Though our publishers will tell you that they are ever seeking “original” writers, nothing could be farther from the truth. What they want is more of the same, only thinly disguised. They most certainly do not want another Faulkner, another Melville, another Thoreau, another Whitman. What the public wants, no one knows. Not even the publishers.
Henry Miller, as quoted by Jon Winokur at AdviceToWriters.com
I count Henry Miller among my favorite authors. But here in the Tropic of Porter, I could enjoy that comment of his a lot more if I didn’t think it made today’s least savvy writers feel smarter than they are.
In my corporate career, I’ve seen corner-office carpet curl right up at the edges under chief-executive declarations of devotion to “creativity.” The suits always want to:
- “Change the game.”
- “Take it to the next level.”
- “Reach out” to their staffers and ask those employees to “share” (without extra compensation) the innovative marvels of their fecund imaginations.
And the traditional publishing establishment is a creature of corporate structure, of course, whether privately or publicly held. It exists to turn a profit for its stakeholders. Corporations tolerate disruption badly, poor sales unhappily, and creativity not at all — lip service only.
However, if you look at Miller’s passage again, you’re likelier than you were the first time to notice the next to last sentence.
What the public wants, no one knows.
No one knows.
Not even writers.
A couple of recent events have made it clearer than anybody might like that authors can be as far from knowledgeable as Miller complained the publishers were.
(1) The LendInk affair. This is the case in which a site designed to help ebook readers offer and find ebooks to lend — all perfectly legal and in no way involved with piracy — was shut down by authors who mistook LendInk for a piracy operation.
First, the ignorance of some of the authors involved, who’d used Amazon to publish their books but apparently didn’t realize that Amazon allows ebook lending. Second, the lack of careful investigation, which caused some people to assume that a legitimate service was a pirate site, and others to perpetuate the meme without bothering to verify it.
(2) The DBW eBook Best-Seller List. Part of the populist appeal of a digitally empowered army of self-publishing authors, as you know, is the assumption that those writerly action figures are closer to their readers than big corporate publishers can be.
The whole idea of author platforming, in fact, is a response to just this. Your platform is that holy connection with your readers, a lifeline of sharing that gets gurus of self-publishing all woozy at the knees, visions of virtual spaghetti suppers dancing in their heads.
A lot of hands have been wrung over the question of how major traditional publishers, accustomed to their B2B (business to business) relationships with distributors and stores, will be able to learn B2C (business to consumer).
Well, in fact, last Monday’s release of the first weekly Digital Book World eBook Best-Seller List came with surprises.
Are you familiar with the new DBW list yet? For the first time, we are able to see ebook pricing factored into best-seller list-making. The DBW list looks at overall rankings plus rankings in various price ranges or “bands.”
- Self-publishing doesn’t have as much presence as might have been expected (not one self-published ebook made it into the overall Top 25, and only two in the price-band breakouts);
- The Big Six traditional publishers come out in a far more commanding position, up and down the price bands, than many might have anticipated, with far more best-sellers than smaller or independent presses, let alone self-publishers; and
- Super-low pricing may be a bust — and higher pricing points ($9.99 and up) don’t look as daunting to readers as some have asserted they are.
As an aside, I want to give you a bit of good news: following my coverage (OK, my carping) on Monday in my EXTRA ETHER: DBW’s Best-Seller List, Digital Book World and Dan Lubart’s Iobyte Solutions, I’m told, will begin crediting authors by name for the best-sellers listed, as is done on other major best-seller lists.
I may open a new line of columns: Embarrassment on the Ether.
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“Speaking truth to power?” In his red polo? The Jeanne d’Arc outfit must have have been at the cleaners.
In an essay headlined Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning In Indie Books – And That’s A Good Thing, Vinjamuri gets one thing right — and it’s not the “And That’s A Good Thing” part.
On Page 4 of his piece, he does a quick refresher on how we got to where we are. He writes that because of publisher staff cuts in the Age of Amazonia:
Most new authors who make it through the arduous process of finding both an agent and a publisher are surprised to learn that it is the author who is responsible for marketing and promoting his or her own work.
There it is, see it? Shocked, I tell you, shocked these authors are — even though, as Vinjamuri writes:
An entire generation of traditionally published authors has come of age learning to self-promote.
Vinjamuri uses “indie” to mean “self-published”, not independent presses or bookstores.
O’Leary is right to note this: we see this usage creep of the term “indie” too much — I consider it a grab for the sunglasses, although I appreciate how much easier it is to fit “indie” into a tweet than “self-published.”
But more importantly, O’Leary goes on to pick up on three predictions Vinjamuri finds time to make between bouts of speaking truth to power:
- Platforms will emerge to offer new titles a chance for real reviews
- Mid-list authors at traditional houses, dissatisfied with the support they receive, will go out on their own
- Traditional publishers will start to use the self-published community as a farm team
I do like a part of Vinjamuri’s vision for that first part (in which he’s arguing for independent, compensated, professional criticism):
There is enormous pressure in the market to solve the “drowning in bad writing” issue with Indie publishing. It’s hard to imagine that a solution won’t emerge in the next 12-18 months
He gets out with a truthfully powerful bid for one reason authors need to get past the ignorance that’s hobbling them as amateurs in publishing right now:
Ben Franklin would recognize this era. From the 16th to the 19th century, pamphleteering allowed unpublished hacks like Thomas Paine to espouse their views and argue their points cheaply and individually. Pamphleteers were accused of vanity, incompetence and even sedition. But the best of them survive in the literature of the Reformation, the English Civil War and the American Revolution. In generations to come, the same may be said of a few of the Indie authors publishing today.
To make that happen, we who ply the grid every day need to start asserting our demands through our social media (still a plural word, damn it), kindly but forcibly: authors simply must wise up. Learn contracts. Learn business. Learn publishing. Learn marketing.
Nobody loves an ivory-towering boor. Don’t be one. Don’t let your favorite colleague be one. Shun the amateurs — we’ve seen enough degradation at the hands of their shortcomings. Distinguish yourself as a pro by getting the experiential and/or academic credentials you need, and be proud of it.
- Awful incidents like the LendInk debacle show us there’s nothing funny about the jackass-authors who freak out and attack things they don’t know they approved in their own contracts.
- DBW’s new list makes it all too clear that authors are not making the independent progress many of them think they are, and that Big Six domination and higher-end ebook pricing are still very much a part of this story.
- Everybody, traditionally- or self-published, must get past this shock at the diminished services and/or personal cultivation once offered by major houses. Self-promotion is the order of the day.
If you follow me regularly, you’ll know that I’ve long argued that authors need opportunities for briefings and networking that match the sophistication of some of the major industry conferences. I’m encouraged to think we may soon see such opportunities.
For now, the Writer Unboxed readership comprises some well-practiced observers of the author community and writing scene, so I’d like your input.
What are the key areas of author ignorance you’ve observed? — where are the weakest points, as you see it? How willing do you think writers are to learn the ins and outs of the business and escape author ignorance? How willing do you feel you are to call a spade a spade when necessary and point out author ignorance?
Main photo: iStockphoto: StefanoLunardi