We’re a week away from our 40th Writer’s Conference Anniversary!! Can you believe it? And I’ve been thinking a lot about the present economy and its effect on writing in general, and publishing in specifics.
–I read the first-time CBE event in Dallas over the weekend was expecting 10,000 registrants and came in with less than a third of that! Is it just the economy?
–Amazon.com just came out with it’s second version of the Kindle making it possible to download and read any book out there. Will this cut into the publishing business? And the business of literary agents?
One of our Mount Hermon executive staff members cut an article out of the Time Magazine from February and gave it to me to read . . . I wonder what you’re thoughts are about it. Read it and think laterally for the future of writing! Willing to share your thoughts and creative ideas for the future of Writes Conferences?
Excerpts from an article in Time Magazine, February 2, 2009, pg. 71-73
Written by Lev Grossman and reported by Andrea Sachs.
“…The publishing industry is in distress. Publishing houses—among them Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—are laying off staff left and right. Random House is in the midst of a drastic reorganization. Salaries are frozen across the industry. Whispers of bankruptcy are fluttering around Borders; Barnes and Noble just cut 100 jobs at its headquarters, a measure unprecedented in the company’s history. Publishers Weekly (PW) predicts that 2009 will be “the worst year for publishing in decades.”
A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn’t dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it’s done. . . .
What’s the Matter with Publishing?
It isn’t the audience. People are still reading. According to a National Endowment for the Arts study released Jan. 12, literary reading by adults has actually increased 3.5% since 2002, the first such increase in 26 years. So that’s not the problem. What is?
The economy, obviously. Plenty of businesses are hurting . . . (but) publishing has deeper, more systemic problems, like the fact that its business model evolved during an earlier fiscal era. It’s an antique, a financial coelacanth (def. no real commercial value, apart from being coveted by museums and private collectors) that dates back to the Depression.
Consider the advance system, whereby a publisher pays an author a nonreturnable up-front fee for a book. If the book doesn’t “earn out,” in the industry parlance, the publisher simply eats the cost. Another example: publishers sell books to bookstores on a consignment system, which means the stores can return unsold books to publishers for a full refund. Publishers suck up the shipping costs both ways, plus the expense of printing and then pulping the merchandise. . . . These systems are created to shift risk away from authors and bookstores and onto publishers. But risk is something the publishing industry is less and less able to bear.
If you think about it, shipping physical books back and forth across the country is starting to seem pretty 20th century. Novels are getting restless, shrugging off their expensive papery husks and transmigrating digitally into other forms. Devices like the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle have gained devoted followings. Google has scanned more than 7 million books into its online database; the plan is to scan them all, every single one, within 10 years. Writers podcast their books and post them, chapter by chapter, on blogs. Four of the five best-selling novels in Japan in 2007 belonged to an entirely new literary form called keitai shosetsu: novels written, and read, on cell phones. Compared with the time and cost of replicating a digital file and shipping it around the world—i.e., zero and nothing—printing books on paper feels a little Paleolithic.
And speaking of advances, books are also leaving behind another kind of paper: money! Those cell-phone novels are generally written by amateurs and posted on free community websites, by the hundreds of thousands, with no expectation of payment. For the first time in modern history, novels are becoming detached from dollars. They’re circulating outside the economy that spawned them.
And there’s a staggering amount of fan fiction, fan-written stories based on fictional worlds and characters borrowed from popular culture—Star Trek, Jane Austen, Twilight, you name it. It qualifies as a literary form in its own right. Fanfiction.net hosts 386,490 short stories, novels and novellas in its Harry Potter section alone.
No printing and shipping. No advances. Maybe publishing will survive after all. Then again, if you can have publishing without paper and without money, why not publishing without publishers?
Vanity of Vanities, All Is Vanity
. . . It’s true. Saying you were a self-published author used to be like saying you were a self-taught brain surgeon. But it has begun to shed its stigma. Over the past couple of years, vanity publishing has become practically respectable. As the technical challenges have decreased—you can turn a Word document on your hard drive into a self-published novel on Amazon’s Kindle store in about five minutes—so has the stigma . . . . The fact that William P. Young’s The Shack was initially self-published hasn’t stopped it from spending 34 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Daniel Suarez, a software consultant in LA, sent his techno-thriller Daemon to 48 literary agents. No go. So he self-published instead. Bit by bit, bloggers got behind Daemon. Eventually Random House noticed and bought it and a sequel for a sum in the high six figures. “I really see a future in doing that,” Suarez says, “where agencies would monitor the performance of self-published books, in a sort of Darwinian selection process, and see what bubbles to the surface. I think of it as crowd-sourcing the manuscript-submission process.”
. . . And there’s actual demand for this stuff. In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print . . . but (self-publishing would suggest) that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn’t serving. We can read in the rise of self-publishing not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one—an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too.
The Orchard and the Jungle
So if the economic and technological changes of the 18th century gave rise to the modern novel, what’s the 21st century giving us? Well, we’ve gone from industrialized printing to electronic replication so cheap, fast and easy, it greases the skids of literary production to the point of frictionlessness. From a modern capitalist marketplace, we’ve moved to a postmodern, postcapitalist bazaar where money is increasingly optional. And in place of a newly minted literate middle class, we now have a global audience of billions, with a literacy rate of 82% and rising.
Put those pieces together, and the picture begins to resolve itself: more books, written and read by more people, often for little or no money, circulating in a wild diversity of forms, both physical and electronic, far outside the charmed circle of New York City’s entrenched publishing culture. Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.
Not that Old Publishing will disappear—for now, at least, it’s certainly the best way for authors to get the money and status they need to survive—but it will live on in a radically altered, symbiotic form as the small, pointy peak of a mighty pyramid. If readers want to pay for the old-school premium package, they can get their literature the old-fashioned way: carefully selected and edited, and presented in a bespoke, art-directed paper package. But below that there will be a vast continuum of other options: quickie print-on-demand editions and electronic editions for digital devises with a corresponding hierarchy of professional and amateur editorial selectiveness (Unpaid amateur editors have already hit the world of fan fiction, where they’re called beta readers.) The wide bottom of the pyramid will consist of a vast loamy layer of free, unedited, Web-only fiction, rated and ranked YouTube-style by the anonymous reading masses.
And what will that fiction look like? Like fan fiction, it will be ravenously referential and intertextual in ways that will strain copyright law to the breaking point. Novels will get longer—electronic books aren’t bound by physical constraints—and they’ll be patchable and updatable, like software. We’ll see more novels doled out sporadically, on the model of TV series or, for that matter, the serial novels of the 19th century. We can expect a literary culture of pleasure and immediate gratification. Reading on a screen speeds you up: you don’t linger on the language; you just click through. We’ll see less modernist-style difficulty and more romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative throughput. Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life.
None of this is good or bad; it just is. The books of the future may not meet all the conventional criteria for literary value that we have today, or any of them. But if that sounds alarming or tragic, go back and sample the righteous zeal with which people despised novels when they first arose. They thought novels were vulgar and immoral. And in a way they were, and that was what was great about them: they shocked and seduced people into new ways of thinking. These books will too. Somewhere out there is the self-publishing world’s answer to Defoe, and he’s probably selling books out of his trunk. But he won’t be for long.”
There you have it from the secular side of things. I’m not an alarmist, but this had made me do a lot of thinking. I’d love to know what you think about the future of publishing?
- Is this writer accurate in his analysis?
- How does this affect your own writing?
- How does this affect Writers Conferences as we know them?
I’d love to “pick your brain” on this whole subject. Looking forward to interacting with you . . . on the Web, of course!