E-Book Publishing Ideological Battles?

4 01 2011

Everyone and their cousin spent most of 2010 wondering, and in many cases worrying, about the changing face of publishing and how it’s going to affect those seeking traditional publication via an agent and publishing house versus those many adopters of self-publishing through ebooks, Amazon, CreateSpace and Smashwords. The feeling I immediately get now, as those prominent names who weigh into the discussion have as much meaning associated with them as the positions they espouse, is that the debate is taking on an unfortunate ideological character that undermines the chance to really get to the heart of the issue itself.

The problem, of course, is that there’s never any way to totally escape ideology, especially once you get the market involved. Market capitalism has a way of gumming up most things just as we appear to be close to understanding them. Because the debate concerns only the financial viability of publishing in the long-term, we fail to consider whether that’s a good thing or not. The latter question, I’d argue, is the more important one, but we all know how that debate plays out: market concerns trump everything. The market has the air of infallibility. The market rules and values itself only.

The grounds for the debate have never been more clear, however. With ebook sales outpacing printed sales to a staggering degree and the mind-blowing press release from Amazon that the Kindle has become their best-selling product of all time, selling more units than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it’s no wonder that we will have to look back on 2010 as the year that e-readers have come into their own. And, we haven’t seen what 2011 has in store.

Which is why the topic of whither the publisher is going to become increasingly relevant this year. This morning I came across an  E-Read’s post by Richard Curtis, which asked the question of whether authors make good publishers. He cited Cory Doctorow, Seth Godin and, apparently, used an out-of-date quote by J.A. Konrath. I found the information by Doctorow very interesting, as his is a name that could sell just about anything, but his feeling is that it’s not worth the time he loses to creation when he must set aside a large portion of his day to marketing, distribution and the other million tasks that traditional publishing houses take over for authors. Konrath’s point is even more interesting, however, as he responds separately to Curtis’s post and underscores how deep in trouble traditional publishers are. With authors like Amanda Hocking selling over 100,000 ebooks in a month…. well, it’s hard to argue with the market. I think a lot of authors could feel happy about that.

The question that’s skipped over, however, is how Amanda Hocking fared versus those published by traditional houses. The answer? Pretty damn good. The first book of her trilogy, Switched, is currently #12 on the Kindle sales ranks, right behind Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games and Cross Fire by James Patterson. Of course, that doesn’t include how many print copies both authors sold via Amazon and I think it a rather safe assumption that the gap is probably a bit wider, but nonetheless, as the volume of book sales switches to an electronic format, that number and that rank are going to be increasingly relevant.

Still, it’s not surprising which side Konrath is on the calculus of publishing’s future. He’s become a voice for self-publishing in the new environment and is Amazon’s poster-child for the success of their product and their future hopes to muscle their way into the publishing market. Konrath coming in on the side of self-publishing is no more surprising than Rush Limbaugh shaking his fist and proclaiming that labor unions are some huge conspiracy. The name’s as good as the argument. Similarly, the commentary on Curtis’s post is pretty interesting, though-provoking and probably correct, but again, not very surprising. Curtis took a half-hearted stab at self-publishing and he reaped the whirlwind when the “Self-Publishing Emergency Response Team” jumped in like the SWAT to take him down. Necessary? Maybe. Classy? Not so much. It’s clear where the passion is, though.

Which all resulted in Curtis’s updated post this morning and underscored that he’s not really feeling much like the traditionalist (picture the pitchfork-bearing crowd screaming this in the same tone as heretic) that some of the commenters were making him out to be.

Again, that’s not to say that all of the comments there were bad. Some, even most, were pretty good. A few were borderline rude and a few (most comments that said he’s just a publishing house shill) were pretty useless. I think we should strive as an internet to be more respectful, considerate, imaginative and thoughtful in our discourse. Good luck with that, I know.

However, back to the topic at hand, we’re still only settling for the low-hanging fruit of the best method for selling genre fiction. That might be good enough to sink the traditional publishing houses in its own right, but there are larger things to consider. What about those services that traditional publishing houses do provide? Personally, I see the market eventually demanding more and more quality work done by professionals, designing covers, doing marketing and publicity, not to mention editing, as opposed to self-taught authors taking all of that on themselves. I’m sure some authors are much happier editing themselves. As a reader and bit of an amateur critic, I’m more than a little less sold on that particular idea.

Furthermore, if anyone can just upload their novel, what’s to prevent the same flood of bad fiction that chokes up publishing houses’ slush piles from gumming up the Kindle store? The market may be the one that chooses the winner, but the market isn’t very discriminating. Left to its own devices, the market does little to promote creativity and instead produces more and more clones of more and more accessible quality. It offers few surprises. It offers more young adult urban vampire fantasy. It punishes cruelly those who take too many risks. What is needed is the role of the professional critic far more than the opinion of random person #12,196 writing his or her Amazon review. That’s me being snobby. Forgive me, I just want more people who know what they’re talking about in the driver’s seat and I suspect that the market rather always chooses the path of least resistance. I do understand, however, that we’re fast approaching a pure democracy of words out there and, honestly, I’m not totally in love with the idea.

Of course, when I looked up and saw that Snooki’s book is due to come out today, I wonder really if both publishing routes aren’t completely lost to the market already anyway. That’s Simon and Schuster, folks. If publishing houses are willing to so easily give up their role as the “gatekeepers of quality literary production,” who are we all to argue with them?

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3 responses

4 01 2011
Anthea

Excellent post, thank you!

I liked this post’s take on the slush-pile problem.

Any given Amazon reviewer’s opinion is questionable, but I do find the reviews as an aggregate useful, and the specific content of those reviews to be very useful at times.

On the other hand, there’s definitely a market space for reviewers – possibly on a blog model, using affiliate links to the various e-book and paper book vendors. I know I always look forward to John Scalzi’s Big Idea feature on his blog, and have bought at least two books because of it.

Interesting times, for sure. 🙂

4 01 2011
robdougherty

I would be foolish to ever argue that Smashwords is just as good a judge of quality as Amazon’s sales ranks, which is part of the point I was trying to make. I put only so much stock in the reader-on-the-street’s opinion, though, which is why I’m disinclined to hold Amazon reviews (even in the aggregate) as an accurate judge of quality just as I don’t think the market itself is a particularly good judge. Like I was saying, if the market is the key, then we had all better start writing YA urban amish vampire romance, because that’s what the market demands.

I’m glad you linked to John Scalzi’s blog, though. My feeling is that individual reviewers (maybe even those who review directly on Amazon) or reader/writers like Scalzi whose opinions matter, might and should eventually have more of an impact at some point, perhaps even taking on the “gateway” role that would be left behind by agents. At least, that’s my hope.

5 01 2011
Anthea

I agree that reviews and reviewers are pretty darned variable! Brian and I were talking about this last night, and thinking about how the market of book-related professionals is likely to evolve – like right now, I know different publishers have certain types of books they release, but in the future I might go to different review or editorial groups to see which authors they like/work with.

It’d be interesting to see editors take a more visible role too – where maybe you don’t know new author “y”, but editor “x” whose work you like edited their novel and was happy enough with the result to lend their name to it in the “edited by” slot.

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