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