I recently posted articles on 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 is 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 is 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 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 allow 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 a 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.
Using the music industry as an example is quite relevant Gerry because ebooks are treading almost exactly the same path. The same flooding, chaos and market upheaval happened to music until Apple and iTunes came along and brought some sense to the market.
The lack of control shown by Amazon suits their marketing plan as the try to dominate the market with their Kindle platform by using cheap, and now more often than not, free and abundant content. It has also become a rather grubby pseudo social media platform as well, which I find is becoming extremely distasteful.
As you well know, I am a very strong supporter of self publishing, but in its current form and with a lack of any controls whatsoever, it is becoming a fight in a cesspit. Particularly on the Kindle platform.
I am currently in the process of removing all my titles from the Amazon KDP Select program because of its cheapening effect, and one aspect of the move back to Smashwords and with that, back to having my ebook titles on Apple, B&N and others, is that the quality required is much higher and takes much longer to obtain approval. This for a start is a good thing.
My hope though is that a ‘market changer’ similar to iTunes will arrive for the ebook industry in the not too distant future and bring with it self publishing standards that are appropriate for both readers and authors.
Courageous, Derek, and insightful. Yes, Amazon is a major contributor to the flood, and perhaps (where you may disagree) because of unrealistic expectations from many writers.
You are doing the right thing, methinks, and I hope that the ‘market’ stabilizes by the forces at play (including readers).
No, I agree wholeheartedly about Kindle raising unrealistic expectations Gerry. That is I believe at the core of the problem. So much of the ‘chatter’ on social media is about ebook sales and climbing Amazon rankings and deeming those who are not in the top 100 of their genre as failures.
Many self publish for other reasons other than to ‘make it big’. I know one elderly author whose motivation is to record her family history and being able to share this with friends and family via Kindle. Others I know, use Kindle publishing to support their professional activities. As one told me. ‘I don’t sell many books, but my rate for speaking engagements has increased since I added my book to my resumé.
As I have a decent size following on Twitter, I can also see by the number of authors who become inactive after a few months of trying to make it big on Kindle that many give up when they don’t find instant success. It averages about 25 per day, so at least in this one regard, the swamp is being cleaned out just a little.
Cheers Derek. I have to state it for the record (and I already have) that much of my discussion is targeted at those writers who ‘want to make it big’ or at the least, earn a professional income.
I am, in fact, delighted that the new platforms and processes can help people with specialized needs – for the reason you suggest (slightly diminishing the flood), and because it snubs at the intended reasons why the changes were made by Amazon et al.
Hi guys, I’m also worried about flooding of free ebooks into the market place. I’m worried if I let people read mine for free, it will de-value why I wrote the books in the first place. You see I write for people with specialized needs like the disabled and the emotionally ill who suffer from depression. I write for wellness mine and yours. I also give my books away at Smashwords. 3 of them, in fact. I will never be rich monetarily but I am rich knowing I have gladdened the world’s less fortunate in some way. Don’t hate me. Joyce
I agree, Derek. Both Kindle and other platforms have raised unrealistic expectations in many would-be successful authors.
Joyce, I opine that your word “flooding” is well-chosen–unfortunately.
“Readers become frustrated by having to wade through, and in many cases purchase, volumes of substandard work.”
“What I dearly hope is that the good writers who are currently self-publishing or not publishing,” [or publishing through small publishers with limited means] “will be more easily recognized and allowed, again appropriately, to rise up the ladder.” –because right now this is not the case.
Although self-publishing had to happen because many good authors were not getting published by traditional publishers. But, yes, the flooding (perfect term) is a problem for all of us–authors, readers, traditional and self-publishers. The growing pains of this new development will take some time to sort out.