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Friday, December 17, 2004
 
Is Publishing in Danger?

The Book Trade News Digest linked to this article on Umair Haque's Bubblegeneration.

He thinks the next industry to be killed by the Web is publishing. He talks about the impact of technological changes on publishing, and argues that the current strategies publishers are using on the Internet don't work because they're not innovative. They're the same strategies as what they're using now. I guess this is like looking at the early TV shows. They look primitive to us now because they were basically radio shows set in front of cameras. (In fact, I'm pretty sure that Dragnet used to broadcast the same scripts on their TV show and on the radio!) Later TV shows made use of the new medium. Although I have heard the arguement (I think Theodore Sturgeon said it, and it was even more true at the time he wrote that piece) that even more modern TV shows are separated between those that are radio shows performed in front of the camera and those that are truly made to take advantage of the television medium.

Then again, publishers know publishing. There's a reason they still sell the same books and authors when they go on the Web. Because they know those authors sell. I do think they could work on a lot of aspects of it -- pricing for one, and of course, available formats. Heh.

I think that's one thing this article doesn't really get into. Publishers don't just publish -- they also hire editors, typesetters, advertisers (yes, even new media need to be advertised), artists, etc. One of the most important aspects of this is that they act as gatekeepers. For all that you hear about new publishing models where everyone can be published, you never hear their advocates point out that if everyone is published, no one will know which books to read because there will be a lot of really really bad books out there. There's a reason so much stuff is rejected by publishing houses. It's not because they're rejecting brilliant gems (although that happens sometimes). It's because they are rejecting huge amounts of very bad material, and smaller amounts of material that could be better if the author worked on it.

Without the publishers, who would keep the wheat from the chaff? Some people have said that once the publishers die off and everyone publishes on the web, new services will pop up that do everything from editing novels to acting as review services, or in other words, gatekeepers. In other words, they would be doing what publishers do now.

The article also says "When everyone's got a book deal, a book deal simply won't be worth that much - but a reputation will be. That's what will be both costly and valuable." Yes, reputation is important, but your reputation won't be of much help without editing (not just proofreading but structural edits and line edits), distribution (not everybody wants to read on-line, and POD isn't up to handling big orders for a long time yet), publicity, etc. There are plenty of POD authors publicizing their novels now (just check newsgroups), and they aren't making that many sales. That is true whether their books are actually good are not. Maybe once everybody can easily be published in new models, that will change, but we will still need those "hide-bound" (yeah, right) publishers to accomplish that efficiently.

But anyway, I am suspicious of any argument that says "They foist dumbed-down authors on an audience that deserves better, because their hit-driven business model is basically a vicious circle of rising marketing costs and winner-take-all markets." Some people don't realize that sometimes, readers want to read a so-called "dumbed-down" author. They're often just trying to relax with a book, not become the next incredibly well read, intelligent blogging celebrity. Besides, I take exception with "dumbed-down" because reading makes you smarter, anyway. It's an active mental pursuit, not a passive one (unlike watching TV). It can increase your vocabulary, as well as improve your understanding of grammar, etc., not to mention teaching you about various subjects. Even if you're reading something with a simplified vocabulary (such as a children's book, although many of those authors have fun with high-falutin' vocabularies), you are still at the very least actively reading.

Sort of related to this...
A lot of people make a big deal about the fact that J. K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected umpteen times. Recently, I read something one of editors who saw the original version said. She said that it wasn't like the book that was eventually published at all. She said that if it had, she would have bought it. So that means JKR did what all wise authors did. When her book was rejected, the edited it. That's why she is published today. When they rejected her originally, publishers knew what they were doing. And they were acting as gatekeepers.
Comments:
I can certainly attest to the unbelievably awful books I've had the misfortune to read at some online "Romantica" sites. :shudder: So far, Ellora's Cave has been my best bet.
 
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