Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Will digital publishing kill great writing?

Will the rise of digital publishing kill great writing?

No. It will only change the way it is delivered. In the same way a syringe is a delivery system for a vaccine, and a cigarette is a delivery system for a shot of nicotine, ‘the book’ is a delivery system for words. This process works in fiction and non-fiction, how-to and tell-alls, or an instruction manual for the new computerized, digital-interface washing machine.

Will the rise of self-publishing destroy major publishing houses?

Yes and no. It will force them to change their practices. Those that fail will fail because they failed to see the trend, and failed to adapt to new technologies. The same houses are still troves of intellectual property. Those properties are assets. They're 'properties,' and someone will buy the company or some of its assets and make use of them. Michael Jackson bought $47.5 million worth of old rights. He bought Sony/ATV music, who owned some Beatles song-rights. The company itself, we must assume, was on sale for some reason or other. (Not an apt term, but you get the idea.)

Whatever you thought of Michael as a person, that might have been a savvy business move, as those rights have now been valued at anywhere from $390 million to One Billion Dollars.

According to sources like Dean Wesley Smith, major publishers are wholly or partly owned subsidiaries of other corporations. What this means is that one division might be making money and another division losing money. When a limb rots, it is cut off and left to wither and die. This saves the rest of the organism. The word corporation derives from the Latin, ‘corpus,’ or body. It is a fairly good analogy.

When a late-night news parody host interviews a hot author, holding up their book in front of the cameras and touting it like any sidewalk shill in front of the carnival, I assume that nine times out of ten or greater that book is produced by an arm of the same corporation. This sort of thing is not going to go away.

Will self-publishing destroy the book?

No, it will only change the existing power structures. Insofar as they may adapt, and have every right to do so under current laws, the survivors may even come out of this in a stronger position.

Will Amazon destroy major publishing? No, it will become it, with a small coterie of other publishers who have little choice but to sell their books on Amazon. Because it is either that, or compete directly against them. Barnes & Noble may survive on the strength of a $300 million investment by Microsoft, with some probability of further funding to come. Microsoft won’t want to see its original investment go down the tubes, and with Apple a player in the game, with their very popular iTunes store, it probably was a no-brainer for them. I don’t think they can sit out of the game.

Also, Google has some interest in e-books, with their own war chest to work with, (presumably.)

If a half a dozen corporate entities wanted to each throw $50 million in a pot, they could theoretically start up a new company, one designed from the outset to compete with all the major players presently on scene. This is one reason why Amazon and other booksellers have their own publishing imprints. They would like to sew up as many intellectual properties as they can.

It’s all about grabbing market share, never mind what street-corner blog pundits have to say about quality or ‘gate-keeping.’ I’m trying to grab a teensy-weensy little bit of market share myself.

What does this mean for the average writer?

That’s a good question. No one really knows, but we can speculate endlessly. In the short term, I see fewer openings for new authors at most major houses, this is due to short cash flow and high costs for the most part. It’s not that they wouldn’t like bigger acquisitions budgets, far from it.

The opportunities for those willing and able to go it alone are limitless, and in fact things have never been better for the self-directed entrepreneurial sort of a writer. The world is your oyster, what are you going to make of it? Most of us don’t have that much drive and vision. In many ways, we still prefer to give things up so someone will look after us. This type of thinking won’t go away quickly, if it ever will. New answers will be found, from the vanity publisher who takes advantage of the idea that throwing money at it somehow guarantees success, to the people who simply don’t want to learn formatting so they pay $100.00 for someone else to do it. But safety nets always had to be bought and paid for one way or another.

In the long term, there may be fewer titles published by major houses. This is because of the risky nature of the investment. Those titles may go through an even more rigourous screening and editing process, but I think not. I think cost-cutting and speed of process will come to dominate as they try to adapt. This is not a moral judgment, I do the same thing myself.

In ten to fifteen years over ninety percent of publishing will be digital. We will look back and wonder at all the fuss that was made over the death of a business model that was clearly outmoded and had outlived any further usefulness.

