The rising standard of self-publishing

When the latest wave of self-publishing, assisted by print-on-demand technology, hit the streets at the dawn of the new millennium, it was quickly dismissed as low-grade soap opera. Established publishing houses shivered lest they fall victim to this new assault on their bastion. All sorts of labels were thrown at the new entrants: “vanity publishing,” “lacking in editorial integrity,” “selling to friends and relatives.” It was dismissed as a fad that would pass.

But this wave of self-publishing continued to grow and evolve. The sheer volume of books coming through the channel was daunting; even if an average of 50 copies of each self-published title were sold, that was “50 x umpteen” attempts at stealing readers away from the established order of publishing. And the old order started to groan and creak under this kamikaze attack; big publishers merged to get even bigger, mid-size publishers collapsed and went out of business, and small presses started to proliferate using low-cost business models. When Amazon, Lulu, Wattpad and other platforms facilitated self-published authors to “do it themselves,” the dam burst and writers associations around the world moved fast to legitimize this revolutionary movement and bring it into the fold, lest their own members defect and become “indies” in an industry that had moved from a cosy cartel to a free for all!

And what of the self-pubbers themselves? After the first wave of poorly constructed, badly edited, and haphazardly formatted offerings, the movement took stock. Professional editors and other middlemen from the traditional industry saw opportunity to replace income in this space as their employers, the mainstream publishers, began shedding them in order to remain competitive.  Self published books became deeper and broader (they were no longer just disguised memoirs), they were well edited, formatted and produced as technology continued to evolve. Besides, creative writing courses were proliferating in colleges and universities, and where else could all this output be absorbed? Certainly not by the traditionalists who had driven many of their authors to become teachers in those very schools because their royalties did not cover all the bills at home.

And then e-books came along and leveled the field even more; with costly paper production and distribution taken out of the mix, e-books could be offered for less than half the paperback price and still retain the same earnings for authors and publishers. The stubborn old guard of publishers has tried to defend e-book prices, saying they should be equal to that of paperbacks, but that is an argument that lacks weight as long as publishers pay authors the same remuneration for either format, and pocket the larger surplus from the e-book channel by holding its prices level with the paper channel.

“Might is right,” has played throughout history, and the former fringe dwellers who formed the “vanity” movement have now gone mainstream as the more respectable “self-published” movement. Their stories come from a more personal place; their skill as all-rounders (writer, publisher, marketer) in this game makes them all the more skilled. And yet, except for a lucky few who will catch the zeitgeist and be snatched by the mainstream, they will remain effective only at close range (selling to friends, family and a small circle of fans) rather than selling across international markets in multiple languages aided by large marketing budgets; but they will be read, and they will add diversity to the literary landscape while the traditionalists retrench to promoting only their top 10 lists (or top 5, even top 3) as competition heats up and margins come under threat.

Where will this level out? Motive will determine longevity. Few are making money in this game anymore, and hunger may drive writers in either camp to choose where they want to invest their time in future. In the traditional camp, attrition also takes place when the Big 5 toss out “dead wood” at faster and faster rates.  Short shelf-life notwithstanding, we hope that writers in both camps choose wisely and continue to invest in their writing in some fashion, because that is what determines a society’s evolution, for “man cannot live by bread alone, but by the words that come from God” – and writers would like to believe that divine inspiration has something to do with how their fingers move on the keyboard.

Self publishing is mainstream now. The question is whether the traditionalists will move to make the self publishing channel their entry point for picking up the “best of the best” authors in future, thus creating a two tier structure, or will readers place equal emphasis on both channels, so that it will be authors who determine how and where they want to place their work.

There will be no professional writers in future: banner or epitaph?

“There will be no more professional writers in future” – read the headline of the arts section of one of our national newspapers last week, waking me up to my own dire predictions of the last few months, reminding me that I am not the only one having these nightmares. Change is coming, no matter how much we bury our heads in our ink and hope that it goes away.

The article went on to throw out some scary phrases—feudal economics of the 21st century (with Amazon and Huffington playing landlord to us poor hacks who are being relegated to serfs), 10 cents per 1000 reader clicks, and more than one million authors on Amazon’s online Kindle store— bringing us back to that scary headline: There will be no more professional writers….

