The Defenders of Literature and Cultural Heritage? Ha!

In the past week, there’s been several long-winded screeds written about the end of days for publishing at the hands of the exploding supernova that is Amazon.  This isn’t altogether a rarity, but I’ve noticed, as print sales continue to decline, ebook sales continue to pick up, and the traditional ways of doing business continue looking more and more like a quaint remnant of a past soon to be forgotten, the bile and vitriol thrown around at those who are at the vanguard of this vast cultural shift have gotten more pressing and severe.  First there was Scott Turow’s “Grim News” letter defending big publishing’s (alleged) collusion and price fixing.  He followed that up with a somewhat more tempered but still massively slanted and misdirected interview on Salon a few days later.  I myself, along with several others, took a swing at the hanging sliders Turow threw into all of our wheelhouses here.  After that, there was Harper’s Magazine publisher John MacArthur’s rant on what he calls the “internet con-men who have ravaged publishing”.   I fully intend to expound upon his comments a little later, as I did find myself agreeing with bits and pieces of what he had to say about the newspaper business’ futile  addiction to elusive web ads, but his overall missive was still very much misplaced.  Finally, I ran across this piece by Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, on what he calls Amazon’s assault on intellectual freedom.  It’s been a pretty busy week for the dinosaurs of the publishing industry.

None of this is particularly surprising to me.  I’ve seen a lot of this before, watching the legacy newspaper industry’s response when the internet first started to really take a bite out of their once whole-ly locked down apple.  The newcomers were usurpers, illegitimate, doing nothing but stealing their hard-earned positions and work.  The folks heading the industry at that time were so caught up in the belief that the mechanisms they had been in charge of were the pinnacle of their business, and virtually omnipotent, that they failed to see the handwriting on the wall.  It was much easier to lash out and demonize the agents of change than to actually admit to themselves that they had to change as well, or be left on the scrap-heap of history.  So bitch, moan and complain they did.  For years while their revenues shrank, their marketshare plummeted and their customers–both advertisers and readers–moved on to bigger and better things.  The newspaper industry today is roughly 40% the size it was only a half-dozen years ago and still contracting.  Their big plans for the future are website paywalls, an argument that really should have been settled somewhere around 1998.  They slipped, ignored the reality of change by spending too much attention to the quirks of those bringing it right to their doorsteps and, in the process, doomed themselves to a slow, wasting death.  Look closely and you can see the same thing happening to parts of the book publishing segment.

So this isn’t exactly an unheard of development, the disrupted lashing out at the disrupters, and it is more than predictable to see their points of view on the precise business aspects of the issue.  Obviously, they will violently defend the status quo mechanisms while disparaging the strange, new and different ways others have found to achieve the same ends, that being to put written works in the hands of readers.  That, I expected.  It still strikes me as living life with blinders on, but at least it makes sense from a business perspective.  After all, the new digital revolution is barely a few years old.  The legacy bookselling model has existed, pretty much as is, for decades, if not centuries.  You don’t make money that well for that long without developing a nearly-religious belief in your business model.  That faith won’t save them, but it is understandable.

One thing, however, that has begun to emerge in these anti-Amazon (truthfully, more anti-future and anti-change) rants is the notion that legacy publishers, editors, distributors, agents bookstores and the authors entwined with them aren’t simply defending a means of doing business; they are beginning to position their plight on a higher plane.  They aren’t simply disrupted business people, they are pious defenders of literature, heritage and the very culture itself.  Every time I see one of these comments, I can’t help but snort.  I’ve even taken to putting down my drink whenever I get the slightest hint I’m reading one of these for fear of shooting some of said drink out of my nose, a fate I’d like to avoid if at all possible.  It’s one thing to defend your business and how it operates, even if you do so in absence of facts, reason and rationality.  It is quite another to pretend to be martyrs on the cross of literary heritage.  Of course, it’s entirely possible they’re not pretending and that would be telling in and of itself.  I’ve always approached these types of backwards defenses as willful blindness by those so worried about losing their meal tickets that they refuse to acknowledge the validity of the opposing arguments.  But, perhaps, what we are dealing with here are actually “true believers” so indoctrinated by legacy publishing’s dogma that anything challenging its preeminence is immediately treated as heresy.

