Tuesday, January 31, 2012

There is no self-epublishing bubble (but you might not find gold…)

GuardianBooks announced on twitter “Two epublishing doom-sayers on @guardianbooks today.” I’m not sure I’d trust either with a crystal ball to be honest. In particular, I think Ewan Morrison’s argument that self-epublishing is a bubble is spectacularly off.

At the risk of sounding like a bargain-basement Joe Konrath, ebooks aren’t going away. It’s a technology shift. Ebooks are a bubble in the same way music CD’s, then .mp3 downloads are a bubble, or movies are a bubble, as in they’re not a bubble at all. There are people who still like vinyl records and theatre, but neither has the cultural significance they once had.

I can see why Morrison is trying to make an analogy between bubbles and self-epublishing, but I suspect Gold Rush is a better analogy. Fuelled by the success stories of writers like Amanda Hocking and John Locke, a bunch of folks have decided there’s gold in them thar hills, grabbed a shovel and charged off to make their fortunes. A rare few will strike a motherlode, some will eke out an existence panning dust and a whole lot of folks will return empty handed and disappointed.

This is what we’ll see with self-epublishing. There’s a lot of interest and excitement now, but that will fade once the Get-Rich-Quick merchants realise how much work is involved for little guarantee of success. The current glut of self-published ebooks will subside, but it won’t pop and collapse completely. People have put quill to parchment, or whatever equivalent, for a very long time now, mostly without any promise of riches and rewards, and there’s no reason to think the future is going to be any different.

As always with articles like this I get a slight whiff of Writer vs. writer snobbery. Writers are big, important people who write big, important words. They must receive cheques to support them writing their big, important words otherwise the whole of culture as we know it will collapse into the sewer. writers are hobbyists who scratch words out in their spare time after they’ve finished their shift and popped the kids off to bed. While what they do is nice and commendable, they’re not really important and, besides, they already have the financial support of their day job, or their partner.

When I read articles like this complaining about future hardships for publishing, I tend to substitute writer with Writer, because that’s what they really mean—the few deemed worthy enough to pass through the sanctified gates. Morrison talks about how bad it is when a newly self-epublished writer puts their book out and earns only £99 in a year. Um, the vast majority of writers never make anything, not a single penny. They spend six months, a year, whatever, writing a book and it doesn’t get published. THE END. Oh that’s right, I forget, those folks don’t count because they’re writers not Writers.

And Morrison thinks writers are going to suddenly stop overnight even though a century or more of receiving nothing failed to deter them in the past. Oh wait, my bad, he means those other Writers.

For the majority of writers, the old publishing paradigm was terrible. They couldn’t get published and no one read their work. Yes, this benefitted the reader by protecting them from an awful lot of crap, but it also atrophied choice, especially in marginal areas where publishers were afraid to take risks. Now it’s much better for the majority of writers—they get a chance to be read. These next few years will see more books available to read than at any previous point in human history. If there aren’t a few future classics amongst that lot we should give up as a species and all go and drown ourselves in the Atlantic.

The argument against that is the good books will all drown in the swamp of badly-written dreck. It’s bullcrap. If a book is good it will be found by someone, because it’s out there, to be read, forever. It’s available to be found, as opposed to being locked in a drawer somewhere, never to see the light of day, because it didn’t fit what the publishers of the time thought would make them money.

Morrison’s apocalyptic crash scenario is one where the competition between all the desperate self-pubbers creates a whirlpool of ever-lowering prices, which sucks in the major publishers and leaves no one able to make any money at all apart from Amazon. This could happen. As I mentioned earlier, over a century of receiving—on average—nothing has not deterred writers from writing. This would leave writing as the province of only eager amateurs. Purists would argue it should be done for the ‘art’ rather than money anyway, but they probably haven’t read a book written after 1870 either.

It could happen, but I don’t think it will. There is a bottom. Both Selena Kitt and Joe Konrath have experimented with pricing and come to similar conclusions. The 99c thing was fun for a while, but readers are prepared to pay more for better quality books, although probably not the crazy-high prices set by most mainstream publishers.

More likely, rather than crashing, self-epublishing will stabilise and mature. Readers will get savvier at both avoiding the crap and finding the books they want to read, and will ultimately benefit from greater choice. Despite this, it won’t be that different from traditional publishing in that a few lucky/talented writers will earn huge while the rest won’t make enough income to quit their day jobs.

The majority of writers are still better off. They make some money, whereas before they made none. They’ll find some readers, whereas before it was only friends and family. As for the Writers, they’ll have to prove they are Writers by being popular enough to sell enough books to support themselves, or by being good enough to win the awards/garner the reviews that will generate enough book sales to support themselves. If they can’t do this, then maybe they weren't that different from the rest of us writers in the first place.

If self-epublishing creates a stable ecosystem where writers that wouldn't have been published are able to supply readers whose tastes wouldn't have catered for, and allows those writers to make a profit, then it will be performing its role quite admirably.

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