Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Thoughts on E-publishing

This will be a rambling and probably somewhat incoherent post on the e-publishing phenomena. E-books is a separate post, but I note that HP has announced its version of the iPad. The technology is moving so fast that it will be only a matter of time before a majority of our reading material will be online. As an aside I do wonder in light of Egypt's abortive attempt to stop the demonstrations by killing the Internet whether it's wise for a nation to have most of its reading material hooked up to computers (which can be shut down). Of course, Hitler burned books so I guess this is the modern-day equivalent. Kill the power, kill the message. But still it concerns me, especially since with amazon you're technically only renting books from them. They can take back your books at any point, even if you paid for them. Anyway, digressing.

Publishing [and by that I mean New York (NY)] has always been the gatekeeper. I think that this has been a valid point in the past. I'm something of a 1920s, American ex-pat fanatic, and I've read probably far too much on both Hemingway and Fitzgerald to be healthy. This entailed reading a lot of their letters to their editors. There was a reason why it could be years between books. Aside from the boozing and hunting, both men worked at their books. And I mean worked like frigging dogs to get it right. People aren't working at books anymore. And you can tell when a book has been worked on. I'm reading Hillary Mantel's book on Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall. She worked five years on this book and it shows.

The concept of gatekeeping is not just blowing hot air. Seriously, if you'd read the first draft of my first book you would have run screaming from the room hunting frantically for mental bleach. Yes, it was that horrible. I worked at it for three years, learned some things, polished it up, and eventually sold it (and no I'm not comparing it to either Hemingway or Fitzgerald, I'm just saying that it became a better book). In this day and age, I could put up that truly horrific first draft on amazon and attempt to sell it to you. So when NY yells into the ether that they are the gatekeepers, protecting you from all that awful writing, they are, in a way, correct. They have been. Until recently. Until the big corporate buyout that reduced the numbers of publishers in NY from something like twenty to something like three. Roughly ten years ago, books ceased to be books and became commodities.

At that point the editors were fired, and the process became less about the book and more about the market. What commodity will get us the most money. Not which book is the best, which book should be published because it says something worth saying, but which book will sell. And now when NY screams that they are the gatekeepers no one is listening because they abdicated that role in search of bigger and better profits. In their zeal to reduce their overhead and produce only one book a year that sells a ton, NY decided to drop a bunch of authors that sold, that made profit, but didn't make enough profit. This is a concept that is totally foreign to me, but then I wasn't a business major. Profit to me is, um, profit. But apparently not!

So now you have all these authors who have a proven track record and now you have the technology that allows them to self-publish. And authors are doing it. Write it and they will come mentality. If you have a readership and publishers are ignoring you, then why not? Because they have readers who want to read them. These writers just don't have publishers who want to publish them. But lo and behold the technology is there and not only there but there at $3.99 or even better $2.99. What a bargain!

I think it gets trickier if you decide that you always wanted to write a book, and, hey, kindle. Because I think of my first draft and how bad it was. I put bad in italics because you have no concept how bad. I think of all these bad novels flooding amazon, and Borders, and no doubt Barnes and Noble, because all of these companies now realize that there is money to be made out of this self-publishing business. And why? Because there is NO money to be made now with the traditional publishing model. If anything will save the box chains it will be the self-publishing market.

I'm standing on the sidelines watching this. I know authors who are now forced to self-publish because NY will no longer publish them. I know people who couldn't write their way out of a paper bag and who now want to publish their stuff and there is no stopping them. I know people who are wonderful writers who see NY as nothing more than a depressing roadblock and just as NY is ignoring them, they are ignoring NY and looking at different publishing models (none of which include NY).

I received money over Christmas and I bought four books with that money. Actual books. Hardcovers! Except for one, which was an annotated version of Persuasion by Jane Austen, and it's the only decent book in the lot. The rest needed a few more turns with an editor. They aren't horrible books, but they aren't good books either. I feel cheated. That editorial process isn't happening now that authors are being pressed to churn out a book a year. It shows. Books have faulty premises or plot busts or just don't hang together well. That's what an editor does. Makes the author step outside of their head into the real world to create a book that works for most people, not just them.

What I see happening? A flood of utter dreck hitting the self-publishing market. Some really good stuff hitting the self-publishing market. Some will get noticed. A lot won't. NY pulling back like whoa on paper publishing and continuing to flog e-books at inflated prices, all while decent authors who have self-published continue to undercut them. NY finally waking up and smelling the coffee and discounting e-books, but ONLY publishing in e-form. I suspect that the majority of mystery will only be available in e-form within five years. The Lee Child's of this world will survive in paper. The rest of us? Doubtful. I see authors forming collectives, using that six degrees of separation business to sell their material to others through a loose association of authors. Those who keep their quality up could do well in this configuration.

Essentially, I think the authors who consistently reach for quality will survive. There are lots of potential models out there. What NY doesn't seem to realize is that people want GOOD books to read. They don't want what some NY marketing department is shoving down their throats. I'm at the point where I've dropped several authors from my list of must-reads because they are now producing mediocre books. And I don't blame them per se. They are reacting to market forces as well. But that doesn't mean as a reader I want to keep supporting them when they aren't keeping up their end of the bargain. And this IS a bargain. You write a good book and I will read it.


kimboosan said...

Great post; as someone who has worked with really good editors in the past, I know how important they are. Not having a *skilled and talented* editor to vet my writing bothers me; but these days it's something a writer has to pay for and I can't afford it.

I know a lot of the epublishing houses are going the "sink or swim" route with their authors; it puts a lot of dreck out there.

But...I think this is also an opportunity for good writers and good books. The old gatekeepers often kept space and money devoted to writers producing mediocre books because they had a "name"; it was all about the marketing, not the book itself. It choked out new or mid-list authors who WERE writing good books. Maybe they have a chance now...word of mouth is a powerful thing. One can hope, anyway!

Claire M. Johnson said...


Well, you know how I feel about this process. I am a much better editor than I am a writer, and I cannot turn off the editor when I'm reading. I'm at the point now where I honestly feel that one in ten books is worth finishing. Even at heavily discounted prices that a lot of money to shell out for a mediocre book. And it didn't used to be that way. But if you churn a book out a year, then that's what you get: an incomplete concept. I don't care who you are. People will say to me, well, you're books aren't that hot. And I would agree. They are adequate. But just because I'm an adequate writer doesn't mean I'm an adequate reader.

I think that e-publishers who are putting out dreck to establish themselves are walking a fine line. They need to be careful. Because the publishing industry would LOVE for them to fail. Publishing is traditionally hidebound and the ins and outs of technology seem to be completely and utterly beyond them. Seriously, they are absolute Luddites. So the market is there. But I'm afraid that if e-publishers don't step up the quality, they will lose their opportunity to carve out a hunk of those readers who aren't afraid of the technology and who have e-readers and who use them.

You know what I would do if I won the lottery!