Snakes and Ladders

New on Kindle!
The howls of anguish over eBook publishing continue. Surprisingly, rather a lot of them are orchestrated by a handful of youngish writers and 'cutting edge' publishers. What's even more surprising is how quickly the literary rebels, the enfants terribles of a couple of years ago, seem to have mutated into ultra conservative young fogeys - which seems a pity in writers whose work I've admired.
One is lead to the inescapable conclusion that what they really can't stomach is the democratisation of publishing. They seem to feel that our gain is somehow responsible for their loss. John Carey was right when - brilliantly dissecting literary snobbishness in The Intellectuals and the Masses - he argued that the élite who felt their position threatened by the 19th century increase in literacy, invented new forms which would deliberately exclude the lower orders. It seems that now, we are faced with a backlash from a small group of intellectuals who feel similarly threatened by a new method of delivery which threatens their exclusivity.
What phases me, though, is the reiterated statement that this new regime will mean less money for writers. I keep wondering which writers they have in mind, since - with a very few exceptions, winners in the blockbuster  lottery - every writer of my acquaintance has found him or herself better off under the new regime.
It's tempting to conclude that at least some of these writers who are complaining have had a reasonably smooth passage into publishing. Maybe they even secured decent advances. But as any older writer could have told them, for the vast majority of mid-list writers, life is more like a game of Snakes and Ladders than a box of chocolates, and most of those snakes have no respect for talent. Your counter hits the square, and down you go.
This also helps to explain why so many of us oldies are embracing the digital revolution with such enthusiasm. We and our colleagues have become disillusioned with the process of submission, enthusiastic response, extreme delay and ultimate disappointment, because the 'sales department remembers that something similar, five years ago, wasn't just as successful as they thought it was going to be.'
This kind of nonsense isn't just frustrating. It actually interferes with the creative process. You lose all enjoyment in the act of writing, because you're invariably trying to tailor your work to suit an ever shifting set of demands. I have wasted years of good writing time trying to negotiate with this world, trying to get the whole damn industry to treat me and my fellow writers not as humble supplicants, but as professional business partners.
Recently, at a conference, a participant asked me, 'How do you manage without all the support and promotion of a publisher.'
Cue hollow laugh.
Professional editing, design and promotion can all be bought in. Of these, I'd say that editing and design probably should be bought in.  If you still find yourself making mistakes, at least they are your own, honest mistakes. This is never as frustrating as the experience of handing over large chunks of equity in your intellectual property in return for some hypothetical 'respect', only to find yourself being let down time after time by the very people you trusted to do their best for you. Loyalty cuts both ways.


Ladders said…
Not for me. The feel, touch and indeed smell of a real book is what makes holding a real book in your hands feel special. While we should all encourage younger and newer writers the e-book world will quickly become swamped in rubbish.
I honestly don't feel like that. I mean if you're talking folio editions, I'm with you - but a modern paperback that falls apart on the second reading? Or the paper goes yellow? No way. I love my Kindle. When all's said and done, it's just a method of delivery. Once you've grasped the concept of unlimited shelf space you don't worry about rubbish - you just find new and better ways of finding what you want, the good stuff. It's already pretty easy. And there are thousands of coders out there prepared to help.
Susan Price said…
"Ladders" - I think you're so wrong. I've been an avid reader since childhood, but I love books for what's in them, not what they look or feel like. And I often find 'real' books a pain, what with losing my place when the pages spring shut, or pages falling out, or slippery dust covers coming off. They're often heavy too.
Since I bought a kindle, I've read loads of 'good stuff'! Discovered lots of new authors (like Catherine) too, because it's so easy to 'try before you buy'.
Before e-readers, I came across lots of rubbish, which had somehow got past those famous 'gatekeepers.' Or was it just, as Mark Twain said, 'No one ever lost money by underestimating public taste.'? Conventional publishing was never a guarantee of quality but quality stuff did get published, and there is quality stuff published as ebooks. Try some of the independent ebook review sites - or Good Reads - where readers flag up the good stuff for each other.
Unknown said…
Thanks for this post, Catherine. I found it very heartening to read about your experience in e publishing, as I have had similar trials and travails as the ones you describe, trying to get a conventional publisher for my most recent, Arts Council funded novel. You've encouraged me to take the plunge and think seriously about self publishing, being active rather than passive seems very attractive just now.
I'm very much in agreement with Susan. It's interesting to note that authors who for various reasons have turned to 'indie' publishing are joining together - for mutual support and promotion, of course -but also to get the message out there that the term eBook is in no sense synonymous with 'rubbish.' Many of these groups now involve excellent, award winning writers who have simply been badly served by conventional publishing. Authors Electric of which we are members is one example, but there are others. AE numbers Carnegie Medal Winners among its writers. Kate, good luck if and when you go for the self publishing option. As I think we've all discovered, it's a steep learning curve, but for the first time in a long time, many of us are taking pleasure in the process - and then moving on to write more!
Linda Gillard said…
Great blog, Catherine.

Ladders, even if the ebook market becomes swamped with rubbish (and I don't believe it will) no one need *buy* rubbish ever again thanks to the sampling facility that allows you to read a chapter or more of the ebook before you buy.

I can tell whether a book is any good by reading the first page. (If it's a bad book I can usually tell from the first paragraph.) Quality control is really not a problem.

People said when TV channels were allowed to broadcast 24/7 there would be a massive fall-off in quality programmes as talent & budgets were spread thin. There has undoubtedly been in an increase in rubbish programming, but is it difficult to spot the quality drama series buried among the celeb confessional documentaries?...

You must have a very dim view of the discriminatory powers of readers if you think they won't be able to spot the unpunctuated porn and unmemorable memoirs produced by amateur writers.

As for the look/feel/smell of books - that's packaging. Catherine is blogging about writers & writing.
buttonsandbows said…
I can no longer imagine life without e books now. After spending nearly an hour trying to find a favourite recipe in my bookcase I've had it with real paper. It clogs up your home and it's more stuff to dust. Music CD are going the same way. I haven 't come across too many books that are not in kindle or somewhere and if you are looking for rubbish there is plenty in the book store and it is a costly mistake if you dislike your purchase. Finally I have discovered Catherine's books and also Linda Gillard. I don't think I could have done that anywhere here in New Zealand.
Chris Longmuir said…
As always, Catherine you write a great post. Like you I have no regrets over leaving traditional publishing behind and going the Indie route, and I know there's a lot of rubbish being published to Kindle, but it's so easy to detect this rubbish because of the 'Look Inside' facility that Amazon allows. I also think there's an element of literary snobbery surrounding Kindle publishing, and I do wonder if that is based on fear of the advance of technology. It's reminiscent of the machine breaking era of the industrial revolution. At the end of the day it is the words and story that makes up a book not the pages it is printed on. The pages of a book are simply just the vehicle to get the story to the reader in the same way that the Kindle does.
Marit said…
Hi Catherine. I stop buy your blog every now and then, and this time I just had to let you know that I enjoyed reading this post very much!
Ladders said…
Thanks to everone who commented on what I said. And I belive you all have a great opinion on this subject. And just to add I didn't know about the "try before you buy" option on the E-books. Maybe it's time to give it anougther go.