February 5th, 2010


The sky is not falling - the end is not nigh

In all this hullaballoo aka the Amazon/Macmillan stand off, the new iPad etc etc, it never once occurred to me that this heralded the end of the publishing industry. I don't even think the spread and uptake of ebooks will mark the end of printed books either.

Far more talented and wise people than me have already tackled this issue - see John Scalzi ( Why in fact publishing will not go away anytime soon: a deeply slanted play in three acts), Catherynne Valente (The End of the World as We Know it (And I feel fine) ) and Jay Lake (What my publisher does for me) and more - see Bibliophile Stalker for all the links and for up to date news every freaking day (if you don't read him already, you should - go friend him, I'll wait).

I find the technology and development for publishing, distribution, marketing, promotion and so on fascinating and exciting. There is so much opportunity out there and so much more available to me to access as a low budget indie press than ever has been before. So too as a reader, there is so much more available to me and so many different ways to access it.

Here's the thing though, sometimes I kinda panic at the concept of the white noise of a publishing free for all. As a reader, I simply do not have time to wade through and take a random punt in any direction for reading material. I don't want to be the gatekeeper for all fiction everywhere. I don't want to have to spend a lot of time searching to find writers that I might like and I don't want to have a considerable amount of the material I buy to be ... well ... crap. Certainly not at the longer length.

I already do this at the short story length, as a member of the Last Short Story project. And I do it as the slush reader for Twelfth Planet Press. And here's what I've learned - most work that is written is crap. Let's say that I divide quality into "AWESOME YOU BLEW MY MIND", "pretty good, I quite enjoyed that" and "crap". Most short stories written in the years I've been reading for LSS fall into the "crap" category. And when I say "crap", I include illegible, boring, unskilled, derivative, lacking in character/plot/appeal and pointless. It sounds harsh but I don't have a lot of time to waste. There's a lot of good books out there to be read. And a lot more out there that can be skipped. And for me, I don't want to waste the finite amount of reading time I have, in my whole life, on the stuff that can be skipped. I just want the GOOD DRUGS.

The other thing I've noticed as both editor, reviewer and reviews editor is that by far the largest proportion of self published work out there is below par. It might not all be less than that in the "crap" category I described above for LSS (we only read professional publications ie writers must be paid by the publication to qualify for inclusion) but it's not good. This stuff is not good. Very very very little self published stuff is worthy of publication - the few names we can all think of that are the exceptions to that statement ... are ... and let me repeat ... the exceptions. And we all want to be the exception to the rule, so I'll just quote from that movie: HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU! We all want to be the exceptions to the rule but the fact is, we aren't.

So for me as a reader, I am not going to be suddenly trawling through the thousands of new works that will surely be self published electronically every day on the interwebs to find for myself the great genuis that lies within, and was missed by all the big fat greedy publishing houses that are set out specifically to break the hearts of emerging writers everywhere. I'm still going to be looking to gatekeepers to slush for me. And probably, a lot of those gatekeepers will be big publishing names, because within those publishing houses are these employees called editors who are specifically trained to do just that particular job. Also, by and large, I haven't found myself greatly disappointed all that often by books published by those presses.

The other issue with this "down with the publishing industry hahaha the fat cats deserve it" is the clear contempt for the industry. It's hard not to think that the main supporters in this camp have to be writers who hold rejections and see the industry as geared towards stopping them from getting published. But it's quite simplistic to look at what a publishing house does and dismiss the process as one that anyone could do.

As an indie press, I specifically look for works that sit outside the mainstream that a bigger press would do. That's not because I scorn on the works of bigger houses - bigger houses have bigger costs and are designed to sell products with greater mass appeal. That's how successful businesses work. That means that sitting outside that and looking for less mass appeal works adds an additional layer of risk to my small business. It means almost certainly that the books I produce will have smaller appeal and smaller print runs.

It also means that I have to work hard to increase the reach of my press so as to hope to engage greater and wider interest in my products in order to sell the print runs that I do. I've spent the last two years learning about the publishing industry from the ground up. I've done it with some mentoring, when I could find it but now I am mostly going alone. I spend each and every day learning about marketing, promotion, distribution and selling - through hands on experience. I spend a lot of time networking and talking to people who know more than me and have done this for longer than me. Every single day I find out or I learn something new about this business because I hunt it out. And every single day I am doing some hustling somewhere - be it to get a new store to stock my books, or for a writer to write me something for a new project or a reviewer to look at one of my books.

I spend probably more than 50 hours a week on Twelfth Planet Press. Even that figure looks ridiculously small. Right now I am working on the 6 books for the 2010 line up - selecting material, editing and copyediting and working with the designer on covers and so on. But I am still also working on pushing my backlist. When a book goes to the printer, my work as a publisher has only just begun. There's a whole new workload that comes after the book goes to press. Promotion, awards entry, reviews, sales, marketing, creating buzz. It's never ending. And if I don't work at it, then I can't maintain the cashflow for the front end, next year's books. And if I don't work at it, then the books I produce won't sell and noone will see them and they'll never get read and then what the heck was the point?

And the bigger picture point is this - if you're a writer and you want to write, what you really don't want to be doing is spending 50 hours a week for 2 or 3 years pushing your published book for sales. You kinda want to be writing the next one. Also, with each year, my backlist as a publisher grows. Which means that for the same 50 hours a week pushing one book, I am now pushing 6 and by the end of this year, I'll be pushing 12. Same work, same contacting of stores and buyers and reviewers and so on but now profiting 12 books instead of 1. My efforts start to pay off because each subsequent product becomes less and less work at post production stage.

More importantly, I'm doing something extremely vital - each success builds the credibility of the press. I am building a brand name. Over time, readers and buyers can look at the output from my press and get a picture of the niche that I am publishing. And that means they can have an idea of what the next book is likely to be like. And that's another form of gatekeeping and another way to cut through the white noise. As a reader, I know the smaller presses that I like to read and I know what to expect when they put out a new release. And I am more likely to take a risk buying that than surfing the net to buy a complete unknown book from the writer.

I don't think the sky is falling. I think that the publishing industry will adapt and evolve and expand with new technology and with new distribution and marketing options. And I think that's healthy and a good thing. But I don't for one second think that the end is nigh.



Last night I saw Partir (Leaving) at the Somerville with some work friends. We have the routine down now - we prebook and preorder pizzas and then one group gets there at 6pm to reserve seats and the other goes past Broadway Pizza and arrives with hot pizza. I love the whole Somerville thing - picnicking first and then settling into the outdoor cinema, eating ice cream and snuggling under a blanket.

Kristin Scott Thomas stars in Partir and is fabulous. I don't want to spoil the plot so I will say this film is definitely worth seeing before the end of the run (Sunday?) or catching at Joondalup, should be next week? It was quite dark and sad but gave me so much to think about in terms of the value wives/mothers contribute to marriage/family. And about the surrendering of power when surrendering earning capability. It was a very unsettling film. Seven of us saw it and were pretty much despondent and quiet on the way out afterwards.

I love the Somerville! The next film I think I fancy is called Amreeka.