Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (part 1)

My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes: 

If you’ve been around aspiring writers much you know that a good percentage of them produce the writing equivalent of really bad karaoke.  You also know that there are undiscovered gems out there.  Until recently the book buying public has not had to deal with the ‘bad karaoke’ books.  We’ve probably missed a few gems too.  What we saw in bookstores was filtered.  Sometimes that filtering kept out good books, but it mainly kept readers from wading through an awful lot of crap. 

Like it or not, the filters are going away.  Good books are still being published but they are hard to find among increasing amounts of drek.  Readers, authors and publishers need to figure out how to deal with the glut.  If we don’t the book market will continue to spiral downward, with more writers pursuing fewer and fewer readers.

The key issue for readers, authors and book publishers is going to be how to replace the traditional filters and get high quality novels together with their audiences.  

In part one I’ll look at what has happened to the traditional filters.  Past two will look at potential replacements. 

So what have the filters been and why are they going away? 

Filter One: The Expense Of Putting Together a Manuscript: Until recently putting together an acceptable manuscript was difficult and expensive.  Personal computers and affordable laser printers made writing a novel and putting together a manuscript much easier.  Before  affordable PC and laser printers you didn’t just have to write the novel, you also had to type up the manuscript, then retype revisions, a slow and cumbersome process that kept many would-be novelists (including me) from ever sending a completed manuscript to a publisher. 

Affordable computers and laser printers let more people write novels.  Established writers could write faster.  The result was empowering.  A lot more people wrote a lot more stuff.  The result was also disastrous.  The publishing industry simply couldn’t deal with the increased flow of manuscripts.  That brings us to filter two.. 

Filter Two: Publishers: Publishers used to look at the stream of manuscripts coming in from aspiring writers and rejected the ninety-nine percent or more that for one reason or another they couldn’t profitably sell.  That took care of most of the ‘bad karaoke’ writing. 

Writers had little choice but to accept the verdicts of the publishers.  Publishing and promoting a book was expensive.  An author could almost never make money publishing a book independently.  Also, ‘subsidy publishers’ preyed on would be authors, charging exorbitantly to print unsellable books.  Most readers correctly felt that self-published books were mostly junk because if a book was any good it would have been published by a real publisher. 

The system worked for the most part.  Authors with enough persistence and skill could find a publisher.  Readers could know that the books they saw on a booksellers shelves usually, though by no means always, met a set of minimum standards.  Publishers prospered in that environment, taking most of the risks and most of the profits from publishing.  Most writers didn’t prosper, though authors who made it through the filters and established a name for themselves could earn a modest living at writing, and a few very big name authors became moderately wealthy. 

Smart publishers made an effort to find the few publishable manuscripts among the “slushpile” of unsolicited manuscripts they received.  That made sense because if they didn’t they not only lost out on a potential profit, but they also handed that profit to their competitors.  Good publishers also took pride in finding and nurturing new talent. 

Several things changed that system over the past several years.  First, the sheer number of manuscripts coming in made even skimming the slushpile more expensive.  Second, many major US publishers were bought out by conglomerates from outside the publishing industry.  They moved to the short-term “what is the bottom line this quarter” thinking that has destroyed so many US industries.  Many publishers also seemed to develop a “who needs talent when we have marketing?” view of the industry. 

Most major publishers stopped looking at unsolicited manuscripts a few years ago.  They farmed that function out to agents.  As the slushpile flood diverted to agents, those agents were also overwhelmed and most of the good ones stopped looking at unsolicited manuscripts too. 

New authors found it harder to get published by traditional publishers.  They also found it easier to take other routes.  Print-on-demand and e-book technology makes both self-publishing and being a publisher much less expensive. 

Some readers still look down on self-publishing and to some extent on being published by small POD or e-book publishers.  Part of the problem is lingering attitudes left over from the old “big publisher versus vanity press junk” dichotomy.  Part of the problem is that a lot of small POD and e-book publishers do publish “bad karaoke” writers.  

Small POD and e-book publishers have little short-term incentive to filtering out the junk.  Being selective can actually hurt a small publisher in the short-term because most novels will attract enough of the novelist’s family and friends to pay the bulk of the (very low) costs of publication. That makes it close to cost free in the short term to take a chance on a new novelist if the advance is low enough or if there is no advance.  Some, but by no means all POD publishers actually charge the author for publication, which gives them incentive to publish just about anything. 

At the same time, POD and e-books are in many ways a much more rational way of publishing books than the traditional publishing model with its wasteful return policies.  Some newer, smaller publishers are finding and publishing gems or at least books that satisfy certain audience niches more effectively than traditional publishers.  Readers who stick exclusively with traditional publishers do miss out on some good reading. 

Filter Three: Bookstores.: Up until the last couple of decades, bookstores acted as an additional filter, with small bookstores owned by people who were also avid readers  Those bookstore had limited shelf space and did not stock books that they didn’t like or think would sell. 

