The More Things Change...

Things are changing fast in Book Land. Last month, the world’s largest Christian fiction publisher decided to convert one of its traditional imprints into a self-publishing division. This week, the world’s largest romance fiction publisher announced they have entered the self-publishing business, too. Never mind the troubling ethical questions and conflict of interest concerns that many have raised about established publishers choosing to blur the lines between traditional and self-publishing this way. That’s another blog. Today I’m interested in bigger trends.

Some people think we’re looking at a future filled with hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people putting out their own novels. Given this new thrust toward self-publishing, and the ease with which a manuscript can be uploaded to the Internet as an e-Book, why not? Any author who has ever done a book signing will tell you that everybody seems to think they are a writer. Now they can prove it without having to jump through all the traditional hoops of getting an agent, attracting an acquisitions editor and satisfying a publication board. Write it and post it. It’s just that simple!

Some people also think the Internet has changed everything when it comes to production and purchase in the arts. We used to be macro-consumers. Now that it is so easy to get “published,” we’re going to become micro-consumers. No more blockbuster novels. Everybody will be reading something different because there are so many different things to read.

The Internet, they say, has changed everything, and we published novelists had better get ready for hard times because there is a wave of words coming that will overwhelm us.

I don’t believe it for a second.

Take Hollywood for example. At the end of the day, after Johnny uploads his latest YouTube video creation, I think he still sits down to stream a blockbuster Hollywood production on Netflix, right along with a million other people every day. No matter how many Youtube videos get uploaded, I don’t think that’s going to change the fact that the blockbuster Hollywood production is much more fun. And if Johnny does watch someone else’s Youtube video, on what does he base that decision? On the fact that a whole lot of other people have already watched the same video, of course. Take away the view counter and Youtube would die of lack of interest. We don’t have millions of people watching millions of different videos. We have millions watching a few videos. All the other millions of videos are seen by the people who make them, their friends, and family. Sort of like home movies.

In exactly the same way, Johnny might upload his novel to some file sharing site, but for his own reading he’s still going to choose a Steven King title over some unknown person who wants $1.50 for a download from Scribd.

I’m thinking about general trends here, and of course there will always be a few people who swim upstream, but while the Internet allows us to produce stuff at a micro-level, but that doesn’t mean the vast majority of us want to consume stuff on that level. This is due to basic human nature. Human beings have a heard mentality, and no technology will ever can change that.

There’s so much proof. Anyone could start a “news” service like Matt Drudge’s. All the man does is post links to other people’s news stories. Countless bloggers have tried to do the same, and it’s safe to say many of them post the same news links, or more interesting links, but Drudge still gets 28,000,000 hits a day while all those others get maybe 50 to 5,000. Why do millions of people go to Drudge every day? Because millions of people go to Drudge.

People have a herd mentality. We always have. We always will.

We see a line; we get in it, whether we know why or not. It just seems easier, somehow. How many times have you seen this at a ticket booth? A couple of lines, one long, one short, both for the same thing? And what is your first instinct? If you are like most people your first instinct is obviously to get in the long line, because that’s why it’s longer in the first place. It takes extra thought to get in that short line, and it takes a little courage, because a little voice warns us that the longer line must be better. After all, everybody’s in it.

Since we’re wired to take the well trodden path our marketplace will always be driven by that instinct, which means sales will always pile up in a few places rather than being thinly spread all over the place. How many search engines are there? How many people use Google, versus all those others combined? We’ve even turned “google” into a verb. We might enjoy the fantasy that someone’s out there reading our blog or looking at our video, but when it comes time for us to do some reading and looking, the Internet hasn’t changed our herd mentality. On the contrary, the Internet enables it.

What will probably happen as traditional publishing slowly dies as some predict, is a corresponding period when it’s every author for himself, with a proliferation of websites like Scribd where you can market your wares. Then one site will rise to dominance, a la Google, Drudge, Amazon, Craig’s List, Youtube, and etc.. That dominant e-publishing site will include a download counter for each title. And just as we see on Youtube, the titles with the most downloads will attract the most downloads. Tipping point will remain a fundamental marketing dynamic. Buying patterns will continue to exist just as the do today. A few authors will rise to the top, and all the others will sink to the bottom. At the end of the day, fiction authors will be in much the same place as we were ten years ago, with a small pool of the luckiest or the most talented professionals selling 95% of the novels, and a few million others wannabes splitting the other 5%. There will always be a need for professional editing. PR and marketing will still be necessary. The dominant e-publishing website will eventually change their business model and start taking a percentage of sales, of course. And being very poor negotiators, I suspect we authors will still be lucky to retain our usual 5% to 15%. In the end, unless human nature changes, life as an author will remain essentially the same in spite of everything.

