Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The End of Feudaism

Insight often comes from strange places. At least it does for me.

I was watching Cranford and one of the characters, Lady Ludlow, was opposed to young Harry being taught to read and write. She didn't want to end up like her cousins across the channel in France with her head lying in a revolutionary's basket beneath a guillotine because she had allowed her serfs, or retainers, to learn to read and realize they could have a better life with an education. Slaves, serfs, peons, and servants who could read could topple her from playing Lady Largesse, the magnanimous and gentle tyrant that allowed then to work for her for tuppence and have regular meals, wear nice clothes, and wait to serve her at her pleasure -- or be dismissed to a life of poverty without a reference.

Of course, all of this is going on in my head in about 2 seconds and I realized how much like feudalism is publishing, especially now that the masses who want to publish their own books have gained control of the presses --  virtual and real. How the aristocracy must have cringed when the printing press became a reality and religious institutions no longer had to illuminate manuscripts and keep safe the written word, often for monarchs and landed gentry that couldn't read. They had servants to do that sort of thing in the good old days.

As books became cheaper and easily available, revolutions began. The Catholic church, once a nearly global power and anxious to convert newly discovered savages to the worship of the Trinity and Jesus Christ, began to topple as people learned to read and question the status quo. Why should the clergy be the last word on who does and does not go to heaven? Why should the poor pay the wealthy to pray for their souls and sell candles to light so a loved one would spend little time in purgatory and ascend to heaven?

Feudalism is built on the backs of the working classes, the serfs, peons, and slaves, a lesson that Rome learned at the point of a sword when Spartacus, and several other slave leaders, rose and threw off their chains. Even when a slave is treated well, he remains a slave, the person who does all the work and gets none, or few, of the benefits. How is that different from publishing? Oh, that's right. It is no different.

Publishing has been the gatekeeper for centuries, built on the words and hard work of every person who ever wanted to write a book and was found worthwhile to promote. It's much like allowing a slave to serve in the main house instead of in the fields, as long as the slave learned his place -- beholden to the whims of his master.

Publishing is feudalistic. Think not? The feudal system is based on a 3-tiered pyramid. A lord, king, or ruler is at the top and determines the fate of everyone beneath him. Knights, mercenaries, and retainers keep the peace and protect the lord. Serfs, servants, and peons, the poor working class, do all the work and tend the land, livestock, and businesses that supply the lord; they are the base of the pyramid, without which the lord would be a deluded aristocrat ruling nothing and unable to work for his bread or even know how to mill and bake it into cake or bread.

In publishing, the publishers are the lords. Agents are the knights, the strong arm of the lord that protect the publisher's business and vet the more acceptable serfs (writers) to work as servants to the publisher, those chosen from among the poor who have some talent and ability that can be exploited to make more money for the publisher. And then there are the remaining slaves/serfs who buy the books produced by the servants for the publishers and pay for the lavish lifestyle to which the publishers have become so accustomed. Better to live on Park Avenue with a view of the park than to live in Alphabet City or Harlem among the poor.

Contracts that keep the lion's share of earnings in publishers's pockets so they can maintain their vast wealth polished and intact, are part of the chains that bind the writer in servitude. There are certainly writers that have made millions, even hundreds of billions, but who has stopped to ask how much the publisher made on the deal. If a writer is worth $200 billion and they get 12-15% royalties on net profit, what the publisher keeps is an obscene amount of money, even after they pay employees, marketing staff, and the cost of creating books, something much more profitable since the advent of pulp wood paper instead of the more expensive and longer lasting rag and hemp paper. Paper that crumbles and turns to dust in 5 years means selling more copies as readers replace worn out books. More books means more sales and more profit for the publisher, most of which the writer will never see.

With the introduction of POD (Print On Demand) publishing and electronic books, the game changed. Publishers continued to denigrate the vanity presses, but e-books changed things forever. A book that never goes out of style, takes up no warehouse space, and can be kept virtually forever undermines the whole structure upon which publishing was built. Writers finally had control and could strike out on their own and rise above the masses by writing and selling good books that had a shelf life beyond 3 months. No more remaindering. No more binding contracts to greedy publishers. No more supporting someone else's lavish lifestyle when a lavish lifestyle, or at least publication of books publishers turned down. The gatekeepers are out of a job, which is why publishers and Apple decided to fix prices on e-books at near or above the cost of paperback books. If a paperback book is cheaper or the hardback, when discounted, was not much more expensive, then books were safe and the e-book revolution would go away. Writers would get tired of doing all the work of producing a book, from cover art to marketing and sales. I'm sure the aristocrats felt the same way before the French revolutionaries arrested and led them up to Lady Guillotine. Look where it got them.

The revolution has come and the class war between the people who produce the books -- writers -- and the people who have profited the most from books -- publishers -- are at war. What we need is a truce and a coalition of forces that benefits everyone, just not with the 90/10 split that has ruled publishing for so long, or 88/12 split that currently passes for business as usual. Not everyone is J. K. Rowling or Danielle Steel. Most people have been relegated to the middle ranks, writers that produced good quality books in genres that sold well, but not spectacularly, the mid list writers that have been the bread and butter of the publishing industry, writers that never got fabulously wealthy but were upper middle class with a solid back list that still sold books decades after they were published.

Instead of struggling to the bitter end, publishers would be better served to give a hand up and offer their services as book packagers, marketing specialists, and sales teams to up and coming writers instead of trying to maintain a crumbling edifice. Publishers have vast resources that could benefit revolutionaries without all the rancor, price fixing, and game playing that currently exists. It's a choice of adapting or dying, and dying is a distinct option right now as more and more published authors are fleeing publishers for more lucrative deals that offer better benefits and more freedom creatively and financially. It's the choice of 12-15% or 35-70% of sales, and not net sales but gross sales.

The class war is waging with no end in sight. Emotions are high and at this point the results are volatile. Better to work with writers, those hard working people who dream in prose and are the only reason for publishers to exist, than to fight to maintain a system that no longer works.

The slaves, serfs, and servants have learned how to read. They have educated themselves and now know the score. I wonder if publishers have gotten the message yet or if they are still in denial as they climb the stairs to the guillotine while the masses surrounding them howl for blood and their heads.

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