Unringing the Bell — A blast From The Past From ATH October 2011
*I won’t lie. I’m putting up BPFs because I’m still finishing packing and we must go to the airport, but it occurred to me sometimes it’s important to remember where we came from, and how we came so far so fast. I still hear my colleagues talk like it’s the nineties. It’s not. You can’t unring the bell.*
Those of you who haven’t read Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Writing Like It’s 1999, do so.
For those of you who read my blog this might seem like I’m harping on a theme, or like I’m getting repetitive. Well I’d think so too, truly. Except… Except…whenever I’m at a con, someone – usually someone much less published than I am – comes back with a variant of “I’m going to keep my eyes shut tight and in the morning, this will all go away.”
Disruptive change is very scary and most people would rather pretend it will all go away, and we’ll be back to the familiar landscape and the familiar certainties. Even if those are horrible. Freed lions will often pace as though in the confines of the cage. Those few of us who are awake and exploring every possibility, looking in every corner, searching for the way things will be are a small minority.
At cons, I still run into authors who look down on self-published authors. I still run into authors who parrot the line about how much the publisher is investing in them: when it is patently obvious they’re lost in mid-list hell; I still run into authors who say “if you want to make a living at this, you have to publish with the big six.”
I had the dubious privilege of hearing a mid-press published author telling a self-published author whom I happen to know makes more in a month on one book than the mid-press published author has made for any two or three of his books that “most of what’s self published is crap and no one would buy it. The future is finding a publisher and convincing them to accept you. In two years, all this e-book stuff will be gone.”
It was breathtakingly bizarre. Kind of like, in a fantasy novel, standing next to the hidden prince and watching the false king parade down the street looking down on everyone. Like Saturnalia, with the fools reigning.
And then I catch myself – occasionally – thinking the old thoughts, too: “Well, what does he/she know. He/she is small press published.” Or perhaps thinking that some of my fledgelings will of course, eventually, follow the route I have. And then I stop. Because there are few things I know, but I do have some certainties.
These are the things I know:
Even if e-books all went away tomorrow, it wouldn’t go back to the way it was
Not the way it was in the early nineties, or even the way it was in the late nineties when I came in. No way, no how, never. Because there’s this thing called Amazon. The publishers no longer control what’s on the shelves and what gets seen. And even if Amazon died tomorrow, there would be other e-tailers. Trying to control shelf space is not a winning strategy. That bell has rung.
E-books aren’t going away
You can’t put the e-book genii back in the bottle. I’m reading on kindle. My kids are reading more on kindle than on paper. So is my husband. So are most of my friends. Barring some planet killing type of event, this is not going to go away. No, the economic crisis won’t kill it. Kindle books published by indies are cheaper. The tighter life gets, the more likely we’ll buy those instead of the agency-modeled-to-death.
The hierarchies of prestige are gone
Because the big six no longer control access to shelf space (except in Barnes and Noble, and it no longer has the influence it once had) the safe hierarchy of self-published, small press, medium press, big press is gone. We used to assume someone who self-published hadn’t even been able to get a small press to accept him/her. We approached their work expecting it to be awful. It often was. That certainty is done. A savvy author with time on his hands can decide he has a better chance going it alone. Be careful how you talk to other authors. That person with a single indie book out might have a larger readership than you could dream of.
Most authors have had a taste of freedom
I’m one of them. Look, I’ve done next to nothing Indie. A Touch of Night and a few short stories through Naked Reader Press. Interesting results but inconclusive. However, just knowing I can write whatever and if it doesn’t sell I can put it up on Amazon and it will sell a minimum of x – plus be in print forever – has given me massive freedom. I no longer feel like I’m blindfolded in the cattle car of a train over whose destination I have no control. Even if indie proves to be less than half of my income, the ability to put out there what I think should be out there is slowly molding me into a different person: a much less fretful and worried one. It’s likely to lengthen my life. It will certainly make me easier to live with. I don’t know how it’s taking other authors, but I don’t think it’s that bad.
