Weeping Crocodiles: The Great eBook Debate

The backlash against eBooks has been rumbling along, sotto voce, for some time - but recently, there have been a few loud howls of anguish. The end of civilisation is nigh. Franzen was crying 'woe, woe!' This morning, it had even spread to BBC 1, where Ewan Morrison, less angst ridden, but still fairly negative, debated the issue with Louise Voss who has done rather well from indie digital publishing. It reminded me of an edition of a programme called Imagine, shown on BBC TV late last year, which proclaimed the virtues of traditional publishers as honourable gatekeepers, there to nurture, protect and promote writers. Would that they were. Would that they did.

This would all be just a little more believable if the last decade or so hadn't seen conventional publishers presiding over the slow decline and eventual death of the mid-list, that wonderful, huge, fertile, centre ground of publishing, encompassing everything from well written genre fiction to literary novels, with all kinds of fascinating stuff in between. And for a very long time, they have managed to con mid-list writers into thinking that it was all our fault. This centre ground used to be the seed bed from which the occasional (usually unexpected, almost always unpredictable) blockbuster success would spring. Sometimes - if the publisher got lucky - it might be an author's first or second book - but much more frequently it would be their fifth or sixth or seventh book. The others would have reasonable, albeit not massive sales, but would have been growing a staunch readership. And if a book did become a bestseller, some of those profits would be ploughed back into nurturing the other seedlings in the mid-list.

Then, slowly but relentlessly, everything changed. No matter what big publishers may say in their own justification, (and I exempt the small, frequently more caring independents here) the experience of most writers - even those with agents - is that editors are now almost wholly ruled and overruled by their marketing departments, and those marketing departments are looking for instant gratification in the shape of a quick and easy bestseller.

They find those quick and easy bestsellers in ghost written sleb memoirs or autobiographies of sportsmen and television chefs. And cookery books. Lots of those.

It ill behoves them, therefore, to wring their hands and weep crocodile tears over the death of the book, when they have effectively spent a decade or more kicking it in the teeth. Just about every writer of my acquaintance - and I know a lot of them - would tell of deeply frustrating rejection letters all essentially saying the same thing: 'I love this, I think it's wonderful and well written, but in the current climate, we can't publish it. Our marketing department doesn't know how to sell it.'

That being the case, how dare they scream blue murder when writers are empowered by the rise of the eBook and allowed to get the work out there themselves? To suggest 'regulating' this movement is to suggest putting power back into the hands of a set of gatekeepers who have proved themselves to be somewhat less scrupulous than St Peter. Moreover, to suggest that the rise of the eBook will stop people reading, flies in the face of all evidence to the contrary. People are reading more on their Kindles and IPads and Nooks than ever before. And to suggest that indie publishing will somehow limit the ability of writers to make a living from their work, is to display an astonishing ignorance of how most writers - even well published writers - find it almost impossible to scrape any kind of living at all from their craft.

A single example will serve to illustrate the advantages:  eBook publishing often involves a 'slow burn' with sales taking off - for a variety of reasons, too complicated to go into here - some time after publication. By contrast, conventional publishing now demands the launch, the immediate and astronomical rise in sales and the ridiculously swift slide towards the remainder pile. Most writers - with a few lucky exceptions - will have been made to feel guilty about their inability to meet the wholly unrealistic targets set by their publishers - and this with well written, well reviewed and popular books - just not instantly popular enough.

So what if there is a lot of dross out there? In a virtual world, shelf space is unlimited and people are already hammering out ways of finding what they want. Besides, your dross might well be my good read, and who is qualified to make those judgements?

Speaking personally, I've had a long career which has involved a frustrating switchback. It's no surprise that many of indie publishing's most enthusiastic proponents are older writers with a good track record (and a big back list) who have encountered obstacle after obstacle - as opposed to youngsters who have not yet had time to become jaded with a decaying system.

