Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Ugly Secrets of the E-Book Revolution

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”  ~Mao Tse-Tung.

Every revolution is ugly.  Political and martial revolutions employ death camps, hostages, and methods of torture, and in almost every case, it's hard to find the evidence of these crimes, because ad victor spoilarum (to the victor go the spoils), and, apparently, ad victor veritas (to the victor goes the truth).  The successful revolutionaries get to write whatever they want in the history books.

It isn't just political revolution that covers up ugly secrets.  Ideological debate often employs the deep pockets of lobbyists to sway popular opinion through manipulation of the media.  Even revolution in the way entertainment and media is distributed and consumed has closet-bound skeletons.

But surely the e-book revolution is a victimless crime, right?

Well, no.  Every crime has a victim.

During the digital music revolution, it's not a secret that the big music labels messed it all up for themselves.  There was certainly a right way and a wrong way to handle Napster and the way kids were sharing music files, and the way it was handled -- sending the cops out after 12 year olds who were probably not very aware that what their friends were doing was a crime -- was not at all the right way.  It caused a lot of bad press.  In the end, it was resolved with the smooth advent of iTunes and the iPod and the introduction of Digital Rights Management (DRM), but in the meantime, the kids suffered, the artists suffered, and the labels lost their mojo.

What's the difference between that situation and this one?  Well, on the surface, the e-book revolution appears to be about empowering the masses, in much the same way that Napster tried to brand itself; however, the people who have the power now are the artists themselves.  The writers can now write their books, and instead of being trapped in an endless cycle of submission to agent and, if they're lucky, to editors at big publishing houses, they can take their work directly to the reader and let them decide.  Readers can get books on the cheap, and writers can get royalties at higher margins.

But wait! you may be saying.  That sounds like a victimless crime!

That it does, until you realize that independent/self-published authors take a lot of shortcuts in bringing their work to market.  They do not benefit from a big publisher's resources.  They do not have a talented, experienced editorial staff to go over their manuscripts with a fine-toothed comb, or an art department to design a winning cover, or a promotional team to make sure the title gets noticed by media outlets.  They do not have an agent present to hold their hand, encourage them, and take care of the business aspect of things while the author gets to live his/her life and, most importantly, write.  The better self-published authors find themselves compromising everything in order to get all of these things considered, let alone addressed, and often burn themselves out trying to primp and pimp their manuscripts.  Even so, manuscripts often hit the e-reader with obvious spelling or grammar errors.

So who are the victims?

First: Agents and publishers, but I think some of that they brought upon themselves.  We all know the stories of the millionaire self-pub Kindle superstars by now, and those of us who are taking this seriously use those stories as messages of hope.  How did those authors escape the industry that is supposed to be the authority on what is fit for consumption?  The agents and publishers have a new model to pursue, and they have to find the sweet spot in this new paradigm -- or there will be deeper repercussions.  Frankly, I do not really want to see this industry crumble.  I just want to see it adapt, experiment, and try to reach out to this new digital publishing age.

Second:  Readers.  I was raised at a time that print books were king, and every one of those print books was produced by a large publisher and meticulously edited.  I grew up surrounded by properly dressed sentences and exhaustively groomed words, all of them lovely and cared for.  My patterns of speech and writing are driven by these words.  I shudder to think that there's a generation of kids being raised around words that have not been so fussed over, ugly, abandoned things who can tell a story, but don't do it with any respect for convention or tradition.

These are our victims, folks.  These are the prisoners of war, who wait for us to decide their fates and don't want to be abandoned.  Their mistakes were made with blindfolds on.  Do we give them a second chance?

Maybe.  At least I wanted to let you know they were out there.  I've answered the question for myself with full understanding of the consequences.  Have you?


  1. The things self-published authors are doing make my head spin. I think I'll stick with traditional publishing, even if only I go for the small press houses.

  2. The problem with the self-made millionaires of self-publishing is they themselves don't know what they did to make it big. Nearly all self-pubbers promote tirelessly, work harder at selling than they had to at writing and still come up with a couple dozen copies sold to people who know them at best. People like Amanda Hocking get lucky. That's really all their is to it, and that's no different than the traditional route. Your book will either be a bestseller or it won't and no amount of experience, expertise or marketing genius can change that.

    You're right--something's got to change in the model, but at the same time, this current model of self-publishing ain't it. It's too easy. Too quick. I could take a first draft of something I wrote years ago and put it up for sale this minute. That wouldn't be fair to me--because it would suck--the reader--because it would suck--or the publishing industry--because it would suck. Just because I want to be a writer doesn't mean I am one.

    It's like if Napster had allowed every piece of crap garage band with a demo tape to sell their tracks for $0.99. Doesn't mean they're good, right?

    Okay, enough rambling. I'm back to the sidelines of this revolution to watch with my eyes saucer-wide.

    - Liz

  3. Liz: I suppose we're both saying the same thing. It's time the old business model is adapted. I'm not even saying that Amanda Hocking's success is a good thing; it only exemplifies badly-edited work; however, it does represent millions of dollars that are not going to support traditional publishing professionals or the work they do. While the publishers have to change, so do the writers, before they become so arrogant they think they do not need a support structure of other editors, illustrators, and marketers (like I've found with the Underground).

  4. Working in teams is definitely the key. And remaining humble, teachable and correctable. I guess I'm an idealist, and I believe (hope, pray, etc.) that if I don't cut corners, if I do the work and do it to the best of my ability, then my hard work will pay off. The only way this will work is if those who do indie publish are putting out their best work, with all of the team players in place.

    This was a great article, MJ.