Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin'

No, it's not a post about Bobby Zimmerman, but another chestnut could be scattered by a hard wind a-blowin' through the volatile book biz.

The smug put-downs, the arrogant and idiotic assumptions, the defensive and prideful hold-the-fort advisories from various authors and agents, both in and out of Canada, regarding authors self-publishing their work have increased in volume and emotion with a corresponding volume and excitement from the belittled works (and their authors) themselves. This is, of course, to be expected. Anyone reading this piece already knows more than a little about the quakes currently shaking the foundations of publishing houses in Toronto and New York and London. But Lauren Davis, apparently, hasn't been keeping up, thinking instead that the tremors are underground shifts, rumbling and bothersome, but nothing to be too concerned about. She doesn't understand that the emergence of self-publishing has come about for easy-to-trace reasons, having little to do with trendiness or vanity.

I'm rattling this off, it's late (or early), so I'll just post some of her thoughts (from the above links), then respond to them.

"Jonathan Bennett has written an interesting blog on the subject. In it he says, “self-publishing deletes an essential component in the writing of important literary work: time. If no one shelves a rejected novel anymore (indeed, if there no longer is such a thing as a rejected novel), if small presses all die because the do-it-yourself-craze makes them redundant, the world will have fewer great, even half-decent, works of literature. And we already have so few.”

I agree with Jonathan." -- Lauren Davis

Talk about your slippery slope, your faulty correlation, your hyperbole-for-status quo, and your incorrect blanket assumptions all rolled into one (Bennett's words).

First off, many self-published novels haven't been previously rejected by traditional publishers. For various reasons, some of which I'll no doubt touch upon later, today's author has bypassed the standard route altogether and plunked it on the various e-bookstores instead. Rejection, in this sense, then, isn't an issue. Secondly, traditonal publishers have an abysmal track record, in the aggregate, when it comes to smoking out talent and quality. No need to make a list here. But whatever the genre, there are countless examples of authors who have been rejected in no uncertain terms right out of the hopper, who have then re-submitted the work in question to another publisher (with perhaps further edits), and who have, through sheer persistence, anger, desperation, and back-breaking work, continued the merry-go-round, at last and fortunately to have another publisher (frequently of the small-press variety) see something in it and take a chance on putting it through the paces. So why is shelving a work after an initial thumbs-down verdict an automatically accepted judgement on its worth, or rather, lack thereof?

Secondly, small presses won't die because one hundred thousand crappy novels are self-published every year. I don't get the link here. If people are buying those "crappy" novels, they won't be for very long after they've been burned a few times. But since the percentage of novels sold digitally (among all novels sold, traditionally or otherwise) has increased year-by-year, it's safe to say that not all those novels are garbage. It's not just the traditionally published efforts, set to a digital version,  that readers are scooping up on their Kindles and Nooks. In fact, there are some fascinating stats coming out now that suggest the heavy-hitting authors will themselves be taking much of the near-future sales hit, one reason being that readers are fed up paying $15 dollars plus when the distribution, storage, production, and promotional costs have nosedived. Unless you're Stephen King, guess who's raking in the huge margin while keeping prices high? Why, it just may be the publishing conglomerate (among a few others) that employs Davis. (More on that in a bit.)

Bennett's last statement is hilarious in its insecurity and historical cluelessness. I'll cover that, too, in a bit, but the argument as it is assumes, then leaps out of its skin. The world will have fewer works of great literature, according to Bennett,  because a bunch of authors -- many of whom have transferred from traditional publishing (oops, they didn't note that, either) -- tossed their genre novels on to a platform in which the titles will most likely (a) be buried forever, or (b) be read by a few, then quickly forgotten, or (c) pick up steam slowly, as lone wolves emerge from the pack due to widespread word-of-mouth. In other words, the few successes, and all of the failures, will come about in the same ways, and for the same reasons, as they always have, no matter the transmission and technology. Bennett also claims that we have far too few great works of literature as it is. I don't know how he scours for quality, but I do just fine relying for the most part on former critics and reviewers who've made excellent judgements (again, in the aggregate) so that I don't have to sift through mountains of text -- digital- or pulp-based. Crap is rampant whatever road you take.

"And I know some people will say this is easy for me to say, publishing as I do with a large publishing house, getting nominated for awards and being a best-seller and all." -- Lauren Davis

Well, no harm in a little self-promotion, is there, especially as her book is just out. Speaking of promotion, that used to be the job of the publisher, so the writer could do what she was supposedly good at, writing, the job that Davis herself says, a bit later on, is what should take up the author's time instead. But even the big publishers are increasingly farming out their promotional department to the authors themselves. That's great if you like to travel, and read your work (hope you have a whack of grants or creative coverage on expenses), but not so great in reality for most authors, judging from the loud grumblings which ensue from the entire idea of public readings from novelists of their own latest works. There's also the increasing insistence from agents that authors create and maintain links with prospective readers through facebook/twitter/personal blogs. Apparently, the promotional responsibility transferred to authors is now so large -- due mainly to publishers' shrinking piece of the book pie -- that those pre-existing links the author brings with her or him is part of what factors in to whether or not many deals are cut in the first place. So much for Davis' vaunted insistence on quality of writing.

The firm that's published at least three of Davis' works is HarperCollins. That outfit has joined the ranks of the other too-big-to-fail conglomerates in providing a "leg up" to aspiring authors. The owner of HarperCollins also ministers West Bow Press, an offshoot which "helps" the beleaguered neophyte by separating him or her from copious greenbacks in return for getting the work out there. Oh, wait. That would be called a vanity press. Same as Author Solutions, the brainchild of Penguin (now apparently Penguin Random House -- it's hard to keep up, is it 2008 again?). At least self-publishers aren't forking over their money to these scams. But it must be nice being the supportive voice for one's employer, though the hypocrisy is just as shocking as the despicable terms from those players. Author Solutions: 30% of your profit raked from each book, in perpetuity, for their mechanical swipe in formatting and uploading them. Total person-hours -- less than one. (By the way, a few of those "too few great" writers started their careers with vanity presses, still others self-published. I'll let Davis and Bennett do some further research on it.)

OK, the birds are singing. More soon.


In other news, apologies to Mark Sampson and others. Day job and  various writing commitments have taken any time away from making  more commentary on James Joyce's Ulysses. Sorry about that. Too many bites, not enough chews, and all that.

1 comment:

Mark Sampson said...

No worries Brian. Looking forward to reading your additional thoughts on Ulysses whenever you get a chance to post them.