When a Konrath, an Eisler or any of the other outspoken proponents of the changes that have torn through the industry advocate their positions, is it possible that these true believers don’t see a reasoned argument supported by observation, statistics and facts?  Does Turow look at Konrath the way the Pope looked at Galileo when he challenged the notion that the Earth was the center of the universe?  Did he consider the matter at hand, looking at all the available evidence and make a reasoned judgement or does he simply launch into an inquisition-style defensive assault that twists logic like a Philly soft pretzel to suit his preconceived beliefs?  I sincerely hope it’s the former because, even though I believe he’s wrong, at least he would still retain the possibility that further evidence and reason could have a positive effect.  If it’s the latter, no amount of reason will have any effect, except to make the vitriol even stronger because if there’s any one trait that defines true believers of any stripe, it’s that they almost always double down against things that challenge their faith, no matter how logical or reality-based they are.

Read each of the four pieces I linked to above and look for the similarities in their arguments.  Far from simply a discussion about the difficulties of transitioning from a print-centric business model to a digital-centric one, they each pine for the glory days of yore, nostalgia for the way things have always been done literally drips from their words.  And they each, at various points, make the proclamation that, as the new digital frontier continues to spread over the old physical one, our culture and even literacy itself will suffer for it.  The literacy point is somewhat inexplicable to me.  How, exactly, can literacy decline through the act of more people reading more than ever?  It’s seems a lot like Barry Eisler excellently pointed out on Turow’s allegation that Amazon is trying to destroy bookselling, apparently, by selling lots of books.  I guess when logic, reason and facts fail to produce a convincing argument, scare tactics are a consistently easy fallback.

“The end is near!  If our business fails, the world will be consumed by hellfire!  The people will become illiterate slugs if we’re no longer around to tell them what’s worthy of reading and spending their money on!  Without us, our culture will collapse into an horrific hodgepodge of things regular people actually enjoy, without having a gatekeeper like us to tell them it’s okay to like it!  What about our heritage?  Won’t somebody think about the children and how they’ll be able to learn of their heritage on their own, god forbid, without the facts they’re exposed to being vetted and approved by we professional keepers of what’s right and just!  It’ll be the end of days!  The horror…the horror…”

Publishing is a business, folks, not a religion.  They operate, as they always have, on a business model that allowed them to make money on the written word.  Technology has changed the ways in which people can access those words, undermining publishing’s long-standing business model.  Now, if they want to survive, they must transition to a model that fits today’s (and tomorrow’s) readers.  That’s all this is.  The world won’t end.  Great masses of people won’t suddenly lose the ability to read.  The written word will continue on as it always has, only now with the means of reaching more people more inexpensively and efficiently than ever before.  Our culture will not suffer.  Our heritage will not evaporate.  In fact, they may well be greatly enhanced by what’s coming.  The fact that a relatively small number of people who used to make a living putting words in ink on blank sheets of paper and selling them could possibly be out of work isn’t going to doom civilization as we know it.

Print publishing has had a good run.  They’ve existed as an industry largely undisturbed for numerous generations, far more fortunate than many, much more successful industries before or after them.  Change in life is inevitable.  How we deal with that change is what separates the people who keep moving forward, whatever the obstacles and the people who just whine about how much better things were back in their day.  Some of these old-guard folks sound to me like they’re desperately in need of a rocking chair, a tall glass of lemonade, a quilt to keep the evening chill away and a nice front porch to retire to.  Put enough of them together, and they should have plenty of tales to share amongst themselves about how great things were back in the good ol’ days.

As for the rest of us?  We’ve got things to do.  There’s a disruption going on, don’t you know?

Publishers are searching for a sustainable market. Sustainability for who, exactly?

I was reading a piece this morning on Alan Mutter’s Reflections of a Newsosaur blog.  It’s ostensibly about a new survey that, like many before it, purports to show that people under 40 see little to no value in newspapers, where people 40 and up still retain a certain, if declining, appreciation for the dead-tree media platform.  It’s not a new or surprising conclusion, and it’s not unlike any of hundreds of articles I’ve read over the past few years.  In fact, it’s an argument I’ve largely lost interest in long ago because of the obvious nature of the debate.

