Industry Shifts. You Should Too.

Thoughts on Digital Self-Publishing (DSP), Series Three

As Jenny the Bloggess recently pointed out, there are no "rules" for successful digital self-publishing. Many industries have a proverbial mailroom, a place where you "do your time" while learning the ropes and making connections, providing ambitious/determined/persistent/tenacious individuals a path to the job they actually want. Most professional creative arts don't have anything as concrete as an actual mailroom – typically, your career begins with some manner of audition, upon which the industry either accepts you or it doesn't, and if it doesn't you have to decide whether to try again – but there have always been ways for new artists to boost their chances of breaking in. Musicians can move to Nashville and play coffeeshops. Stage actors can garner credits by working their way up through community theaters and small companies. Artists can gain exposure through local galleries and art shows.

Writers' "mailroom" used to be periodicals. Once upon a time, you could intern with a print publication or freelance with several, work your way up to having your own regular column (a paying gig!), build readership and reputation, then capitalize on that experience and position to make the leap to part-time or full-time book author.

That wasn't the only route to writing success, of course, but it worked for centuries, from Charles Dickens to Neil Gaiman.

But with the recent decline of print periodicals, the path from "starving writer" to "successful author" has gotten a whole lot less clear. Free-to-read web-based publishing has gobbled up our trail of breadcrumbs. 

(True, it also creates opportunity; but if something is broad it is assumed to be shallow, and often deservedly so. All-access web publishing means that everyone can be a blogger, anyone can start an online periodical, anybody can get thousands of hits per month. All you need is sensationalism, a clever URL and SEO tweaks, and some possibly-off-topic viral marketing. The fact that this opportunity exists undermines the credentials and credibility of legitimate web writers.)

It won't always be this way. Right now, writers are operating during a brief window where technological changes are shaking up established industries. The big players are slow to change, but they also have a lot of capital and clout. Although its not optimal, they can afford to take their time adjusting. Here's what I'm expecting:

  • Periodicals will make a digital resurgence, severely limiting access to free web-based content in favor of paid subscriptions managed through ereaders. New periodicals will have lower subscription and production costs, fewer employees, and decentralized (cloud-based) virtual offices. I've been anticipating this for a few years, and it's only recently started to happen.

  • The decline of brick-and-mortar bookstore chains, far from heralding the end of physical bookstores - as champions of the ebook revolution like Smashwords founder Mark Coker continue to imply - will actually re-open market space for smaller, privately owned, mom-and-pop bookstores. 
Of course the big players like Borders have a hard time competing with online booksellers. Giant retailers are able to take over from local shops because their size allows them to conduct business more efficiently and less expensively, so they can undercut local shops' prices and steal their customers. Online retailing takes efficiency to a whole new level: it's far easier and more cost-effective to maintain a single virtual storefront than thousands of physical storefronts. It's the difference between running a single store that a billion customers can access, and running a thousand stores that reach a thousand customers per store.
But people will always want real books, and physical bookstores are good for readers, authors, and publishers alike. They allow for "accidental discovery" and socializing with other, local, real readers, in ways that social media will never be able to provide. I think that as Walden, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million stores gradually slip away, smaller, more interesting, more agile bookshops founded by smarter, more interesting booksellers will begin to pop up in neighborhoods and shopping centers.
These new bookstores will be organized around interest and connection. New bookshops will be organized around genres, book clubs, particular literary movements and writers' groups, award-winning titles. Or they'll be organized around activities other than reading, but that go very well with reading - the new bookshops will look like coffeeshops, tea emporiums, pubs, cafes, curiosity shops, board game parlors, used book exchanges, gardening shops, christmas shops. They'll be the kind of place where you sit and stay awhile, or where your hobbyists' group or book club meets on midweek evenings.
Meanwhile the new bookseller, or shop owner, will likely have a small enough inventory to manage that he or she will have read each book the shop stocks, so customers will be able to trust that any book they risk buying will be worth the read. Or maybe, after a few visits the girl behind the register will know what drink to get ready as soon as you push the door open, and when you talk about what's going on this week you'll each have a book to recommend to the other.
I, for one, am happy to see the corporate booksellers, always chasing efficiency, move online and out of our neighborhoods. Once they do, it won't be long before I can walk down to the little shop on the corner, order a coffee, and be told which of the new titles that came in this week I ought to read next.

  • DSP will become the de facto vetting process for traditional publication. Here's my reasoning:
For years, the traditional-publishing acquisitions process has been fundamentally broken, just waiting for some new method to come along and replace it. Acquisition editors receive so much correspondence and have so many projects to wade through, they're choking. There simply aren't enough hours in a week to give pitches sufficient attention. Editors work ten hours a day at the office five and six days a week, then spend hours more each evening reading manuscripts. Inevitably, great books get rejected because their authors haven't written a sufficiently compelling query – and lots and lots of crap books get published because an author wrote a great pitch, but has only written a mediocre story, and the publisher can't afford (because of time constraints or cost-benefit analysis) to give the mediocre book the developmental attention it needs to become a good book.
How many times have you been in a bookstore and thought, “how on earth did this get published??” or “I'm not at all surprised to see that one in the Bargain Books section.” (And then followed it up with, “if this guy made it, how come I haven't?” or “hey, if this got published, mine certainly has a shot”?)
This situation is pretty bad for traditional publishers, authors, and retailers alike. As Mark Coker explains in Smashwords' Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, print-book retailing is based on a consignment-style business model. Physical bookstores only have so much floor space, so they generally only stock new, unproven titles for a few weeks before sending unsold copies back to the publisher for a full refund. A good book only has a few weeks to capture reader attention (and investment); a bad book is just stealing precious visibility from a better title.
You would think that, given how difficult it is to break into traditional publishing, publishers would at least be able to guarantee the quality of their products. But they can't. There are so many wannabe writers clamoring for attention, on top of all the usual demands of business, that it simply hasn't been possible.
And that's where DSP comes in.
Traditional publishers are already starting to wake up – already starting to comb the top-100 lists of DSP books for new authors to offer print deals to. If a DSP book is doing well, acquisitions editors already know that fronting the cash to market and print thousands of copies is a sound financial investment. Before DSP, they had to guess. And they were pretty good at guessing – good enough to be profitable, anyway – but it was still guessing. A successful DSP title removes the guesswork.

All that's a bit of digression, though. Say you do become successful as a DSP author. At that point, you may not be interested in traditional publishing (even if traditional publishers are interested in you).

Regardless, one reality that DSP hasn't changed for writers is the need to dodge slush piles. In case you're not familiar with the term: in traditional publishing, a slush pile is the name for the bottomless stack of sub-par query letters and manuscript proposals that whole sections of acquisition editors' offices are buried under. You get tossed into a slush pile, man, you may as well have fallen into a black hole. There's no coming back from that. (Not with that project + editor combination, anyway.)

In DSP, the slush piles aren't gone – they've just moved. Tactics for avoiding them – also known as the best practices for marketing your book – have shifted as well.

As I said before, there aren't rules for DSP. What worked for one author with a particular title or body of work at a certain time with a given venue isn't necessarily going to work for you / your book, even if all the other conditions are essentially identical.

But there are trends, principles, for how internet-based creative business works. I'm going to tell you what they are, explain why they operate the way they do, and make suggestions about how to harness those ideas on behalf of your own writing. Stay Tuned – that's what's up next.

1 comment:

  1. Many school libraries are starting to go digital, and that is a shame. I hope you're right about the small book stores.