I recently posted articles in this site (under IFWG Publishing’s banner as well as my own name) called The Grand Illusion. It entailed the theory that self publishers, as a collective, reinforce each others’ delusion that they have what it takes to produce quality (reader quality) work, when in fact only a small percentage are able to.
While not a surprise, there was a discussion following this article that included folk who immediately interpreted my comments as being derogatory to ALL self publishers, or those specific individuals, despite disclaimers and careful multiple instances of phrasing to totally avoid absolute statements – just on that phenomenon, I rest my case regarding The Grand Illusion. This article is dwelling on a single, negative trait of self-publishing, but recognizes that there are many positive features as well, covered in another article of mine.
While contributing to post-article discussions, I stumbled on a fascinating article by David Vinjamuri (contributor to Forbes Magazine) that attempted to provide an even-handed approach to the state of the publishing industry – and didn’t do a too bad job of it, although by its very nature, left out some elements, like the small and middle sized publishing houses, and their topology being different from the larger companies. He pointed out some pertinent points about the weaknesses of the large publishing houses’ reaction to self-publishing and other technological and business innovations, as well as the effects of self-publishing ‘flooding’. The latter analysis, with predictions, rang true with me, and consequently I would like to spend the rest of this blog post on the topic.
A major problem facing publishing in general at this time is the flooding of self-published books – and more pertinently, where the majority of ‘quality’ ranges from utter crap to underwhelming. Most good self-publishers will agree, but few would admit it because they don’t want to be tainted with the stigma, and on top of this, there are those that are caught in The Grand Illusion. This flooding hurts everyone. Readers become frustrated by having to wade through, and in many cases purchase, volumes of substandard work. While the flooding has an effect on the bottom line of large traditional publishers, smaller publishers are more affected, as their material often are in direct competition with self-published work. Finally, the good to excellent self-publishers get washed into oblivion in many cases, due to the sheer volume of self-published titles.
Some commentators will contend that there is no issue with a flooding of poor copy, because, as time progresses, and the shift of publishing continues into the hands of self published authors, the standard will rise. I disagree with this hypothesis completely, as its weakness is that it assumes that manufacturing models apply in the creative space. While technology and process allows cheap commodities to hit the market, in most industries the product is controlled by each manufacturer/producer. The business can make the strategic decision when to step up quality, and it occurs by way of spending money – the pipeline is always open to improve quality, it is just a matter of price (and time equates to price). The problem with assigning this concept to the arts is that there is no simple avenue to raise quality because each writer can only have certain potential, and to get there, has his or her own rate of improvement, if the will (or recognition) is there. Consequently, the future of book publishing can’t be in control by authors, who generate the product, but by readers, who control sales. What will happen to agents and traditional publishers in the future? I will speculate below but it is a moot point – what I do know is that those who survive as a business will be those who can read the signs correctly and adapt, but self publishers, alone, will definitely not inherit the earth (at least not in the way most self publishers think).
Vinjamuri made a few insightful comments on flooding. The one that resonated with me the most is comparing the written word publishing industry with music. It is an apt model of comparison: in the music industry, for years, people have been able to record their own music, play it in the streets and upload on YouTube etc, and sometimes sell, without the benefit of the support of a music company. Musicians who are good, rise to the occasion, and eventually get noticed. They move from the base strata into the higher echelons. Musical contests, such as American Idol and a vast array of others, all allow the best to move into professionalism. More pertinently, consumers have a mechanism to separate the obviously bad from the good, to feel like they have a fighting chance to purchase music that they will like. While the record labels are feeling the pinch because many consumers are downloading free (or next-to-free) music via the Internet, it is interesting to see that most consumers are still targeting the musicians who are professional, who have ‘made it’ – we can only watch the market as this adjustment is going on, like book publishing. On a similar level, Vinjamuri used the example of Rotten Tomatoes, a site that compiles prominent critic reviews of films, that provides film-goers with confidence with regard to what to see. Vinjamuri’s major thesis is that written word publishing hasn’t got mechanisms in place yet to stratify titles by quality like the music and film industries – to enable readers to make informed decisions. There is no Rotten Tomatoes for them.
I should add, just to avoid the inevitable comments on how the record labels are losing sales to free downloads, is that this isn’t the point of my article – the irony, just like in book publishing, is that the vast majority of popular and appreciated music (regardless of platform, source, business model) are from well-seasoned musicians, supported by music technicians and publicity machines. The point of my preceding paragraph is that there is a dynamic in place that allows musicians to be sourced on the basis of quality and popularity.
Amazon, among others, opened the flood gates to make money from self-publishers, knowing that flooding would occur; knowing that readers would get inundated. Essentially, they have chosen to become mega-Vanity Publishers and make mega-bucks in the process. As I stated above, good writers from all sectors of the industry, including self-publishers, are seriously disadvantaged by this.
So where to from here? As I stated in my Grand Illusion articles, I believe readers will eventually reshape the industry. They will want mechanisms in place to make informed decisions, and before you know it, stratification will occur, in one form or another. Those who are substandard, or who publish for fun, will find their titles within a vast, recognized stratum that will be understood to be ‘the starting point; the amateur slushpile’, and there will be several layers above, all heading for the point of the pyramid, if the author wishes to climb. The publishers will have to adjust again, like they have done so many times before (paperback/trade paperback, ebooks as we speak, the printing press) but they are well placed to slide in because, after all, they have the lion’s share of personnel, technologies and connections to have their work placed in the higher echelons. And so they should.
What I dearly hope is that the good writers who are currently self-publishing or not publishing, will be more easily recognized and allowed, again appropriately, to rise up the ladder.