Nostalgia for newspapers will still exist for some time yet, particularly among the older set who have used them as a primary source of information virtually their entire lives.  The younger generation, having never been fully indoctrinated in the mystique of the paper, and having been reared on new technology, quite understandably sees newspapers as stale, limiting platforms from a bygone era.  To me, the argument is moot.  Today’s technology, and what is still yet to come, will no doubt end the era of newspapers.  To fight that simple fact is basically pissing directly into the fierce headwinds of progress.

That’s not to say that the organizations that produce newspapers won’t be able, at some point, to successfully transform to fully digital platforms, although it might have been helpful to start that transition a decade or so ago before a lot of the best ideas at the moment were snapped up by tech companies or other independent parties.  But you can’t cry over spilt milk now. 

The part of Mutter’s article that drew my attention was, as is frequently the case these days, the comments section.  One reader quite correctly points out that while the under 40 sampling in the survey seemed to have little use for newspapers in physical forms, the questioning failed to differentiate between print and online news content. While they may never buy a paper, they may also be making use of online content from the very same sources.  An interesting point, and undoubtedly true, but I would argue that even if it is the case, those people might not even realize where the content originated. 

I am as guilty of this as anyone.  I don’t buy newspapers any more.  They don’t play to my interests any longer, at least not in a significant enough way to coerce me to lay down any cash for one.  As I wrote a bit ago, I use Twitter quite extensively these days, and have cultivated a group of people and organizations to follow across a broad spectrum of subjects.  I check it two or three times a day, scrolling through the tweets, opening up any links that seem interesting on different pages in my web browser.  Then I sit down and go through them, reading what in effect has become an individualized newspaper tailored to my interests.  I do this a couple times a day, creating what is, in essence, morning, afternoon and evening editions of the Dan Times, the equivalent of a newspaper made for just me.

There are, unquestionably, articles that appear in these streams that originate from newspaper sites, but frequently, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you which papers.  I absorb the information readily enough, but the source sites slip right on by with very little awareness.  And you know what else slips by?  Any and all ads that happen to be on these sites.  I finished my morning edition just a little while ago, reading in full about 12 articles on a variety of subjects.  I can’t name one single ad I saw on any of them.  Not one, despite the fact that they were almost certainly there in droves. 

The dirty little secret about online advertising isn’t that they’re cheap because of an abundance of space online, it’s that they’re cheap because they are so very easy to totally ignore.  I will never believe that ad-supported online newspapers will work because the ads themselves will never be useful enough to support pricing that makes any sense in the long term.  And if anyone out there is paying high dollar for them, here’s a little free head’s up–you’re getting ripped off, no matter what their elaborate metrics might say.

Now that we’re over a year into the supposed tablet revolution, there does appear to be some positive signs for publishers.  As tablets are proliferating, and getting cheaper almost by the day, there have been reports that revenue generated by publishers is increasing.  This is probably one of the more optimistic signs I’ve seen in a while that an actual sustainable model for publishing can be found and is, in fact, possible.  The problem, though, is sustainability for who?

I’ve long held that the market for paid digital content for publishers won’t really kick into high gear until there’s a somewhat platform neutral device in the $100 range or less.  These devices need to become ubiquitous in everyone’s homes, and they need to be as open as possible.  The iPad is a very nice piece of equipment, but it’s too expensive and it’s too locked into it’s own little world.  I have two ebooks available for sale in the ibookstore, but lacking the device, I can’t even see the listings for my own books, let alone buy one.  That’s a big problem, one that Apple may not care about at the moment, but it’s a hindrance to reaching customers that will be an issue over the long haul.

