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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Amazon Is Evil

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

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

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

2. Self Published Works Aren’t Worthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Readers Need Gatekeepers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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