This month in keeping with our look inside publishing, I’m departing from my usual craft advice to give you my view of the new state of the industry.
I don’t see the new shape of things as many do: the twilight of the dinosaurs, the old-thinking Big Five print publishers staggering, falling to their knees and heading for extinction as they’re overwhelmed by a nimble army of small, warm-blooded mammals whose claws are the sharp, smart, flexible tools of electronic publishing.
It’s true that I’m a gatekeeper, a longtime member (to my surprise) of the industry establishment. But I am no worshiper of the old ways. Traditional publishing always was cost-heavy and inefficient. It’s a wonder that it worked. But the new electronic “paradigm” is not the glorious revolution that true believers would like it to be.
What’s happened instead is an evolution of the publishing world into a new class system, and like any class system it has winners, losers and opportunities. It’s a system that, if not recognized for what it is, will trap frustrated writers in a pit far more hopeless than the one they yearned to escape. Let’s start with a couple of cold-eyed realities.
First, e-books have not hurt the print publishers but rather have helped them. Especially in the recent recession, low-cost/high-margin e-books have been a bright spot. They’ve kept publishers profitable even as brick-and-mortar book retailing has shrunk and consumers have grown cautious. With the mass-market paperback pricing itself nearly out of existence, low-priced e-books have arrived (with help from the Department of Justice) to keep value-conscious readers reading. Of course, the difficult and expensive business of selling print books must still be faced but at least there’s some gravy to make the task tasty.
Second, the self-publishing movement has been a boon to the print industry. Far from being threatened, print publishers instead are now gratefully relieved of the money-losing burden of the mid-list. Like giant banks that have discovered that banking is boring and the real money is in gambling, big publishers are now free to focus on the high-risk/high-reward game of finding the next Twilight, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey.
Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves, print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd. Even print-only distribution deals with a handful of successful e-published authors are terrific: easy pickings and effortless profit. Most authors are still knocking at the gate, too, since after all seventy percent  of trade book sales are of print editions. In many ways these are good times for print publishers.
Third, the self-publishing movement has produced gold-rush hysteria in the writing community. While not exactly a mass delusion, questionable beliefs have been widely accepted. True believers sneer at doubters. So what is the real truth? High success at self-publishing has happened only for a few who have mastered the demanding business of online marketing. A larger, but still small, number of authors have achieved a modest replacement income from self-publishing. Growth from there will be hard for them, however, because wide print distribution still is needed. (Seventy percent of trade book sales are of print books, remember?)
As for the rest…well, the position of the vast majority of self-publishing authors is no better than it ever was, though probably there are fewer cartons of books in their garages. Consultancy to self-publishers is a new job category, however, and that has to be good for the nation’s employment stats.
Fourth, as I said, a new class system has arisen. Here’s how it breaks down:
Self-published authors and electronic micro-presses must haul themselves. While the means of production are easy and low-cost, the methods of marketing are costly either in terms of cash or time. Success is rare. The pleasure of being in control is offset by the frustration of “discoverability”. Online retailers are whimsical and ludicrously over-stocked, both barrier and open door. Lists, blogs, social sites and the like are plentiful but of only spotty help. Trusted filtering of self-published books may arise (watch the recent sale of Bookish to Zola, two recommendation sites started by—gasp!—publishers and agents) but don’t hold your breath. The real problem is that fiction at this level has trouble appealing widely to readers. It can sell when priced at $2.99, sometimes a bit more, often less.
Why? Let’s look at what characterizes Freight Class fiction. While the Kindle bookstore can be an incubator of innovative fiction, for the most part it is an ocean of genre imitations if not amateurish writing. Freight Class novels generally take few risks. Too often they rely on character stereotypes, heavy-handed plots, purple and obvious emotions, and messages and themes that are time-worn. Justice must be done. Love conquers all. Good vs. evil. Freight Class fiction can be easy to skim. Literary flourishes are few, cliffhangers are many. Genre conventions are rigidly honored. Characters are not motivated from within, for the most part, but instead are pushed into action by external plot circumstances.
Here we find decently-written literary fiction and nicely-crafted commercial fiction that achieves print publication but sells best at trade-paperback level ($14.99 or so), or discounted in e-book form. Coach Class novelists support each other yet find it difficult to gain a foothold with the public. So-called “marketing” by their publishers is disappointing and, truthfully, can only do so much. Traditional tours (when they happen) accomplish little, front of store incentives are costly, and online marketing sometimes seems to consist of the hope that Amazon will do a price promotion. Coach Class authors, however, are professionally edited and get goodies like nice covers, ARC’s, and plenty of blurbs. Plus, their books are in bookstores, a big boost in visibility.
What characterizes Coach Class fiction? Readable pages, appealing characters, clever premises, attention-grabbing plot hooks, a display of craft and art, emotional engagement, and themes that “resonate”…which is to say, that stir readers without greatly challenging them. Coach class fiction is less easy to skim. While characters can be motivated from within, their inner journeys can feel somewhat painless. Readers are “engaged” but don’t always feel deeply moved. Coach Class fiction sometimes borrows secondary characters from history or classics, retells other stories, or stretches into series that can become thin. Genre conventions may be borrowed or blended but essentially they are not violated. Coach Class is a moderately comfortable place to be, though one can feel stuck in one’s seat. Economy shocks can hurt.
The cream class gets a double shot of extended life in bookstores, both in hardcover and later in paper. Their books can sell well at $25 and live long in trade paper. For First Class authors, success looks effortless. Goodies accrue easily. Recognition is instant and wide. Sub-rights sell. Awards happen. Insulated from economy shocks, authors of this class never seem to worry about the industry. In interviews they talk only about their art and process. They mentor. Lines are long at BEA booth signings and readers are fiercely loyal.
Why all that seemingly-effortless success? First Class fiction is characterized by memorable characters, unique premises, story worlds instantly real, plots that grip even when slow, gorgeous writing, and themes that surprise, challenge and change us. Not only do we read every word, First Class writing makes us whistle in admiration. Characters are not only likeable and self-aware, but also follow a singular destiny. First class novels shake our way of thinking, challenging us to see the world in new ways. They confidently break rules, may transport us to unlikely cultures and times, teach us things we knew little about, and always feel utterly unique. Each novel creates its own genre. First Class fiction is imitated but never matched. Its authors are revered and for good reasons.
So, in which class are you? To which class do you aspire? Here’s the thing: In the real world, one’s class can be a prison. Politics plays in. The upper class can use its money to buy itself tax advantages, legal wizardry and gated communities that keep the rest out. Other classes stick together and stick with what they know. Revolution is rare, costs blood and doesn’t happen where minimal comforts are available.
In the world of publishing, though, it’s not like that. Authorship is a true meritocracy. (Sorry, it is.) In publishing there is social mobility. As an author you can change your class, though of course it’s not always easy to do so. It takes education, time and effort. It means seeing yourself differently, having courage and violating the norms and expectations of your community. (One of the most common laments I hear is, “I got published…and lost a lot of my friends.”)
Do things look different inside publishing today? Yes and no. There’s innovation all over the place but also for authors a picture more challenging than ever. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Inequality is vast. But change doesn’t require billionaire money buying elections. You don’t need a phony revolution. You can change your class by yourself, right at home, one keystroke at a time.
I’ve exaggerated the above for effect, obviously, but in a lot of ways that’s how the industry looks to me now. How does it look to you?