Monday, December 16, 2013

Open Letter From The Author’s Guild, Part II, Response

Reading on the Nook

The Author’s Guild, the premiere organization that represents writers’ interests, has engaged in noble battles with Google, Apple and Amazon and others when they feel professional writers are being gamed by these new, extremely powerful forces in the publishing world.  I believe they are right to be concerned.  From an individual writer’s perspective, we know that the battle of the Gods, which includes the aforementioned digital content giants, affects us immensely.  At the same time, there are now only five major U.S. Book publishers:  Hatchette Group, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Penguin-Random House and Simon & Schuster.  They too, giants all of them, are engaged in the rumble. These few still dominate the market place — that is they still determine who gets published and who doesn’t. However, it seems that everyone involved in book publishing is upset.

What caused the current turmoil are the seismic changes in technology that alter nearly every aspect of said industry.  The culprit is the e-book and its almost inevitable, eventual domination of the book world and all who play a role in it.  As romantic as we might wish to be about books on paper, we have to look at the cold, hard facts before we or the marketplace can recreate a lively, culturally rich profitable (or sustainable if you like), model for a thriving book market.  First, nearly everyone under 40 and many well over 40 have a hand-held digital device or two to connect them to everything they want to be connected to. That includes books. Second, e-books are relatively inexpensive to produce and nearly free to distribute. There are no returns. Thus the cost to purchase can and probably should be considerably less than the hard back.  This means the existing publisher will have to adjust their business accordingly, with writers in a just world taking a much larger percentage of a significantly lower retail price on e-books.  Writers may, in the end, be the least affected. On the other hand the writer’s burden is the only one that hasn’t been lightened or, sadly in some cases, eliminated.  Writing an e-book is no different — certainly not easier — than writing a regular book.  (I might add that the potentially interactive nature allowed by e-books may change the writer’s role in the near future.)

Independent bookshops will have a tougher time.  While many-mid-list writers were ditched by their publishers during the rise of the mega-bookstores*, many bookstores found a way to stay alive. Some innovative, independent stores survived the kind of thing that regularly happens in a capitalistic society, in this case the brutal onslaught of Borders and Barnes & Noble only, when the attack abruptly ended when big-box bookstores went down in flames, to come face to face with Amazon in the digital age. I have no doubt that paper & ink books will continue for a while and that many bookstores will find ways to survive, but the business itself is in deep trouble just as DVD rental places are turning off the lights, so too will bookstores if they can’t learn to think differently. Lawsuits filed against Amazon and Apple aren’t going to change our direction.  I’m not sure fighting the advance of e-books is anything other than an energy-draining, futile strategy. And so far, the Big Five sit like bumps on a log.  What are they waiting for?

Reading on the Kindle
As writers, I’m convinced we must find a way to embrace these changes, adapt to them, and take advantage of them.  That advice, I should suggest with more humility I suspect, applies to everyone involved:  Publishers, marketers, bookstores, and distributors. However the only one that has the potential to be all these things at once are writers.  It’s called self-publishing.  And while it has lost a little of its slimy “vanity press” reputation, in publishing and certainly literary circles, it is still the lowest of the low. And while writers hold the key because they control, or provide, the content, the problem is that it’s not likely that the writer is good at all aspects of the business. But even if they were, would they have any time left to write? The other thing that’s missing in self-publishing and especially e-book publishing is “the vetter.” We cannot review our own books.   Book buyers are (or were) often guided by reviewers.  With zillions of books being published each year, how are readers going to find us? In my genre, The New York Times reviews six to eight books most weeks.  A good percentage of those go to books by bestselling writers who produce at least one book a year. Few slots are left for introductions or surprising discoveries. There are very few reviews of paperbacks, or e-books, certainly not self-published books, e or otherwise. I don’t blame them.  Keeping track of the myriad unvetted books in the marketplace is an impossible task.  And we’ve learned not to trust the seemingly democratic reader reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, since they can be bought by the bushel. The entire reviewing process needs an overhaul or makeover, to put it in more contemporary terms.  It has all changed.  That person boarding the train to go from DC to NYC has 300 books in his breast pocket. And if he sees something even more compelling on a blog, he can download it in the time it takes him to get comfortable in his seat.  That is now.  He doesn’t have to wait for now.

Reading on the iPad
So what do we do?  How do we ”embrace” this new world?  If I knew the answer, I’d be rich.  And I’m not. And I’m not that bright or connected. However, I’d like to challenge the Author’s Guild to find ways to take advantage of what is inevitable in publishing rather than trying to stop it or slow it down.  Certainly, the deep pockets and experience of the five surviving mega publishers could be used to better advantage. An anecdote. Frustrated by my early books going out of print and not available electronically, coupled with my love of novellas (even though major publishers hold them in disdain), I set up an aka publishing company —Life Death And Fog Books— to address both of my frustrations.  But without a company like Amazon to help me set up at minimal expense, I’d be dead in the water. I self-published the first four in the Shanahan series and my first novella.  Later I sold a novella to what appeared to be a creative venture of a very highly respected traditional publisher.  They published it in a revived hard-boiled imprint with other novellas from new and established authors in the genre. They did a fantastic editing job. But from what I could see, after they created a logo and set up a small web site that amounted to little more than a billboard out in the Internet’s back-country, they did nothing. (I can do nothing quite well) No advertising. No reviews.  No marketing that I could find and I not only read blogs and web sites on the subject, I receive all sorts of announcements and promotions from and about e-book writers.  The first novella I published (excuse me,) self-published through my own company, Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin, outsold Death in the Haight, which was the novella published by the Big Five publisher as part of a brief e-book imprint launch.  There was a lot of criticism of B&N and Borders and their Wall Street CEOs for not seeing the e-book tsunami coming?  What about the Big Five? Shouldn’t they have figured this out even sooner and shouldn’t they do more than put their collective toes in the water?

My point is that instead of blaming an avaricious Amazon, perhaps the best support for writers might be convening a book congress determined to maximize its writer/members access to the marketplace in whatever format readers want through companies like Amazon or Hatchette or through new, not yet invented means. Bring in the pioneers from Silicon Valley. Introduce them to the suits at the stodgy publishing houses. Have a constitutional convention to reconfigure a stagnant system or develop dozens of new approaches to connect writers with readers. Perhaps only an organization like the Author’s Guild can find ways to adjust to a mammoth technological and cultural change as profitably and as painlessly as possible.

The Author’s Guild deals with many issues — copyrights, contracts, royalties, etc. — vital to writers.   While I urge them to help shape the future of publishing by making sure we are not petrified by and in the past, I am proud to be a member and urge other writers to join.  Click here for an application.

*This isn’t the first major shift in the publishing industry.  Not that long ago, the big box bookstore craze not only wiped out many independent bookstores, it inadvertently killed the careers of many midlist writers. Huge chains, like borders, ordered large quantities of books for each store only to return unsold copies. Publishers would up the print run of a book to meet the demand, but end up eating the excess.  Writers, who could and did survive with a book that sold five or six thousand copies, was still an asset to the publisher until publishers had to print 25 or 30 thousand to meet bookstore demands and have more than half returned.

No comments: