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.

Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants & Resident Aliens

The above are new terms that have emerged to describe the young, middle•aged and old people in our digital society today; a radical immigration model for a new world where one’s degree of foreignness grows with age.

The theory goes that young people, “the digital natives,” i.e. those born after the Internet know nothing about paper encyclopaedias, postal mail and about paying for content. Their preferred shop for most things is found online. They don’t have to memorize anything – just ask God, I mean, Google. Their relationships are vast and temporary, their attention spans are fragile and they outgrow things pretty quick, not just clothes – just ask Facebook. They are often seen talking to themselves in public, and if you see the little earpiece called a tooth, you know that they are not mad.

On the other side of the divide are the old people, “the resident aliens,” born and matured before the Internet. They wonder why postal rates are going up and door•to•door postal delivery is vanishing as their limbs are just starting to give way. They still like to connect with people in person at the mall or at the church, and they use the telephone a lot, especially to call long distance. They maintain lifelong relationships with friends and family and volunteer spare time to worthy causes, as long as retirement incomes remain steady and recession•proof. The Internet is a mystery, another pesky thing that they need to stay away from for there is all that reputed scamming and pornography out there (unless one is into that kinda thing, heh, heh!).

Then there are those in the middle, the digital immigrants, who were born before the Internet but who matured during the period when cyberspace went from a mild pastime to a robust highway along which most information began to flow. Some of these people gave up desk jobs of pushing paper and started pushing buttons on their desktops instead. Some careers changed, some were lost forever. The digital immigrants had to adapt or perish with each subsequent wave of technology, and they found it hard, for their retirements were diminished or vanished and they were re•inventing themselves to just stay relevant, even if they did not believe in the roles they now had to play. They compete with the digital natives for jobs and yet long to be resident aliens.

Being an immigrant (a real one) and now being classified a digital immigrant, suits me, for the art of survival is similar: stay alert, continuously learn, do not be afraid to experiment and make mistakes, take nothing for granted, work smart, and live lean. And yet, every new version of technology takes me further away from the centre.  I wonder how tough it must be for real world natives who have come to expect a world of order and entitlement, and who now find themselves as digital immigrants or resident aliens in digital society? They did not consciously immigrate anywhere, like I did, but their world changed on them nevertheless, landing them in a foreign place. This is the hardest kind of immigration to undertake – the reluctant kind. It likens one to a refugee of war or other social upheaval.

I wonder if these considerations are taken into account as we push along our relentless path to automate everything, or whether these costs will have to be borne by the larger society when we end up with a majority of jobless digital immigrants and resident aliens run by a minority of digital natives and their tech toys.

Year-end Miscellany

This will possibly be my one and only post for December. I have been in a pensive mood of late, observing the world as writers normally do, trying to understand its subtext: another mass shooting down south, a man•made fiscal cliff looming with both sides being intransigent, an old calendar ending without the predicted ending of our world, having to dig deeper for survival in an age when stable institutions we once relied upon (i.e. corporations and governments) have seemingly abandoned us. The tea leaves tell me that it is a tough, overcrowded world out there and it ain’t going to get any easier in the next little while.

I completed writing another novel this year (my sixth yet•to•be•published one, in addition to the four already published and the hundreds of shorter pieces published in various magazines, blogs and e•zines). I’m reconciled to being a posthumous writer if my estate will summon the energy to publish my unpublished tomes after I have made the Great Exit. I have learned that there is a time for mining, and that rich veins of imagination do run their courses, and that to be distracted by trivialities (like earning a living) at these times can interfere with this flood that comes from the “other side,” a God•given gift. And for me, that time is now. I also realize the cost that comes with heeding the words Jesus spoke to his twelve buddies when he said, “Come follow me.” He never mentioned a rose garden or a fat purse at the end of the line. By taking up the cross (or the pen, in this instance) we signed on for lean times, rich only in personal growth.

