Choices

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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

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great post. I felt the same reading their post.

    Part of the argument I keep hearing from publishers, as “cultivators of quality” is that part of their brand is to turn out good books. Part of the problem they’re running into though…is that they don’t have a brand. Some of the old genre imprints do, TOR, Harlequin, etc. but the brand really belongs to the author, the bookstore, pretty much anyone else in the chain.

    All of a sudden, publishers want to present themselves as the guy whose been there all along, making sure you read good books. The best way to do that, to make sure authors keep coming to them, is to degrade self publishing as worse than the slush pile, worse than vanity publishing.

    • Notice, too, that it’s not really readers you hear this stuff from either. It’s usually writers who have publishing contracts (even some hybrids) or publishers themselves. I like to ask people that talk about publisher branding to think of the last half dozen books they really liked. Now name the publisher for each. Nobody can do it. But you can be damn sure they know the author, and not only that, likely the titles of a few other books by each one.

      • H.M. Ward has a post up, just saw it, and it does a pretty great job of ripping apart their branding argument.

        Actually, it rips just about everything in their argument.

        It’s just another classic case of stagnation. They’ve forgotten what business they’re in. They act like they make a product in which the author is just a contractor, fulfilling a task. They forgot they are, and always have been, just facilitators. Just like any other facilitator, once they’re contribution becomes smaller, they’re no longer needed.

  2. […] Apparently some people think self published authors don’t have the right to be called authors. We’ve seen this type of talk before, I remember one particularly nasty piece by an author who was angry that other didn’t have to jump through the same hoops they had, hadn’t had to get an agent (and lose 15%), get rejected a hundred times, etc. Luckily, this is a minority opinion these days, and there are those who will (sometimes surprisingly) call them on this particular brand of bullshit […]


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