18 March 2011

No More Harper Lees

I was going to comment on Fweem's post on the dismal economics of book publishing, but then it led me to Nathan Bransford's blog, and to this post on self-publishing ebooks, based on this post by author Amanda Hocking. Read at least the Bransford post and comments. This is the future happening before our eyes.

The music industry had no idea that the iPod and iTunes signaled an apocalypse for their business, even if at the same time it was making them money. Publishers probably are not as naive, and would surely kill ebook readers if they could. But they can't, and while publishers are already reeling, they are barely beginning to feel the mighty contraction and redistribution that ebooks will cause to their industry.

Ebook readers turn every work of literature into a blog post, the perceived value of which is zero. Anyone can publish a blog post, and anyone can publish an ebook. Publishers can still provide editing and marketing for the author, and more invaluably, filters for readers. Readers will be willing to pay a certain amount for the benefit of these services. But when publishers are puzzled as to why readers undervalue the very costly business of publishing (my own business), which they love to explain, they need to look at Hocking, shut up, and get to work reinventing themselves around new paradigms.

When one hardworking, mid-grade author like Hocking can sell 450,000 copies of her ebook in one month, without a publisher, the publishers' business paradigm and grasp on the market has just been smashed. It shows that an author can do it all herself and succeed in a big way. Are they scared? Terrified. Hocking says modestly, "[N]o publisher is afraid of me. That's just silly. I'm one girl who wrote a couple books that are selling well. That doesn't scare them - they just want to be a part of it, the same way they want to be a part of any best seller."

If I were a for-profit publisher, I would only be publishing work by authors with established online/ebook audiences. An audience is an audience, and it is the only thing a book needs to succeed. While some authors still believe self-publishing is debasing, that's old thinking, and irrational. I can foresee a day when publishers will be loath to publish anyone who does not already have a digital reader base. Building that base clearly requires quantity, at least moderate quality, and relentless self-promotion. Any shy author with just one great book in them will probably never be heard above the din. I hate the fact that there will be no more Harper Lees, but you read it here first: There will be no more Harper Lees.


Mister Fweem said...

I think the worst part of the future of books combines in the lack of professional editing and in the collapse of filters.

Moderns counter that argument with: "Well, I've read some poorly-edited books and some really crappy books, so the current editing and filtering we've got isn't working all that great."

I'd agree with that -- but as you say the professional editing and filtering of most e-books is nonexistent, so how are things getting any better? (The best-edited e-books out there started in the traditional printed-book realm.)

I'm afraid the future of publishing is going to go the way of journalism. Michelle got a post from one of her masters professors who says there's a new prof of journalism at USU working on helping the students make the transition from print to web, and who also advocates that they take on journalism as a hobby rather than as a profession. I'm worried in the future I'll be looking for a "hobbyist" editor. Or maybe I'll be one of those hobbyist editors. And they definitely will be looking for authors who are doing their own marketing.

No more Harper Lees? I hope not, but I believe you're right.

carl g said...

Hocking discusses how terribly difficult it is for her to secure good editing. It's murder. I know a dozen or so copy editors personally, but only two will do what I call substantive editing (improve your writing). Both are very difficult people to work with, and only one is really gifted. He's also a chaired professor of law who attended Oxford on a Fullbright. Not someone you can just hire to help you. I sometimes assist my authors with substantive editing, but I hate it, am not good at it, and find it supremely exhausting. We employ five copy editors, but all they do is conform to style, proof, and do layouts. My impression is that most other publishers in our tier do not do much more, and even at that, everyone is cutting editors. It's by far the largest expense in publishing.

I think all authors have no choice but learn to edit their own work, and trade edits for edits. Publishers can only afford to take on work that is just "promising" during fat times. No more of those.

Anyway, I'll join your circle of proofers, if that is ever useful to you. It's the one editorial task I'm solidly decent at. I almost always take last read for our publications.