E-books are the start of something else (e)
We know that the book industry is in a mess. Borders went bust, authors' advances are being slashed, and new publishing contracts are rarer than an original metaphor.
It is almost beyond question now that major bookstores and major publishers will continue to shrink, continue to vanish.
But beware, the end of publishing as we know it, isn’t necessarily bad news for writers, or for that matter, for readers.
I am a writer.
I am one of many writers who, these last few years, has failed to get a single mainstream publishing house even vaguely interested in anything I have written. And yet, when I, and others like me have self-published novels – something which new print-on-demand technology has recently made possible – we have found that we are met with sales that demonstrate real demand. (My first novel 50 Reasons to Say Goodbye has sold more than seven thousand copies without a single marketing penny being spent). And judging by the tens of positive reviews posted and the hundreds of emails received, my work has been met with public, if not critical, acclaim.
Knowing a number of writers in the same situation, and having spoken to agents who tell me that it is now impossible to get a publishing deal for a new author, I can’t help but feel that the publishing giants and chain bookstores, have been digging their own graves for so long now, that the only surprising thing is that some of them still haven’t fallen in.
Walk around any bookstore and you will see piles of bland sameness. Piles of Jacky Collin’s style bonk-busters. Piles of pastel-shaded chic-lit. And surprise, surprise, it isn’t selling as well as it used to.
But, approach any publisher with something different or quirky and they will immediately tell you that you don’t fit their lists. “It’s too different, too quirky,” they vomit-inducingly repeat.
And even if you self-publish your different, quirky novel – even if you sell seven thousand copies through amazon and receive hundreds of reviews from Joe Public letting you know he loved it – try and get just one major bookstore to stock it. The last time I contacted Borders, they told me that all titles had to be chosen by their US office and invited me to send a copy to New York for review. I think they went bust before my book ever hit the mat, and I can't say it saddened me much.
Publishers, and bookstores, through poorly second guessing consumer tastes, and only stocking the most vanilla of choices are fast making themselves irrelevant, and e-books are pushing this to a whole new level.
Whereas ten years ago an author had to jump multiple hoops and seek approval from, in order, a) an agent, b) a publisher and c) a bookstore in order to get his work into the hands of the public, e-books are removing every single step of this censorship chain.
If he/she is computer savvy (or well off enough to pay a few hundred pounds to someone who is) an author can, these days, publish anything and have it available within days to millions. And none of these new operators, nor Amazon, nor Apple, nor the soon to arrive Google books, are attempting to second guess the public’s desires. They are simply offering a delivery mechanism in an entirely transparent, democratic way. Let the public decide, they say.
Of course, people have to actually want to read e-books, and much general sniffiness characterises an opinion which states that people will always want real books. Just as people would always want proper LP records presumably. Anyone popped into Our Price lately?
The truth is that no matter what the naysayers would like us to believe, people are already buying e-books by their millions. Numerous e-book editions are outselling their physical counterparts as people discover the multiple advantages of reading on their phones, iPads and Kindles: free sample chapters to test a book before purchasing, virtually unlimited choice, availability when you want it without fore-planning (Your plane’s delayed? Buy a book). Instant gratification. Lower prices. And of course, no trees have to die.
And the deal, for writers, is better than anything anyone could have dreamt of. Whereas if, once upon a time, you could convince someone to publish you, the most you were ever likely to earn was seventy pence a book, perhaps even a pound. Yet self-publish with Apple or Amazon and they will pay you seventy percent of the cover price. Seventy percent! No costs. No middle men. Astounding.
The horror! gasp the publishers. Who will filter out the rubbish? People will be able to publish anything!
And it’s true. Ninety percent of what is being self-published out there is absolute dross.
But it doesn’t matter because democracy works. People will download free samples of books and decide for themselves, often within the first few lines, what’s rubbish and what isn’t. And once ten people have rated a work rubbish, that’s it. Game over.
But for those amongst us who have been fighting the pure unbearable stupidity of the publishing industry for years; for those of us who are considered too gay, or too quirky, or too rude, or too dark, or too happy, or too different to please whoever sits in the cobwebbed crumbling offices of that dying industry, the new model provides the most amazing chance to reach our public, to find out if we have a public, without any faceless bureaucracy saying, “Sorry, no. You can’t do that.”
For writers, being able to say, “Actually, I can”, is bloody marvellous.
And I’m convinced that it’s going to be bloody marvellous for readers, too.