It’s no news to those involved in the writing and publishing industry that the industry is in a state of turmoil. The pros and cons of Amazon’s KDP Select programme, the demise of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, the major online retailers using increasingly dirtier tactics in the war for market share, the sudden glut of self-published material…everyone in the industry has an opinion and is not afraid to express it.
Now, never let it said that I was afraid to jump onto a perfectly good-looking (if somewhat overcrowded) bandwagon.
Let’s look at the controversy over self-publishing. Buoyed by the success of self-publishing giants such as Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath (“Who?” I can hear you non-industry people saying), and with dollar signs in their eyes, inexperienced writers are flooding the e-book market with low-quality books that are poorly proofread and have badly designed covers. They’re practically giving away their books at 99 cents each, or actually giving them away for free.
“They’re ruining it for the rest of us!” is the common catch-cry amongst traditionally published authors. “They’re pricing their work too low because it’s crap, and making it harder for real writers to sell their work at a realistic price. They’re deluded if they think they’re going to get rich doing this! Only a very favoured few will make it, and the rest of us will be starving in our garrets!”
So…situation normal, then.
Before self-publishing, very few writers were able to make a living from their work. Most wrote for years for little or no recompense, and if they were lucky enough to sign a contract with a publisher, they still had to hang onto their day jobs. Now, in the middle of the self-publishing boom – same thing, except it’s shaping up to be one massive publisher/retailer (Amazon) instead of many small ones. The outcome for writers is the same.
There has always been, with most products, a big variation in quality, and that quality is reflected in the price. If we’re going to talk about an e-book purely as a commodity, then it’s no different from, say, clothing. If I had a thousand dollars to spend on clothes, I could go out and buy a whole lot of cheap mass-produced crap that will fall apart inside a couple of months, or I could spend a thousand dollars on one high-quality designer garment, or I could (and probably would) strike some kind of happy medium between the two extremes. Maybe I can’t even tell the difference between good quality and crap, so I’m perfectly happy with the cheap stuff. Maybe I wouldn’t be caught dead in anything that cost less than $500. Maybe I choose to make a principled stand, and only purchase clothes from small local artisans who take pride in their work. The choices are there to keep the industry robust and to serve the needs of the customers. I don’t hear Dior or Versace bitching about the crazy cat lady down the street who crochets tea cosy hats and gives them away down at the local markets on a Sunday. Although they probably would complain if they were all forced into the one great big shop and had to set up their stall next to Crazy Cat Lady… (hmm… methinks I have spotted a flaw in my logic…)
The anxiety over self-publishing seems to be confined to industry professionals – writers, publishers and retailers. The general reading public seems to not notice or not care, except to say, “Hey, isn’t this e-book thing a great idea? All these books in one little device, and for a fraction of the cost of a print book – I can afford to buy and read so much more now!” Or else they’ll say, “E-book reader? What is this strange and wondrous device?!?” I know this because whenever I talk to someone outside the industry about it, their eyes glaze over and they start looking for the nearest escape route (or maybe it’s just me).
“But how is the general book-buying public able to tell the difference between the cream and the crap without the publishers to act as gatekeepers?” is the other cry going up from the ramparts. “We all know those five-star reviews are written by the authors’ friends and family, so you can’t trust the reviews.”
“Don’t worry about it,” respond some writers (usually the self-published ones). “The cream will always rise to the top. Just make sure you’re the cream.”
Well… yes and no. I’m not entirely convinced that the general book-buying public is always able to tell the difference between good writing and not-so-good writing (no offence, guys). Let’s take the ridiculously successful Twilight franchise as an example (not self-published, I know, but bear with me here). Twilight is so popular, middle-aged women are tattooing images and quotations from the series on their bodies. But most writers I know loathe Twilight, citing its wooden prose and its promotion of unhealthy relationships.
And yet there’s the tattoo thing. And the “Stephenie Meyer going to bed every night on a mountain of money” thing. I don’t think it’s the quality of the writing that makes a book rise to the top. Once you get the mechanics of grammar, punctuation, spelling and clarity out of the way (and there’s room to take liberties even with those – just ask e e cummings), then quality becomes subjective. I think that, in today’s market, a best-selling novel is produced from one part talent, one part luck, one part good marketing and seven parts tapping into the zeitgeist.
And all of that is strangely comforting to me. If it’s largely down to luck and uncanny timing, and those things are beyond my control, then there’s hope for me yet. Or maybe there’s none. Either way, all there is left for me to do is to carry on doing pretty much the same thing I’ve been doing for the last seven years – writing what I want to write and letting “the market” take care of itself.
As for self-publishing – I’m going to give it a go. Aside from being accused of contributing to the downfall of the publishing industry, what’s the worst that could happen?