Blind Men, Elephants, and the Industry
You’ve all seen the posts drifting through here about the current state of the publishing industry, particularly the way the big 5 (4? or whatever the heck it is once all the mergers are done) are grabbing for everything that looks like a straw to claim that ebooks are dying and they (trad publishing) are The Future.
Well, maybe they are a future, but it’s one of those phenomenally unlikely ones that Tom Holt describes a Betamax worlds (for the younger folk here, Betamax was a video cassette format that, in the early days of videotape, competed with and ultimately lost to VHS. Rather like all the other video disk formats wound up losing to DVD (although Blu-Ray may wind up claiming DVD eventually). In short, a Betamax world is a timeline that you might wind up with once in multiple millions. Maybe. It’s also not terribly stable and likely to collapse under its own inconsistencies… Um. Maybe that concept shouldn’t be taken too far, because our world starts looking rather less than stable when you do…
Anyway, it struck me the other day that the self-declared publishing industry bigwigs are behaving rather like the blind men with the elephant. Each is seeing the industry from their narrow perspective, namely one informed almost solely by the “best” schools and the New York literary scene. If they were actual blind men trying to determine the nature of an elephant by touch, they’d be clustered around a pile of elephant dung declaring with disgust that elephants are smelly and rather squishy, oblivious to the actual elephant departing for less fragrant climes.
We are just as likely to get it wrong, of course, since we’re no less human than anyone else out there (editorial demons excepted), but as long as we keep looking at as much evidence as we can get hold of, and don’t ignore large swathes of potential market and don’t assume that people who disagree with us are stupid/evil/out to get us (some of them may be any combination of stupid, evil, or out to get us, but most people don’t have any idea who we are and don’t care), we probably won’t be as wrong as those who are so deeply invested in the way things used to be that they can’t see their golden era is past and their model is in decline.
To strain yet another analogy, they’re the buggy whip handle polishers while we are (mostly) trying to create every possible form of car accessory we can think of in the hope that one or more of them stick. We’re seeing the potential of something new (newish, anyway) while they are standing before the tsunami trying desperately to hold back the tide. I’d mention King Canute, except that supposedly he actually did his hold back the tide thing to demonstrate to some rather dumb and/or excessively sycophantic courtiers that no, he wasn’t in control of everything.
I have to admit to a certain amount of schadenfreude watching the proceedings, but it’s tempered with pity. It may take a while before todays publishing giants either fall or fade into irrelevance, but I’d be shocked if it doesn’t happen. Indie is getting easier all the time, the fixed costs the trad publishers need to handle are increasing, and indie doesn’t filter on New York City Elitist world views (which are shared by a rather small sliver of the general population). Indie doesn’t filter on anything – as some of the inverse “gems” out there prove. (This is actually a Law, stated memorably by Sturgeon – 90% of everything is crap. Sadly, if you filter off the 90% and resample, 90% of it is still crap, which is why this is a Law and not merely a supposition).
So remember, whenever the rapid changes and apparent avalanche of crap is getting you down (and don’t forget that crap flows downhill and we peons are not, sadly, at the top of the hill), there’s more to what’s happening than what you’re aware of, and if you shift your perspective a bit and try to approach things from a different angle, you just might feel a bit more of the elephant.