About six years ago, when I was working as Royal Literary Fund 'Writing Fellow' at a university in Scotland, (helping students purely with their academic writing) one of my students, studying Commercial Music, remarked, 'You know, you writers should be doing what musicians like me are doing. Forget big publishing. Just find some way of getting the work out there yourselves.'
At that time, eBook Readers were available, but not yet the phenomenon they would soon become. After a writing career so checkered with success and failure that you could have made it into a board and played a game of chess on it, I agreed with her, but I couldn't see how to do it. It wasn't just that musicians could do gigs and get paid - in fact it wasn't even that, since as any musician will tell you, they don't get paid very much and besides, I already did get the occasional 'gig'. My RLF Fellowship was an extended and wonderfully supportive gig.
But although there were all kinds of ways for musicians to get their music 'out there', I didn't yet see how the same might apply to writers.
Back then, I had just read Chris Anderson's The Long Tail (if you haven't read it, go and get it now!) and it made sense to me. But I had become frustrated at being cast in the role of humble supplicant by my own industry, an industry that seemed to have grown complacent over the years, an industry that increasingly disrespected the talent upon which it was forced to rely.
My 'day job' - the work that bought me time to write - was, and still is, an eBay shop called The Scottish Home, mostly selling antique and vintage textiles. I had always had an interest in such things, and had started out by trying to sell them at antique markets, but it was a thankless task. Then I discovered eBay and realised that here was a technology company providing me with the tools to do the job, worldwide. Soon, I was selling embroidered tablecloths to Australia and vintage linen sheets to fashionable New York addresses. Over time, I built up a nice little business and it's one which I can manage so that it fits in with my writing. When I'm snowed under with writing work - like now, when I'm deep into final edits on a new novel - I can wind it down. When I badly need some extra income, I can work like a Trojan and increase my turnover. I can take advantage of seasonal spikes, such as Christmas. But most of all, I think, my eBay experiences gave me a sense of how to run an online business, how to become friends with my customers, how to add value, package nicely, enclose pretty postcards, and write a blog to give people the extra information they enjoy.
It was only when I tried to apply these same lessons to my writing business that I found myself meeting a brick wall of indifference - not from readers, I hasten to add. When I could interact with them, they were appreciative. But from the layer upon layer of gatekeepers who seemed to have interposed themselves between me and those same readers.
I had an agent, I had a decent publishing and production track record, I had work waiting to go, but in spite of all kinds of praise from editors, my work was generally rejected at the 'sales' stage. I was routinely told that it was 'not linguistically experimental enough to be literary' but 'not quite fitting any genre, so we don't know how to market this.' God help my innocence, I even approached one or two Scottish publishers with the suggestion that a more businesslike relationship should be possible. This met with a disapproving silence. Not the way they worked at all. How dare I?
Until Amazon came along and brought technology to bookselling instead of vice versa.
The parallels with eBay are irresistible. You'll find the shysters and the incompetents on there - of course you will. But you'll also find millions of efficient small-to-medium sized businesses, from sole traders to online incarnations of known names, most of them giving excellent customer service, backed by a superb search facility.
Here's a very ordinary example.
Recently, we realised that the wheels on our shower doors had worn away. A plethora of local bricks- and-mortar businesses shook their heads, with that loud indrawn breath that is peculiar to sales people, and suggested that a new cabinet was the only option.
Five minutes on eBay, one digital picture sent to a seller - and a packet of new wheels arrived by the next post.
Last night, I came across a superb essay by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, characterising the way in which publishing is changing. It's called 'Scarcity and Abundance' and it should be required reading for publishers and writers everywhere. Essentially, it's a piece about mindsets. And the analogy could be extended to include the way in which our High Streets function (or increasingly don't function.) My local 'bathroom supplies' shops,with their beautiful glossy showrooms, were in a 'scarcity' mindset and sliding door wheels did not loom large for them. eBay, on the other hand, with its unlimited shelf space and abundant individual small businesses, could allow me to find the handful of suppliers in the UK who specialised in such things and - moreover- an individual who knew his stock well enough to be able to identify my requirements from a single digital picture. The wheels were not cheap, and I'll bet he's making decent profits - but they were a hell of a lot cheaper than a new cabinet and I was one happy customer.
All of which makes me think that the young literary writers who choose to see the eBook revolution as some kind of capitalist plot to ruin publishing couldn't be more wrong. One is lead to the inescapable conclusion that what they really can't stomach is the democratisation of publishing. They seem to feel that our gain is somehow responsible for their loss. John Carey was right when - brilliantly dissecting literary snobbishness in The Intellectuals and the Masses - he argued that the élite who felt their position threatened by the 19th century increase in literacy, invented new forms which would deliberately exclude the lower orders. A plethora of recent Guardian pieces (and - with a few notable exceptions - their comments) have all taken this remarkably superior stance. For a more balanced picture, you have to go to the technical pages. No doubt the bathroom showrooms feel exactly the same about eBay, even though it is entirely open to them to embrace digital, and set up an online store as well. But that would also mean embracing the mindset of unlimited shelf-space, of abundance, of trusting the abilies of people to search for what they want, coupled with the benefits of good - really good, not just adequate - programming.
A coder friend once told me that when most conventional businesses go digital, they don't understand the difference between an excellent programmer and a merely adequate programmer. All programmers are the same to them. The results are potentially disastrous and you can see them every day in clunky websites that are frustrating to use. Technology companies such as Amazon, eBay, DropBox and so on, always realise this and employ the best.
Above all, embracing the digital revolution means trusting the customer to know what he or she wants. And for most traditional publishers (although not, it seems, for writers) that seems to be a bridge too far.
Of which, more in my next post.
|Bird of Passage, on Kindle|