This is particularly poignant in Canada, where taxpayers will continue to subsidize traditional publishers in order to prop up the pulp and paper industry, which creates relatively high-paying jobs for relatively unskilled people. Governments always take a short-term, expedient view of any situation. In a similar vein, provincial cultural grants will die a slow death, but then they have virtually no relevance as far as writing books in this modern era. Some say they never did.

They are almost entirely political patronage of the bourgeois, (I say that because people on disability are protected by law from receiving any benefit from them,) but the smoke and mirror artists have always been in the business of promoting mediocrity. They deeply fear anyone with any spirit at all. I’ve written all kinds of books without a penny of public support, other than a very small pension which any citizen is entitled to receive. For the most part, with rare exceptions, the books produced by the provision of cultural grants do not go on to become popular best-sellers. They are prime examples of vanity publishing at its worst, and for all the wrong reasons: pandering to the uptight sensibilities of the middle class. They believe that ‘literature is sacred,’ or some such ilk. These tools of literacy must be prevented from falling into the hands of the wrong sort of people—poor people, although they will never express it in exactly those terms.

The most important part of any book produced via a cultural grant is the part where the author(s) thank the government for the support, ‘without which this book could not have been written.’

Some of them do win awards, and are highly-praised by critics. Unfortunately, no one can remember their names or what they were about.

Will self-publishing destroy editing, the English language, or make profound changes happen in our nation?

In a recent unscientific poll conducted by Shalako Publishing on Kindle Boards, over ninety percent of respondents indicated they had a college or university education. In answer to your question, “I sure hope so, but I have my doubts.”

If publishing is in a state of transition from one mode to the next, so is the craft and business of writing. As Smashwords founder Mark Coker says, ‘Writers are going to have to become better publishers.”

According to the article, under the previous model, 0.5 percent of authors would receive the support of a traditional, professional publisher. For the other 99.5 percent, it simply didn’t matter except for making the usual submission where you submit the first three chapters or write a proposal.

All of that has now changed as well, hasn’t it? In my opinion, the rise of digital publishing will not diminish the pool of talent or make life easy for lazy and untalented people. What will surely happen, now that we have the opportunity, is that hard-working, talented authors who otherwise wouldn’t be getting a shot at it now have a fighting chance of succeeding on their own.

Overall, taken as a trend, the quality of writing and of books and stories in general will actually go up. That’s because of the increased competition in a marketplace which is only going to get so big so fast.

Considering the stultifying attitudes of some commentators, who constantly make anonymous complaints about books 'riddled with typos,' change is both welcome and necessary. This is a great time to be alive, especially if you enjoy writing and cherish your independence.

Your fate is in your own hands, which is just where it ought to be.

Obscure Notes:

A book is composed of words, and using ‘phonetic literacy,’ the arbitrary symbols link together in a hierarchical system of building blocks to tell a story or impart information. Phonetic literacy allows more precision of expression compared to hieroglyphics or picture-writing. Any philosopher will tell you that they are trying to define their terms with ever-greater precision. That’s because without writing as we know it, philosophy, ‘all of which since the dawn of time is not worth a moment’s trouble,’ as someone once put it, is simply impossible to express without the gift of written language.


  1. The change in publishing has been wrenching for the more mature person. It is difficult to adapt, but it has been necessary. Good article.

  2. Thank you, Mari, for your kind words. In some ways, it is hard to know what to do--submit to a traditional publisher or simply publish it ourself and take our chances. I do both, and when I get a short story published, it does give some 'validation.' It's easy to be overwhelmed by long-time industry observers, steeped in the traditions. They are selling a point of view, (just as I am,) and quite frankly some of them are either confused or players themselves.

  3. Good post, Louis.

    Just a heads up--"on the nature of the Gods" is a 404 page at glitchy old Amazon.

  4. Hi, Shelley. Thanks for the heads-up. I unpublished it while awaiting results of human formatting review at Smashwords. This is better than distributing copies with formatting errors. The book should be available in the next 24 hours or so. I apologize for any inconvenience.


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