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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.

69 Comments
  1. I keep hearing horror stories about new writers trying to get into Trad Pub. Dean Wesley Smith talks about it occasionally on his blog. Horrible contracts, (they get your copyright, period..), horrible agents (good luck getting any information on money owed), and horrible editing.
    Sure, 90% of indie publishing is crap, yet when you get the VOLUME of what’s being published now it’s easy to skip around finding good stuff.

    February 22, 2018
    • And as more polished authors convert to Indie, even though an increasing amount of stuff is published, you’re more likely to find the better stuff as the filters start hitting on what you like.

      February 22, 2018
  2. Ok, I’m new(ish) and certainly underinformed, but I don’t understand this focus on trad publishers by all you (us?) indie authors. I understand they were ONCE important, but they are clearly dying, even if some don’t recognize the fact. Why are we focusing on the particulars of the death throes?

    Wouldn’t we be better served as authors to use that time and emotional energy just doing what we do, and let the dinosaurs die their inevitable death, and not putting their every twitch and gasp under close observation as they deny their doom??

    Am I missing something? Are they somehow still relevant? F&ck ’em and feed ’em beans.

    February 22, 2018
    • I think part of the focus is that The Big 5 still dominate the market in many ways, so that their decisions (and possible collapse) will affect a lot of us will we or nil we. Also, most readers expect indie books to look, feel, and act like trad-pub books.

      We can learn from them, both what works and what fails spectacularly, and we need to be ready to jump into the niches that open up when they go splat. All in addition to doing our own thing and writing our own stories and creating our own niches.

      My $.02, YMMV, IANAL and I didn’t stay at Holiday Inn Express last night. 🙂

      February 22, 2018
      • Thx for the reply, TXRed. So we’re the tiny mammals when the comet hits, waiting to see which evolutionary niches will be open when the giant sauropods go belly up? Being as how they’re gonna die anyway, why the morbid fascination with HOW they die? Disease, starvation, ash in a wall of fire? Who cares and why?

        February 22, 2018
        • We can get dibs on all the most tasty bits when they finally keel over dead. >:)

          February 22, 2018
        • Learning from mistakes? Sometimes the best mistakes to learn from are other peoples rather then your own.

          February 22, 2018
          • I agree, Paladin. How many of us are in a position to make the same mistakes the trad publishers are making? Might we not be better served looking at the mistakes other INDIE authors make, and more effectively learn from those? I don’t give a wombat’s a55 what B&N is doing, but I listen and learn from Cedar and Sarah.

            February 22, 2018
            • Like it or not they’re part of the market. Like it or not they still set the tone for a substantial portion of the market. When the Giant falls, it’s bad to be riding his shoulders (trad pubed authors) but you can also get squashed flat if you aren’t nimble enough to NOT be under him when he falls. And the Giant is pretty dang wobbly. When he goes there WILL be collateral damage, and the only way to know where to jump is to watch the direction of the fall.

              Yes, we should learn from other Indie authors. But there may come a day when we are sufficiently secure in Indie as it is… and something new comes along. Then it would be wise to remember what we’re learning now from the fall of Trad.

              February 22, 2018
              • ” (trad pubed authors)”? Something not quite right…

                February 22, 2018
                • The traditionally published authors are riding the shoulders of the Giant that is traditional publishing, in this case the big five (4?) Specifically (Small presses and Baen are adapting). Unless they (authors riding the traditional publishing giant) get off or have some escape plan, when it falls, their careers may not survive.

                  February 22, 2018
        • We’re watching how they die very closely to make double-damned sure we don’t die the same way. We already know how indie authors fail; what we’re looking for are brand-new kinds of stupid invented by Manhattan tradpub on its way down into the hole they’re digging for themselves.

          February 22, 2018
        • Uncle Lar #

          Schadenfreude and more than a bit of vindictive retribution.
          A lot of authors have been around a while, and prior to about ten years ago the only way to be a selling author was to sell your soul to the powers that be. The agents and slush editors truly were the gatekeepers to the castle and had to be properly worshiped in order to have any prayer of success in the business.
          So there is an admittedly petty, but highly understandable element of getting our own back as the dinosaurs crash and burn and stew in their own grease. The converse of course is that we must remember that a dropping water level sinks all boats, the fallout of major crashes could have implications that affect even the most independent of writers. Not sure how exactly, but I know we’re all going to find out.

          February 22, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Couple thoughts from someone not active in this industry.

      Indy publisher/retailers are not the majority of the market. Amazon retail is still significant. Trad 5 apparently really hate Amazon, and are able to impact Amazon business decisions. Amazon may be potentially replaceable should it misbehave significantly, but that process would be of interest to the blog’s core audience.

      Barnes and Noble going is going to both significantly pressure the status quo, and open up opportunity for other forms of retail, which we won’t know as much about. The new businesses that will start up and stay in business are impossible to fully predict, and will impact the future indy market. Saying ‘Trad 5 has nothing to do with us’ may be a way to overlook entrails that may contain important information.

      Why might someone with no financial stake in any publishing sector be interested? World politics is partly dependent on American politics, and American politics is partly dependent on the information control and information warfare practiced in the information industry, of which Trad 5 is a part. Sickness in Trad 5’s sector of the information industry may be tied to sickness in other sectors, like newspapers or cable news. Erosion of Trad 5’s control of the fiction market relates to potential erosion of control of the nonfiction market. American politics is very uncertain now, and it is hard to know how the future will change.

      February 22, 2018
      • Uncle Lar #

        Given that the epub file format runs native on all Apple IOS devices once B&N crashes and burns it would be a solid business move for Apple to further expand their iTunes/iBooks empire to take up the slack.
        But then failing to do so wouldn’t be the first poor business move by Apple.

        February 22, 2018
        • TRX #

          I’d do without before I’d do business with Apple.

          February 22, 2018
          • Uncle Lar #

            I was merely pointing out a potential business opportunity that Apple will probably neglect to take advantage of, but you’re most welcome to use my observation as a springboard to demonstrate your own personal bias. Duly noted and recorded for posterity.

            February 22, 2018
  3. I was in Chapters/Indigo last night. I go periodically just to see what they’re doing. This is a new store fit-out, they renovated the Chapters in Ancaster (Ontario, Canada) and re-branded it an Indigo. This location is the size of a grocery store, it looks like they spent a couple million dollars doing a full ripout and do over of the space. New tile floors, new divider walls, new everything. All very shiny and white marble. Greek temple modern. Looks like The Future! that you see in 1950’s movies.

    Half the store is merch. They’ve got purses, picture frames, knickknacks, mohair shawls, dodads, Fitbits and I-Pads. It’s an upper-class Toronto lady’s idea of what people want. Wide aisles, spotlights n mannequins with stylish hats, etc.

    Books? Yeah, in the back. SFF? Yeah, one row. Fantasy, the facing row. Truthfully they have more shelving devoted to manga and graphic novels than SFF. Game of Thrones has a whole book case. Larry Correia has 6 books present. N.K. Jemisin has 3, for whatever that is worth.

    I did note one anomaly that puzzles me, there is a book called “War Of The Worlds 2030” by Stephen B. Pearl that came out in 2013. Small publisher, no real reason for it to be there. The book looks exactly like a vanity press edition of Aunt Edith’s pet book that she worked on for 20 years and has a thousand copies in the barn out back.

    I read it a couple years ago. It has nothing to do with the War of the Worlds. At all. It is one of the most perverted, f*cked-up things ever to pollute my eyes. Torture and rape porn with a really pedestrian adventure story kind of draped over it. I skipped entire chapters trying to escape the ugly. This is the type of book that if an unsuspecting person unfamiliar with SF picked it up, they’d never read science fiction again.

    They had 12 copies of it, like it was the greatest thing ever. How does that bird-cage liner get twelve copies in a face stack while Larry Correia gets one copy each of six books, and Hugo Award winning Norah KJ gets one copy of three books?

    So that was my trip to Indigo last night. I did not see anything I wanted, needless to say. Young History Buff was in accompaniment, they did not see anything they wanted either. The history section was two cases, most of it anti-Trump propaganda screeds. I did not find a Science section. If there is one it is small and well hidden.

    Bottom line: this book retail model is profoundly, massively broken. The store itself is uncomfortable, you feel like a bug on a porcelain plate. The books are tucked away, literally out of sight in the back. The books themselves are mostly overtly political. My beloved SFF section is filled with meh at best, throw up and reach for the brain bleach at worst. From the lit agents to the publishers to the retail floor, it is broken.

    February 22, 2018
    • danielshumphreys #

      Wonder if one of the booksellers is pushing it.

      February 22, 2018
    • I’d bet the author has some family connection with the store owner.

      February 22, 2018
      • adventuresfantastic #

        I will decline that bet on the basis of I think you’re probably right.

        February 22, 2018
      • danielshumphreys #

        Greg is probably right, the author’s FB page indicates he’s from Hamilton, Ontario.

        I actually like the cover – only one review since 2013, though. Wow.

        February 22, 2018
        • Hamilton eh? I should drive over and slap that guy. >:) I had to use up a whole jug of brain bleach.

          February 22, 2018
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      Every once in a while, you get crazy sub-vanity press stuff in big bookstores. I recall from my Indigo/Chapters days an epic thriller about a conspiracy to destroy Canadian healthcare which was also about the Avro Arrow. I am not making this up. https://www.amazon.ca/Avro-Arrow-Manipulation-Murdering-Medicare/dp/1896342191

      February 22, 2018
      • Matthew #

        Can-Lit.

        Enough said.

        February 22, 2018
      • They spelled your name wrong. ~:D

        February 22, 2018
        • Christopher M. Chupik #

          That’s how I noticed it at first. Then I flipped through it and wondered what the heck I had stumbled on to.

          February 22, 2018
          • TRX #

            Just miscellaneous stuff floating in from a neighboring timeline. Nothing to worry about. Not like those officially-don’t-exist wolves in Michigan, anyway…

            February 22, 2018
    • Uncle Lar #

      Either the author is somehow connected to the store or one of its employees, or possibly the author is local and has supplied the store with those copies at no cost to them. A host of questions can generally be answered either by following the money or looking at the human connections.

      February 22, 2018
    • I was curious enough to check out that book on Amazon, and to check out the first few pages through the Look Inside feature, just to see if it was really that bad.
      Oh. My. God. (shudder) It’s awful, in a Plan 9 From Outer Space way.

      February 22, 2018
      • Must regretfully disagree. Go a couple of chapters in, its much worse than Plan 9. So much worse.

        February 22, 2018
        • Joe in PNG #

          At least Plan 9 is entertaining, in a way never intended by Ed Wood.

          February 22, 2018
      • Christopher M. Chupik #

        Alas, I can’t cut and paste from the excerpt, but DAMN, that’s what bad writing looks like.

        February 22, 2018
      • Just imagine.. there are 8 horrifically rotten prequels just waiting for some idiot to make them. After all, if they had to resort to Plan 9, the first eight didn’t work either…

        February 23, 2018
    • Ah, I see why the Stephen Pearl was probably stocked so highly. From the Guelph area….

      February 22, 2018
      • That makes sense.

        Why is “Canadian Content” always such shite? Seriously, they have to be doing it deliberately.

        February 22, 2018
        • Matthew #

          It’s optimized to signal, not to entertain – the “Canadianness” of it is much more important to domestic support and push than quality.

          February 22, 2018
  4. Luke #

    The interesting thing about Betamax alternate realities, is that the losing format in many technological scrums was objectively better than the winning format. Some of the time (like Betamax tapes being only one hour in duration) there are reasons apart from the technical specs. But a lot of the time, it comes down to distribution, marketing, and taste-makers.

    I don’t know how a world where the DEC Rainbow 100 beat out the IBM PC would look, but it would have more efficient data storage.

    February 22, 2018
    • If you look into it, it was porn that made the decision. Weird but true: the porn market is the biggest indicator of what successful new media are going to be. That’s how we knew that Blu-Ray was going to beat out whatever its competitor was. Porn first, then Disney. You can’t make this up.

      February 22, 2018
      • Matthew #

        Well, porn and the available players.

        VHS players let you set a record time in advance, betamax ones only had a record button (so you had to be there to both start and stip recording). Convenience won.

        February 22, 2018
        • Draven #

          there were beta decks with timers.

          February 22, 2018
      • TRX #

        I got asked to leave a panel in the mid-1980s for saying exactly that.

        Same thing happened a few years later on a panels on virtual reality and home robotics.

        Well, no, the whole world doesn’t revolve around porn, but back then, it was a “premium market” with little competition, and people were willing to pay serious money for it.

        February 22, 2018
        • It’s more that they’re a leading indicator for early adoption.

          February 23, 2018
      • *chuckle* Your comment made me think of that ‘The Internet Is For Porn” skit…

        February 23, 2018
        • Did you know there’s a SCHOOL VERSION of that musical? Apparently they changed that song to “My Social Life is Online”, but they should have gone with “The Internet is For Cats.”

          February 23, 2018
    • Draven #

      As the token person who has worked as a tape op in a VFX studio, I feel it necessary to point out that at this point, Beta has actually won. See, they took Beta tape and recorded the video differently, and then the called that format BetaCam. A slower-running version was BetaCam SP. This was followed by Digital Betacam, then HDCam, then HDCam SR… all using, basically, the same tape as BetaMax did. So… Beta is still in use, while VHS is largely dead.

      February 22, 2018
      • Stories I heard. Betamax was a Sony innovation. Worked great for recording programs and such. Since they weren’t willing to give the production rights to anyone else, the consortium of tech manufacturers that were working on VHS ate their lunch when it came to mass markets.
        Betamax was the standard though for news rooms and other areas that required quality recording. Also I believe hearing once that Beta was better for longer term Archive then VHS.

        As to the recording timers, early VHS machines didn’t have that function as well.

        February 22, 2018
        • Draven #

          yup, and JVC licensed VHS to anyone. Also, early betamax couldn’t hold an entire feature film on a single tape.

          February 22, 2018
    • Joe in PNG #

      my grandpop was a tv junkie, and settled on Beta early on, then recorded hundreds of movies off of cable. So our family went with Beta.
      Which was not so great once the nascent video rental stores sprung up- we couldn’t rent anything.
      That was likely the big decider.

      February 22, 2018
      • Draven #

        rental stores did not like having to keep track of two tapes for every movie.

        February 22, 2018
    • “It takes THREE things to make plane ‘fall out of the sky’.”

      So, what three things would have kept (home) Beta flying?

      1. A willingness to go with a larger cassette for a longer recording time.
      If you can record a full feature film on one cassette, that’s enough. If you can’t… then what?

      2. A willingness to license on easier terms.
      Customer walks into store and see *A* Beta machine (maybe TWO) and a bunch of VHS machines. “Gee, VHS sure is popular…” (and probably cheaper!) And if #1 hasn’t been done right, the rental outfits go with… the tapes that the movies FIT on.

      3. A willingness to tolerate (not endorse) porn.
      Alright, maybe it’s sinful… but if Joe Public can “anonymously” watch That Stuff at home rather than some theater of dubious repute… well, selling point. Just call it.. a “marital aid” or such.

      Beta was wonderful (our very first Beta machine had some features NONE of our later VHS machines had…) but it had those three strikes, and thus struck out.

      February 23, 2018
  5. TRX #

    > our world starts looking rather less than stable when you do…

    One of my hobbies is the history of WWII. An event that’s pretty well documented. It was a world war after all, and there was plenty of room for unlikely happenings and coincidences… but once you’ve read a while, it becomes bothersome. May be it’s my SF reader’s brain, but there were so *many* “just happened” events that Occam’s Razor starts to favor intervention over chance.

