The Future of Publishing …1

6. How to Survive in Rome, 475 AD – September 16, 2012

Last week, I shared a link that a friend sent me from the Los Angeles Review of Books, featuring freelance journalist Joe Peschel on the current state of digital publishing. In response, I likened the print publishing business to Rome just before the sack: under huge stress, with changing markets and a defunct business model, virtually at the point of collapse. Perhaps these conditions are undetectable at the ground level, but they’re visible to those who look for the arcs of historical or business trends. In this environment, going independent and publishing your own ebooks is not a choice but a survival strategy.

In the LA Review of Books article, Peschel describes the experience of one writer, Robert Bausch, who had six traditionally published novels behind him, got caught with declining sales figures, and was unable to attract a publisher for his seventh, eighth, and ninth novels. That’s the position of many mid-list authors today—and I know because I’m a mid-list author myself. If you are a known quantity, you’re in a bad position with the major publishers. You have a track record that can be checked and compared to their expectations of your future potential sales.

Today, there is no mid list. That’s the place for authors with a defined—but not spectacular—readership, who can “work the magic” for a certain kind of reader but have not been able to attract the mass market. Today, there are only established stars, unknown quantities, and fading stars who get the see-ya-later-good-luck-with-your-next-project treatment. And for the unknown quantities, who just might make it big in the mass market, everything depends on the reach and appeal of that first novel. If your first book doesn’t take off like a rocket and beat your publisher’s expectations (which are that it will become a bestseller, despite the fact that the only person out there promoting the book is you—and ask me about “review-driven marketing” sometime), then you become a mid-list author. And that’s see-ya-later-ville.

But what are the basics driving this self-selected author-survivor into independent digital publishing?

The first and underlying reality today is that a hell of a lot of people still want to read books. I would have said they were mostly middle-aged Baby Boomers, members of my own generation brought up on fiction in The Saturday Evening Post and trained to respond to The New York Times bestseller lists—except we see a huge book market and individual phenomena among the young adult set (e.g., The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games trilogy, the Harry Potter series). Even though it’s fun to watch videos, play games, and schmooze with friends through texting and on Facebook, there’s something elemental about letting a great storyteller light up your internal theater of the imagination.

Book publishers have traditionally been feeding this book hunger with a stream of established authors in established genres. Over the past couple of decades it has become an orderly, well-defended, cartelized business, like shipping Colombian coke into the States. Except now the DEA has left town, every two-bit chemist has some homebrew methamphetamine to sell, and the market is wide open. The old-line book publishers, book sellers, and book reviewers are standing there peddling South American crystal and crying “Coca pura! Only the best! Accept no substitutes!” And yes, a lot of the homebrew stuff is contaminated, doesn’t get you high, and causes a rash. But some of the homebrew is good stuff, too.

As I’ve said before, we are in early days yet. The hunger for self-publishing has always existed among the writers who have been passed over by traditional publishers, but until recently only the very rich or the very dedicated could go the vanity press route. Ten years ago, to get your book published by an author-supported vanity press, you needed to pay about $10,000 up front to a printer and then were left trying to peddle 3,000 hardcover books out of your garage. Today, you spend $500 on a CreateSpace or other print-on-demand (POD) version, or bit less to get an ebook formatted and coded, and you market virtual copies through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Trouble is, the barriers fell too far, and digital publishing has brought the price of vanity publication down to within Everyman’s reach.

My hope is that the population of wannabes will become discouraged by the fact that, even with this virtually free publishing process, they’re not getting anywhere. Just as the dominant meme once told the average literate person that vanity press publishing was too expensive and not very smart, we need a new meme that says, while it’s financially possible to publish a first novel through POD or ebook, it’s generally a waste of any reasonable person’s time. You have to be awfully good or awfully persistent to make even a small success in self-publishing. That will get some of the homebrew crank dealers out of the market.

The second trend pushing the author-publisher forward is the business model of the old-style print book publishing empires. They only controlled the market for novels, stories, and nonfiction because they sat at the head end of a dauntingly expensive production process including high-volume printing and binding, warehousing and shipping. They had contacts with purchasing agents in specialized stores that sold just books and so gathered all the potential readers in one place. The publishers had a built-in marketing service with newspaper and magazine features designed to feed the reading hunger. More cartelized book pipeline. (Or, to match my earlier metaphor, Roman brick and marble.)

Digital publishing does away with the expensive production, replacing it with ebooks sold directly into readers’ devices. Print on demand creates extremely expensive single copies of a book but, like ebooks, it eliminates the costs of warehousing and distribution.

A third factor driving the emergence of self-publishing is the internet, which is eroding general-readership print newspapers and magazines, replacing them with a mix of online news services, like NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, and blog collections like The Huffington Post, Slate, and Pajamas Media. These internet services are fragmented as to age, interest, style, and political focus: there will never be a “nation’s internet resource” in the same way The New York Times billed itself as “the nation’s newspaper.” Similarly, the interests of book readers are already fragmenting into many nonfiction categories and a multiple of fictional subgenres. It’s now possible that the category “general fiction” or “literary fiction”—and even the recognized genres like “science fiction,” “mystery,” and “romance”—will die away entirely into finer and finer specializations, leaving people with just the kinds of books they like to read.

This is a time of tremendous opportunity for writers. I remain convinced that good writers will still write books and publish them digitally. They will find online review outlets to advertise their work. And those outlets—hungry to make their own names as arbiters of taste and excellence—will find these authors and extol them. For writers who need editing help, as Robert Bausch acknowledged when he mentioned typos in his first self-published book, there will arise a population of freelance editors.2 And they will be supplemented by freelance marketers to help the author’s name and work become known.

But I know it’s going to take a while for these online resources—especially the review and connection channels—to become established and time tested. And it will take a while longer for the overflowing tide of newly unbarricaded wannabes to get discouraged with self-publishing and drop out of the marketplace.

What are the realities for the self-published author in this brave new market?

First, digital publishing is limitless and timeless. Peschel and the LA Review of Books are still geared to the paper production cycle. It takes a traditional publishing house a year to produce a book, which includes not only the preproduction, printing, and binding, but wholesale promotion and negotiations with buyers at the bookstore chains, who like to have books come out in orderly waves because they have limited store shelf space to fill. The reviewers Peschel is talking with and about all work in newspapers and magazines, which also have limited print space and production cycles. None of this will apply in the developing market for digital books. Unlike a bookstore’s shelf space, the electronic distributor’s storage and display space are virtually unlimited. Unlike a reviewer’s one or two column widths in a newspaper, an internet reviewer can assemble and correlate dozens of virtual pages. In this unbounded universe, a book’s print date is not important; it will never see a remainder table, because there are no carrying costs; and the author has years to develop readership through intimate, word-of-mouth contacts. The idea of being “this season's big book” is so … last season.

Second, and to reiterate my main point, the old publishing model is broken. The old concepts of success as reaching and saturating a huge mass market with one-size-fits-most books is kaput. The old genres will crumble and decay like medieval castles in the age of artillery. The new model is going to be small success: readers looking for writers who can light up their internal theater of the imagination; authors looking for readers who resonate with their kinds of ideas. The internet, the blogosphere, and social media are ideal for making these kinds of connections, as well as offering and finding the sort of support—editing, cover art (or, rather, “an imagination-capturing image”), HTML and epub coding, and marketing—that will help authors become better at their job. The newspaper reviewer with the undifferentiated reach of an LA Review of Books will morph to become the fan book-blogger in a particular subgenre who reads voraciously and becomes a brand name, among the cognoscenti, for appreciating and recommending a certain kind of book. Remember that word, cognoscenti, because that’s the author’s new market: the few—maybe, if you’re lucky, the more than few—who know and treasure you.

Third, to make it as an author in this environment, you have to be persistent. You have to be water. You have to come back like a wave, again and again, each time with a new book that builds your brand. You have to seep into the cracks, explore new possibilities, spread out, go around, over, or under whatever you cannot penetrate.3 You must have guts, persistence, a sheer Ahab madness to keep on with this. You have to be an author, a force of nature, a shout in the wilderness, rather than the writer of just one or two books. You must have a cast-iron, steel-plated, gold-rimmed heart that’s been broken so many times you become virtually unbreakable. If I tell you that you’ll never be a star—hell, you’ll never make even a small success at this business of writing—and you hesitate for even an instant, then consider that you may just not be crazy enough to qualify.

Becoming an author is the work of a lifetime, a holy quest, the thing you were born to do … or go take piano lessons. In just forty years’ time you might be able to play Carnegie Hall. That would be a lot easier.

1. For the original four entries in this series, published just about a year ago, see:
        1. Gutenberg Economics: What Is a Book Worth?
        2. Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle
        3. eBook Publishing: No Inventory, No Logistics, No Middlemen
        4. eBook Publishing: The Author’s Toolkit

2. I am extremely fortunate in being a practicing hermaphrodite, a hybrid of both writer and editor. I had solid training in English literature. I worked for five years, all told, as a university press and trade book editor, so I understand publishing mechanics, esoterica like typography and book design, and know how to self-edit my writing. I published eight novels the old-fashioned way and got to work with different established writers in book collaborations, so I know how real authors function. I have a small, select circle of readers and fellow authors upon whom I can impose for a safety net of knowledgeable opinion about my ongoing work. With this background and support, I’m not exactly a drooling barbarian or self-publishing wannabe—at least in my own opinion.

3. Over my career I’ve written at least five books that had no immediate market. Still, some of them I had to rewrite a couple of times to get them right.