The Future of Publishing

Some people have predicted a dire end to the publishing industry as we know it, and perhaps it needs to die. The old system of advances, where publishers subsidized the careers of a few specially chosen writers (literary authors or potentially lucrative authors who had not yet garnered a lot of attention) with the proceeds of bestselling commercial writers is a ridiculous anachronism in this world of corporate monoliths, and it is already being phased out.

The new publishing model of anyone publishing anything, no matter how trivial or poorly written, is no better. It still comes down to the same thing — that only a few writers will ever be able to make a living at the profession. As the anachronistic industry conforms more to the digital age of “content creators,” there will be fewer writers making millions and millions more writers making almost nothing.

In the old system, the publishers made the profits, not the writers. In the new system, the content distributors, such as Amazon, will make the profits. To Amazon, it makes no difference if they sell a million books by one author or one book by a million authors. It still comes down to the same thing — one million books sold (with absolutely no capital outlay). In fact, it doesn’t even matter if those books were sold or given away — Amazon still makes money from advertisers.

The price of books is constantly sliding downward. The $.99 ebook is becoming expensive in a world where readers expect books to be free. Unless there is a book they want to read (generally because everyone else is reading it) and so will plunk down cash, readers will most often choose the free item. In other words, writers will become drones feeding the machine with an ever-devalued product. There will always be a few writers making big bucks, of course, simply because hopes of financial success oil the machine. (In the same way, ordinary people occasionally become millionaires, perhaps by winning the lottery, which keeps taxes for the rich at a relatively low level, since people won’t vote to tax the rich if they expect one day to become rich themselves.)

In the end, what does all this say about the publishing industry? Perhaps nothing. Writers will still write. Most of us write not to make money, but to write and ultimately to be heard, if only by a few discerning readers. (Though a living wage would be nice.) People will still want stories. That is, after all, what we humans are — storytellers.

Print books will become scarce, but will probably always be available for those who want them, since books can be printed one at a time. (At least until the machinery breaks down.) Ebooks themselves will eventually be replaced by something else — interactive stories, perhaps, where the readers get to choose the ending. Or maybe stories that are fed directly to our heads via implanted computer chips. Who knows — certainly not me. All I know is that technology changes so rapidly that in twenty-five years, a book might bear as little resemble to today’s ebook as an ebook does to a print book.

There’s also a vague chance that the entire industry will burn itself out. When everyone can do something now, without working for it — such as publishing a book — there is no dream for the future. And what are we if we have no dreams?

(Perhaps that last paragraph needs an explanation. Many businesses were fueled by unfulfilled dreams of the young.  For example, the miniature business. So many girls didn’t get the dollhouses they wanted when they were young, that when they hit middle age and had the money to fulfill their love of the miniature world, they fueled an entire business. However, their daughters and granddaughters, who got the houses those women made, did not have unfulfilled dreams of a miniature world,  and now that those women are aging beyond the need for hobbies, the miniature business is fading.  I look at the publishing world and see how many writers middle-aged and older have come to writing because of unfulfilled dreams of being published. The new generations don’t have those dreams because they can write what they want and publish it. They don’t have to strive for the dream of publishing — they can get it immediately. So how is that going to affect the future of publishing? That’s all I meant.)

Is the Book Business Dying?

Is the preponderance of self-published books killing the book business? I’ve been reading articles about how Amazon is promoting self-published ebooks — a few people have been picked by Amazon arbitrarily, and Amazon promoted these books constantly for a week and made them best-sellers. I’ve seen a couple of these best-selling self-published ebooks, and they are so poorly written, I can’t see why anyone would buy them, but since people do buy them, it must mean readers don’t care about good writing or good story-telling. I’ve also seen books go viral for absolutely no reason I can fathom. (And often, the writer has no clue, either.) Most often, these books go viral only on Amazon, with no bleed-over into other ebook formats, which means Amazon has an amazing control of the book business.

There seems to be a movement going on to erode the traditional means of determining a worthwhile book, with vast numbers of people saying book standards are dead and they can write however they choose, without regard to grammar or story-writing skills. Which apparently is true, since such books find a market. (And often, these books get 5-star reviews, which says more about the reviewer than the book.) There is also a growing militancy among self-publishers. If you say anything against the practice, there is a huge backlash of disapproval.

I’m not saying all self-published books are poor quality — some are well written and well-edited and deserve their acclaim. Nor am I saying that traditionally published books are good quality — most are not worth reading. But with books on both ends of the spectrum selling millions of copies, is there any place for those with well written, unique, and perhaps thoughtful books who aren’t self-published and who don’t have a major publisher behind them to push the books? Or have the people spoken and said they have no use for such books?

When books are so prevalent, especially when vast numbers of readers seem to have no ability to determine what is worthwhile, books become devalued. Albert Nock, in the 1930s, disagreed with universal literacy. He contended that when everyone can read, books will be written to appeal to the least common denominator, and there is no doubt that during the subsequent decades, books were published based on their ability to appeal to the most readers possible. If there is any truth that book quality declined with universal literacy, wouldn’t it be even more true if there is universal publishing?

Historically, whenever one product or category of products dominated the market, it presaged the end of that product. If you are old enough, you remember when the streets were clogged with VW Beetles, and now you seldom see one. Is the preponderance of books on the market today the beginning of the end?

Will Traditional Ways of Selling Books be Effective in the Ebook Era?

