Saturday, June 26, 2010

From Dave Zeltserman - The e book debate

From Dave Zeltserman

I've been having this same discussion for months with a friend of mine from my old technology world. This guy is very bright, normally very insightful, and he does make some good points as he keeps trying to argue that ebook revolution is going to be a boon for writers--one of his points being that while we're very spoiled living in the Boston area and having access to so many great bookstores, a large part of this country doesn't have this kind of access and being able to buy a book with a click of the button will lead to far more books being bought. Where we keep hitting a brick wall with these arguments is how are readers going to find books among the millions of self-published books that are going to get dumped into these ebook stores? He keeps arguing that the diamonds among these millions will find a way to be reviewed and noticed, and I keep asking him how that's going to happen and he'll mumble that some mechanism will be created, and then we inevitably switch topics to the Patriots or mutual friends of ours in the industry.

While it's far from perfect, there is a filtering system in place today. First line are the agents, then the publishing houses, then the prepub reviews, then newspaper and other reviewers, then the booksellers who'll handsell the books they truly love. And when someone goes into a bookstore today, there's a valid expectation that every book in the store meets some minimum standard, and that expectation is going to be wiped out in this ebook world.

I fully understood the frustration a lot of writers feel and the temptation for writers to self-publish their works this way, especially when you have a few writers for their own self-interest trumpeting loudly and frequently how you can make money hand over fist by self-publishing any ebook as long as it has an attractive cover and a catchy book description (remember that old saying if it sounds too good to be true..), and I'm also sure a few self-published ebooks will occasionally pop up and have some success. The reality is for most new writers, and probably for most midlist writers also, your best chance is to be traditionally published, as hard as it might be. And it is hard, and it takes years, but at least this way you're getting the prepub reviews, newspaper reviews, booksellers discovering your books and handselling, and all this gives you a chance of finding an audience and building a writing career.

There are a couple of points from Ms. Miller's excellent article (and since she's making the exact same arguments I've been making for months to my technology friend, how could I think it's anything but excellent??) that I'd like to point out:

"Also, bloggers or self-appointed experts on particular genres and types of writing are, in my experience, just as clubby and as likely to plug or promote their friends and associates as anybody else."

This is very true, but it has to be very true. People only have a limited bandwidth. How many books can the average person read a year when reading through slush is not their livelihood? 50-100 books, maybe? So it's only human nature for people to limit these books to people they know or heard about from their circle. In current traditional publishing there are 1000s of people sifting through the slush, and you can't expect this burden to be dumped on this new generation of bloggers and "self-annointed experts" and not expect them to be clubby. Hell, even though my last two books were picked by Washington Post as best books of the year, I still can't get a certain mystery trade magazine to review me--but I understand this clubbiness exists and will continue to exist because of people's limited bandwidths.

"Writers who are charming in person and happy to promote themselves and interact with fans will prosper, while antisocial geniuses may fail. (It's unsettling to wonder how the Salingers, Pynchons, Naipauls and David Foster Wallaces of tomorrow will fare in a world where social networking and glad-handing are de rigueur. Why should extroversion be required of a great novelist?"

This is another reality. In this new world where there will be a sea of self-published books out there, is it only going to be those who make the most noise who get discovered and read? Is that the way it should be? And if we then have a sea of desperate writers making noise, how is anyone going to be noticed?

"Instead, if they aren't utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions. This has been going on in the book world for at least a couple of decades now, since long before the rise of e-books: Bestselling authors continue to sell better and better, while everyone else does worse and worse."

I think this is the key. Far from liberating writers + readers, I think our sea of ebooks will only be driving readers even more to the biggest and most recognizable names. ebook stores will look a lot like Walmart today, where 100 or so of the biggest names will be pushed heavily, and buried underneath will be pages containing millions of other books, where most readers (99.9%??) will never venture.


Matt said...

The more the e-book army tries to convince others that e-publishing is the democratizing future? That having a virtual monopoly of online centralized book retailers will somehow be different from what we already have with music? (And that Luddites are *the only thing* standing in their way of their immediate worldwide success?) The more I try to get away from ‘em.

They remind me of a coked up ex-film producer at a bad party in WeHo telling us how things *really work.*

Sure, sure honey... I'll be right back. Just let me freshen my drink...

On the other hand, I actually read Zeltserman's books. Zeltserman is the dope. He gets it.