I’ve seen the younger generation in my family move on and expand their horizons this year – a point of pride, given that theirs is the generation we robbed with our grandiose plans of “Me First, and damn everything else, including the environment” – by buying houses, upgrading jobs, moving countries even, to where the prospects are brighter. And it reminds me of when I took this same trek through the desert from the third world to the first world in search of greener pastures, a long time ago it seems now. And I too moved this year, right into the heart of downtown Toronto, in the hope of new horizons opening for me. Moving ever so often is good, for it clears the cobwebs. And hope is a good thing to have, always.

I’ve seen old friends start to falter, even die, reminding me of the long, lonely journey we must all make one day, a journey that converts our daily pre•occupations into trivial pursuits and calls into account the most important things we did or should have done, and makes us gnash our teeth for not having done them when we should have. These friends at the head of the curve give us pause, and we are richer for having known them, for in their passing they have given us the gift of self•examination.

I’ve seen artists flourish this year when we published an anthology of writers, poets and painters. It gave us an opportunity to go into the small towns and villages in our part of eastern Ontario and present our audiences with a calling card that was welcomingly received. And I have seen writers look up in hope when I stood before them and said that technology has not doomed us but liberated us from the slush pile. There may be no more money, but there is no more waiting.

It is always good to pause at this time of the year and look back on what we accomplished and what we did not. A time for understanding the incompleteness of life, which in itself gives us the fuel to go on and dot some of those “i”s and cross some more of those “t”s. Yes, the world is a rough place but humans are resilient beings, and those who roll with the punches will survive.

Dear friends, thanks for continuing to read my blog. I wish you and your loved ones a joyous Christmas and much wisdom in 2013.

So Amazon and Kobo want to be Publishers, eh?

The recent announcement by these players to advance up the book industry value chain from retailing to publishing comes as no surprise. In an industry which has many handoffs in its delivery process, and many players, each player muzzles for maximum turf over time. The ones upstream (i.e. the creators) try to advance down the chain like oil companies muzzling into retail gas stations. Those at the tail, retailers like Amazon and Kobo, try to move into the middle currently occupied by publishers, and those in the middle try to go both ways like departments stores that create loyalty programs at one end and private label merchandise at the other.

Success will depend on what value is provided. In the case of Amazon and Kobo, their original value proposition lay in their ability to provide the largest selection of books, globally, without the shopper having to leave the comfort of his home. In becoming a publisher, one has to be selective (also known by that dreaded term “editorial integrity”) and promote only “the selected.” This is a different stance from the presently held “come one, come all” position of these online retailers. So what would Amazon and Kobo do in their new roles as publishers? Provide two•tier distribution: a premium level for authors who self publish through them and a more basic level for all books coming from other publishers? Start a separate branded line for their own publishing streams of books? Cherry•pick the best•selling authors and offer lucrative one•shot deals? Or hire an army of interns to wade through miles of slush piles should every unpublished author want to self•publish through them? This new move is surely going to raise questions about the altered value propositions that these two players now bring to the reader, and to the author.

The danger when two or more bed mates jostle for elbow room on the same bed, especially if one has a lot of muscle, is that the muscular one gains at the expense of the others. The ones with less and less room, risk falling off the bed altogether and may leave to sleep elsewhere with other bedfellows. And there is no fun in sleeping in a bed with one big elephant – be that a major publisher, a retailer•turned publisher or a distributor turned one•stop•shop. In this incestuous game, many bed mates, each having equal space, is good – it’s also called competition, in case I was stirring orgiastic imagery in you!

The wild card for everyone is the technology that is making these moves possible. And technology, while enabling bigger and newer entrants to muzzle in for space, can also scuttle the best made plans plans. In this case, the new technology also allows the story•teller, (aka – the author) to reach his audience directly, for it is no big deal to publish a book these days, be it in trade book format or e•book format, if one is reasonably adept at word processing and has access to some conversion software. And it’s no bigger deal to distribute it directly from one’s website with no intermediary hand•offs. All the author needs is a facilitator who can help his audience find, sample and endorse him. The reader needs the facilitator too, to point him to good reading material. This facilitator role is the one going to be prized both by readers and writers in the future – not a big bully who keeps the lion’s share and offers poor quality in exchange, but a big brother who makes it happen for the writer and the reader.

I am keen to see whether Amazon and Kobo will truly transform into Big Brothers or lose both authors and readers because they ended up being Big Bullies.