Actually, I’m uncomfortable with the term epiphany. Maybe it’s the religious overtones. Seems like every time some guy has an epiphany, next thing you know he’s proposing some kind of fresh hell in god’s name. It’s all voices in the night telling some shmuck to haul his kid off and slit his throat, bright lights and falling off horses, angels in the backwoods whispering the location of secret golden tablets into the ears of convicted fraudsters, or science fiction hacks suddenly divining the extraterrestrial thetan nature of all man’s ills. Always sounds more like an epileptic fit attendant to a psychotic break than a revelation. Either that, or it’s just some sharp operator spotting a new and vulnerable corner of the cultural psyche that looks like fertile ground for farming the next crop of tithes.
Epiphany has that air of divine imprimatur to it that doesn’t allow for dissent. So god hasn’t been talking to me about publishing.
I guess this was more of a thought, but it was a thought that pretty much put my mind at rest on this whole self-publishing or indie-publishing versus traditional publishing/e-book versus paper book/what’s the future of publishing/oh my god, are we’re all screwed or is this the dawn of a brave new era brouhaha that’s the dominant topic of discussion whenever writers gather in our benighted little crannies on the interwebs.
I realized it doesn’t matter. The market matters. And I should have known better than to think otherwise. For every good or service that mankind has ever offered in any culture anywhere since the dawn of time the single force that determines which products succeed is the public appetite for their consumption. You can even make something illegal – look at prohibition or consider the research that shows that marijuana is America’s largest cash crop – and if people want it, it will still sell. If they don’t, it won’t.
A quick scan of the web tells me this. For better than a year now, Amazon, the 800-pound gorilla of book sellers, has sold more e-books than paper books. Keep in mind that Amazon didn’t even start offering the Kindle until 2007 and you can see where that trend is headed. It took e-books less than five years to supplant a paper book model that has been around for centuries as the preferred delivery vehicle for reading products, at least at the nation’s leading bookseller.
That’s not a judgment on the superiority of one model over the other, it’s just a fact. Stand in front of me with two versions of the same book, a Kindle in one hand and physical copy in the other, and I’ll take the paper book every time. Yet I’ve bought e-books that were available as paper books, and more than once. Because you usually aren’t standing in front of me. Usually, I’m getting ready for my nightly bath-time read and I realize I’m out of books, or I have a sudden impulse to read some new title I just saw on line, and it’s after ten and all the book stores are closed and the nearest one is better than ten miles away now anyhow, so the Kindle, it’s just too damn convenient.
The market has spoken. And, unlike epiphanies, the market is real.
But the transition to e-books also eliminated the single greatest barrier to entry in publishing – the considerable cost of printing, binding, shipping, storing and retailing books. In an eye blink of commercial history, almost all the cost of publishing has been wiped out.
Amazon was the first to realize that and capitalize on it – to look at the whole publishing paradigm and realize that the product wasn’t the pages themselves, but the words on them. To understand that publishers don’t manufacture the words, they distribute them. And to identify traditional publishers as the middleman in that process.
So Amazon, looking as businesses will for a way to solidify its vendor relationships and to cut out the middleman, offered the manufacturers (that’s us, fellow writers) direct access to a distribution channel with no middle man. Because, having transitioned from a high-cost printed delivery channel to an almost no-cost virtual delivery channel, Amazon assumes little or no risk on any book that any writer chooses to push through their system. Even if it’s a piece of crap. Even if the writer’s only going to sell one copy, to his mother. Hell, most people have a sibling or two, a few friends anyway. Amazon’s gotta figure that even the most egregious piece of shit that flows through its pipe is likely to cover its costs.
We writers do all the work. We have to format the books, design the covers, write our own catalog copy, stock our own shelves. We’re manufacturers plus. For Amazon, it’s well worth the risk to push out everything that’s offered because it’s a numbers game, and the bigger the number the better. A vastly increased product line with virtually no attendant risk and the opportunity to manipulate that distribution channel through things like the KDP Select program to cut all possible competitors off from a big chunk of their manufacturing capacity? That’s a no brainer.
Getting mad at Amazon for understanding that and being successful at it doesn’t make sense. Getting mad at the market? I understand the impulse when I consider the public appetite for the Kardashians and Vince Flynn novels, but the market doesn’t care.
Still, something was eating at me. The crap-through-the-pipe thing was eating at me. The idea that every asshole out there could now call himself an author. That gatekeeper shit the self-pub crowd likes to whine about? I’d gotten past a big gate – I’d signed with an agent. A reputable agent. An agent with proven editorial judgment who used to be an editor at one of the major publishing houses. An agent that’s sold an impressive number of books into the traditional system. And now any dickhead in East Bumblefuck with an internet connection and a few thousand words on his hard drive has the same right to call himself an author that I do? Pissed me off.
But the market tends to sort things out. Sure, now there are hundreds of thousands of titles on Amazon. And yeah, sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to wade through that and find something worth reading. But, when I look at the bestseller lists, guess what? Most of the books up there are still coming out of traditional publishing. Why? Because they tend to be better books. I’m not saying there aren’t or shouldn’t be exceptions. One upside of this new world is that some damn good authors who had not managed to break in through the old systems have found an audience. But they have because quality, in the end, wins.
One caveat to this best-seller list thought. I discount the titles that have jumped to the top of the pile because they’re free. Maybe I’m a snob, or maybe it’s my own revulsion at the idea of giving away work, but I won’t click on anything that’s free, won’t even open the link to read the description. If it stays up there for a few days after the free wears off, demonstrates that it has some merit beyond its freeness, then I’ll take a peek. I don’t mind paying. Fact is, I prefer paying. No writer should have to show his ass like that.
Keep in mind, too, that this is a brave new world, and that there is still a lot of money to be made in this business. Everyone’s worried that Amazon is developing some kind of permanent and unbreakable stranglehold on the entire writing universe. That resistance is futile. That, after they’ve assimilated every other bookseller, squashed the pathetic remnants of the traditional publishing resistance, they will then turn their attentions to us writers, shackling us to some foul new yoke that will have us doing more and more for them for less and less, reducing us to slaves in their word mines.
But we’re still the manufacturers. They can create all the retail models they like, drive every inefficiency out of distribution, but without us, they have no product, at least not on the book side of their business. Even as we speak, somebody is looking at this money machine that Amazon has created and is thinking they want a piece of that. Traditional publishers are trying to reposition themselves to survive in this environment. And somebody, probably at least a few folk, will come up with a competing model that works. I don’t know what that model will be. I don’t have to. I just have to look at the history of human enterprise and the inevitable emergence of competition to know it’s going to happen. And probably soon. You got a problem with Amazon? Start building a better mousetrap. When it’s ready, we writers? Offer us the right cheese and we’ll show up.
So, my crap-through-the-pipe problem? My sharing the “author” name with the unworthy problem? As Marcellus Wallace could have told me, that’s pride fucking with me. Not that I shouldn’t have pride, but it has to be pride in the work, not in my title. Let any dickhead out there who wants to call himself an author. I’ll focus on being a good one and trust that, when I’m good enough, there will always be a viable market.
If I spend my time focused on that and not worrying about all this other shit, everything will be just fine.