I had not planned on writing about this, but a recent read got my hackles up, and I couldn’t quite help myself. It was recently mentioned that Amazon is not a self-published author’s best friend, because they’re a retailer, and retailers are inevitably opposed to publishers (a group which includes self-publishers). Ms Miller’s statement includes an analysis of economic principles–most notably, that the self-published author’s ability to charge less for a book means a greater possibility of recognition and success, because they do not compete with traditionally published authors.
That, at least, is the short version.
(Before I begin to respond, let me lay out some caveats. First, let us ignore that Ms Miller has written and published only one book, and that one relies entirely upon the notoriety of another author for its success. Let us also put aside that Ms Miller is co-founder of Salon.com, a position which ensures that I share almost no opinions with her, and so this disagreement could almost be expected without my advancing it. Further, let us ignore that Ms Miller, as an author, has been published by the Hachette Book Group, and so her opinion on this matter may not be as independent as we may be led to believe at first glance. Finally, let us ignore that Ms Miller asserts that the opposition of self-publishers toward traditional publishers is based exclusively on a petulant emotional reaction due to rejection; this may be the case for some, but since I have never been rejected by a traditional publisher, it does not apply to me, at the very least. These issues are not relevant to the topic at hand, and I shall not touch on them again.)
On the face of it, Ms Miller’s line of reasoning seems sensible and appropriate. After all, if I’m charging relative chump change for my e-book, and traditional publishers charge double that or more, then someone shopping for a new novel to read may pick up my book instead of James Patterson’s. Furthermore, if Amazon can tell Hachette to lower their prices, what’s to stop them telling me to lower my prices someday, right?
But sales, publishers, and Amazon don’t work that way (at least not right now). For one thing, I don’t sell more books than James Patterson. Not even close. He’s probably sold more copies since I started writing this post than I have sold ever. That’s because of two things: (1) marketing, and (2) the impression of the public that something selected by an objective third party is inherently better than something which has not been thus selected. Let’s leave marketing aside for a moment, because the success of marketing relies primarily on the amount of money one has to put into it. Instead, let’s examine the notion that a traditional publisher’s selection is automatically better than the self-published option. (This notion is fallacious, but sounds sensible, so let’s pass over the fallacies and focus on the sense of it.)
Who is a publisher? Ms Miller notes that publishers are investors. They put their money where their mouth is, so to speak. They’re willing to put forward a lot of cash on the gamble that the person they support will return even more money to them. This makes them focused on one thing: the bottom line. They are not concerned with art; they are not concerned with novelty; they are not concerned with creativity, or hard work, or effort, or authors’ rights, or authors’ benefits, or authors’ fame or success or notoriety, except insofar as those things serve their profit margin. When an editor for a traditional publisher evaluates a book, he does not do so with an intent to make the most artistic novel, or the most original novel, or the most American novel, or the deepest novel; he does so with the intent to make the most profitable novel. This means that new authors suffer under a harsh edge: cut this, remove that, simplify the other thing, and make sure that this novel appeals to the public interest; meanwhile, established authors are hardly edited at all: is your name J. K. Rowling? Then your book is already profitable, and nothing needs to be changed! This principle is universal among traditional publishers; as investors, their concern is profit.
Now, perhaps you are an editor for a traditional publisher, or perhaps you know one personally. If so, this conversation will involve a lot of defensiveness, rationalization, and equivocation. As an editor, of course, you are–first and foremost–a reader. We all know that readers are the best judge of an author’s work. If you read a work, and you hate it, then it must be terrible. If you read a work, and it needs its second half shortened for pacing, then it must be so. If you read a work, and you don’t grasp what the author is trying to say, then either the author needs to try harder, or she needs to drop it altogether. This is the power of being a reader: you are the final arbiter of quality.
