Wednesday, December 11, 2013
This Industry is Not Going to Shit - Not Today Anyway
By OFW Member:
Published: April 23, 2014
Indie, at the moment, means cheap. Mainstream, at the moment, means expensive. Well, in terms of digital publishing anyway. Print is still as it always was: the opposite.
I suspect eventually it’ll all cost an arm and a leg, but I could be wrong. However, this entire pricing debacle and the eventual flood of glorious shit to the virtual shelves began when publishers put the onus to market and promote almost entirely on the author. As a result, an entire generation of authors has come into this industry knowing how to self-promote. The bestsellers have to do so too, but to a lesser degree because, well they’re bestsellers. The stress and the cost of writing and marketing at least one book per year is ridiculous. The cost of editing, promotion and all that comes with producing a book is more than publishers can bear at the moment. Some have even cut editing for new writers back to basics; a good proofreading and possibly a line edit, then off you go. Structural editing? Pfft. You should have that shit down before you submit the manuscript, Junior. Off with you, I said. Slowly authors started to feel less “grateful” for publishers, and more independent. I mean, they did all the work of an entrepreneur, so why not actually BE one?
Revolution bubbled. The publishers, despite losing money and failing to find new talent, continued this stupid pricing model that both author and reader despise, and authors found they could no longer write as a sole source of income. They might publish several books but the money just wasn’t there because readers just weren’t buying and the royalties were so ridiculously low. In the wings, a generation of new writers was fed a steady diet of social media along with their coffee and desperation, and these writers became increasingly less able to accept the old model of publishing. It didn’t happen right away, but we see the results of it emerging now.
Then three handy little things happened and blew what we knew as the publishing industry and the old publishing model apart:
Self-publishing became easy.
Print-on-Demand came at the exact same time the economics of traditional publishing, and printing runs in the thousands, became less realistic. Although the per-copy costs are higher with print-on-demand, it leaves no unsold physical copies. This means no returns. Well, that removed the biggest barrier for self-publishing: Authors no longer needed cash up front.
At the same time indie authors squeed over their POD delight, the ability for authors to upload files to Amazon and other sites and then sell them as eBooks happened to stop by the party. Amazon is a lot of things, but the company is not stupid. It made the wise decision to embrace self-published authors, not ostracize them as bookstores have done. It sold indie titles alongside mainstream, without tagging them either way. Readers could find who was who out on their own. And one more thing Amazon did that changed shit a bit: It allowed authors complete control of pricing. But, before you say that was part of their grand bullying scheme, remember that (at least in the early days) Amazon made sure that authors had a ton of incentives to price higher than 99 cents. Where self-published authors once couldn’t compete with traditional publishing’s print pricing, publishers now seem unable to compete with indie digital pricing. Interesting.
E-books revolutionized book buying and selling. Amazon reported that it sold more e-books than print in the US market in 2011. (this is based on various news report, I have not verified their math). We all profess to love our books, but even I, a dedicated paperback whore, have become a bit of an electronic whore on the side. Why? Convenience. It’s so damn easy to carry all of my books on one tiny device. Because I don’t have to leave the house to buy my books, I tend to buy more than I ever did before. When I buy more, I tend to check out authors I’ve never heard of. I take more risks. This convenience and the lower cost give those books with a limited audience more of a chance. There’s way more space on a virtual shelf for these guys, so they don’t get squeezed out. Traditional publishing operates in a world of limited shelf-space, limited time and limited resources. The e-book is virtually limitless. (Yes, it has its issues, but its convenience is not one of them.)
In the good old days, book sales were driven by personal recommendation. By a critic maybe, but more often by folks we’d trust to at least look after our dogs. My friend would say “Hey, this is a good book.” and I’d buy it, then I’d buy the next one the author put out if I liked the first, passing along the recommendation to someone else. Social media makes it easier to recommend a book to more than just a single friend.
Because of social media it’s the readers that drive the books, not the author. Social media can make even the most terribly written book sound phenomenal. (cough—FSOG) It’s the great promotional equalizer between indie and mainstream. It doesn’t take a ton of cash to go online and spread the word about your work or your favorite author. Most customers buying from Amazon don’t know what is traditionally published or independently published. And you know what? They don’t care. They just want something that either entertains or educates them. Recently, it also became about buying books by writers you truly feel connected to. Until now, that’s been almost impossible. Those “unreachable” bestsellers of yesterday are online with the newbs, peddling their personalities, hoping to engage readers, rather than sit and be worshipped by them. Social media allows readers to see the real person behind the book, which creates a bond. This bond means that many writers don’t have to spend a penny in advertising. It also means the publisher is not considered as vital to success. Self-publishers can now sell books based on personality alone. (But be warned: This can backfire as easily as it can work.)
We can’t know how things will pan out. Perhaps the traditional publishers will get their shit together and start turning this nightmare around. And it is a nightmare. I hate going to a bookshelf, virtual or otherwise, and having no idea what I’m buying. As a consumer I want quality control. Every reader does. It used to be that publishers were that control, but this is less and less the case. I’ve found fantastic indie authors, just as I’ve found very amateur offerings from mainstream authors. Reviewers can’t be trusted either. But then, I suspected as much from the start. So how do I know what I’m getting? If the price is low enough, I’ll simply buy the book. No big deal if it’s a crap shoot. If the price is too high, indie or mainstream, I simply won’t pay it. I wonder how many others out there think the same way.
After saying all of this, I have to add that I don’t believe traditional publishers are being seriously hurt by indie publishing. Not yet. I do believe that at some point, push will come to shove and that might change. Publishers may indeed go the way of the dinosaurs that they’re so willing to behave like. Publishers need to be willing to take risks again. Make bigger bets on fewer titles perhaps, and really work both with and for their authors again. The mainstream success of indie authors like Hocking and Locke is the exception, not the rule. And the choice was made to sign them because publishers didn’t have to take a risk to do so. By choosing authors who have an audience already, and who know how to effectively use social media tools, publishers improved their profits without really jumping into sort of uncertain waters. But how many more fantastic writers are out there squandering their talent in a slush pile of trash, foolishly believing that they just need a bit of luck to do the same as their indie predecessors?
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