Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Publishing Industry is Broken

The publishing industry is broken.  The traditional mode of publishing is not serving anyone very well; not the authors, the agents, the publishers, or the readers.  The problem started with the advent of the word processor.  Once upon a time, it took a lot of hard physical work to produce a novel.  Typing was laborious, messy, fraught with mistakes that were difficult to correct, and if you didn't quite like the way something sounded, you had to completely write it over.  This tremendous expenditure of labor worked as a filter to self-limit all but the most dedicated authors from getting a manuscript ready to present to an agent.

Consequently, agents had the time to invest in selecting the authors they wanted to represent.  If an agent saw a promising voice, they had the time to work with that person, mentor them and help them bring their craft up to commercial standards.

Today, word processors give anyone with a keyboard the ability to turn out copious amounts of verbal trash with relatively little effort.  Agents are being buried under mountains of unreadable garbage. Agents find that screening queries and proposals is a full time job, if they spend even five minutes on each query.  The competition to get the attention of an agent is fierce, and it's a very subjective field.  Get your query read when the agent is in a bad mood, before they've had their coffee, or on a Monday when their in box is clogged from the weekend, and your query will join the majority in the round file without the consideration you no doubt feel it deserves.

Then, add in the electronic publishing phenomenon.  With as many as fifty million electronic readers in the market, the paper publishers are feeling the hit.  Publishing a physical book edition is a gamble.  The production run has to reflect the expected sales, yet be big enough to recover the non-recurring expense of typesetting and show a profit.  A publisher's worst nightmare is printing books that sit on the shelves and don't sell.  Predicting the market has become more difficult because e-readers are a game-changer.  While one can easily predict the number of potential readers who will buy a book, it's more difficult to say which ones will buy the physical copy.

This makes publishers very risk-averse, and they're less inclined to take a chance on a book that isn't a guaranteed hit.  They analyze what's selling, and attempt to reproduce the secret sauce ad nauseum.  That's why you're very unlikely to get noticed today unless you're writing teenage vampire stories.  If your story doesn't fit the industry's idea of what's hot, your not going to get published.  Originality and creativity has no place in the risk averse world of the modern publisher.

This puts more pressure on the agents, who're trying to pimp your books to prospective publishers.  Used to be an agent would work with a promising author, develop them and guide them onto the career path.  Now, the author has to practically come to the agent with a print-ready manuscript, as well as a marketing plan, to even be considered.  Authors are looking at this, and asking themselves, "What exactly is it I'm paying you for, anyway?"

The market rules.  And the market for books is there to connect the writers with the readers.  Publishers facilitated this for generations.  Agents facilitated connecting authors with publishers.  But the magic has always been the dynamic between the author and the reader.  The others were piggybacking off this relationship.  But Amazon threw the traditional publishing industry on its ear when it began giving authors the tools they needed to reach out directly from their writing studios and touch the readers.  First it was through e-books.  Now, Amazon has teamed up with CreateSpace to give a print-on-demand option that's within the market rate for the book industry.  An author only need to give CreateSpace a print-ready pdf file that meets CreateSpace's criteria, and when an order is placed the book is printed, bound, and shipped the same day right out of Amazon's warehouses. 

Once self-publishing was considered vanity publishing, and the result was as atrocious as one would expect.  But as more traditional publishers come under more competitive pressure from independent authors, they become more and more a closed avenue to publication, forcing more and more authors to seek self-publishing. The industry has responded with editors, artists and SEO/marketing specialists to aid the author to getting his book in the hands of the people who want to read it.  The trail around the traditional publishing industry has become a four-lane highway, with everyone sweeping the Author's way free of obstacles, because if the Author cannot find readers for his book, nobody profits.

An interesting thing has been happening as the traditional publishing industry loses relevance.  Old paradigms are reasserting themselves.  In the 19th century, before the publishing industry became so ossified, it was quite common for a book to be published as a serial in some sort of journal.  Almost all of Jules Verne's novel were published this way, and people then discussed the latest and next installments of their favorite serial as we would discuss the latest episode of House today.  The publishing industry has been returning to this model again, with short installments of a story appearing regularly for a modest price – often less than a dollar – on

So if you fancy yourself a writer, and have a story, forget about the traditional publishers.  Get a good editor, get a good cover artist, and use the tools available to reach out and contact your readers yourself!

Look for my first book, The Tears of Jihad, available on Amazon in mid-December 2013.