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 He cited Cory Doctorow, Seth Godin and, apparently, used an out-of-date quote by J.A. Konrath.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?

Clearly not my week!

3 09 2010

It’s clearly not been my greatest week ever, with two missed posts and just a complete lack of any real productive activity. Here I am being very sorry for that.

Fortunately, the week with its ups and downs (more of the latter than the former) is at a close. This weekend sees me and the family driving home to the parents to spend a fun-filled Labor Day weekend with them out in the country. It’s long overdue.

I had good news on the job front, then it got hit with more bad news on the job front. Personally, I’d just like to go ahead and win the lottery now so I can be done worrying about it.

I’ll be back on Tuesday with much more edge of your seat blogging, of course. Meanwhile, I leave you with the final “oh, wow, look at that” news from the world of bookselling, as it came out at the beginning of the week that Barnes and Noble will be shuttering its Upper West Side store in Manhattan. There’s a considerable amount of Schadenfreude going around at that. People are remembering that B&N’s overdone presence resulted in so many independent booksellers being driven out of business. It was a central theme between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, after all. I also saw a few people say that they felt the death of the big chains might bring back independents. Man, if only. I’d love that. I don’t believe it for a second, though and I really want to be drinking what those guys are.

It also makes me wonder if the market ever really knows what’s for the best.That’s just my opinion, of course, but I do believe that the independent, small booksellers bring (brought) an experience to the world of books that if it isn’t completely dead already, it’s lying on the bed,  pushing the morphine crack button on its life support like crazy. It’s all nuts. Borders is going to sell teddy-bears, after all and it don’t get WTF-ier than that, folks.

So, expect the Kindle 3 to be the hottest gadget this Christmas. Hell, I even want one (n.b., we have a Kindle 2 and its nice, but not as nice). Hide and watch, because for anyone else out there paying attention, it’s pretty plain to see that Amazon is winning so much and so often, it’ll take something cataclysmic to stop them now.

Also, this is brilliant:

Every time I see something as awesome as that, I kick myself for not having thought of it. It just keeps getting better and better.

So, on that note, signing off for a few days. Have a nice weekend!

Depressing Bookstore Doom

17 08 2010

I think the title of this article by Brett Arend says it all: “Get Ready for the Bookstore Massacre”.

There’s not too much new here, but it’s probably the most down to earth expression of the situation surrounding books, physical bookstores and e-books that I’ve seen yet. Barnes and Noble’s stock is languishing despite the recent proxy battles, trading around $15 a share (down from $45 five years ago) and for the price of a cup of coffee a day, you can either save a starving third world kid or piss the money away on a share of Borders.

What makes me feel bad about the whole thing is it really does paint a dismal picture for rummaging around a bookstore and discovery via browsing, like Arend says:

I will be sorry to see the bookstore go. I love browsing for books. You’ll find titles you weren’t expecting or didn’t know existed. I love discovering an out of print gem in a second-hand bookstore.

Even today, if you make the full use of money-off deals and coupons at places like Borders you can often get paper books for less than e-books. And there’s a limit to how much you can carry, so there’s a limit to how much you can buy. I’ll admit I’m getting fed up with technology. I dislike computers. I’ve even taken to reading an old-fashioned newspaper again.

But it’s “progress.” We’ll have to deal with it.

Or equally dismal:

As for the book industry: About 125,000 people still work in book stores and news dealers, according to Labor. How many of them will still have jobs in two years? Another 75,000 work in book publishing. When writers self-publish in electronic format, how many publishers will still be left?

Amazon is going to make out like a bandit, though and Farhad Manjoo even predicts a $99 Kindle coming soon.

My gloom-filled view is that this will happen sooner than we expect and a whole hell of a lot faster. I just don’t see the big chains being able to provide any real reason for people to come into their stores anymore and e-readers are just going to become increasingly mainstream. Most independents are dead or dying. It’ll just be Amazon. It’s a real pity in a way. Where will people gather to be around books? It probably won’t be libraries much longer either. Will it be Goodreads? I mean, they’re already thinking they’ll kill all newspaper book reviews.

Am I just being pessimistic? I realize it sounds like I’m holding up “The End is Nigh” sign and proclaiming the end of the written word. I don’t think it’s all bad. It will lead to a democratization of the publishing world in the sense I think we’ll see far more self-publishing and self-promotion in the future as the publishing houses also start to fall by the wayside. That will be a huge increase in efficiency and a lot of good new voices will be heard. Democratization, however, brings its own set of problems. With so much slush out there (and I mean a lot of it really must be crap also), can you imagine if it were all just suddenly “out there” competing for the attention of a flighty cyber e-book buying audience? I don’t really always trust the public to pick out what’s good and what isn’t. Hell, look at the bestseller lists. It’ll be rough going without some kind of credentialed editorial voice in the production chain somewhere. Goodreads, as much as I’m a fan, probably won’t be it.

Martha Woodruff on Self-Publishing Her Novel

11 08 2010

NPR has put up an interesting profile written by Martha Woodruff, who last June published her book Small Blessings on the Kindle.

This is one of the things I think the Kindle does really well. It really has made self-publishing a cinch and that itself has this whole democratic air to it that I find really interesting. I somewhat doubt the ability of even good writing to rise to the top on its own merits, but at least she’s got her work out there instead of sitting in some file on her computer, never to see the light of day in any format. I think I might buy a copy out of solidarity, even though I probably won’t ever read it as it’s not my style. I also hope the NPR story which is making its way through the book blogs gives her a little publicity. I also think she’d have been better served by linking directly to the book on Amazon somewhere in the article, but maybe she felt that was a bit too self-promotional (in this case, I say, one should be bold).

I just wish, again, that Amazon wasn’t the only game in town. I have many bones to pick with ebooks and most of it has to do with everything existing under Amazon’s control and Amazon’s alone. There’s a lot that just doesn’t sit well with me on that. We need a lot fewer proprietary formats and more markets in which to buy books, but really, that’s a whole different topic anyway.

As a final note, I’m very, very glad that she didn’t put her work up there for $0.00. $2.99 seems a great price point for a self-published work. It’s cheap enough that people might just buy it on a whim and take a risk, which is understandable given that self-published works can be something of a crap shoot when it comes to quality. It’s also not free, which means the work has some value, both to her and to her reader. I understand the argument that there’s merit in writing for exposure, but I think most of that is baloney. If you value yourself and your time and expect others to value it as well, nothing you do should be done for free (volunteering for causes aside, which isn’t what this is). So, good on her.