Above all, eBook publishing gives writers the power to sell the products of their own talents, themselves. It would be far more helpful to 'beginning writers' to debate grown-up topics, as so many US authors do on their remarkably helpful blogs: the desirability of honing your craft and thinking about your readers, the importance of your cover image, the possibility of engaging professional editorial help in a businesslike way, the need to get your head down and keep writing, rather than resting on your laurels after one book - all these things are useful. Elitist hand-wringing is not.

But of course, that would mean treating the writer as an aspiring or seasoned professional, rather than a humble supplicant. All of which helps to explain why, for so many of us, the publishing industry has lost all credibility as the keeper of culture it still fondly imagines itself to be.



JM said…
Fascinating, and so very true. Writers are finally beginning to stand up for themselves, and the industry can't believe they don't hold the reins any more.
Very good post.
Linda Gillard said…
Thank you, Catherine, for blogging so wisely & succinctly on this very important issue.

Last year at a writers' conference at which the buzz topic was e-publishing, particularly indie e-books, a young editor from a women's commercial fiction imprint was grilled by some experienced midlisters such as you describe. We asked her what a publisher had to offer those who were making more money as indies; who were coping with doing their own publicity; who were producing covers they actually liked; in short, those who were luxuriating in total artistic control. We asked, why should we sign a contract with you?

Clearly surprised & at a loss, the young lady laughed and said, "We're terribly nice people to work with!" She had nothing else to suggest and moved swiftly on.

So that's it. That's what they're offering to lure us away from being in control of our artistic destiny. Tempting prospect, isn't it?

I wonder if the coffee's good...
That's both sad and funny, Linda!
Chris Longmuir said…
I agree with everything you say, Catherine. And I loved Linda's comment about the writers' conference. Good one, Linda. I have been at conferences where publishers reckon we can't do without them because they provide promotion and marketing (wee laugh up my sleeve there). I also heard a publisher say on the telly in response to a question on self publishing ebooks, that, yes it was easy for an author to produce an ebook but that they would languish in the 500,000 plus ranking area forevermore. The only book of mine that's gone anywhere near that is my traditionally published paperback! Rant over.
I haven't seen either of the interviews this post is responding to, but thank goodness you did - and that you said all this.
It almost goes without saying that I know many writers in the same boat - I'm one myself. I'm not going to trot out the story here; I seem to have to tell it all the time.
What we now need is to hammer away the media's current attitude to indie books - that it's nothing but a few upstarts uploading their driveling fan-fiction and can largely be ignored. We need to campaign for attention in the national press alongside the conventionally published books.
Dan Holloway said…
This is a very well-balanced post. I've read reports of the Franzen interview and my thoughts are - unlike, I hope, my books - unpublishable. I do have a lot of time for Ewan - he's a lit more subtle a thinker than his more vocal detractors give him credit for, and I think he's spot on about the self-epublishing bubble, but I thik many people have (wilfully?) misunderstood what he means or what the implications are. I am a huge admirer of what Louise and Mark (whom I would count as a friend as well as colleague) have achieved, but I think they non-representative of both the current state and the current opportunities of self-epublishing. I've commented at some length on Ewan's piece in the Guardian this week as to why I think criticism of his bubble label is misplaced (I've pasted one of my comments at the end). I think once changes have bedded in, the e-landscape will look similar to the paper landscape at present - charts will be dominated by the same genres, and writers within those genres will by and large in some sense be "represented" - by agents selling subsidiary rights or publishers. There will, of course, be the odd bestseller who won't want representation.

But that's not the interesting part - the interesting part is the opportunity self-epublishing gives to the midlist - prolific midlist authors will be the biggest relative "winners" in the shakedown by far, with the potential to sell regular smallish, medium priced quantities of multiple titles that it would be unthinkable for a publisher to support through advances or marketing budgets but which for an author can represent a modest but equal-to-the-good-old-days wage/supplement to a living. Those like me who write extremely niche material for a minute audience will be largely neutral - we rely on connecting with our readers on an almost individual basis and do so largely in ways unrelated to sales platforms like Amazon or Apple.

