Friday, September 3, 2010

The Uneasy Future of Our Art

It is a turbulent time for the publishing industry and everyone involved (even in the periphery) are perking up their ears and paying attention to the goings on.

Barnes & Noble recently put themselves up for sale. Borders is floundering. Amazon is touting that e-book sales have surpassed sales of hardcover books for the first time ever. Dorchester Publishing just announced that they will no longer be publishing mass market paperbacks and will now be pursuing an e-book distribution model. (Dorchester has called this move a “transition” in its press release but, with the suddenness of this move and the speed with which they have let their editorial staff go, the 2 week knee-jerk reaction could only be called a “transition” as much as an abortion could.)

With all that’s going on in the industry, it’s easy to understand why a lot of people have begun to cry “the end is nigh!” and we are on the precipice of the end of publishing as we know it. I, personally, don’t think that’s true and I think it’s inflammatory and ill-informed to say so.

We are at a precipice, I’ll agree. But it’s not so high up and it’s not so scary. Up until now, the creation of content (words, thoughts, ideas, books, etc) has always been controlled by a select few (publishing houses) and then released into the public. This has always led to a bottleneck for creative works (as I see it) as there has always been a percentage of the target audience (you and me) whose prose probably is as good (or sometimes better) than what the publishing houses has let out into the world. However, the literary gatekeepers of the world have decided (for one reason or another) that those works were not good enough for the public. The Small Press helped in this regard somewhat, but not to a great extent. While we've all been introduced to some previously unknown talent by one small press publisher or another, the impact of these has vastly been unfelt, unfortunately.

Our industry (book publishing, specifically) is in a transition period. We are about to enter an era where the content (books, music, etc) will be produced by many, available to all and it will be up to the audience to determine whether what has been produced is good or not. Those novels that are good (even if self-published through such places as smashwords or lulu) will find an audience. Word-of-mouth will happen, no matter what. It’s just what we do as humans. People love to tell other people about the books they are reading or the newest band they just found. You can't get through a lunch with friends without hearing the phrase "Oh! You know what I just read?" or "You have GOT to hear this band!"

As a matter of fact, the publishing industry is going through the same growing pains the music industry did a few years ago. The process might look a little different and it may, in fact, scare the hell out of a lot of people, but don’t worry. We’ll get through it.

Digital content was a new and scary world for the music industry not so long ago. And what happened to them? They created new business models to work with the changing tastes of its audience and success is now being had. Since they can’t make as much money on albums, songs, etc, they are now getting more involved in merchandising and publishing: things they weren’t too interested in before, help their business models now. We, as an industry, simply have to do the same thing. Get through this transition period and find the business model that ensures success. We’ll get there, eventually.

In the near future, there are going to be more and more books published by authors who have decided that “Hey, I can publish an e-book!”. Some of those are going to be good. Real good. (One of my favorite novels of all time is DEAD IN THE WEST by Joe Lansdale, originally published by Space & Time. While not the true definition of self-published, you simply CANNOT tell me that Gordon Linzner (Editor Emeretus of Space & Time) had the same resources as, say, HarperCollins. It just ain’t true! I wish he did!) And some of those self-published books are just gonna stink. Really bad. Like an Oldsmobile after Mischief Night.

It’s really an exciting time, if you think about it. You are going to see more and more already established authors turn to the new medium and use it to their advantage. At the same time, you’re going to see new and unpublished authors start to dip their toe in the publishing ocean the same way. Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails and How To Destroy Angels) has a great model for using digital content to further interest in his work.

His new project, How to Destroy Angels, released an EP in July for free. 6 songs for you to listen to and get to know the new sound. If you dig it, he’s expecting you’ll pony up the cash for the LP when it comes out in 2011. In his words in this video, “I gave this EP of the new band away because it wasn’t a huge work … It was kind of an introduction. A sampler.”

An up-and-coming author can apply this kind of logic to publishing, as well. An unpublished author could effectively publish older (but still good—we still have to have some editorial credit—you can’t publish crap and expect it to sell. Okay, maybe you can) works and start to generate interest and create a brand name for themselves by publishing solid, mid-list works. If they do this through a service like smashwords, then they are able to do it profitably, as well.

You are about to see an explosion of artistry, my friends. We are on the edge of a tidal wave of output the likes of which has never before been seen. It will soon be easier to get books than ever before -- buying them in a blink of a digital eye mere hours after the author/editor has proofed their work.

Imagine how cool that could be.


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