He knows history. We've already seen this with music. It's ain't hard. It's iTunes. And Myspace. And the collapse of live music due to an oversaturated market fighting more dynamic forms of entertainment.

We can either learn from very recent history or choose to repeat it. And from what we’ve seen in the music industry in the last 10 years? It’s a coming collapse.

When you adopt a corporate monopoly of online book retail, very few will ever get thru all that noise except corporate machine-approved acts not meant to have staying power. Why, you ask? Because labels (like publishers) make the majority of their money on the first few releases of mediocre talent. No one will be fostering long-term talent.

It’ll be like music today. Outside pop machinations, we have what amounts to cover/tribute bands, Glee, and American Idol. Plus a few fading giants like Aerosmith playing their greatest hits into oblivion.

And future image will be everything. True indie authors won’t get through the new book retail monopoly unless they look good on video. Sorry, “Mr. Not Overly Attractive Guy Over 33.” So who will get through? Justin Bieber will. (Aside: Hey Justin Bieber? Seen Michelle Branch lately? She used to be around here someplace…)

And all that said, there's still a whole other argument against e-books. Centralization of e-book retail will slay your local independent booksellers carrying new product. (You know...those nice folks you could actually get to know? Who might even champion your work to their connections?)

Plus you’re buying PDFs that have no resale value. Thanks, sucker.

Books – the last survivor of the file sharing pirates – join the front line of movies and music. Sure, if you’ve never made any money, then you’ll joke how you wish you were popular enough to be pirated. But if you’ve ever cashed the check from your books to pay your mortgage? You won’t find it so funny any more.

And you won’t get protection from your publisher. Did you see Ed’s post about DC comics pushing for digital? You think DC’s gonna care if people pirate their comics? Try again. They make the vast majority of their dough from summer-release movies and product licensing. They’ll gladly give up a few pennies that would otherwise go into the author’s pocket to foster the popularity of a franchise character whose movie is coming out this summer.

Ah well. One could go on and on. And hey, perhaps we're wrong. Maybe it'll be different this time. [crosses fingers and toes] Because doing the exact same thing expecting a different result isn't the definition of insanity. Oh wait...or is it?

Speaking for myself, I would *love* to be proven wrong. Why would I not? I have nothing to lose if I’m wrong. I would love to see a new batch of bitchin' writers living on the fruit of their craft.

But, If the e-book army is wrong? We all lose. Online booksellers will become a virtual monopoly turning into said Wal-Mart bookshelves spotlighting only Kellerman and King and a few disposable teenage writers.

Midlisters and future midlisters here will fade into background noise. Sure, like with music, there will be a dozen or so niche e-publishers selling just enough limited edition hardbacks to keep a select group of writers each earning around 20K a year.

But the rest? The rest will starve.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

I am for anything that empowers writers and gives them more say over their own work.

I am not convinced this e-book revolution is going to do that. But there's no sense in pretending it's not going to happen. And with more and more supposedly legitimate publishing houses (Harlequin opened the floodgates on that one) starting up vanity press looks like very dark days ahead for writers.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

I don't mean to spam this thread, but I just remembered something one of my writer friends, John Z., told me.

He said he has been mentoring a newbie writer who wants to self-publish. John has been trying to talk this person out of it, but the person said "I am not going to let my lack of talent keep me from being published."

Frankly, when we're up against that kind of mind set, then we've already lost this war....

Dave Zeltserman said...

Matt, all excellent points. There's so much wishful thinking out there that completely ignores common sense.

Here's something that no one mentions--and that's going to be the screwed up attention spans of future readers. With physical books you can go off and disappear for an hour or two without having to be plugged into the internet. If you reading on something that's providing internet access, readers are going to be constantly breaking away to check email, facebook updates, web surfing, etc. The ability to disappear inside a book will be lost. A brave new world ahead of us.

Jeff P said...

I see this clubbiness already happening whenever I browse the Horror section at my local Borders. There is at least one small press publisher specializing in zombie books. I've flipped through them and read portions, and I doubt any of them would get a contract with a major publishing house. But, these books have blurbs on the covers! From who? Other people who have written zombie books for (you guessed it) the same publisher.

This is only the beginning.

"I am not going to let my lack of talent keep me from being published." It scares me that a human being who aspires to write can say this with a straight face.