“It was apparent…that, all over America, thousands of people threw down a book or got up from a television show and said, ‘I can write better than that!’ It was amazing how many of them were wrong.”
― Donald E. Westlake, Dancing Aztecs
This is an exciting time to be an author. One of the independent authors I follow, Tannera, recently wrote a piece called “The Stigma of Self Publishing” that got me thinking about how the publishing business is changing. Rather than fill up more space on her blog, I’ve decided to write my thoughts here.
For well over a century the book business has been dominated by professional for profit publishing houses. Ben Franklin and William Blake were able to print and distribute their own works because at the time that they were writing printing press technology was within the reach of individual authors. The advent of motorized presses and national distribution changed that.
By the end of the First World War a book without a professional publishing house behind it had very little chance of being seen by more than a handful of potential consumers during the author’s lifetime. Publishers had become indispensable.
And, like anyone who can’t be fired, publishers grew fat and lazy and arrogant. Book publishing technology changed over the years, necessitating changes in publishing policies–the explosion of genre fiction in the 1950’s and 1960’s was due in large part to the introduction of low cost paperback editions–but the basic formula of publishing houses as gatekeepers between authors and the reading public hasn’t changed.
Until now. E-readers and Print On Demand services have given anyone with a computer access to the reading public. Many people who could never have been published under the old system now have books in the market place. Some of these people are writers with unique fresh visions that a traditional publishing house would be too conservative and hidebound to accept. Most, however, are simply bad books.
Poorly written, poorly edited, the product of self-absorbed, untalented, derivative and sometimes downright psychotic minds. That’s the price we pay for freedom of access to the marketplace.
Think of publishing houses as a filter between writers and the reading public. Over the years the filter, in my opinion, has become clogged, letting fewer works through, and ensuring that distribution is limited to the least diverse. For decades publishers have been focusing on “Just Like” books. Just Like John Grisham! Just Like Steven King! Just Like J. K. Rowling!
Well, the filter is being pulled off now, and everything that’s been backed up all these years is pouring through. The good, the bad, the ugly, the insane, the hateful, the works of genius that have been unfairly suppressed and the fishwrap, all dumped wholesale on your local e-book retailer at a rate of thousands of titles a month.
So how is the public supposed to sort through this torrent of words to find the gems among the dreck?
Networking. The same technology that makes it possible for authors to upload this torrent makes it possible for readers to share information about books. Tools are available now, and better ones are being developed, for readers to discuss books.
The marketplace is an incredibly efficient tool for sorting product by level of quality. Right now readers are learning that the e-publishing explosion doesn’t just give authors the power to publish, it gives readers the power to choose for themselves what is worth buying.
I believe that cream will always rise to the top. Right now is a turbulent time in the history of letters, but I’m convinced that even as I write consumers of fiction are learning how to be more discerning in their purchases, to seek out and promote the works that are worth promoting.
Obviously, I also believe that my work is good enough that some people are going to pick my books, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of writing them. I could be wrong, of course, Catskinner could end up as part of the dregs at the bottom of barrel. It’s worth the risk to me, though, to try to get my work out to the public. I wouldn’t go back to sending out query letters and waiting for a publisher to pass judgement on my novel for anything.