Amazon exists in a somewhat locked down world as well, but they are driving device prices in the right direction for market saturation.  The new Android-based Kindle Fire tablet will debut later this year at $199. Still not the fully platform neutral device we need, but it’s closer to that magic $100 price point.   On top of that, they’re dropping the price of the base-model Kindle ebook reader to only $79!  To me as an ebook publisher, that is extraordinarily good news.  It is an ad supported model, which can be an inconvenience, but the ad free version will still be only $109.  Keep in mind, this is the start of a race downward in price.  I am more certain than ever that, as the market for digital content matures, standards will open more and prices will drop into the range where every home, hell, every individual can have one without having to save up to do so.  The movie industry has made loads of money on dvds, and the means for doing so was greatly helped along by cheap, widespread dvd players.  The device is great and all, but it’s the content itself where the real money is to be made.

All this brings me back to the notion of sustainability.  When, and indeed if, digital content brings in real money for publishers, where is that influx of cash going to go?  Will it return writers, designers and content creators to living wages again, on the whole?  Or will it be used to support the corporate infrastructure and exorbitant management salaries?  Take Gannett, for instance.  Their CEO Craig Debow is stepping down due to health concerns. Now, I do wish him well, I don’t want to criticize someone suffering from health issues, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.  But he’s walking away from the company with a $37 million good bye check.  I’m sure all the former Gannett employees who lost their jobs to the massive cost cutting of Debow’s tenure are thrilled that he’s receiving such a generous going away present.

That amount of money would pay 1,000 writers $37,000 salaries, or pay 250 writers that same amount annually for the next four years.  Isn’t there a better use for resources in what is, at it’s heart, a content company?  I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve anything, but for a guy who’s base salary was $1.2 million, and who has already collected millions in stock options and bonuses over the past five years, that seems really exorbitant.  Most people are lucky if they get a couple months pay leaving a job, Debow’s collecting 30 years worth of his base pay. 

The popular conservative mantra these days is that if the corporations are doing well, its employees will benefit from that.  That argument had merit at one point, but in this day and age, any objective long-term analysis is going to show that corporations have been improving their bottom lines at their employee’s expense for quite some time now, long before the recent economic downturn.  So the question remains, will digital revenue create sustainable models for content creators or for the organizations who have been, and will continue to exploit them?

If the creators benefit, then this can be good for everyone.  If only the organizations benefit, it’ll be good for almost no one.  Except of course, for CEOs who can preside over nearly $2 billion in annual revenue declines over five years and still walk away with a one-time parting gift roughly 20 times more than most of us will see from an entire lifetime of work.

Sustainability is great, and what the industry should certainly be striving for, but we need to make sure that what gets sustained by our money as consumers in the future is truly the most deserving of it.

Ain’t Technology Grand? Putting the finishing touches on a new book

So, of late, I’ve been plugging away on a new collection of short stories that will be released as an ebook in pretty short order, that is to say within the next couple weeks.  To that end, here is a draft of my introduction that will appear in the new effort. 

In it, I wanted to again emphasize my enthusiasm for the new framework in publishing that allows people like me to even be able to do this sort of thing, absent any support of the currently-flailing old publishing infrastructure.  That’s why I’m publishing it here early, it fits in with a common theme of mine, that the new connected world we live in has spurred a great capacity for individual efforts that no longer require yesterday’s institutions to validate our work. 

Ain’t technology grand?  I find it more and more amazing, every day, the possibilities we now possess as writers.  Even a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for someone not independently wealthy to publish a book outside of the established publisher framework and have it seen anywhere except small local enclaves and their own bookshelves.  It wasn’t called the vanity press for nothing.  And in that name was the unfair  implication that your book didn’t deserve to be printed. The lockdown by the industry at large was so strong and all encompassing that they had gone beyond simply printing and marketing books into the realm of arbiters of our culture.  After all, if a publisher didn’t decree that your literary efforts were worthy, you were basically out of luck.  This framework, while productive for publishers, who controlled the expensive printing apparatus and dominated the retail markets with favorable contracts with the then-increasing big-box book store chains and book-of-the-month club type offerings, was extremely limiting for the actual creators.

To be certain, there were the gilded few who navigated these sheltered waters successfully, but how much quality work, how many entertaining, thought-provoking creative efforts died an unseen death because of a publisher’s arbitrary declarations of unprofitability?  That was, to me, always the fatal flaw in the old system.  How could publishers be simultaneously gatekeepers for cultural relevance and necessarily profit seeking?  These are, sometimes, common ends, but far more frequently, they can be mutually exclusive.  Profit isn’t always the first thing on a writer’s mind when they have something to say.  Often, it doesn’t cross their minds at all.  And that’s how it should be.

