the less you need to rely on outside help that may or may not truly be all that helpful.

Remember that editing a manuscript is a two part process–technical and story. The better you become on the technical side, the less hassle you will encounter preparing a work for publication. The notion that writers can’t adequately copy edit their own work is just wrong. Editing is a crucial part of the writing process. Without possessing those skills, you’re not fully developing your writing powers.

Defenders of traditional publishers like to tout the benefits they bring to the table, foremost among them are marketing, art design and editing. As such, a system has developed over the years where each of these three areas has been gradually taken away from the writer’s control and we’ve had it ingrained in us that it’s in our best interest to do things that way, that we just don’t have the skills to do them ourselves. Writers have been both underestimated and purposely sheltered by those beliefs for the sake of someone else’s self-interest for a very long time.

Editors, designers and marketers introduce layers of separation between the writer and their work, making the finished book more a product of the publisher than the writer. This is the mechanism used to justify keeping the writer’s share of the proceeds underneath the publisher’s share, despite what you might hear about writers being the costliest part of the publishing process. Don’t believe it. The publisher’s cut and the infrastructure costs used to justify that cut are the greatest expenses in publishing. Remove the necessity of some those infrastructure costs and that removes the justifications to keep the writer’s cut from actually becoming the highest expense in publishing, as well it should be.

It’s wonderful that we now have the opportunities we do, but this added potential also carries added responsibilities. We must expand and improve our skills if we are to truly circumvent the established process for getting work to market, and continue to cultivate new, profitable models for selling our wares. It’s great if you have the relationships and money to acquire first rate design and exceptional professional copy editing. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fill in some of those gaps on our own. Writers need to understand that we, now and increasingly in the future, are more in the position of publishers. As such, we must truly grasp the implications of every aspect of the process between first draft and publication. The more of those elements we can do ourselves at a high level, the better our understanding of the underlying reasons for those skills and how they contribute to the whole, and the better our chances of finding success.

We don’t necessarily have to do everything alone, nor am I advocating that in all cases, but we should at least know how. Don’t let anyone, however good intentioned, tell you that you can’t do it because, with some few exceptions and a modicum of effort, you can. Specialized skills are nice, but the level of specialization that has developed over the decades in big publishing happened because the financial framework existed to allow it, and it served publishers’ ultimate ends to make writers but one link in the chain of production they lorded over rather than a partner in the process.

The real question you have to ask yourself is what kind of writer do you want to be? In baseball, prospects are often given the highest ratings for being five-tool players, or players whose skill sets are diversified across the spectrum of abilities (power, average, speed, defense and arm). Writers in the future have the ability to be five-tool players in our own little field of dreams, those five tools being writing, editing, design, marketing and distribution. When one of those prospects finds success on the diamond, they quickly become the cornerstone under which a winning franchise can be built. If writers in large numbers cultivate all the tools needed to get from writing to reader, we, too, have the potential to become cornerstones of our own winning enterprises. Otherwise, we remain one-dimensional players better suited to remain as one of several specialized contributors to a lineup rather than the centerpiece and driving forces we all now can be. Should we strive to be the versatile, all-around great player or the power hitting DH who is slow on the bases, can’t play the field and puts up almost nothing at the plate but home runs and strikeouts? Which player do you think has the greater opportunity for lasting success?

Don’t allow long-standing prejudices about what you are and are not capable of underestimate your worth, value or potential as a writer. The one thing publishers fear more than Amazon is the thought that writers of all stripes will one day figure out that we are just as capable of successfully taking on all the tasks that have been made to seem insurmountable. Ignore the propaganda that says you can’t do something, and you may well discover that you absolutely can. What could be more liberating than that?

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

image

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)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 59 other followers

%d bloggers like this: