Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Weeping Crocodiles: The Great eBook Debate
This would all be just a little more believable if the last decade or so hadn't seen conventional publishers presiding over the slow decline and eventual death of the mid-list, that wonderful, huge, fertile, centre ground of publishing, encompassing everything from well written genre fiction to literary novels, with all kinds of fascinating stuff in between. And for a very long time, they have managed to con mid-list writers into thinking that it was all our fault. This centre ground used to be the seed bed from which the occasional (usually unexpected, almost always unpredictable) blockbuster success would spring. Sometimes - if the publisher got lucky - it might be an author's first or second book - but much more frequently it would be their fifth or sixth or seventh book. The others would have reasonable, albeit not massive sales, but would have been growing a staunch readership. And if a book did become a bestseller, some of those profits would be ploughed back into nurturing the other seedlings in the mid-list.
Then, slowly but relentlessly, everything changed. No matter what big publishers may say in their own justification, (and I exempt the small, frequently more caring independents here) the experience of most writers - even those with agents - is that editors are now almost wholly ruled and overruled by their marketing departments, and those marketing departments are looking for instant gratification in the shape of a quick and easy bestseller.
They find those quick and easy bestsellers in ghost written sleb memoirs or autobiographies of sportsmen and television chefs. And cookery books. Lots of those.
It ill behoves them, therefore, to wring their hands and weep crocodile tears over the death of the book, when they have effectively spent a decade or more kicking it in the teeth. Just about every writer of my acquaintance - and I know a lot of them - would tell of deeply frustrating rejection letters all essentially saying the same thing: 'I love this, I think it's wonderful and well written, but in the current climate, we can't publish it. Our marketing department doesn't know how to sell it.'
That being the case, how dare they scream blue murder when writers are empowered by the rise of the eBook and allowed to get the work out there themselves? To suggest 'regulating' this movement is to suggest putting power back into the hands of a set of gatekeepers who have proved themselves to be somewhat less scrupulous than St Peter. Moreover, to suggest that the rise of the eBook will stop people reading, flies in the face of all evidence to the contrary. People are reading more on their Kindles and IPads and Nooks than ever before. And to suggest that indie publishing will somehow limit the ability of writers to make a living from their work, is to display an astonishing ignorance of how most writers - even well published writers - find it almost impossible to scrape any kind of living at all from their craft.
A single example will serve to illustrate the advantages: eBook publishing often involves a 'slow burn' with sales taking off - for a variety of reasons, too complicated to go into here - some time after publication. By contrast, conventional publishing now demands the launch, the immediate and astronomical rise in sales and the ridiculously swift slide towards the remainder pile. Most writers - with a few lucky exceptions - will have been made to feel guilty about their inability to meet the wholly unrealistic targets set by their publishers - and this with well written, well reviewed and popular books - just not instantly popular enough.
So what if there is a lot of dross out there? In a virtual world, shelf space is unlimited and people are already hammering out ways of finding what they want. Besides, your dross might well be my good read, and who is qualified to make those judgements?
Speaking personally, I've had a long career which has involved a frustrating switchback. It's no surprise that many of indie publishing's most enthusiastic proponents are older writers with a good track record (and a big back list) who have encountered obstacle after obstacle - as opposed to youngsters who have not yet had time to become jaded with a decaying system.
Above all, eBook publishing gives writers the power to sell the products of their own talents, themselves. It would be far more helpful to 'beginning writers' to debate grown-up topics, as so many US authors do on their remarkably helpful blogs: the desirability of honing your craft and thinking about your readers, the importance of your cover image, the possibility of engaging professional editorial help in a businesslike way, the need to get your head down and keep writing, rather than resting on your laurels after one book - all these things are useful. Elitist hand-wringing is not.
But of course, that would mean treating the writer as an aspiring or seasoned professional, rather than a humble supplicant. All of which helps to explain why, for so many of us, the publishing industry has lost all credibility as the keeper of culture it still fondly imagines itself to be.