I had some thoughts crystallize themselves over the last few days, as I’ve poured over page after page of Unusual Events, tucking sentences here and trimming typos there. Thoughts that stemmed from a conversation with a family member of the weekend, and then pulled themselves together around a single, central point as Monday morning Penguin made what was probably another (I say because I don’t follow this that closely) announcement about e-books ruining the industry, this time laying the upcoming loss of 255 warehouse jobs on the humble electronic manuscript.
Yes, they’re still beating that tired, old horse. Probably will for a time to come to.
The thing is, though, that in a way they’re not wrong. At least, to say that e-books are part of the cause. Now, are they part of the blame? Well, no. There I say no. But in mixing my last few weeks of Alpha and Beta editing with the aforementioned conversation I had over the weekend and then seeing Penguin’s announcement, everything sort of came together for me in a crystal clarity.
Right, too many words. I’ll just get right to it: Yes, e-books have changed the industry. Forever changed it, mind. They’re not going away anytime soon.
But they’re also not the cause of the troubles so many of the big publishers are facing right now. They are a part of the cause, certainly, but as I said, they cannot take the blame. No, that blame rests solely elsewhere.
With the publishers themselves.
Let me explain, lest some of you dive down to the comments to explain how I’m wrong before I get to the core of things. The real cause of the e-book rise isn’t the e-book itself, it’s in the infrastructure that gives it life: The internet. That nearly seamless collective of global computers that enables you to read this post, right now, on your phone, tablet, or personal computer.
That infrastructure, I would debate, is the true cause of the big publishers problems right now. Because just like movies, music, and video games before them, the big book publishers have not adapted to the new world they find themselves in.
Let me talk about editing for a moment. Here’s how editing works for me right now. I sit at my computer and finish up an Alpha draft, ready for readers. Then, I upload the Alpha draft to Google Drive, convert it to a Google Doc, and after a minute or two of playing with sharing settings, each and every one of my Alpha readers can not only read my draft, but leave real-time comments and suggestions right on the line they think needs work (or want to praise). Better yet, those readers (and they are awesome, here’s a shout out just for them!) can also talk with one another and me via comments or the chatbox. We can discuss fixes, suggested changes … it’s awesome. I can edit the document in real-time alongside the master, tracking all changes.
Beta editing goes the same way, but with other tools. I have a word processor at my disposal. For those who don’t know, that is a massively powerful tool for the modern age. Worried that there may be double-spaces between words anywhere in your 325,000 word juggernaut? Find and replace, people. Bang. Three seconds, and you’ve just removed every one of them and swapped them out for a single space. Three seconds to do a task that, before Word, would have taken hours if not days.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. There are a lot of little tricks like that in Word that make editing, fixing, and generally cleaning up a manuscript easier and faster.
Right, so where am I going with this?
The point is, editing has changed. Thirty years ago, had I finished a manuscript, I would have had to mail every one of those Alpha readers a 1000-page tome to page through, one by one. I would have had to print out each one, put them in boxes, and mail them via snail-mail. It would take at least a few days to a week for them to even get them. And then they’d have to keep them in order as they made notes either in the margins or on another sheet of paper.
Beta editing would be similar. A manuscript (physical) would need to be sent a physical copy (and I’m glossing over the submission process and assuming your editor is already looking for your work). That manuscript would have to be paged over. And then pages would need to be rewritten, or maybe the entire manuscript.
This was the state of editing and publishing a book before the internet. Phone calls. Letters. Snail mail. Weeks worth of waiting. All to get a book published. And to those author’s credit, they did it. And they published some great stuff.
But this process is why publishers became big in the first place. I’ve not even talked about marketing or managing a marketplace, but thirty years ago, it took a lot of logistical work to be published. There were long dead periods where things where the check was in the mail, where nothing was being done.
And publishers were set up to work with these restraints and to mediate them as best as possible. The problem, though?
Most of these publishers haven’t changed since then.
For example, going to the talk about about a manuscript. If you were going to send your completed draft to a publisher these days, what would you do, do you think? Would you print it out, put it in a box, mail it in, and wait six to eight months for a reply? Or would you drop it in an e-mail and send it instantly.
If you guessed the first one, then congratulations. You’re right.
And therein lies the problem. The big publishers? They’re still acting as if most of these technological advancements don’t exist. They want physical manuscripts, printed out on dead trees. They want to write notes in the margins. When JK Rowling sent her draft of The Deathly Hallows to her editor, it was delivered in person by an agent who carried it on an airline flight as his carry on.
Meanwhile, along comes an entire new generation of authors raised on personal computers, familiar with the tricks, ins, and outs of the digital age, and we look at the publishers old, outdated logistical system and say “Why on Earth would we do that? What a wasteful expenditure of money, resources, and time.” And then we send our digital manuscript out to our agents or our readers, get feedback, and in weeks can have a book up for sale as long as everything lines up (the only reason Unusual Events has taken me so long is the two breaks in the middle I’ve taken).
For the publishers, it’s a nightmare. They won’t change, as doing so would require trimming all the fat they’ve picked up over the years, be that employees or methods. Which leads us to today, where they’re placing the blame for their own collapsing infrastructure on the competitor rather than where it should rightfully be. Penguin? They’re still asking for physical print manuscripts over on their DAW page, which probably plays a much larger part in why they’re having trouble with the modern age than anything the e-book did.
The e-book is a symptom, a sign not of changing times, but that times have already changed. Authors don’t need the elaborate systems Publishers are still utilizing any longer. There are too many redundancies, too many extra steps that no longer serve a practical purpose and instead contribute only to one thing: a higher cost.
And as an author, I don’t want to pay that higher cost. I like my higher royalty check; making a living as an author is hard enough. And consumers don’t want to pay that extra cost, either. Comparatively, what’s happened is that we have two “stores” selling a similar, comparable product at two very different prices. One is priced high and made in a massive factory that was built over a hundred years ago, while the other is priced low and made in a modern, streamlined factory that cuts out many unnecessary steps that the other factory still uses because they are unwilling to cut them. Not only is the more modern one cheaper and just as well made, but it has the benefit of being even more profitable for the item’s creator.
It’s no wonder the big publishers are having trouble.
And so we come back to the humble ebook. Do I think that it’s going to replace the classic hardback? Of course not. But it is here to stay, and it’s definitely a sign of changing times. There are so many differing opinions out there on what’s happening in the industry at the moment that it’s pointless to pull up too many “facts” (in the past week I’ve seen two conflicting articles, one stating that ebook sales and readers were down in 2015, the other up), but I think we can all agree that the ebook isn’t going to go anywhere anytime soon. The fact is, ebooks are cheaper to make. Cheaper to “manufacture.” They can sell at different rates. They take less time to put together than a hardback.
None of this means that the paperback or hardcover is going to go away. The rise of the MP3 didn’t kill all CD sales, after all. Crud, people still buy vinyl. But the balance shifted.
Ebooks are much in the same boat. The music industry had to change—in fact, is still changing—not because of the MP3, but the changes that the digital era made possible. Likewise, the ebook is an MP3, in a way. A sign that things have changed. That the old ways no longer are viable.
That’s the problem the publishers have. Too many of them are still fighting the change, refusing to adapt. Using methodology that was perfectly fine decades ago but is decidedly lackluster now.
Twenty-five or thirty years ago? My route to publishing would be far different. A publisher like Penguin or Random House would make sense. And I’d have to play their game or vanish. But now?
Everything’s changed. The world’s moved on. Publishing has moved on. When I look at where we’re going, I see paperback or hardcover books that include a digital key at checkout that gives you a free copy of the ebook to go along with your hardback (indeed, some publishers/bookstores have tried or are trying this). I see the tools I and other authors are using to edit their books becoming even more streamlined.
What I don’t see is loading a 500-page printout from Kinkos into a box and mailing it off to an editor. That era has passed. We don’t need to do that anymore. At the most, what I should be seeing is advance, concept copies of a hardcover … But sent to me, not the other way around.
The world has changed. It changes all the time. Do we remember Woolworths? A&P? The Sears and Roebuck Mail-order catalog? Gone. Or changed so heavily to stay in touch with a modern world over the last century that they’re almost unrecognizable. There are hundreds more businesses that have suffered that same fate (for example, carriage manufacturers).
Because they wouldn’t adapt.
And right now? The big book publishers are doing the same thing. Digging in their heels. Relying on older methods or trying to make the modern world fit their vision rather than the other way around.
The Ebook? The ebook is a symptom of change. The real blame for why the publishers are worried, the real reason they’re closing warehouses and consolidating, can only be laid at their own feet.
Right, so where does that leave me? Well, it doesn’t really do anything for me. I don’t care whether a publisher lives or dies right now because I don’t need one. I have my audience, and it’s growing every day. And each day, more authors are realizing that you can do just fine without the outdated, old system. It still has some benefits, yes, but every day those benefits seem to diminish in my eyes.
Publishing, like everything else in our world, changes. Am I set in stone where I am? Of course not. But looking at my own system, the tools I have at my disposal, and the output I’m able to achieve, I don’t see any need for one of the modern publishers.
It’s a changing world out there.
Good luck to the publishers who won’t change with it. They’ll need it.