What if we lived in Utopia? What if every book in the marketplace was a great book? What if, the editorial gate-keeping process ensured that every book regardless of genre, whether it was fiction or non-fiction, self-help or sheer escapism, met all the critical criteria of ‘a great book?’ What if no one who bought one felt ripped off, or disappointed, or let down in any way? What if nice, safe profit margins were just assigned to publishers, and so they could even take a few risks, and publish books they loved but thought maybe wouldn’t sell too well?
Is it even possible? What makes a great book on diamond cutting might not be too interesting to some readers. Reading Tolkien might not be very suitable for an apprentice diamond cutter who just wants to learn his trade. It would be useless. Surely, we would have the wit to choose our own book purchases from a long list of titles in every category imaginable.
It seems evident that in a world where all books were somehow created equally well, none could really stand out above the crowd, yet genre-preferences would enable some to enjoy greater financial success than other, equally good books. There are far fewer readers who actually want to read a book on diamond cutting. Lots of people want to read fiction, including fantasies like ‘The Hobbit.’ Would it be necessary to review books, or couldn’t we just stick our hand in a bin labeled ‘fantasy,’ and pull out something equally good, every time, on the very first try? How would all equally good books be priced? Shouldn’t all hard cover titles cost the same, and wouldn’t all trade books in a certain size be the same price? It’s only fair, right? They’re all ‘equally-good,’ right? Ebooks, where there are no material costs, would be equally priced—and cut right to the bone…right?
(Would this impair or promote ‘competition?’ Amongst whom, the publishers, or the writers?) *
If every aspiring writer had to compete in the big leagues, going up against Jonathan Swift or ‘Doctor Zhivago,’ or ‘War and Peace’ their first time up to the plate, or if any brand-new non-fiction writer had to go up against ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,’ or maybe Winston Churchill, how would they do? You would be up against people who had first-hand knowledge and had lived the story.
They’d probably strike out, three times in a row, and they’d never get another ‘at-bat’ until hell froze over. That’s because there is a ‘glut’ of aspiring writers. The majority have little or no training, just a desire. In some cases, there is the desire to learn, in some perhaps not. We also have no experience. None. Not until we’ve done it a few times. It’s not enough to serve in the trenches to pay our dues. We have to go ‘over the top’ once or twice, taking the battle into the enemy’s camp. Only then do we know what it’s all about.
The good news is that all the rules of the game changed recently due to the rise of a newer technology, and new methods of publishing our work. We don’t have to take on Tolstoy or Voltaire our first time up to the plate. We don’t have to pursue agents and publishers for fifteen years or more until we get noticed. While some would argue that Amazon is itself a kind of vanity publishing, we can avoid the traditional vanity predators that still dot the landscape. Hey! We don’t even have to spend money on postage, ink and envelopes. This will not make things any easier. It’s just different from the way it was before. The playing field has been leveled and it is a sea of anonymous, hungry, and unwashed faces. The towers that dot the landscape are now isolated, cut of from water and sources of supply, and heavily outnumbered. They cannot withstand long years of siege.
There has always been independent publishing. Take a pdf on a CD and go to a local printer. Get an estimate. Get some books printed. There has always been vanity publishing. Take a CD and go to a vanity publisher. Hand them the file and a cheque. If this was the extent of the business plan, it generally failed. The difference is that now it is easy, and it is also free. The game is open to anyone who fancies themselves as a writer. Now, my plan involves slow but steady growth over the long term. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not going to make any headlines, but to rely on an instant bestseller is infantile.
The world of business, mean and arbitrary, Darwinian as it is, evolves constantly. We either evolve with it, or we will be consumed by it. Over the short term, I just need to learn my new environment, to discover and adapt its resources to my needs.
For those with the right attitude, this represents the opportunity of a lifetime. For others, it represents a big survival challenge. If competition improves the breed, then we must assume the survivors, better yet, those who thrive, to be the fittest, the smartest and the fastest when it comes to meeting those challenges. They will be those with adaptable skills and staying power. They will endure. One of their challenges is the writing of a good book. It goes with the territory.
It looks like those authors who learned their trade by the old model might still have some advantages. This is only true in the short term. They have a following, an audience. But they also have to learn a few new tricks, or they simply won’t survive. They might have to forgo the safety net that a major publisher has always provided. This was something that aspiring writers always prayed for. An agent. An editor. A proofreader and a typesetter, and a cover designer, a few good marketing and promotions people. Some of this old infrastructure will have to adapt, or perish.
We will have to learn the basics of promotion, in a new, online environment. Independents will have to look, for the most part, to the readers for their validation. In an industry which is in some small part fueled by vanity—hence all the vanity predators—there must also be some massive insecurities. This sometimes manifests itself in a sense of moral outrage. To think that some anonymous, hungry and unwashed person would engage in that most anti-social of all activities, the writing of a book, and try to compete with the big boys…well, it’s just wrong. And all the wrong sort of people want to do it. The book is the most revolutionary tool I can think of in terms of human evolution. Hell, even business evolution. I guess you could say they just don’t like it. They don’t want to be our colleagues, and maybe they don’t have to.
It is a free country, after all, or about the closest we have ever come to Utopia.
Please feel free to contribute a comment or observation to this piece.
*Does war impair, or promote, commerce? If you can answer this question, you are a hell of a lot smarter than I am. Anyway, you probably just got it out of some classic and well-regarded old book, written by some brash young feller who was considered a ‘radical’ for his time and place.