Let’s go on the assumption that literature will still exist in our future, however retrograde that future becomes. That said, just like with any green•field business that initially attracts more supply than demand, a crash and consolidation must come in this electronic age of literature. The questions remain as to when will it come, who will go out and who will stay in, who will get fatter, and who will be marginalized when the dust settles. Here’s my pick:

Authors: We still need these guys to write content, original content (so help us, God!). So I guess they will be kept alive, even by force•feeding. Slimmer pickings at the base of the steep pyramid known as the “Hierarchy of Authors” will drive wannabes to pursue other interests like fishing. Some will eke out serf•like existences even if to merely avoid psychotherapy, while others will live like lottery winners and drink to ease their guilt about compensation that far exceeds effort—and seek out shrinks. There is no socialism here. Writing schools will decline, replaced by fishing schools, perhaps.

Publishers: These guys are in the cross hairs of the impending fall. Some parts of their business are valuable, like editing, formatting, marketing, branding, access to awards and distributors etc. Others, less so, like lengthening the publishing pipeline that was under their watch, elongating it from about six months to the current 2•3 years; slush pile management is another red card (bad job done here, guys – your response rates suck!); and manning the gate for curated content (many of their picks have been flops). Perhaps they will change their names to Content Facilitator and outsource the slush pile. Or move away from the royalty model towards fee•based, unbundled menu pricing for their various services that are still deemed valuable; the recent moves by mainstream publishers to purchase self•publishing arms is an indication of this.

Agents: They may fall on either side of the fence. Their current remuneration model will be unsustainable. On the one hand they could become Author Assistants (paid by the author – watch out, the fees may be a bit measly). They could easily add Publicist, PR and Author Manager to their job description, if not there already. Or they could go over to the other side and be talent scouts for the new Content Facilitators, paid to hunt for good content now that the slush pile has been eliminated. Or they could band together to become Content Facilitators themselves and cut out the man above.

Distributors: The monopoly that exists with Amazon and its buddies must give way to smaller independents that also have access to that universal distribution highway, the Internet. The smaller guys just have to find ways to carve out little side roads with distinct signage (branding) that flow content and revenue their way and off the Amazon•Huffington highway. Just as Amazon has become the general store for books, why not several niche stores specializing in certain genres, with wider selections within these genres?

Software Developers: Let’s not forget the guys who started the revolution by bringing the technicalities of publishing down to the user level. It could only be a matter of time before kindle and e•pub formats become add•ons to Microsoft Office and other desktop bundles.

Readers: Will have to pay for good content again (the accent being on “good”) or the serfs who are farming that content will die out. They will also be the power holders in this industry. “Going viral” will belong to them and will determine the livelihood of all the other players in this literary drama.

Endorsers: A breed of super reader. The endorser is a reader among readers who commands an audience and who cannot be bought. I will exclude newspaper reviewers and well known TV show hosts who predictably have their “picks” go on to become bestsellers; by “picking for pay,” they will have exposed their hand for serving the wrong master. The new Endorser will live on the adulation and followership of readers only. A new literary savant who survives on ego food.

And as for that newspaper headline, I have to agree that the old model of professional writer is under threat, but a new model is emerging, and as long as a civilization needs those among it to reflect, dissect, interpret, and record its evolution, writers of some shape or form must exist.

A Brave New World indeed, and I am applying for citizenship to play several of the above roles in it. What about you?

Trying to balance the year that was

The year is almost over and it’s that time again of frantic shopping and binge merriment, of meeting people you haven’t seen since, well, last Christmas; a time of false camaraderie, of debt accumulation, of non•ending festive music, of crowds in malls and elevated blood pressure levels drowned out by copious quantities of eggnog and other spirits. Amidst this madness, I try to take stock each year of where we have come as a species and where we seem to be headed.