My comment to Ewan about bubbles:
The dot.com bubble is a classic example where there was no end-user inflation - the price increase was notional - it was about the perceived eventual return on an activity (in particular an increase in the ration of perceived eventual return:effort - generated by extrapolations from increased actual returns), albeit this was often concretised by IPOs and injections from venture capitalists. So anyone using lowered ebook prices as a counterargument has missed the point. The fact is that authors entering the market at certain point had initial 6 and 12 month returns on their effort increased compared to their predecessors. This was typically at a time when e-readership was growing faster than e-authorship. Authors entering later and putting in a similar effort had a lesser return in a 6 or 12 month period, but (which is where there's typical bubble psychology) nonetheless believed that increasing effort would see a return to the initial yield:effort ratio.

In other words, the optimism generated by authors hitting key milestones (a year, 6 months) was feeding into the expectations of authors entering the market. One of the reasons for this is, of course, the widely reported (just look at the sales figure reports on Kindleboards.com) phenomenon of sales growing by means of geometrical not arithmetic progression from initial tiny figures (which has the effect of stripping poor initial sales of their potential to dampen optimism). External (increasing initial promotions by mainsteream publishers) and internal (growing numbers of authors diluting the possibility of entering a recommendation-algorithm upward loop) factors mean that this model of growth is now not the predominant one, which is increasingly following the regualr market where strong initial sales are required to generate strong follow-on sales. But authors can't get beyond the evangelising-meme psychology of "I started out slow and built"
Kathleen Jones said…
I was shouting Yes! Yes! at every line. Every word you write is so true. It makes me very, very angry to see good young writers ruined by publishers who have expected too much too soon, and good older writers thrown on the scrap heap because they are no longer best sellers. We have to change this culture. Catherine Cookson didn't make any money (or even get into paperback) until her 10th book and she was nearing 60. She then managed to keep two publishing houses in champagne and five star holidays for nearly thirty years single-handed!
Lessons to be learned there.
Thank you for posting this Catherine - every publisher should be made to read it.
Interesting responses, all. But I find myself taking fairly strong issue with you, Dan - simply because we don't yet know how it will all pan out. The growth in sales of eBook readers has only just begun, and the change in the publishing model, ditto. I have seen no evidence for your premise that we'll all go back to the big initial promotion/ big sales model - and mostly because for the vast majority of writers, even conventionally publisher writers, it never happened anyway! And also, because with independently published eBooks, there is nobody to say 'that's it, you've failed, take it down' unless it's Amazon, and I can't see why they would do that with unlimited shelf space at their disposal.
I think we have to grasp that Amazon is a technology company that decided to go into bookselling, rather than vice versa - and look to the way other technology products are sold - for example mobile games and apps, which I know a bit about. There, given that an app fulfils a certain minimal set of technical criteria, it's sent 'out there' and it's up to its creators, working with various online tools, to promote it and sell it. And believe me, just as much time and energy goes into its creation, as goes into a book. But it's sold at around the same price as an indie eBook. And it too can have a slow build, with various unexpected outside factors affecting sales. This is completely different from the big and very expensive launches which the huge multi million dollar games are given. Wonderful if you have a major success - disastrous if you don't, like Realtime Worlds, with a supertanker they couldn't possibly turn round in time.
The way that whole industry is evolving reminds me of the way eBook publishing seems to be going.
Latterly, publishers have done next to no promotions for any but a handful of stars - and we've no reason to think that they are going to be able to change.
We all have to start thinking outside the box. Personally, having had five agents in a long career to date, I would be very very VERY wary of signing with anyone else on the usual 'agent' terms. I might consult a lawyer, but I wouldn't go cap in hand to anyone again. eBooks have brought back the profound enjoyment I used to have as a young writer, thinking that anything was possible. The work itself has resumed its rightful place in the centre of my life - and I would be very reluctant to give up that feeling of being in control.
Debbie Bennett said…
Oh I can so empathise. I am one of those who had editors batting for me but the marketing people said no. I really was on the point of giving up when the kindle was born.
Dan Holloway said…
Yes, absolutely everything has yet to come out in the wash and preictively I'm making intuitive guesses. In the two and a bit years I've had books on Kindle and been involved with other writers who have, I have noticed a difference, though, in the way books "take off". Around spring of last year, publishers started getting a lot more aggressive with initial offerings and Amazon started offering a lot more promotions. I absolutely agree that the limitless shelf-life of ebooks *is* different, and I can see many if not most books selling at modest levels ad infinitum. My predictions are more based on bestsellers charts, which tend to be the focus of e-evangelists. These are increasingly mirroring paperback charts - it's not necessarily big marketing bucks doing it, but Amazon's e-mails are a huge factor. It was the case that people who would consiedr themselves midlist authors enjoyed geometric growth. I think we are already seeing a steady arithmetic growth amongst such authors and I think that will continue.