I participated in a discussion with several authors the other night concerning ways of promoting our books. For once, I didn’t say much, just sat back and listened to their suggestions for getting book reviews, getting the publishing company recognized by RWA and MWA, getting their books in stores. What struck me was that these were all traditional ways of promoting books. There was not a single mention of online promotion, of alternate means of promoting.

I’m the first to admit that online promotion doesn’t sell many books if you’re an unknown, but to be honest, I never said that it did. For me, online promotion has always been about establishing an internet presence. What I know about marketing books can fit on the head of a pin and still leave room for a host of dancing angels, but I figured that once my books reached a certain critical mass of reviews, sales, and readers (fans?), momentum (via the linked nature of the internet) would cause sales to mushroom. Hasn’t happened, but that’s the theory, anyway.

On the other hand, do the traditional ways work? Or, more importantly, will the traditional ways of promotion continue to work as ebooks supplant print books? I never thought that would happen —  too many of us prefer the comfort of a print book —  but recently two bits of information made me rethink my bias. First, the day after Christmas, Barnes and Noble sold a million ebooks. Second, a recent poll found that college students don’t read books. I’m not sure all those people filling up their ebook readers are actually going to read the books they download, but the fact is, ebooks are selling.

Does it matter that our books aren’t in stores if people are going to buy ebooks? Does it matter that we don’t have offline reviews if people will have to go online to buy the books? Does it matter that we don’t have book signings if there are no print books to sign? Perhaps I’m looking too far ahead. Perhaps print books won’t disappear until long after we’re moldering in our graves, but the ebook era is approaching faster than we imagined. We need to find news ways of promoting to meet the challenge. Oddly enough, blog tours are already so prevalent as to be almost useless. But what’s beyond book signings, reviews in magazines, bookstores? What’s beyond blogging, Twittering, Facebooking? That’s what we need to be considering.

Authors Who Reject Publishers

There’s been a lot of talk recently about traditionally published novelists rejecting their publishers and releasing their books themselves. I can see that these novelists don’t like making a pittance on their books, but it seems churlish to dump the very people that made them a success. Without the publicity departments of those publishing houses behind them, there is little chance that these authors would have ever attained their current popularity. If you are one among millions of unknown writers trying to sell your book to an unaware reading public, it doesn’t matter if your book is stellar. It cannot shine without readers.

Many authors have the idea that wonderful books will always find a readership. Once that might have been true, but in today’s book world, where anyone with a computer and bit of time on their hands can write a novel (sometimes in only a few weeks, including editing — yikes) the sheer numbers of available books can keep even a great book from rising above the flotsam.

Interestingly enough, only a couple of these once traditionally published authors wrote truly original novels. If the rest had to make their own way in the ocean of ebooks and self-published books, they would have not have found much of a readership. The major publishers want what I call blue-jeans books — books that are made from the same fabric as all the others in a genre but with a slightly different styling. They don’t want anything too original because it is hard to sell. (I had several editors tell me they loved Light Bringer, my latest novel, which will be released by Second Wind Publishing this March, but they turned it down because they didn’t know how to sell it.) The blue jeans quality that makes books acceptable to editors of major publishing houses is the very quality that makes them unremarkable in the self-publishing or independent publishing world.

I don’t have much use for the traditional publishers, so I don’t really care that these authors are shunning them, but it does give new writers a false idea of can be accomplished by going it alone. The very fact that these authors are dumping their publishers is news. Publicity, in other words. And it’s only newsworthy because readers know their names. And readers know their names because the authors had the benefit of a big corporation’s publicity department.

I might have been unaware of the situation, but one of these authors contacted me via Goodreads, asking me to be part of a promotional effort. He wrote that he’d send me (along with hundreds of others) an ebook if I promised to write a review and post it on a given date. I turned him down. I don’t like his books, and I don’t like being told when to post a review. Not that I would — I still have not learned the art of reviewing books. And if I did do reviews, I’d post reviews of books released by small, independent publishers. The point is, he sent me the ebook anyway. A story about vampires. Sheesh. Still doing the old blue-jeans dance.

I purposely did not mention any names in this bloggery since I don’t want to help promote the authors. And anyway, it doesn’t matter who they are. I certainly don’t care, and there’s a chance in the not-too-distant future no one else will either.

Today I am a Published Author. I think.

A couple of days ago I noticed that Second Wind Publishing, the company that will be releasing my books, has More Deaths Than One listed for sale as a download on their ebook page. How long had it been there? Did its availability mean that I was a published author?

My books still aren’t available in print form. I know publishing delays are nothing out of the ordinary, but I feel a bit foolish for having frequently announced the imminent publication of More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire. It seems as if they are always two weeks away from being published. When they are finally released, I am going  throw a huge online “Hallelujah!” party. (You are all invited, of course.)

Which brings me back to the point of this bloggery. I wasn’t sure if having a book available as a download qualified as being published. And if it does, how odd that I didn’t know. Shouldn’t it have been a momentous occasion? Shouldn’t such a milestone have caused a ripple in my life, a change? But no. Here I sat, doggedly de-was-ing another manuscript, not knowing I’d been elevated to published status.

Well, I can now truly say that I am a published author –an online friend bought the ebook.  I received an email from her today. She wrote: “I got the prize! The first Ebook! I want the first book in print too! So see to it that someone sends me one first!”

So, not only am I a published author with one sale to my credit, I received my first fan letter.

Now this is a momentous occasion. I can already feels the ripples.

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