In 2011, the world rocked for a second time on the consequences of fiscal irresponsibility, with Western Europe descending into its deepest economic crisis since WWII. Even the mighty BRIC nations are beginning to feel the slowdown in this connected world. The stock market behaved like a manic depressive. In another part of the world, the rocking was physical, when a giant earthquake/tsunami devastated Japan and reduced real estate prices near any nuclear facility in the world to a fraction of their former glory (we weren’t immune even in our small town by a lake in Canada, ringed by nuclear plants). In the Middle East, dictators fell like nine pins, ousted by a populace drunk on freedom but with no plans for ordered democracy and growth. Equally directionless, mobs stormed Wall Street and other financial centres to occupy public parks and achieve nothing but to register their protest; they left after being ingloriously ejected for causing civil disturbances, trailing broken reputations and human detritus in their wake. The workplace began to look more like a Dickensian workhouse, replete with exploited labour, Scrooge•like capitalists and hyper•specialization reducing humans to robots. Traditional news organizations wrestled with scandals over phone spying, and leaked documents from corporations and governments were being dumped on the internet for public entertainment. The traditional publishing industry cracked wide open with online retailers grabbing bigger pieces of the pie. Oh my, what upheaval!

Are we nearing the end of days, as the pessimists and evangelists constantly remind us? Have we mismanaged all iterations of human progress and dragged ourselves down into the mud from whence we came? Is the dystopian picture in my novel After the Flood coming true?

Then I tried to look on the brighter side. Africa made a comeback after decades of war, drought, pestilence, genocide and famine to clinch the top spot for growth over the next decade. The PIIGS (the second I is for Italy) of Europe realized that taxes, if paid, collected and spent wisely, do make sense and provide for a better standard of living. Citizen journalism came of age when the quality of articles continued to improve, diversify and outpace content from traditional channels (my journalist friends will disagree with me here) and social media actually led to the fall of corrupt governments. Authors reclaimed ground by embracing direct publishing models and sticking it to gatekeepers. And our troops came home for Christmas after removing themselves from that absurd theatre war in Afghanistan. Small credits to balance this ledger from its sharp tilt towards the right.

Merry Christmas everyone! Now that you have read this, do return to your Christmas busyness, it helps keep the bogeyman at bay. And please remember to raise an extra glass for global enlightenment in 2012.

I’m going shopping!

Book Reviews

I started writing book reviews this year – of every book I read. And I began publishing them on any site that accepted a review, with the author’s permission where necessary. An easy way to commit my impressions of a particular book to written memory in case I was asked a question about it sometime in the future, I thought, and a cheap way of making a name at someone else’s expense (the poor author of that book). Every marketing guru will tell you that you need to put your name and website address next to anything you write online. I’ve realized that my website hit count has gone up since. I no longer have to visit my site each day and hit it a dozen times before the metrics tracking bar rises marginally above the base line.

And then I realized the heavy obligation placed upon, but not often assumed, by the book reviewer. This was not about the reviewer – this was all about the book and its author. A bad review can sink a writer and a good one does not necessarily sell more books. And if reading is all about taste, don’t we all have different tastes? Isn’t one person’s poison, another’s honey? Isn’t the whole book industry all about tastes? Isn’t that why it got segmented into genres with their own unique sub•cultures, so that the literary fiction aficionado would not go ripping up the crime fiction book and saying, “the characters stink and move like cardboard cut•outs,” and the crime fiction buff would not toss out the lit•fic tome, screaming that it put him to sleep every time he opened it?

What right did I have to destroy these writers with my reviews of their work? So I narrowed my area of reviewing to the books I like to read: mainstream and literary fiction. And I tried to focus on the parts that left positive impressions on me, dropping hints of the not•so•nice elements, and hoping like hell that that writer (if he or she is still alive) would do something about it the next time. And when I read a poorly written book (in my opinion only) I send the author, or his agent, my comments separately as sincere developmental feedback; and in this instance, I do not post a review. Not that I am the world’s greatest writer, but as a frequent reader one picks up flat notes pretty damn quick.

Reviewing is a tough business, I have come to appreciate. Why do I do it? Because I have now learned, that more than the cheap fame factor, dissecting another’s work is a great way to hone one’s own craft and learn to write great sentences that resonate, and a way to avoid the black holes that some writers sink into. What we do with the dissected pieces and how we distribute them around is what calls for sensitivity, tact, and plain common sense. And the day I am not able to exercise such a balance is when I will give up writing book reviews.