Writing is itself, at times, an act of creative destruction.  By that, I mean that the best writing causes the reader to question things–themselves, their beliefs and the institutions that uphold them.  Where’s the profit to be found in work that criticizes some of the very institutions you must depend on to get that work in print in the first place?  There is intellectual “profit”, as in new thoughts, new ideas, an expanded mind and point of view.  And then there is cash profit, made so by obtuse concepts of wide-scale marketability and mass-market acceptance that, in some cases, by very definition must be somewhat homogenized.  After all, too much controversy can and will hurt the bottom line.  Just ask any athlete or entertainer who has expressed a controversial opinion, however well considered, and then lost product endorsements.  As if a football player’s opinion on Osama Bin Laden has any bearing whatever on whether we, as consumers, should trust his judgment in workout attire choices.

Yet that is the way of controlling market forces that depend on mass appeal with the least possible controversy for profit’s sake alone.  The farther we get away from that kind of world, as creators, the better we will be for it.  Certainly, selling tee shirts and selling literature are vastly different exercises.  Profit motives for ideas can be somewhat self-defeating.  But the expense previously involved in bringing books to market necessitated that profit be the key element.  Not any longer.

That’s not to say that we don’t want to make money.  Many of us unquestionably do.  It’s just that the necessity to make large profits has been removed from the equation.  A book can now be written, published, marketed, sold to virtually anyone on the planet, read on any number of devices and the upfront costs to the author for doing so are virtually nil.  And, whatever the old and antiquated publishing network tells you, it works.

This book is my second collection of short stories.  In effect, it’s actually a prequel to my first as most of the work contained herein pre-dates the work in my original collection, Bad Timing, published last year.  Admittedly, my previous effort, which is available both as a print edition and an ebook, was far from a best seller.  But that doesn’t mean it was a non-seller.  I’ve sold hundreds of copies to this point, totaling a couple thousand dollars or so, and I continue to get quarterly checks from Amazon and others outlets even though I’ve done very, very little marketing, no advertising and the book itself has been out well over a year.  It’s not a fortune by any means, but it has more than compensated me for my efforts, and it’s infinitely more than I would have received from the traditional publishing world who would never have published it in the first place.

Before we decry the end of publishing and writing as a profession, as some have done, let’s consider that I, on a laptop in my living room, wrote, produced, distributed and sold a very appreciable number of copies of a book that would not have been possible before.  I added a not-insignificant amount of money to my yearly income in the process, money that didn’t come through the old way of doing things, but wholly by circumventing that route.  It won’t pay all my bills, but it certainly paid some, and far more than it would have as a rejected manuscript collecting dust in my bottom desk drawer.  So I repeat, ain’t technology grand?

As I said, much of the material here is older.  Some of the tales are my very earliest attempts at short stories.  They show a lot of the influences that drove me, and the kinds of concepts and ideas that have always interested me.  Exploring the darker side of things has always fascinated me, and while some of the works contained here are somewhat lighter than the general theme of my previous collection, they still come from a place that illustrates how the darker side of humanity can be far more fascinating.  Everyone wants to find the happy ending in their own lives but, as I’ve learned too well over the years, there are far more bad results in life than good, and it is only through knowing the bad and getting past our inherent fear of all things dark that we can truly appreciate the light when it does shine down upon us.

So, thank you for coming back.  I hope you enjoy this book and find something within that you can carry away. Lessons about how to handle life’s difficulties can sometimes be hard earned.  But the one I’ve learned well over the past few years, one illustrated by the very fact that you’re reading this right now, is that however impossible it may seem to find your way in the world, however daunting it may seem when faced with long-standing institutions blocking your path, there is always a way around those roadblocks.  Don’t be afraid of the dark; revel in it instead.  I know I do.

Keep watching this space.  My new book will be unveiled very shortly.

Published in: on September 7, 2011 at 10:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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