Caught in the crosshairs in the current debate on the future of the traditional publishing industry is the often powerless, insecure and hapless author, the supplier of the raw material that fuels the industry.
My discussion here will be exceedingly narrow-gauged since my interest is confined to those authors who compose long works of the imagination, particularly novels, those efforts usually written by obsessed and compulsive souls who consider themselves literary artists, whose need to create their stories is profound and necessary to their mental health and well being.
I am one of them. If you are one, you will know what I mean.
Those authors may or may not confine themselves to various recognized genres, of which there are numerous categories, but they are essentially serious creators who have a specific need to work the vineyards of their creativity. Most would like to be well-paid for their efforts and to command the attention of as many readers as possible recognizing that they are an integral part of a two-way communication system.
While they know that their work is the essential underpinning of their lives and they will, indeed, welcome the traditional rewards of fame and fortune, their battle for attention, meaning to be read, is the Holy Grail of their effort. For them, especially to those who have just found their calling, the challenge ahead will be monumental.
As the window closes on the methods by which authors become known, such as best seller lists, reviews in mainstream media, the ever narrowing landscape of libraries and academia and the shrinking output of novels distributed by traditional publishers, the beleaguered author, out of necessity, is beginning to seek other ways to find readers who will respond to his or her work.
Note that I have left out the possibility of a novel that is adapted for a movie. The movie industry is the one place where a book, if the title is retained, will be able to generate the widest possible exposure, especially if it is a world-wide hit. Vast sums are spent on promoting movies and, if one’s book is lucky enough to be made into a movie, it could be like winning the lottery. But getting a book adapted into a hit movie, which plays over and over again on television, is such a long shot and beyond an author’s control, that I hesitate to mention it in the context of this essay, despite being the recipient of such largesse.
That, too, may be a window that is closing as movies migrate from auditoriums to home screens. I will leave it to the movie industry moguls to wrestle with their future and confine myself to the book business and the author’s current dilemma.
Of course, none of this calculates the mysterious effect of “word of mouth,” but that is an issue defying logic and is based on unpredictable variables like luck, timing and content and a strong belief in the alignment of stars and other astrological and miraculous events.
The tsunami of digitization and the rise of the e-book reading device will, within the next decade, totally change the business paradigm for paper book publishers and the big box store chains they supply. The marketing monopoly and publicity control enjoyed by these entities will splinter into countless niches and make it almost impossible for an author’s name to be branded with the ease enjoyed in past years.
The traditional mass media outlets which once could command the attention of vast swaths of consumers are quickly disappearing. With printed newspapers and magazines shrinking at an alarming rate, swiftly approaching oblivion, and television and radio exploding into thousands of niches and the Internet spawning new sites every second, the informational universe resembles the infinite barely comprehended star studded universe of the heavens.
In the years ahead, getting someone’s attention for more than seconds will be the major challenge for anyone seeking to individualize a name, a product or an idea. In the context of this discussion, one can reliably predict that the traditional publishing industry that relies on the printed paper book will morph into some other form, yet unknown.
For the obsessed author whose ambition to become a read novelist there are numerous options, none of which may offer a satisfactory solution to his or her needs. Whole mini industries have been created around editing, producing, marketing and publicizing individual books. Whether competent or not, there are enough disappointed and frustrated authors out there who will be lured into such services, hoping for the miracle of a great outcome.
What used to be called vanity press has now morphed into what is called alternative publishing. It is author motivated. The author assumes the responsibility of being his or her individual publisher and, for a price, there are countless services that will perform all the duties of a mainstream publisher. Technology has made it possible for an author to put his or her original publication between hard or soft covers, create an electronic book and put it in any distribution channel that currently sells books. After all, you can’t be a player if you’re not in the ballgame.
Indeed, there are numerous publicity services being offered that, also for a price, can get your authorial name around and there are those social networking sites where you can bang the drum for your book and many “experts” who will promise and sometimes deliver getting your authorial name to the top of various search engines.
Since purchasing services on the Net, where overpromising and fraud is rampant, I would urge an author to thoroughly check out vendors before buying and ask them to provide bona fide references by previous clients, who should be consulted as to their experience with the vendor and their success rate. Indeed, even if the vendor is ethically satisfactory, the chances of presently developing a sustained and profitable reading audience is, at best, very challenging.
There is no doubt that some successful form of author instigated business plan will emerge as the curtain goes down on the traditional methods and channels of book distribution. This is a transitional moment reminiscent of the horse and buggy making way for the automobile. At first it is slow, then gathers speed and the old technology is replaced by the new one. It’s the way of the world, unstoppable. In the book business it has passed the point of no return.
Because we are currently as they say, betwixt and between, many authors, all of whom sincerely believe they are producing excellent work, armed with blurbs by established authors, are, after a long and frustrating attempt to find an agent or a traditional publisher, turning to self-publishing to satisfy their compelling need for their work to be available to readers.
Certainly, there must be some very successful self-published books but they are probably in such categories as self-help, spiritual guidance or how-to and other genres that are institution oriented, ancillary products of other enterprises or filling some missing deep need. I must reiterate that this is not the area of this discussion.
At this stage, self-publishing constitutes the only sure way the aforesaid author, rejected from mainstream publishing for whatever reason, to whom writing is akin to breathing, can bring his or her work to market. After all, it does satisfy his urgent desire to see his book in print, whether in electronic or paper form. But the expectation of getting his money back, especially if one counts the expense of sweat equity, is very dim indeed.
Getting known within a tight little circle might be enough of a reward for such an author and keep alive hopes for a widening circle of readers in the future. Indeed, there have been cases where an alternatively published book has attracted the attention of mainstream publishers, but they have been more miraculous than common and probably will diminish as the traditional well dries up.
The day is coming when authors of works of the imagination will have little choice than to take full control of their own publishing enterprise. Many will find ways to establish themselves within various niches and some will make their way from tiny rivulets of attention to raging rivers. Experiments will abound.
Creative paths will be discovered to market and publicize their works. Some established authors are beginning to take the bull by the horns, but many of them have had the advantage of branding opportunities that took place before the swift rise of digital technology. Those who have not had this advantage of timing will have a tougher ladder to climb. Nevertheless, that old tried and true cliché that necessity is the mother of invention will assure a future for the dedicated writer and his or her twin, the dedicated reader.
Don’t despair, fellow authors, there are still vast battalions out there to whom reading novels is equally as necessary to the enriched life as it is to writers who create them. Since the dawn of time, nourishing the mind through stories hatched in the imagination has been as essential as food for the physical body.
I wish that after all those years spent in the literary trenches, having pioneered ways numerous and various to keep my authorial name alive and compose more and more works of the imagination, might have resulted in some sure fire solutions to the dilemmas faced by my fellow writers. About the best I can do is to urge everyone who pursues this glorious art to fight frustration and discouragement, continue to imagine, write, and tell your stories and experiment with ways to attract that illusive reader twin.
For us, there is no other option.