That changed in two waves.  First, bookstore chains pushed most small independent bookstores out of the market by stocking a larger selection and charging lower prices.  That cut out much of the filtering function of bookstores.  More shelf space meant that bookstores didn’t have to be as careful what they stocked.  Loose return policies meant that if a bookstore overestimated many books would sell it was the publisher’s problem, not the bookstore’s. 

The increasing power of the chains also made the market less responsive to local preferences.  A local bookstore had to know what would sell locally and order accordingly.  Owners often knew and talked with customers.  That was much more difficult for chains. 

Second, Amazon.com rose to challenge the chains.  Amazon lists books at very little cost to themselves and do almost no filtering.  Best sellers from big traditional publishers are listed along with self-published “bad karaoke” POD books.  Amazon reviews can give some idea of the quality of a book but they’re fairly easy to game. 

So the traditional filters are disappearing.  Readers can’t find new authors they like among the glut of “bad karaoke” books.  New authors often can’t find a publisher, and often can’t find an audience even if they find a publisher.  Traditional publishers no longer reliably find fresh talent and increasingly rely on marketing rather than talented writers.  That shrinks the market by making books less attractive to younger readers. 

So how can all of that be reversed?  I have some ideas.  They’ll be in part two.

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 2)
The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 3)

—–

Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories.  Visit his website at http://www.DaleCozort.com

19 Responses to “Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (part 1)”

  1. Ken Coffman Says:

    You’re right, Dale. The barriers to entry are low and getting lower. What’s the cost to publish a Kindle book? A kid on an allowance could finance it. What is the mechanism for quality control? How will we generate the buzz required to move our books from obscurity to the best seller list? Great article, Dale and I’m looking forward to the secrets of the universe being disclosed in Part 2.

  2. Pat S. Says:

    Excellent analysis Dale! Before I got educated about it, I got suckered into buying any number of really bad POD e-books. I’m smarter now. One problem I see though, as a reader, is that the education it takes to identify the difference between good books and drek is simply not there. Until a year ago, as a reader, I had no idea I should even check who the publisher was, or that some, like PublishAmerica, were giant no-nos. How can future readers tell what’s going to be worth their dollars, especially in this difficult economy? Can’t wait to see part 2!

  3. ceylanthewriter Says:

    You are completely right. I know that a child can publish without running out of money in his or her bank account. I think that the few good writers should be acknowledged more than the “not what we’re looking for”. True a writer needs to have thick skin, but like performing arts, it takes courage to put oneself out there. It should be acknowledged and the publishers should give the good writers some inspiration. I am sure that many do, but still…

    Ceylan

  4. joylene Says:

    Dale. I’m definitely coming back tomorrow to read your secrets. I’m hoping among them is the value of word-of-mouth. I want the trust put back in the readers hands.

    Hollywood is a prime example. No matter how much money is invested in any given movie, no matter the actor’s clout, if a movie fails at the box-office, it fails. There’s no hope of Mr. Star traveling the continent and turning his failed story into a success.

    Why can’t it be the same with books? And I’m not talking reviewers; they’re part of the problem. There’s too much “I’ll pat your back if you pat mine” mentality. What if a random readership was chosen across North American during a test period before the major publishing house released their new books?

    I know it’s more complicated than I’m suggesting, but lately, my pessimism’s showing. I want back my faith in the publishing industry. Besides, wouldn’t it be interesting to discover just how many promoters actual read the book they’re promoting?

  5. M.A.Y Says:

    The barriers in real publishing, however, are higher than ever. Which level will you choose? The choice is all yours. Work, or the path of least resistance and no filters.

  6. Eldred Says:

    I agree with this analysis for the most part. But, at the same time, publishers don’t always know what is good and not good. Same with agents. How many times did JK Rowling get rejected? What about “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”? That got rejected a ton of times. There are a lot of authors out there with good books…who just need someone to look at them…but that’s getting more and more difficult.

    If you look at a lot of new authors who are kicking out books right now, they’re not “great” books. A lot of them aren’t even “good” books. But, when you do your research you find that they’re getting published the same way most everything in this country seems to get done now–through networking. They know someone, or know someone who knows someone. There are a lot of unworthy books being published because some mediocre writers are better networkers than some pretty good or great writers.

    The old adage used to be, “If your book is good enough, it will get published.” I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think a lot of people are turning to self-publishing for the slim, outside chance that someone will read it, like it, and network it someone who can do something about it.

  7. DB Pacini Says:

    Dale,

    I agree with you and I thoroughly enjoyed Part I. Looking forward to Part II. Thank you.

    DB

  8. Warren Adler Says:

    Thanks for this analysis. Very interesting.

