FILTERS IN THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF EBOOK PUBLISHING
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 future.
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 publishing.
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 con.
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 questions.
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 edible.