Self-publishing on the internet is undermining publishing, the professional writers say.
Sometimes I think this is nonsense. Sometimes I think there’s something in it.
In 2010, Garrison Keillor wrote a comical op/ed piece for the New York Times speculating on the end of book-publishing. He believes that his own child, with her skimming, surfing, and writing on little screens, is hastening the death of publishing.
And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.
First, let me say I am a friend of the book. A very good friend of the book. I have spent my life reading books. I also enjoy reading book reviews, book news, and book blogs.
But I recently took a week off from reading blogs, and was disconcerted when I returned to them. I was dismayed by the poor quality of the writing at most. And I wondered if our bloggers’ mutual admiration society is a shadow world of the book review publishing world (almost certainly), or if it is a populist short cut to coaxing us to accept the second best (possibly).
Bring down the level of education (get people into business, not liberal arts), close down the publishers and newspapers, get everybody hooked on the internet (the giant conspiracy to interrupt our attention span by click-click-click), and people will stay inside and not interfere with the government clap-down on privacy. There are no doubt grim days indoors ahead with the advent of climate change.
I am not completely sure that isn’t the plot. Heavens, I read a lot of science fiction. I read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar only last year.
Naturally, I have to stand with the bloggers here, not with the traditional writers. The newspapers are shutting down. Some book review publications and many book bloggers are, more or less, holding the line. Many know the difference between good and bad books. Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia? A classic. TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos? Mediocre. Now don’t get me wrong. I write informally about books here. I am not reviewing books. But book reviews, even in book review publications, can be scatty. I’ve decided to read award-winning books and finalists again, because the judges are at least recommending books above a certain line (at least usually).
But shouldn’t I revamp my blog and write more about books? No. It is a small one-person operation.The book pieces I write here, even though they’re informal, take time.
But it’s wearisome predicting the future of books, isn’t it? I wonder if Garrison Keillor is as exhausted by it as I am.
What worries me is the fact that the fate of books reflects the fate of intelligence generally in our modern world. Education for its own sake is no longer an acceptable goal – it has to be with the aim of fitting some possibly square peg into a round hole where they can beaver away and make a meagre living. The pure joy of reading and where it can take you to is in danger of being lost forever – I can see that just in the reduced attention spans of my own children, who are more literate than most….. 😦
Izzy is now planning to self-publish her book. A Janeite friend we both know tells me it’s very very hard to get any publisher to publish a novel: Austen fan fiction authors are self-publishing. Publishers will not spend the money for an editor, to publicize the book: you have to sell it yourself. Other friends tell of companies which are not vanity presses asking for payment. As Keillor outlines comically, the audience for books is so subdivided, most people’s attention any where but in one general place. Each of us now can curate our movie- and TV-watching and so we do our books and tastes are finally dissimilar. So we each read what we want on the Net, buy from Bookfinder according to our taste.
It does not have much to do with the quality of the books — high quality has always been relatively rare.
Karen, I agree. I hate the thought of books containing links and multi-media material. And that’s coming. Yes, I imagine the attention span is shorter for the last couple of generations.
Ellen, self-publishing is definitely the way to go for those without connections in New York, so good for Izzie. If you don’t have an MFA, if you didn’t go to school with someone in publishing, your manuscript is unlikely ever to emerge from the slush pile. A friend in publishing once told me that people who have a lot of friends sell more books!!! Oops, well, I might make the $1.75 Garrison predicts.
Perhaps both things are true. Self publishing both is and is not undermining conventional publishing. It may be undermining an industry which stands as the gate-keeper on the basis of what is marketable. Conventional publishing wants to bet on the best-sellers and cannot justify the expense of editing and distributing quirky topics and specialized subjects. I self-published four books on American silverplate patterns, a topic of great interest to the few who are already interested. My best seller sold about 1200 copies, the others in the 300-500 range. That is over years, not months. What publisher could justify that! Yet I had the satisfaction of making available the information I enjoyed collecting.
If the hot-shot writers self-publish that may undermine conventional publishing but I would ask then why the industry no longer appeals. Too stodgy? Too unable to promote effectively? Not providing enough service to authors? I don’t know, but I do wonder.
Nancy, yes, perhaps publishers are too conservative now. Today in The Des Moines Register, I read a profile of Paul Ingram, a bookseller at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, who is well-known for recommending books to customers.
He says, “It’s tougher nowadays because what they are publishing is worse. Publishers need to be conservative so they don’t want to try anything different. I have five or six zombie books come in and I hate it. I can’t bear it, yet my customers want it. I ended up buying them all because I can’t tell the difference.”
And established writers like Garrison Keillor (other writers have also complained) don’t want nobodies competing in their field. They prefer to believe that the few who make it are better writers than the others. And yet I’ve read excellent short stories in literary magazines by unknown writers who seem never to get a book published. Perhaps they’re TOO good.
I do know that specialized books like yours would be hard to publish. People who self-publish have to sell to a specialized audience. I think those numbers are good for a self-published book.
A bit late in the conversation but I’m one of those people who believe in established editors and publishers. I still can’t get my head around self-publishing. Maybe because it has been focused mostly on a money-making scheme. However, I know that this is the only way to go for many writers… publishers can’t afford the risk anymore.
I want to try to self-publish something just for the experiment.
I’m spending the summer in France, I walk into every bookshop I can. I read French so I find beautiful books and I fall into a trance but what is the most astonishing is how protected bookshops and books are in this country. I don’t see people reading on e-readers and I don’t think there is much respect for self-published authors here.
Culture is at the heart of France, it’s crazy, the amount of literary, cultural, review, critique journals, podcasts, sites, TV programs, etc.. makes one realize how commercial everything is in North America.
I normally live in Quebec and they have a slight inclination towards the French model in regards to culture, they want to protect it but it doesn’t work because they are a minority.
I wish we could find the balance. I wish we could value books again.
I take your point about France, but not all self publishers here are in it for the money. Some just want to communicate and reach the audience — small as it may be — that is interested in what they have to say. If anything, they are a reaction to the commercialism that only want to publish best sellers about vampires.
Luisa, how lovely to spend the summer in France! Fascinating that the book culture is different. I THINK I read somewhere that France doesn’t allow the kind of lowballing with book prices Amazon does in the U.S., but since I am not quite sure where I read it, perhaps it was about another country!
I don’t read any self-published books, except my family’s, because I just don’t know where the good ones are, unless somebody like Howey (?), the author of Wool, is bought by a main publisher. But I know there are some serious writers out there, like Nancy, and there are mainstream writers who are starting to self-publish.
Nancy, I like your point about the vampire books! And I completely agree that specialists have little choice. I think e-books are very good for self-publishing, and I would not be adverse to going that route myself.