  9. Linda Barnett-Johnson Says:

    I found this very enlightening. I will be back to read the second part. As an editor, I like helping writer’s to succeed in their goals.
    Recently, I had someone send me the first chapter of a book in writing. I told him that he needed to take a few classes before I could continue. I could have kept editing and getting paid, but I am not that way. I know there are many out there like that. He took my advice and is now taking a couple of classes.
    I have also edited some great books in writing. One is still in the process and I know it will be a winner. I will network the heck out of that book, not because of my editing, but because it’s different and wonderful.
    It has been hard for a regular joe/jolet to get their books published unless you had a name for yourself. I like that we can network for ourselves and get the word out about our books/stories. I would imagine that if you had someone buy your book and it wasn’t good, that they wouldn’t buy another one. But that’s the American dream for writers, isn’t it? I’m not one to cut that dream, but to encourage it. Life is too short not to have something to look forward to…a goal.
    I do agree with Eldred above. Stephen King and many other writers had many rejections before they were accepted. I know there are a lot of good writers out there and I am looking forward to helping as many as possible. That’s my 2009 resolution…SHINE IN 2009!
    Thanks for this first part and I look forward to reading more.
    Linda

  10. Pat Bertram Says:

    M.A.Y.: You make a good point when you say: The barriers in real publishing, however, are higher than ever. Which level will you choose? The choice is all yours. Work, or the path of least resistance and no filters. But . . . What you call “real publishing” is corporate publishing, establishment publishing, and some people, no matter how brilliantly they write, will never be acceptable to them. I spent years trying to perfect the craft (and am still on my way to becoming the writer I want to be) but it finally dawned on me that my books have almost no chance of being published by the corporations because of their anti-establishment, anti-status-quo slant. None of my main characters get married; few support big business; most believe that government is a beast without conscience. These are not themes acceptable to corporate players. (Unless, of course, the hero can single-handedly bring down the evil corporation or government faction. Give me a break.) To sell the millions of copies the corporate publishers need to sell, the books must validate people’s cherished beliefs, and I doubt mine do. There is a place, however, for all well-written books, and today, despite all the problems inherent in this brave new world of publishing, we have an opportunity to read books that have not been pre-approved.

  11. Latayne C Scott Says:

    Very interesting and enlightening. i’d suspected most of this but it is good to have it all spelled out so articulately. As one of those who have managed to make it past all those barriers to publish with traditional publishers, I attribute it to the grace of God and His intentions.

    Latayne C Scott
    http://www.latayne.com

  12. Terry Bowman Says:

    I think the best way to go is the way of Henry Darger or John Kennedy Toole. Live in a cubbyhole, fill it with thousands of pages of prose, and let your heirs reap the benefits when you die. I’ll take a posthumous Pulitzer any time.

  13. Donald James Parker Says:

    One knock against self published books is the lack of quality editing. That is a valid criticism.

    Excellent article. The landscape is definitely changing. If I was the CEO of a large publisher, I’d have one person dedicated to sifting through the books produced by POD publishers looking for writers with a unique voice, sufficient skill to present that voice, and the self-motivation to see their work through to a finished product. The diamonds in the rough may be more valuable that the stones publishers are currently polishing.

    Donald James Parker
    Author of All the Stillness of the Wind

  14. James Rafferty Says:

    Dale,

    Excellent post. I believe you’ve accurately depicted the publishing industry as I’ve seen it from the view of an aspiring writer. I look forward to reading the posts to follow.

  15. ~Sia~ Says:

    Dale, a well thought out article. Many of us are analyzing publishing today–whether it be traditional or POD. There’s good writing in both.

    I also don’t agree that if a book is good it will be published. As any of us has found in our research, that’s not the case. Good books, or what classifies as a good book, has always been in the hands of those that are in the business of publishing them. What they may think is a good book. Some of their picks have been good, some haven’t.

    I appreciated your analysis of filters. Easy to read and easy to understand.

  16. Malcolm Says:

    Since most chain and independent bookstores don’t take nonreturnable books, this means that they are still acting as filters to great extent when it comes to POD books.

    Since most POD books don’t sell well on Amazon, especially fiction, I really wonder how many discerning readers are being duped into buying drek. They still buy the name authors they’ve heard of. Readers seem in general to be conservative when it comes to experimenting with new authors of fiction, figuring if there’s no marketing buzz behind a name, they’re not going to buy the book.

    So far, the higher price of POD books serves as a filter as well.

    I agree about the higher amount of drek, especially insofar as it swells the size of agent and publisher MS submissions making the odds worse and worse each year for credible writers to get noticed. That’s a big problem. Even so, most of the drek isn’t seen by the public because they don’t know it’s out there: it’s not on their radar.

    Malcolm

  17. Melissa Says:

    Very enlightening. Being an avid reader (and a writer, if only for myself) I’ve seen quite a few great – and too many terrible – books. While I feel that the POD and e-book markets are a very good fit for many non-fiction writers with niches in industry, etc., I have shied away from many fiction books published in this manner. “Burn me once…” as the old saying goes. Or in my case, too many times to count before I learned my lesson. Of course, now I am sure that I am also missing some gems this way.
    Looking forward to reading part 2!
    Melissa

  18. Claire Collins Says:

    Great article Pat and Dale. I agree with the slide in the publishing industry. The industry is caught up in a tidalwave of change.

  19. christinehusom Says:

    I read all three articles and wow, I am impressed the the amount of research you have done and the the wealth of knowlege you have accululated and shared. Wonderful insights. It is a fascinating, but scary industry. The competition is getting stiffer (maybe not better because of it). Thanks so much!!


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