    February 22, 2018
    • Robin Munn #

      I’ve had a plot bunny for a while about two groups of time travellers messing around with WWII. One of them is trying to kill Hitler before he gets the death camps totally underway. The other group is trying to save Hitler’s life because his replacement would have been even worse, and would also have won the war, leading to terrible future consequences. (E.g., his replacement would have given the order to push ahead when they had the BEF surrounded at Dunkirk, so that Europe was conquered before America even entered the war. And thus when Pearl Harbor happened, America had more military might to concentrate on Japan and finished the Pacific theater before the Manhattan Project was completed. And thus, the bombs were never dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima so nobody actually knew how extremely devastating their real-life use would be, and so when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened in 1962, Krushchev actually pulled the trigger on a nuclear war, which ended up devastating the continents of North America and Asia.)

      All those attempted assassinations of Hitler, which failed due to completely random factors, like someone pushing a briefcase further under the table with his foot? VERY easy to weave them into a time-travellers-interfering-with-each-other story…

      February 23, 2018
      • AesopFan #

        I like it.

        February 24, 2018
    • A few parts of the Manhattan Project alone almost scream ‘Historical Engineering Happened Here.’ Yeah, it’s a big, messy world and weird things happen. Still, one does wonder at times.

      February 23, 2018
      • TRX #

        The chain of WTF starts *long* before the Manhattan Project. It starts before Tube Alloys. The mass of unlikely events that finally led to Trinity beggars belief.

        Just for added WTF, if it hadn’t been for Mackenzie-King’s inexplicable “not no, but hell no!” response, the first working bomb would have had a big maple leaf painted on the side. Roosevelt wasn’t interested either; after months of badgering, he only agreed to “look into it” to shut Churchill up.

        February 23, 2018
        • Just for added WTF, if it hadn’t been for Mackenzie-King’s inexplicable “not no, but hell no!” response, the first working bomb would have had a big maple leaf painted on the side.

          Let me guess, something something “One jew is too many” something something?

          February 23, 2018
        • I love Richard Feynman’s comment on his early contribution to the Manhattan Project, when he was trying to determine what something was on the blueprints (while trying not to let on that he didn’t understand the schematics) and inadvertently happened to point out a major flaw in safety considerations. “What about this window?” (hoping it was actually a window, or at least that the person would point out that it was a vent or something else.) And the builder flipped back and forth a bit, got really thoughtful, and thanked him for pointing it out.

          February 23, 2018
  6. TRX #

    > fall or fade into irrelevance,

    The Future of Transport in 1900 was passenger rail, subways, and ships. Which, outside of niche markets (urban hives and cruise ships), are nearly extinct now.

    The automobile and the airplane made changes to society so fundamental, most people don’t realize how huge it was.

    Several Soviet defectors wrote about being turned loose in America with a set of car keys, and coming to terms with the idea that they could just *go*. Anywhere. Any time. No lines, no waiting, no transit schedule.

    Some people think Elon Musk launched his car into space as a publicity stunt. I think it was more a symbol…

    February 22, 2018
    • Zsuzsa #

      I’m reminded of the crack that the monorail is the transportation of tomorrow and always will be.

      February 22, 2018
      • I thought that was jetpacks and/or flying cars. And fusion will be tomorrow’s energy source.

        February 22, 2018
        • Fusion is only 20 years away. Just like it was sixty years ago.

          February 23, 2018
      • Monorails are nice novelty rides. Not really much else. Light rail does have its uses, particularly when it is built so as to not use the roadways and connects important hubs (like sports venues; Denver has been rated the best public transportation system by its users many times, and access to the places with otherwise horrible traffic and parking is a big part of it.)

        February 23, 2018
    • snelson134 #

      My favorite scene…..

      February 23, 2018
  7. C4c

    February 22, 2018
  8. Zsuzsa #

    I will disagree on your “blind men and the elephant” analogy. The point of that story was that they couldn’t all agree on what an elephant was like because they were all feeling different parts of it. The publishers are all clustered around one part of the elephant, are convinced that they DO know what an elephant is like, and are dead wrong.

    February 22, 2018

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