But you are not simply a reader. You are not arbiter by means of your wallet; you are arbiter by means of your paycheck. You judge, not by reviewing the book poorly, nor by telling your friends to avoid the book, but by telling the author to change the book. You rule, not with economic strength, but with economic interest. You get paid based on whether or not you’re good at telling an author to appeal to the public. No matter what you tell yourself, your colleagues, or your clients, you judge a book based on how well it can pay you–not how well it represents the author’s vision or message.
So who is a publisher? A publisher is a patron of the arts. Unlike the patrons of old, publishers are not interested in propaganda or self-aggrandizement, nor do they need good humor when an artist opposes their interests. Publishers are those whose only interest is financial; no doubt someone thought this was a good way to improve artists’ influence in the world, since politicians are no longer in authority over them. Ultimately, though, publishers fail to make this correction–not for the sake of their own reputation, but for the sake of their own income. Where a patron of old saw power and influence, a publisher sees dollar bills, and the end result is the same: constriction of the artist for the sake of the patron.
Until very recently, the artists’ reliance on their patrons compelled them to fit a certain mold and follow a certain pattern. If you weren’t “publishable,” then you weren’t published–period. Amazon has changed all of that. Everyone is publishable. The most technically skilled author, the most effusive poet, the historian, the theologian, the scientist, the ne’er-do-well, the politician, the country bumpkin, the ignorant fool, and the uneducated simpleton are all capable of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and producing something that can be distributed among the people. The possibilities are limitless, because the gatekeeper has been toppled and his gate stands open.
Does this mean that some drivel has made it through to the virtual bookshelves of the Internet? Absolutely it does. There are bad writers everywhere. Perhaps the most prevalent opinion among all of them is that their work is exceptional and deserves the highest praise. You may choose to count me among them. But is the presence of bad writing actually a bad thing? If you listen to traditional publishers, of course it is! How can the poor, common reader differentiate between what is a good book (and holds the patron’s stamp of approval!) and what is a bad book (and sells one copy a month to the same sucker)?
But traditional publishers are tethered to a static world. Unchanging. Unbending. The greatest capacity of the modern age of authorship, still largely unrealized, is its mutability. When a traditional publisher accepts an author, gives her his stamp of approval, and spends the next weeks, months, years molding her into a publishable icon, he does so with this in mind: “When I have released the book, it is finished.” A book, published by a traditional publisher, is finished forever. Copy editor missed a typo? Too bad, they’ll still be reading that typo in the 2046 reprint edition. The self-publishing world is not tied to this model, and we have only begun to utilize the excellence of this opportunity.
Suppose you professional editors are right: suppose the reader is the best judge of an author’s work. Do you think it is more effective to get one reader’s opinion, or one hundred readers’ opinions? Or one thousand? Even if your one reader (your professional editor) has been doing this for years, and knows exactly what works and what doesn’t, and offers an opinion steeped in those principles, there’s always the possibility that he could be wrong. Is crowdsourcing usually a bad idea when it comes to making something the best it can be? Maybe in artistic creation, but not in artistic feedback–or else focus groups would never have become commonplace. Even if only one reader in a hundred has the acumen of a professional editor, you would have ten recognizably wise opinions for every thousand readers. And what should a good author do with ten professional opinions and nine hundred ninety common ones? Improve the book.
A professional editor tells you how to correct the book so that it sells better–why not give away a thousand copies (a nearly free process with e-books), and ask them what to change so that they would pay you for it? Chances are, you would get many of the same corrections–and maybe a few that the professional editor would miss. Take those thoughts and use them to make the book better. Rewrite the ending. Enhance the character development. Fix your typographical errors. And when you’re finished, hit “Save and Publish” again, and within hours–days at the most–the latest and greatest version of your book is available for public consumption. You could even get another thousand opinions on it, and repeat the process. Maybe come back and re-read your own book in ten years–no doubt you’ll recognize many mistakes you missed the first time through, and you can correct them. Your book never has to stop improving.