I should make it clear that I'm saying this as a huge self-epublishing enthusiast. My point is I think most people have missed the real strength of self-epublishing - resurrecting the midlist, and that by accepting that there is bubble behaviour going on fuelled by Konrath and Locke and others with very zealous "sell your way to success" blogs and books, and refocusing we can actually unearth a much rosier and more exciting (if not particularly sexy) story about dropped midlist authors getting their livings back. I guess ultimately it's a call for more nuance and less drawing up of battle lines - one thing we have as self-publishers is flexibility - we must make sure we never lose that.
Oh I agree completely about the mid-list, Dan - and since we mid-listers earned so very little (I was offered a £500 advance for a book shortlisted for a big prize, not all that long ago!) ought is much better than nought. I think, though, that when you read what the likes of Locke and Konrath are actually saying, rather than what is being said about them, you'd probably find them agreeing with you too. I have read, for instance, profound good sense on Dean Wesley Smith's blog, recently, on taking the gifts the God's provide, not expecting to be an eBook millionaire, but working diligently, connecting with readers, and getting the work out there in a professional manner. The sad thing is that conventional publishing has so neglected this aspect of writing, of late, in pursuit of the instant hit!
JM I don't know why your comment didn't show up till now - but thank-you for making it!
Wendy R said…
The intelligent and insightful debate here in response to your post reflects so much of the dialogue I've been enjoying over the last year with writing friends. There is no doubt that publishers have been somewhat wrong-footed but also I note that they themselves are getting into e-publishing in a big way - so it must be good business! I most certainly agree with your commentators who mention the empowerment of writers, both well published and neglected and new writers who've never managed to get past the gatekeepers. It is so cheering to see how positive it makes them - and how it lifts the stress and allows them to get down to the important job of actually creating their novels.
It is so important - as you say Catherine - that writers make sure their own quality control is of the highest standard.
Thank you for raising the debate so important to us all. w.
Thank-you, Wendy - and yes, it's very cheering to see how interesting and thoughtful the debate has become. You're right - it's the empowerment that's wonderful, allowing us to move on with new work. I hadn't realised until last year just how bogged down I had become in trying to please so many different people, all with quite different agendas - and the work itself (which in the last analysis is always done for love, even when it's also done for money if possible!) had become 'stuck'. It's like suddenly being able to breathe again. I find interesting parallels with radio, from my own experience. It used to be that a producer would work with a writer, until he or she had learned the craft. If a producer, working at the 'sharp end' backed a script and was prepared to devote time to it, it would almost always be broadcast - and the dramatist would have learned a great deal in the process. It was a very professional and rewarding way of working, and involved a partnership and a lot of mutual respect. But somewhere along the way things changed, and now writers are once again struggling to second guess a market, to please some remote editor, to fulfil a mysterious set of criteria bearing little relation to the work itself. Sadly, with radio, there's nowhere else to go -although I know that young film-makers, for instance, are now doing it for themselves.