Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Future of Publishing --Change by Carolyn Haines

Carolyn Haines is the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award and lives on a farm with more animals than she can possibly keep track of.  Her latest book, Bones of a Feather, will be released on June 21st.  The book trailer can be viewed right here: 

The Future of Publishing--Change
by Carolyn Haines

Another semester has ended—another batch of students have graduated and will move into a life that, I hope, will include writing. If not writing, then certainly reading. Reading is the ladder that leads to writing, and while not everyone will continue to write on a daily basis, all of us should read.

As any teacher will tell you, not every student in every class will end up being a published author. And the term “published” is changing before my eyes. What that will mean in five years—I don’t have a clue. It’s meant something very specific my entire writing life, but all of that is being turned upside down by the advent of e-publishing and print on demand (POD). A world I’ve known for 30 years is disintegrating as I write this. I wonder if this is what it felt like to be a monk who’d devoted his life to the beauty of illustrating manuscripts when the Guttenberg press came to town. Books went from being hand-crafted and owned only by the rich and wealthy to mass produced, which made them available to “everyman.”

A revolution with the same intensity is happening today.

Writers are walking away from half-million dollar contracts with traditional (or some call them legacy) publishing deals to “self-publish” in the Wild West of e-books. This is a landscape that reminds me of the old western movies—a young upstart can make a name for himself (or herself) if he’s fast enough on the draw and has nerves of steel.

For those of us who’ve been in the business for a while, this is a new and somewhat uncomfortable terrain. The gatekeeper--the publishing house--is losing control of what stories get to the reader. What happens now? Anything can be published (and trust me, it will be).

Spectacular stories of unknown e-book authors who were rejected by publishers but who made millions on their e-stories and who are now being courted by publishers are all over the Internet. Who are these 16-year-old geniuses who have written books that bring in multi-million dollar contracts?  And while some big name, traditionally-published authors are jumping ship and going on the self-publish road, a few of the e-published people are snapping up big contracts with traditional publishers. It’s a topsy-turvy world and hard to keep score.

So what are the benefits of this e-publishing thing? From my standpoint, after some 60 books published the traditional way, it’s sometimes hard to sort fact from fiction. Without a doubt, the e-publishing of an author’s backlist is of tremendous benefit. This is a way to keep cherished books alive—and it allows the author to retain the rights to his books. This is vitally important to many authors I know.

I also believe books that might never be published in the “traditional” houses—not because they aren’t good stories but because they blur genre lines or include elements that aren’t part of the “traditional” configuration of a specific type of book—will find an audience. The traditional publisher doesn’t know how to promote these books, therefore they are rejected. But these books are exactly what the e-market is looking for.

One of the greatest weakness of publishing today is the failure to trust story.

The same is true in movies, TV, even reality TV. New voices (or old voices with a new type of story) find it hard to get a chance if material can come only from “vetted” foreign markets. (SHADOW OF THE WIND and GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO are two fine examples of this. These books bend genre, and they were published in the states after they were bestsellers in a European market.)

Change is always unsettling, but I do see this change as an opportunity for amazing stories to come to the public. New industries will spring up to help these e-authors promote their stories. Editing, covers, marketing, and promotion are things big publishers have traditionally provided. E-authors will have to find these services if they want to stand out from a crowded field.

One drawback I see is that when the gatekeeper is away from his post, a whole lot of really bad writing will be published and the public is going to have to sift through the chaff to get to the wheat. This can be a tiresome process. Even if the books are only .99 cents, if they are dreadful, this is going to make a lot of readers mad. It isn’t the money for me, it’s my time. I’d rather spend $25 on a great book than .99 cents on something awful.

So here’s a word of advice to those who want to self-publish. Hire a book doctor/editor. Because I teach, I read a lot of stories. Most novels fail because of a flawed structure or plot. It isn’t enough to be able to write eloquently and with passion (though those are necessary elements), a writer must do due diligence with plot and structure.

This is what the great Maxwell Perkins did for Fitzgerald and others. This is what editors at publishing houses traditionally do for their writers. If a writer decides to self-publish, spend the money on a good edit. Even the most successful writers recognize the need for a second pair of trained eyes. (Your spouse or mother does not count.)

If I had a crystal ball, I’d be able to tell you what will happen. I don’t, so I can’t. This is just the beginning of a transition that will change publishing as we know it. Like any other change, it will be hard to manage. (I am not a person who loves change. I haven’t rearranged my furniture in 20 years.) But I am excited. I see loads of potential, lots of pitfalls, and a chance for writers to have more control of their books.

Welcome to the brand new world of publishing. It will be what we authors and readers make it.



Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

What an inspiring, enlightening and hopeful post.

Carolyn said...

My computer was blown up by lightning last night! Drat. She's in the hospital and I hope to have her back by Friday evening. If I don't answer a post, this is the reason. Keep a good thought for Ole Bessie and a quick recovery.

Vicki Lane said...

Good post! I especially like your advice about hiring an editor -- and a real editor, not just someone to proofread and correct spelling and punctuation.

