I have been in a
conversation with author Jonathan Hayes on Facebook and others have joined our
discussion about filters in book publishing and what they may look like in the
Ebooks and epublishing has
many people talking about leveling the playing field. The adult equivalent of
“No Child Left Behind” idea that allows everyone to become an author. To start
with first principles, in Canada and America people have a history of
"democratization of expression.” There has been censorship in the past but in
reality people today can pretty write whatever they want.
What is new is that they
can “publish” whatever they write. By publish I mean the
Internet has opened an easily accessible public forum to make available written
expression. It can be a blog, a tweet, or a book.
No one would deny that
this is a good thing. It does offer more choice. And it gives a lot of people
options and opportunities they may not have had under the old print model of
The problem is that many
of those shouting from the rooftops are making assumptions that riches await
self-published authors or at least a comfortable living. This is largely a
delusion. Not even all those who are conventionally published are able to make a
comfortable living from the sales of their books.
The digital world hasn’t
come to grips how markets go about the monetization of expression. It doesn’t
follow that because an inexpensive digital platform exist for all writers that
the content of what they write and publish can be converted into money.
Digital book accessibility
and monetization of digital books are largely conflated in discussion of the
changes in publishing. As time moves on, most people will discover that the
overwhelming amount of digital expression has no commercial value. It is
important to emphasis the commercial aspect of this conclusion. The substance
may be brilliant, insightful, memorable, and wonderful but there is no market
for the expression.
The new technology won't
change the fact most of what is produced is valueless except to a handful of
friends and relatives. The same dead end likely will be where your uncle’s
guitar playing and singing and your best friend’s paintings are found. We admire
and love these artistic expressions because we love and know these people. But
the larger world with money in the pocket has millions of choices. And from the
way the money is allocated, it appears that most of these people pretty much
choose the same artists, writers, painters, etc.
But I have written a
really good book and not one agent is interested. Or I have an agent and not one
publisher is interested. Why not short circuit these narrow-minded fools and go
straight to a public that will immediately see how wrong these gatekeepers are
in ignoring me?
That’s a common state of
mind that leads to a self-published digital book. Obviously there are other
intentions and motives to going digital with a book. But I am only talking about
where the intention is to convert the expression delivered to the digital
platform into hard, cold cash.
I start with the premise
that digital book publishers and sellers are no different than YouTube. But they
perform a good song and dance as if they are putting the self-published author
onto to American Idol.
YouTube is largely the
world of unfiltered videos and films.
To filter or not to filter
isn’t the question. There is no way to create an audience without a filter.
There is the fallback position of ‘word of mouth’ and, yes, sometimes, word of
mouth makes a song, a book, or movie go viral. Those are the black swans. We
never know when one will appear. Only that sooner or later one inevitably does.
If you seek to monetize a book based on word of mouth or a black swan event, you
will likely be in for a very long wait. That’s not how markets or audience are
created in the real world of publishing.
Filters are imperfect
whether books, music, film, painting, poetry; we can all agree on this,
especially if the filter won’t let us through. But we are about to experience a
book publishing/selling that promises a world without filters. That is a
Down the road, some smart
new generation Jeff Bezo will create the equivalent of American Idol for books,
reinventing the filter system for the digital age. No one will find it pleasant
swimming in a vast ocean of unfiltered ebooks.
What may emerge is a
literary oligarchy that makes 80% of publishing revenues, and 20% goes to the
remaining 99% consisting of millions of authors. Some would say that is pretty
much the existing state of affairs. But what digital publishing may do is cause
midlist authors to go extinct. They will disappear. The future for authors will
be Investment bankers' kind of returns for a handful, and no way to pay the
mortgage for the rest.
It is delusional to
believe a large audience can form without the expression having gone through
some filtering system. Filters are those we trust to judge quality and talent.
Does anyone have the time to read hundreds of unfiltered free ebooks to make an
assessment alone? Does a post on a blog or amazon comments reproduce the current
filtering system? People will have their own opinion on these
For me, sustained quality
is unequally distributed. True talent is a sparely distributed asset. The same
limitations apply when considering the story, voice, and characterization in a
book. The book reading audience pays money for a book, in part, because they can
rely on the fact that the commercially published book. That means the author has
received an advance has worked its way through many separate hard nosed
professionals who ask whether this book will earn back what is being paid to the
author. Do publishing professionals make mistakes? Of course they do. Everyone
has a book they bought from a big New York publisher with blurbs from all kinds
of famous authors but feel let down. The story didn’t work for them. They threw
it against the wall. The temptation is to say the whole filtering system is a
scam, stupid, doesn’t work, is elitist, etc. Instead of accepting the current
filtering system in publishing, like with all man made systems, will sometimes
fail. An audience without some system to filter books isn't an audience but more
like a vast number of hunter gather bands with no one to lead them to the game.
Or finding coming up on game by ourselves we will have no expert to help us
distinguish between an elephant, a tiger or a mouse. That’s a dangerous way to
go hunting. Before you decide on a meal, it is wise to make certain it is