I may be dating myself, but do you recall the notion of instant cassettes from the movie “Spaceballs”? We may still be a ways off from selling movies before film production is finished, but we can sell instant books now. Amazon has the capacity (whether or not they currently pursue the option) to release an e-book when only one chapter has been written; using reader feedback or professional advice, the subsequent chapters can take any number of directions, and the finished product–if indeed you ever call it finished–can be better than you would have ever made it in a vacuum. “Choose-your-own” adventure books become possible, not only by flipping to page 87, but by vocalizing your opinion and getting the author to write the book the way you think it should proceed.
At the same time, public opinion doesn’t have to sway you. When you submit a manuscript to a traditional publisher, you must be prepared for rejection, but you must be even more prepared for the declaration that your work is wrong, and you must make it right. As an author, that’s hard to hear; but if you’re convinced of your book’s worthiness, you do not need to aim at the lowest common denominator anymore. Instead, stick to your guns, hold fast to your convictions, and tell the story you want to tell, with the message you want to share. You are restrained no more.
We are in a golden age of storytelling. Once, men sat around a fire reciting their oral tradition in poetic form. The world was revolutionized when we learned we could write it down, translate it, share it across cultures and ages. Once, some men dedicated their entire lives to copying the same text over and again onto new scrolls for dissemination. The world was revolutionized when we learned how to use a machine for this process, bringing mass production into the realm of the possible. Once, men were restricted in what they could write, how they could write it, and whether or not they could ever change it once they had written it. The world is being revolutionized as we divorce ourselves from a business model that only benefits the patrons.
Don’t get me wrong: Amazon is not an author’s best friend, and it does not solve all of the problems that authors face. Amazon is a retailer, and like a publisher, they serve the bottom line (no matter how much rhetoric they put out about supporting authors); if they have to choose between profit and art, or between profit and free speech, or between profit and a message, they’ll choose profit every time, and they won’t hesitate to pull your work from the virtual shelves if they deem you “unsellable.” At the moment, it is in their best interests to avoid this option, but when traditional publishing is finally dead, appealing to public opinion will grow increasingly attractive. As artists, authors must continually pursue liberty, and over time, Amazon will be supplanted because of their rigidity.
And don’t expect the quality of titles in Amazon’s library to improve overnight. There are still a great many terrible writers out there, and far too many of them are resistant to the idea of changing their work to please anyone. (Again, you may choose to count me among them.) But Amazon’s model makes it possible to improve all writing, through healthy competition, clear feedback, and the endless drive of economic principles. We only need to be open to it. (Influential readers, especially, need to be open to this. The number of book reviewers who refuse to read self-published works on that criterion alone is too high.)
You may note that Ms Miller opposes all of my notions with the concept that self-publishing is actually good for traditional publishing. I’ll admit: self-publishers that allow traditional publishers to poach their works are part of the problem. If you’re self-publishing with the intent of being recognized by a traditional publisher, then you’re putting in a lot of extra work to market yourself, when all you had to do was change the beginning (or ending) of your book a little bit. After all, the traditional publisher doesn’t need to help you succeed at this point; they want to cash in on the success that you’ve already had. Their investment will only be enough to continue your success for a short time, but they’ll be buying your copyrights and shorting your hard-earned income in the meantime. This kind of “self-publishing” is backward-thinking and opposes artistic liberty; it may be prevalent now, but I hope that the time will come when authors realize the difference between a publisher’s self-serving affidavit and an author’s confidence in a truly good work.
Let me be clear: I am not siding with Amazon in the debate between Amazon and Hachette because I think it will help me sell more books. I am not siding with Amazon because of the short-term benefits it provides me. (If it is short-term benefits you seek, or you think that you can achieve greater sales by allowing Hachette to continue charging an extra $3-4 for James Patterson’s books than you charge for yours, then by all means, support Hachette.) I am siding with Amazon because traditional publishing is dying, and a revolutionized industry lies in wait for the time when it has died at last.