A Golden Age Of Publishing?
Is this a golden age for publishing? I would answer with this statement:
In the past eight years, Amazon and the Kindle (and other ebook platforms) have done more for readers and writers than traditional publishing has in the last thirty.
For writers, the biggest challenge in getting published has always been the vast power differential between new writers and publishers. This phenomenon was easily noticeable. Writers’ message boards and writers’ websites were full of discussions about how to craft the perfect query letter, how best to format a manuscript for submission, how to approach agents, and so on. Writers who received a request for a full manuscript or an agency contract rejoiced, despite the fact that no money had actually changed hands. Once blogs became common, a well-known blog featured an anonymous agent mocking submissions that did not met her exacting standards while commenters cheered her acerbic wit.
So for most writers, Getting Published was the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, conditions for writers inside the walled garden of Getting Published were just as bad as those outside the walls. It takes only a very little research to find abundant tales of editorial incompetence or malice, publisher indifference, and royalty payments magically vanishing through the conjuring tricks of impenetrable accounting. Even as recently as the end of September 2015, veteran writer Dean Wesley Smith noticed a new accounting trick publishers were using to withhold royalty payments from writers. (See http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/17-million-books-in-print/.) In short, publishers seemed at best incompetent and at worst actively malicious. There were exceptions, of course, but writers who were happy with their publishers for a long time were likely the exception rather than the rule.
The reason was for this state of affairs was simple. Writers needed publishers. Publishers did not need writers, and would prefer to deal with them as little as possible. Most of the money came from the big bestsellers, and if a new writer did not like the contract terms, well, there were a hundred others to replace him. Like any relationship with an extreme power differential, it was easy for publishers to abuse their power and become convinced that it was just the way things were done.
The ebook revolution and the widespread adoption of devices capable of displaying ebooks (smartphones and tablets, primarily) changed all this drastically. To paraphrase the writer Clay Shirky, publishing has gone from being a job or an industry or a profession to a button in a web browser. Previously, publishing had been a set of difficult-to-acquire skills – typesetting, printing, and so forth – in addition to the warehouses and retail outlets and distribution channels required to sell printed books. Now all it takes is a properly formatted file and a functioning internet connection to click on the “publish” button.
To put it simply, publishing had become democratized. The power differential had been distributed down to the writers. In other words, a writer no longer needed to seek a publisher. He could become his own publisher without needing any of the cumbersome infrastructure or skills needed to distribute paper books. The old cliché of the self-published writer with a garage full of moldering hardcovers had just become obsolete. Allegedly, it was said of Samuel Colt’s guns that “God made some men small, and some men large; but Colt made them all equal.” To restate that for the topic of our discussion, God might have made some writers large and some writers small, but ebooks could make every writer into a publisher.
The benefits to the writer are enormous. No longer is it necessary to spend years on the futile treadmill of agent and publisher hunting. A writer is completely free to succeed or fail on his own terms. Attracting an audience for one’s work, of course, is just as difficult for the self-published writer as it is for the traditionally published. But with the ability to completely control one’s own work come powerful tools for marketing it – new covers, new categories, new names, giveaways, and so on. For every complaint that a traditionally published writer has about a publisher’s behavior, a self-published writer can fix by himself.
The financial benefit is also excellent. Wringing royalties from a publisher is a legendarily Sisyphean task. Most of the major ebook retailers pay either monthly or quarterly, and the results are usually neatly totaled in an Excel spreadsheet. Compared to the cryptic twice-yearly (if that!) royalty statements from a traditional publisher, the monthly sales spreadsheets of most ebook retailers are models of crystalline clarity.
The creative freedom is also splendid. In April I had an idea for a new urban fantasy series. In the old days, it would have taken years for the series to find a publisher, even if it ever did. In the new world of self-publishing, I released the first book in the new CLOAK GAMES series in August, and will announce the second book on October 2nd, with a third book planned to follow in December.
For readers, the benefits are also superb. Price is one of the main ones. Why on earth should a new hardback book cost $28? Why should a new ebook cost $13.99 or $14.99? Recently publishers gained the ability to insist upon their own ebook prices and have raised them to protect print distribution. This seems roughly akin to Henry Ford’s competitors raising the prices on their cars to prohibitive levels in order to protect their horse and carriage business. Most self-published novels are priced between $2.99 and $6.99. To use myself as an example, my THE GHOSTS series contains fifteen full-length novels, all them between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Right now the entire series of fifteen books can be purchased for $53.86. By contrast, $53.86 would by three new traditionally published novels.
The ebook revolution has led to a creative explosion as well. Previously, traditional publishing had considered several genres to be dead – westerns, urban fantasy, military science fiction, certain romance genres, and others – and save for a few bestsellers had stopped publishing them. Now numerous writers are working in each of these genres. Still-publishing genres saw an upswing of new books as well. For years, science fiction and fantasy publishers have complained of gradually declining sales, but the self-publishing revolution has breathed new life into them. I have received emails from several people who have begun reading again after getting tired of the offerings from traditional publishers, and I am certain there are many people of similar mind out there.
Finally, the portability of ebooks cannot be overestimated as a benefit. So much of life is spent in waiting – in line at the DMV, in waiting rooms at hospitals or doctors’ offices, in transit on planes, in appointment rooms waiting for meetings to start. Lugging a hardcover book or even a mass-market paperback to all these places is impractical. But as smartphones grow more ubiquitous, nearly everyone carries a phone at all times, and is trivial to install an ereader application on a smartphone. Most even come with bundled ereading applications. How splendid it is to have an entire library at one’s fingertips to fill the otherwise wasted hours of waiting in lines and waiting rooms! I have read novels on my phone while waiting for relatives to emerge from doctors’ offices, and as before I very much doubt that I am the only one.
To sum up, this is indeed a golden age of publishing, and there has never been a better time to be a writer or a reader.
For more by Jonathan Moelller, here is his Amazon page.