by David Vinjamuri
The below post is an excerpt from Understanding Self-Publishing: 2013 (free through Saturday at Amazon), a 46 page article that includes the “Publishing is Broken” article that appeared in Forbes last year. Part one of the article, Is Publishing Still Broken? The Surprising Year in Books, appeared last Friday in Forbes.
Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion.
But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement?
…amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses.
Franzen might be right about technology: you only have to look as far as the person next to you on the sidewalk to realize that cellphones have encapsulated our attention. I sympathize with his yearning for a vaguely remembered idyllic Wessex where we can be free of the tugs of modernity, (although in the U.S. we might have to slot it into the narrow time between the end of slavery and the beginning of Reconstruction to fit the model).
Ironically, Franzen assaults self-promoting authors while self-promoting his new translation of the writings of the obscure industrial age Viennese social critic, Karl Kraus. Franzen echoes Kraus’s critique of the drain that imagination suffers from technology – substituting the awful coolness of Apple products for the awful beauty of Paris. You’d think only a frail mind would be incapable of closing the door to the outside world in order to dream, but it’s a debatable point. I personally have more trouble inveighing against the same technological forces that have raised living standards in once-impoverished countries, helped those seeking democracy find supporters in the outside world and enabled developing world farmers to sell their produce at fair prices.
The bigger problem with Franzen’s argument is that he mistakes cause for effect when he blames Amazon for the inability of writers to just write. Salmon Rushdie might actually enjoy twitter and self-publishing wunderkind like Hocking and Rachel Thompson might revel in social media. But most authors would love nothing more than to retreat to a cottage, write for months and emerge to a fawning public.
Unfortunately, that avenue has been barricaded for years. Blame Borders and Barnes & Noble, not self-publishing. Book superstores perversely priced the most popular and desirable books 30% or more lower than lesser-known offerings. The marketing theory was to create door busters, in the hope they’d stir up business for the rest of the store, but it was flawed logic. Consumers bought more bestsellers than ever, and the rest of the store became a teeming ghetto.
At the same time these stores dramatically increased the display space available to publishers, requiring them to make more high stakes bets on new authors. The net effect was to force publishers to make stark choices on which authors to support. Not surprisingly, midlist and small authors suffered disproportionately from this arrangement.
Amazon did not create the problem of authors needing to yak and tweet ceaselessly – it has actually improved conditions for publishers and authors. The minor league for authors I predicted last year is growing on Amazon and other self-publishing hosts like iBooks, Nook, The Sony Reader Store, Smashwords, and Kobo. These self-publishing marketplaces are giving publishers a safer way to source commercially viable authors, even if only in the romance and young adult paranormal genres for the moment.
While there’s some question about how well the early signings of self-published authors have done for the big publishing houses, the new bets have been placed. If the score of writers signed by traditional publishing houses over the past year prove out, it will validate the model.
That’s important because every dollar not lost on advances and marketing to unsuccessful genre fiction is a dollar that a big publisher can use to support another literary writer. As Mark Coker, Smashwords CEO wrote during a Reddit AMA:
In other words, they’re [publishers are] really in the business of throwing spaghetti against the wall. And the spaghetti they throw is often selected not for quality, but for perceived commercial merit, and these two factors are often diametrically opposed to one another. They’re simply incapable of taking a risk on every author.
Franzen’s contention that self-publishing is producing a generation of drone writers doesn’t quite mirror reality, either. As I’ll show below, self-publishing is exposing some award-winning writing that might have been lost to history. And on the financial side, there’s evidence that it’s easier to make a living as a self-published writer than a traditionally published midlist-er. David Vandagriff, an attorney and blogger at The Passive Voice told me that:
The big story I don’t see being covered is the increasing number of indie authors who are making a living from their craft. Reddit had a recent discussion about how much fantasy authors make and one of the interesting topics was how little most traditionally-published authors earned and how much more many of the indie authors who shared their sales were earning.
For traditionally-published authors, the consistent advice from agents and publishers is “Don’t quit your day job.” That’s not the case with an increasing number of indies.
Just as the advent of the DVD player didn’t kill theaters and indie filmmakers with handycams didn’t stop people from watching blockbusters, indie authors have not taken revenue from the traditional market, so Franzen’s cause and effect are muddled.
Economically speaking, it’s hard to believe that self-publishing won’t improve the quality and variety of books. There’s not a market in the world that hasn’t produced better products when real, open competition emerges.
This doesn’t preclude a race to the bottom on pricing, of course. But as publishers sign more successful indie authors the extra sales volume from self-published titles will be absorbed into traditionally published book sales. Books on average will still be sold at moderately lower prices, but the market will stabilize.
We’ll all still read traditionally published books. But we’ll pay less, and we’ll have an eye open for great indie writers, too.
David Vinjamuri writes the “Brand Truth” column online for Forbes where he covers brands, advertising and publishing. David is also Adjunct Instructor of Marketing at New York University and the founder of ThirdWay Brand Trainers, a leading brand marketing training company whose clients have included American Express, Starwood Hotels, The Corporate Executive Board and the U.S. Army. David has over 22 years of marketing and management experience. He started his marketing career at Johnson & Johnson. As a Brand Manager, David twice received the Johnson & Johnson Achievement Award and successfully launched a new OTC consumer product (Uristat®) from concept to market in 11 months. David worked in field marketing for Coca-Cola, ran promotions for DoubleClick and was VP of marketing for two other consumer companies before founding ThirdWay Brand Trainers in 2004. David graduated from Swarthmore College with High Honors and from The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy as a Citicorp-Walter Wriston Fellow. David studied marketing and manufacturing at Harvard Business School.
David writes and speaks frequently on marketing. He has been quoted as an expert on brands in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, BusinessWeek, and Investor’s Business Daily. In addition to writing online for Forbes, David has contributed to both BrandWeek and Advertising Age. He has appeared on television as a brand expert on the BBC, Fox Business News, Bloomberg TV and MSNBC. David works worldwide and has advised the German pharmaceutical industry and one of the leading motion picture studios in Bollywood on brands and social media. David’s book: Accidental Branding: How Ordinary People Build Extraordinary Brands, has been translated into both Japanese and Vietnamese. David is also the author of the bestselling thriller “Operator” and is currently at work on a new thriller.