Patrick Brian Miller said...

Despite the ease of self-publishing, I believe traditional publishers will still play the vital role of editing, and readers will come to respect that role after enough terrible $.99 books. However, in order to survive, all traditional publishers must convert to e-format. If the demand for paper books drops by 50% (as it will in the next 24 months), then that will be the end for that market. It's hardly profitable now. The price of paper books in such a scenario will become so high that only the wealthy will still be able to afford them (just like the times of the hand-crafted manuscripts you mentioned).

Speaking of Fitzgerald and the ebook market, try this related article out for fun:

Steve Yates said...


I am so glad you brought out the positive in all this swirl! Great stories will arise! When I was last in New York at the sales bullpen at Barnes & Noble, all the "legacy" publishers, the big New York trade houses had their sales reps there. And they were all in a happy huddle, each talking about his or her press's Navy Seal Team 6 book, brought instantly to light from the backlist or extruded quickly from some lightning fast writer adapting old material.... I hope one of those books was a good one and worth the cover price.... All this to say, the traditional gatekeepers are not always as thoughtful and genteel as they might have been (at least as we think they might have been) in Maxwell Perkins's day. Onward!

DearHelenHartman said...

I agree with you 110% (I'm a writer, math is not my thing). Though I DO want to say that my experience is that perhaps the issue is that publishers are gatekeepers when they should have been gardeners and that over the last few years everyone involved has become a gatekeeper (agent, editor, Sr editor, publisher, marketing,mega store buyers, who know who else) so that the process begins to look like Maxwell Smart going through all those ridiculous doors in Get Smart - and the end result has left readers bored.

If you read much in fan fic or blogs or self pub ebook excerpts and their reviews you may find there are enough people who are not that picky to make a nice readership.
It will be amazing to see what happens. Thanks for the great post to share.

Dean James said...

Excellent point about gardening versus gatekeeping. I agree whole-heartedly about the need for quality editing. Any writer, no matter how polished or successful, can benefit from a gifted editorial eye. These points aside, however, there is another piece to this issue that everyone seems to be ignoring -- the continued erosion of independent bookstores. In the print universe, many readers have relied on guidance from booksellers with whom they have established a personal relationship. In the e-universe it's difficult for independent bookstores to participate, and once they're gone, all you're left with are the opinions of unknown persons on the internet. Sure, you can sample an e-book, but the opening might be amazing. But only someone whose opinion you can trust will tell you that it falls apart after a hundred pages and you'd do better to buy somethng else.

caryn said...

I'm a newbie to the ereader. I got a Kindle quite unexpectedly for my birthday in May, but I don't see me leaving the actual printed book anytime soon. A "bargain" book on Kindle is no bargain if I wouldn't even bopther to check it out from the library for free as a print book. For me the ereader's role is to help me lug a lot of books on vacation, let me read a huge book (our library's adult reading program this summer is War and Peace)without lugging it around and let me pick up the back list of a series I've happened onto midseries. That last one is where publishers can go a long way to reel new readers in. 2 other good ways for publishers (legacies I guess) to use the ebook world is to offer the first book in a series free or at a bargain price-like Midnight Ink has done this usmmer or to have their authors do little "extras" for their series in eformat. Both Julia Spencer-Fleming and Rhys Bowen have short things out this summer that "go with" their popular series.
But I'm not running out and loading up my Kindle with a whole lot of junk just because it's free or "bargain" priced!

Carolyn said...

Thank you all for your comments. Bessie is home, healed and I am back on the web (beware!). Gardening versus gatekeeping IS an excellent point. And so is Dean's point about independent booksellers. E-books are a delivery system. Now we all have to figure out how to keep our wonderful independent booksellers because this is where writers get support and build an audience. This is where I went, as a child, to ask the store owners what to read. They knew me and they knew what I would love, and they guided me and challenged me. We can't afford to lose this part of our community. I just finished a wonderful book this morning. I got up at 5 a.m. to make a pot of coffee and read. What a delicious pleasure to smell the coffee and hold the book, turning the pages and savoring the story. There is nothing like it.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Carolyn, thank you! I read all these opinions as quickly as I see them, and find them all fascinating. It's going to continue to be quite interesting as it all works itself out over a period of time.

I agree that an any book poorly written is not bargain at any price. Life is much too short to be reading dreck. But I am loving the access to out of print backlists - that makes me very happy.

And many thanks to the rest of you for stopping by. I "thought" I had left a comment earlier, but I either just forgot (not surprising), or Google ate it (not surprising).

Fred E. Camfield said...

Ah,yes,self publishing. As an established reviewer, I often receive requests to review someone's novel. I have sometimes received very good novels that I otherwise would have missed. But I have also received some truly awful material. Some successful authors have never published their first novels, and now being established, will not consider publishing material that, in retrospect, is not really that good. Sue Grafton, for example, only pubished two of her first six novels and now is unwilling to republish those two. If epublishing would have been available, I would not want to think about what might have been sent out to the public.