Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Fabricated Conflicts in Books: Self-publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

I admit it; sometimes I read the comments sections in articles and blog posts on publishing and books. I know it's not good for me, but, you know, I want to know what people think. In a lot of ways, my job as a bookseller is all about what people think. The result is that stuff builds up in my brain and I've got to get it out or, you know, aneurism. So, in the interest of aneurism prevention I'm going to write a couple of posts about what I see as fabricated conflicts in books, phenomena presented in the media as conflicts, that, well aren't. Or at least don't have to be. Part one, Self-publishing vs. Traditional Publishing.

Why It's Not a Conflict
First of all, I'm not sure there is such a thing as “Traditional Publishing.” Random House, a publishing company with hundreds of imprints, thousands of titles, and is itself a division of a large German media corporation, will have a very different business model from Two Dollar Radio, a small family operation that focuses on innovative literary fiction, which will have a very different business model from Melville House, which publishes lost classics, international mysteries, and experimental fiction, which will be different from a non-profit publisher like Feminist Press, or a radical collectively owned publisher like AK Press, or a publisher like Tupelo Press or Alice James Press that uses contests to finance and select their titles. Really, the only thing that unites all those different publishers is the fact that they can say “no,” to a manuscript. Given the diversity of the industry, the differences in goals, in financial resources, in business models, I don't think all of them are going to all be threatened by a single entity. Sure, some publishers who can say “no” will be negatively effected by changes in the market caused by the rise of self-publishing but others won't.

Publishing and self-publishing have pretty much always co-existed with various degrees of influence on each other. Authors, like Walt Whitman for example, have always published their own works. Others, like Marcel Proust, have funded their own publication. Whether it's radical innovators who can't find an initial market or people self-publishing family histories, self-publishing has always existed along side “traditional” publishing.

The only thing that's changed is the ease with which authors can make their works public. With digital technology authors can publish their books essentially for free. The result is a massive amount of cheap, self-published ebooks. At first glance, that looks like a dramatic change in books, one that threatens the sustainability of publishing, but this is not the first time readers have had inexpensive reading options.

From the turn of the century to the late 50s, pulp fiction flourished along side “traditional” publishing. Cheaply written and cheaply produced, with a price point that matched, pulp fiction was the $.99 ebook of its day. Adding a $.99 ebook to your shopping cart now is exactly like adding a $.10 pulp novel to the top of your shopping cart then. The presence of cheap, other content didn't jeopardize publishing because, even though both were reading materials, they didn't compete for the same type of attention. If you're looking for a really good book, a pulp novel was not an adequate substitute, nor will a really good book sate an appetite for pulp fiction. Which is not to say really good books were not written as pulp or self-published, but that the initial purchase impulse is different.

In short, “traditional” publishing and self-publishing have always co-existed and, even with the cheap and free self-published content now available, there's no reason why the two can't continue to co-exist. So where does this idea of a winner-take-all, battle-to-the-death, Highlander-there-can-be-only-one conflict come from? Well in ascending order:

Media Love Conflict
Let's face it, you will never see this headline anywhere; “Amicable Competition Amongst Content Producers Results in Diverse Market.” Whenever possible, media will present relationships as conflict. And it's not hard to see why; whether it's publishing or politics, conflict is interesting. Debate is more interesting than discussion, argument is more entertaining than debate, and death-feuds are more exciting than argument. Media compete for our attention and since conflict is more likely to draw our attention than non-conflict, whenever possible, media will frame an issue as conflict.

Issue Evangelists
There are writers, bloggers, and commenters who do believe this is a fight to the death and have chosen a side. Though I'd like to say, in the interest of journalistic fairness, there are an equal number of evangelists on both sides of this fabricated divide, I really haven't seen a traditional publishing Konrath. If you read the comments, the skew is even more dramatic. You'll have the occasional person hazarding a suggestion that professional editing is worth something, but you've generally got to weed through a lot of publishing-is-dead comments. And even then, the traditional publishing defenders rarely show up with pitchforks and battle cries. As with media's obsession with conflict, it's not hard to see why there would be so many self-publishing evangelists.

They're writers and writers are narcissists. To be a writer, first you've got to believe others want to hear all that noise in your head. Then you've got to keep believing it while editors, agents, publishers, friends, and family tell you they don't. Arrogance is the phytoplankton of publishing. So it's not hard to see the progress to evangelism. The noise in my head is awesome, traditional publishers rejected the noise in my head, they are obsolete dinosaurs who are going to die and go extinct and die. You have to think at least a version of that just to keep going. But just because some writers who have chosen to self-publish have also chosen to fill comment fields with declarations of the death of other publishing doesn't make it so.

You probably saw this coming. How is Amazon the biggest contributor to this fabricated conflict? Amazon creates scarcity in the ecosystem. Over the last two decades or so, Amazon's business model has lead to there being much, much less money in the publishing economy than before. They've done so in two ways.

First, their predatory pricing put a lot of bookstores out of business, and Amazon does not create sales the way physical stores do. One might be inclined to argue that Amazon's low prices increased the volume of sales, but they didn't. Over the last twenty years or so, book sales have been declining. There are a lot of reasons why, but one of them is that Amazon simply cannot create sales the way a bookseller can. Much like some of the other points I've made, I think it's easy to see why book sales decline when book stores close. Though Amazon is great at selling books readers already want, it is terrible at selling books that readers don't know they want.

I don't care how sophisticated, objective, or data-driven Amazon's “also bought” algorithm is, I am way better at creating book sales than it is. I can recommend a book I've never read, to a person I've never met, based on the band on their t-shirt and a 10-second conversation, and I can be right. (Hold Steady, kinda up for something dark, Nightmare Alley.) In short, algorithms don't understand body language. You can't tell Amazon where you had lunch, what your favorite Saturday morning cartoon was, or why you really like tennis and get a book recommendation (though I'm sure it would like to know all of those things). To put this another way, I can gather way more information about a person in a few minute conversation than Amazon can ever gather in a life-time of purchases, and I can make intuitive and emotional connections between people and books that Amazon can't make. So because of Amazon, there are fewer people like me making those connections, fewer book sales, and thus, less money in the publishing ecosystem.

To make matters worse, because of its dominance in the market, Amazon also demands increasingly better discounts from publishers. Whether through perfectly legitimate discounts based on buying non-returnable and good old fashioned bulk purchasing or the well-documented but somehow not documented enough for the DOJ to care about, bullying of publishers into more advantageous discount structures, Amazon now pays less per book to publishers than they did ten years ago, and much less than most other bookstores. This means that publishers now get less per book for every Amazon sale. For producing the same product, bearing roughly the same overhead and roughly the same initial financial risk, publishers now make less money per sale than they used to.

The cumulative result is that, shockingly, books aren't making as much money as they used to. To an economy, money is food, and just like in nature, when food is scarce animals fight over it. So you have situations like the one from awhile ago, where a “traditional” publisher canceled a novel contract because the author self-published a few titles from her backlist. Though the contract isn't public, once you're thinking in terms of scarcity, the publisher's decision makes a fair amount of sense. They were going to invest money in this book and did not want to compete for the scarce resource of money with the author's other books. Pretty simple.

Conclusion or Jesus, He's Finally Done Talking
Great books will slip through the cracks of “traditional” publishing and only reach the reading public after being self-published by the author, as they always have. “Traditional” publishers will nurture and guide authors to long and successful writing careers, as they always have. The only question about publishing and the relationship between self-publishing and “traditional publishing” is whether forces (Amazon, the DOJ) eventually force so much money out of the market the whole ecosystem collapses. The conflict, then, is not between self-publishing and traditional publishing, but between those who value books and those who value market share.

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