Piracy, on the other hand, could ruin everything for everyone, authors and readers alike, but that too is another blog.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:41 AM  


Kay Day said... November 20, 2009 at 1:11 PM  

Makes sense to me. People are still going to want quality, or whatever it is they want. I just tried to read a best seller that I couldn't get through. Terrible writing.

I've never read an e-book. I don't plan on it either, but I suppose I may end up going to Kindle or something at some point.

My first choice is always the short line. And it's usually a bad decision. For members only. Prepaid only. Returns only. Whatever.

Tim George said... November 20, 2009 at 1:54 PM  

Great comments, as always, Athol. Market demand, quality of product, pricing, and consistency and quality of service will always win out.

Can't tell you how many emails I get every day claiming I need to get self-published, cut out the middle man, and keep all the profit for myself. Nevertheless, I made a commitment several years ago that I would be published by traditional publisher or not at all. Time will tell how that works for me but I have set my course.

Thanks again Athil

Sherrie Lord said... November 24, 2009 at 9:49 PM  

Interesting post, Athol. You are so cerebral and make so much sense. I often look to you, to get your take, as you have a talent for refining down to the essentials.

I'm not happy about the new self-pub bandits, as I hate to see people led down a yellow brick road that takes them someplace other than Oz.

I also weary of explaining to people that I didn't pay to get my books published; rather, they paid me.

But it seems there's always a piece of the sky falling in this industry. And we might be less inclined to play Chicken Little if we remind ourselves that it's God who created the industry, gave each of us the gift to write, and Who will see our fruit used to His advantage, however He sees fit. It so isn't up to us. So why do we worry?

I don't mean to sound pompous, like I know all the answers and am so very spiritual. I'm reminding myself, as well.

Athol Dickson said... November 25, 2009 at 6:01 AM  

You don't sound pompous at all, Sherrie. On the contrary, it takes humility to remember God is in control, just as you said. Often it's pure pride that leads to worry, a neurotic focus on the Self to the exclusion of all else. And as I wrote here, I do think in the end the Lord's story will continue being told by those He has chosen to be storytellers. So to quote the wisdom of Alfred E. Newman, "What? Me worry?" :)

That said, I do think in these uncertain times we must oppose those who would take advantage of the situation. Unethical business practices. Piracy. The blurring of the lines between traditional and self-publishing. Greedy hoarding of windfalls, such as the new revenue stream from e-Books. In each of these areas, unscrupulous people are scrambling to carve out their own territory regardless of the cost to authors and readers, and as Christians we must stand for social justice in these matters, just as in everything else.

Truth Unites... and Divides said... December 3, 2009 at 2:51 PM  

(apologies in advance for off-topic post)

I just wanted to say "Thank You, Athol!" for your comment over at TeamPyro on the 19 Questions post by Dan Phillips.

Well done and well said.

Athol Dickson said... December 3, 2009 at 3:22 PM  

Thanks for the support. I didn't enjoy posting that comment, but it just had to be done. The post reminded me of the famous Tertullian quote: "The devil has striven to destroy the truth in many ways, often by defending it." But then I'm afraid some of our anti-Manhattan Declaration brethren would attack Tertullian as a Montanist rather than focus on the wisdom of that quote. Sigh.

Truth Unites... and Divides said... December 3, 2009 at 8:08 PM  

Dear Athol,

Take a look at this article by Scot Klusendorf. It's in this article that Dan Phillips attacks the phrase that Klusendorf himself quoted:

"Cunningham points out, “The Good Samaritan did not preach salvation to the beating victim; he risked his own life to save a fellow traveler. Jesus used this example to illustrate our duty to love our neighbor. It is cold comfort to a dead baby that we allowed him to die to avoid working with Catholics.”"

I also want to point you to this article by Andrew Sandlin titled "Lordship Salvation is Not Enough: A Response to John MacArthur."

Mark Young said... December 4, 2009 at 9:53 AM  

A little late in reading this blog (catching up on my favorite blog sites this week), but I found your article very interesting. Though you only made reference to the issue of established publishers getting into the self-publishing business, I see this trend resurfaced again this week. Last Wednesday the board of directors for Mystery Writers of American unanimously ousted Harlequin and all its imprints from MWA’s approved list of publishers for some of the same reasons you mention. The industry is changing.

As writers we need to allow God to direct our steps through these confusing times. Thanks for your thoughts and comments.

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