We’re scared, but we’re not stupid
I know, I know, Dean says we’re stupid. And he’s right in a way, but we’re a very specialized kind of stupid. Also, he’s not seeing the pressures on my generation – those who came in after 2000 when the publishing houses looked at things ONLY through agents, and the publishing houses’ decisions could make or break your career, regardless of how good your book was. We had to learn to shut up, no matter how stupid we felt what was happening was. Not anymore. And we’re losing the habit of silence – slowly. The chances of a mass exodus back to publishers on the old terms because we don’t want to do everything ourselves is about … oh, look, do you see that flying pig? Yeah. Some of us will go back, of course – most of us who have made our name and can dictate terms, or the really small ones who couldn’t make it on their own.
And I’m not saying publishers are going away
Of course they’re not. Though a few of the houses will vanish and almost certainly a few of the imprints will vanish. What I’m saying is that the majority of the writers are NOT going to go back on the old terms. You want us back, you’re going to have to do things for us that we can’t do for ourselves or hire someone to do for us. I’m thinking this is the true “demise of the midlist” and not in the fake way you tried to do it before, where you simply announced the midlist was gone and kept changing midlisters’ names and paying them as beginners and not allowing them to build a following. No. I think the “midlister” the “shelf filler” the “person we print but don’t do anything else for” is gone. You’ll have to treat every author as if he/she matters. You have to make it better for them than they can do by throwing it up on Amazon. I’m thinking good covers, publicity, limited contracts.
Make it worth my while
Or at least, don’t use aversion therapy on me. You can’t keep me in the dark and feed me on shit anymore. If the book is not selling, sure, I need to know, but don’t tell me it’s because it’s not a good book, when I know you did nothing to market it, not even get it on shelves. And don’t, then, treat me as if it’s all my fault. Because if you make things unpleasant enough and treat me like a serf, I’m going to think “well, I don’t need to work for you anymore” and I’m going to go Indie.
Give me a public
I’m thinking more publishers should look at Baen books, instead of turning up their noses. Baen commands loyalty among its writers and gets dedicated readers who look for the brand. Some of this is (good) marketing gimmicks: buttons saying “I read baened books”, book bags given out at cons, a slide show where upcoming releases are announced, a forum where fans can meet and geek out on their favs. Part of it, though, the most important thing, is what none of the rest in sf/f or mystery has (I don’t know enough of Romance): a brand. A unified taste. For the big houses with multiple editors, this is difficult, of course. But you can no longer be all things to all people. Baen chose and does plot. It does plot really well – whether it’s in sf/f or any of the variations. “Things happen in Baen Books” would be a great tag line. Mind you, if it’s one of my books (or Dave Freer’s, too, or a half dozen others) the books also have characters and feelings – but the “things happen” and “adventure” aspect MUST be there for it to be a Baen book. When I started being published by Baen I immediately “slotted” into a pre-made public. This, as a newby, gave me something to put my back against, as I grow the rest. So, what can the big houses do. I don’t know. I don’t know under what constraints they operate. BUT if I owned one, I’d give each editor an “imprint” and then give them the resources to publicize that imprint. “Okay, Jane likes craft mysteries. She can specialize in that. We’ll call it Golden Brush books, and…” Have them appeal to a segment of public, but appeal to them very powerfully. It’s better to command 50k loyal readers and grow them slowly than to have most of your books bomb, except for a mega ultra blockbuster a year – which these days might not materialize. (No power to push, remember?) And meanwhile tell the editors that the house does… oh, pick one. Beautiful, doomed adolescents. Or perhaps more generally “character” or “angst” or “Beautiful language.” and unify that across your “imprints” which will maximize the chance of people reading the brand, not just the imprint.
Will there be a new equilibrium? Of course there will. And I think it’s about two years out, too. But will things be the way they were?
E-books. E-tailing. Soon, the book printing machines in every bookstore. Writers who’ve taken the bit between their teeth. Will all that vanish?
No way. You can’t put humpty dumpty together again. And you can’t unring a bell. So publishers and writers both will have to stay alert and change to survive.
UPDATE: Ask not for whom that bell won’t unring… I think what you’re hearing today, loud and clear, are funeral bells. Or perhaps the woosh of the meteor falling to Earth. The dinosaurs will never be the same: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/09/2011/amazon-launches-79-kindle-and-99-kindle-touch-ereaders/