Sunday, April 10, 2011

More Bread and Circuses

An agent asked a question on her blog about why authors really wanted to go with traditional publishing in this day and age of easy access to self-publishing. Almost all of the answers were the same. Many writers wanted the resources (copy editing, marketing, promotion, covers, etc.) of traditional publishers, but most repeated reason was validation.

Self-publishing and traditional publishing have co-existed since the beginning. In the early days, an author went to a printer and paid him to typeset his work and many authors, or their spouses, as in the case of Virginia Woolf's husband, set up their own printing pressed and called themselves publishers. It was the only way to see their work in print.

As Barry Eisler said, getting an advance from a publisher is a short term, or long term, depending on the deal, loan against future advances and self-publishing, or indie publishing, means putting your own money up front. It's not for the faint-hearted. Then along comes Mark Coker with Smashwords and changes everything, offering a free publishing model, complete with do-it-yourself instructions, to publish your own work for free. Coker does offer some other services and allows cover artists, editors and proofreaders to advertise on the site (without recommendations)available for variable fees. This is far different from the vanity publishing model where ancillary services cost more, often a lot more. As I've said before, publishing in the 21st century is rapidly changing, and it's a change that agents and big publishers really don't want to see. Why? Perceived value.

If agents and publishers can continue to convince authors that their best and most accepted route to publication is through them, and that validation comes only with a big publisher and agent behind you, then indie publishing will always be marginalized and the authors diminished in the eyes they see in the mirror each morning.

On that same thread, I mentioned that Mark Twain was a self-published author and the agent responded that Twain's books were classics and had sold thousands, even millions, of books. She missed the point I was making to someone else on the thread that validation can come from indie publishing. Even her response to me that because Twain sold millions of books that made him valid and his work worth noticing. She has it backward.

When The Celestine Prophecy became a wildfire best seller, it wasn't due to a big publisher or an agents because several of both had rejected the book. It wasn't until the author James Redfield put his own money into the venture and sold thousands of copies before publishers and agents flocked to his door to offer their services. The same is true of Amanda Hocking and several other authors too numerous to mention. Redfield, Twain, Hocking and others validated their belief in themselves when they put their time and efforts, and even money, into getting their work before the public. The traditional publishing world just grabbed onto their coattails and came along for the ride.

The publishing world is full of such tales and I seriously doubt that scenario will ever change as long as publishers and agents hold the keys to what they keep touting as the kingdom of validation. It is in their interests to criticize indie publishing and the few who have made it and keep everyone's eyes focused on validation -- on being a real writer. They have no jobs and no product to sell if authors catch on that they can do the same thing themselves and do a better job, as is the case with some of the error-ridden books that have come out of publishing in the past few years, often with terrible covers and no marketing or promotion to speak of.

I am reminded of an old movie about a young man who took New York by storm with his debut novel. The movie was Youngblood Hawke, played by James Franciscus, who was a truck driver and took NYC by storm with his first novel. His book is optioned for a play by a has-been actress and Hawke becomes the toast of the town. His second book is an even bigger success but his third book bombs. What I remember about the movie is the part where the third book was published with bigger type and with generous margins to make the book seem bigger than it is; it's called cheating, and the critics caught on and mentioned it. Hawke eventually goes back to Kentucky to write another book and there the story ends.

In order to capitalize on sales of Hawke's previous books, the third book, which the publishers knew was not a winner, was given the treatment to make it look better than it was, but content always tells. A flashy cover, great end papers and gilding on the edges make a nice looking book, but it all comes down to the words. That is what publishers and agents don't really get. They give million-dollar deals to celebrities that are ghostwritten and hype the dickens out of them, riding the fickle tide of public interest that soon wanes, but they give the public nothing tangible. What they give the public is a modern version of bread and circuses. Is that validation? Is Snookie, the girl from The Jersey Shores who got punched in the face, really worth reading about? Does she have anything to say beyond what she's already said? Then why is she getting a million-dollar book deal when good writers are politely and thoroughly rejected? Because publishing is gambling that Snooki's book will earn back their advance.

Outside of the freak factor and celebrity mania, there is nothing of value to offer the public, except more of the same dreck. There are no interesting stories, no good writing and no validation for writers unless they prove themselves first. Snooki has proven that she can get people to look at her, but that's about all. An MTV teen mom is coming out with two books about herself, but from the ads, I doubt the book will be worth buying or reading. More bread and circuses.

Meanwhile, on the indie front, there are terrible writers who are slapping up any old thing on Smashwords and Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but that is nothing new. Garages, attics and dumps are full of boxes of vanity published books that never sold and were not worth publishing, but there are always vultures. With the new technology available and the bad taste left in the mouth of traditionally published midlist and best selling authors, they are flocking to do it themselves and reap the benefits, only one of which is money. They are seeking to be validated in their belief that good books written well and with professional covers and editing (yes, some of them actually do pay editors and artists) will sell -- and they do -- by the thousands. Indie publishing will find its level and there will be midlist writers and best sellers who emerge from the press and whose work will endure as long as Mark Twain's, or even beyond. They have the reins and they're not going to take their obligatory lap around the colisseum before fading into the sand.

Agents and publishers fear the technology and they fear the authors who are flocking to indie publishing to get a bigger share of the pie, but most of all to be validated. Agents and publishers will never go away, and maybe agents will turn their businesses into e-distributors, as Joe Konrath speculates, while publishers keep doing the same old things the same old way and expecting different results. I believe that is the definition of insanity.

Instead of taking a hint from the exodus of solid midlist writers who have earned millions of dollars over the course of their caareers, publishers will keep the focus on validation and the services they offer. It's true, they have hundreds of years of experience, nearly half a millennium, in knowing how to manipulate the public and authors to stay on top, and that may be changing. Publishing is sliding down the chute, but it isn't out. They have too much to lose and too much money invested in their monolithic businesses to quit. Whether they reinvent themselves or continue with business as usual is anybody's guess, but from what I read on the agent's blog, the belief that only traditional publishing can offer what an author values most, validation that what they have produced is worth publishing, will not change until more authors like Barry Eisler, Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking and even Mark Twain show them the way.

There is room for traditional and indie publishing without slinging mud and denigrating what the opponent has to offer. It's a matter of the bottom line, not the immediate value, but the long term bottom line, which is something traditional publishers never think about. Publishers and agents focus on the immediate bottom line, on immediate perceived value, but that will change.

If Mark Twain can do it, so can other authors, and I hope I'm one of them. It's not about how you got your book to the market and onto the shelves, but that you did and people picked them up, bought them and took them hold to read and then told their friends who told their friends who told their friends until people began to speak their name in whispers and then in shouts.

Publishing shouldn't be about bread and circuses, keeping the masses fed and entertained for the moment so they forget when they get home there is no bread and no more circuses. Publishing should be about bringing good books to the masses and feeding their souls and their minds, not just their bellies. Only time will tell which way the wind blows, but I'd say the wind from indie publishing that whispers validation is growing in strength and offers, as it has always offered, a different path to acceptance and success. Publishers seems to be more interested in EX-clusion than IN-clusion and that may be their downfall, or maybe it's just their dogma. The long term bet is on a mutually effective and useful co-existence with bread at the circus and at home. Keep your fingers crossed.

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