Have Books Become Folk Art?

Over on Joe Konrath's blog, he's talking once again about how traditional publishing is on its death bed and how the ebook is the future. I agree with much of what he says, even if my friend's observations are beginning to feel stale and repetitive (much like my own observations on this topic and so many others). But I thought that this comment on Joe's post from reader Thomas Brookside offered a fresh insight…at least to me. Brookside wrote:

…if the question out there is why authors without any great financial interest in the present publishing system are defending it so fervently, I think the answer lies in a statement made by Anne Rice a number of years ago to the effect that when anyone can publish literature becomes a folk art.

The current system hands out very few financial rewards to authors but provides them with a lot of prestige.

I think even if they can make more money in the new paradigm and even if they can still find good books they want to read without much effort, these authors will feel highly aggrieved if the current system continues to disintegrate. If the statement "I've got a novel out right now," becomes the equivalent of "I sell handmade jewelry at flea markets on the weekend," these guys will be quite pissed off, even if they make more money and even if the slush apocalypse does not actually come about.

I think he makes a very good, and painfully accurate, point. I believe this is a genuine fear among published authors, whether they are making big money under the current model or not, and has gone unsaid.  But I don't think it's the only thing that motivates their concerns, and their fears, about the e-biz.

Certainly they have financial concerns, too. Can they still make a living as writers if the publishing business shifts to the ebook? Will their incomes increase or plummet?

And then there's concerns about the tsunami of self-published swill that's swamping the e-marketplace, and what the blowback from that might be on the e-book market, and books in general, which gets me back to my friend Joe.

No, I'm not saying his work is swill.  He's a clever writer, a savvy marketer, and is very helpful and generous with his knowledge. (I certainly owe my modest Kindle success to him). But it is his tremendous, and well-earned, success publishing his books on Amazon, and how impressively he has gotten the word out about it, which is making dollar signs dance in the eyes of newbies.

Hordes of newbies are rushing to get their work on the Kindle… even if it's horrendous in every way…and with no regard whatsoever to the impact that publishing crap will have on their careers. Because they aren't thinking about careers. They are thinking about money. Joe's money.

Even Joe, perhaps the biggest cheerleader there is for the Kindle format and the possibilities it offers writers, urges caution:

New writers tend not to know how crummy their writing is. No one learns to play piano overnight. Same thing with crafting a narrative. I've personally met thousands of newbie writers. I've only known two of these newbies that I knew were good enough to succeed–and both did. I've met maybe a dozen others that have potential. But that's it. The rest just aren't good enough. Maybe they'll become good enough, with practice. But putting starter novels on Kindle isn't good for anyone.

But I suspect that few, if any, aspiring authors have or will heed his wise advice in this regard. They are too eager to get their work out there.

It's not just those who have been published in print who have to adjust their thinking to embrace a changing publishing business…but also aspiring writers as well. As I have say many times, just because you can publish with a click of the mouse, that doesn't mean that you should.

On the other hand, for published authors, particularly those on the mid-list, times are changing. Accepting a publishing contract is no longer the no-brainer decision that it used to be, even if the offer is from a major house. Yes, it comes with an advance, editing, marketing, distribution, and prestige… but does it still make financial sense when you can publish the book in ef0rmat yourself, keep that agent commission in your pocket, and get a 70% royalty?

I don't have the answers. I don't think anybody does. But a lot of long-held beliefs about the business, certainly my own beliefs, aren't going to hold anymore.

16 thoughts on “Have Books Become Folk Art?”

  1. I think this is one of those things that we’ll have to take a wait-and-see attitude with. My crystal ball is in the shop, so I can’t tell you the answer. Kindle books could replace traditional books or it could go the way of the laser disc. Kindle is wonderfully convenient, but it still has it’s drawbacks over traditional books. If it becomes the accepted medium, publishing may change completely, If it disappears, things may go back to what they were. If it retains popularity, publishing rules may change making it harder for crude materials to be self-published. If my bubbe had gonads, she’d be my zede. No one knows. JA Konrath is a wonderful author, and I’ve read all his ebooks, but there’s just something wonderful about having one of his books in my hands with their cover art enticing me to open them and devour the words inside. I can throw it in my purse and take it to the doctor’s office or any other waiting room without worrying about it getting damaged by dropping or being left in the car in the heat. It doesn’t hurt the eyes if you’ve been looking at it too long (like a computer screen can). I can hand it over to a friend to share. No matter what happens, the publishing industry can still pull out heavier regulations on publishing and solve the problem of inferior materials glutting the market.

  2. You articulated my thoughts on this exactly (in fact, far more clearly than I could). Thank you.
    In fact, (and I agree completely with the repetitive and stale part, my own thoughts on e-publishing included), now that it’s been mentioned, that I’ll no longer be “special” probably is the most irritating thing about this e-publishing revolution, if that’s what it is. Although I make a very good living as a writer, only a tiny portion of it comes from my fiction. So to a degree, much of the reason I do it is because I can and because the validation of having other people give my books the yes-you’re-good-enough-to-publish stamp of approval (and the never-ending striving for bigger sales and a larger audience, etc).
    And hopefully without being a prick about it, I’m sure I’m not the only traditionally published novelist who’s done a joint book signing, book talk, conference panel, etc. that included some self-published novelists and thought, “Jeez, what are you doing here? You really haven’t earned the right.” But it’s starting to seem like that might be the norm.

  3. I think ego does play a part. Those of us who have worked for years to finally land a book deal certainly don’t want to be equated with selling “handmade jewelry at flea markets on the weekend.” If that’s the case, the phrase “published author” will largely become meaningless.
    I have sampled quite a few self-published novels on the Kindle site, and I have yet to find one I considered to be readable (not including writers like you and Joe and Eric Christopherson, who have or have had print deals and/or agents). Looking for a $.99-$2.99 diamond in the rough is a waste of time, IMO, when I can spend a few more bucks for something from a real publisher and be guaranteed at least some sort of minimum editorial standard. I think the buying public will eventually figure this out, and legitimate publishers will end up on top.

  4. I’m getting a lot of hits on my blog lately, and many of them are form first-timers. My message is getting old, but it’s still new for a lot of people.
    Financial sense isn’t the only reason to consider self-pubbing. I’m really coming around to the concept that publishers are going to start going bankrupt. If so, their assets could include books under contract.
    Do I want to sign with a publish who may not be around in a few years, and then have to hire a lawyer to get my rights back when they’re bought out and sold off in pieces to pay their debts?
    Or worse, do I want publishers to artificially keep my book in print in order to maintain control over the ebook rights?
    Years ago, I did all I could to keep my books in print. Now, I wish I had all of my rights back, because my publishers are costing me a lot of money. If I controlled my seven in-print novels, I’d be earning over $100k more per year.

  5. Yes, it is a terrible idea for a neo to self-publish, thinking the income will be equal to or better than Mr. Konrath’s.
    They simply do not have his platform of sales to publishers that got him his core audience in the first place.
    Other neos honestly believe that once a book is “out there” it will be instantly noticed by thousands and bought.
    (Perhaps there is a secret telepathic book promotion network of which I am unaware. If so, I want in.)
    But the burned hand teaches best.
    When the neos come to see they are not the next Paolini they will either give up or start cracking hard to get into the professional market. But others will continue oblivious, selling wordage to a few dozen cheerleaders in their circle.
    They better not approach me and say they’re pros, though. I get danged cranky about that point.
    I’m putting some works out through CreateSpace. If they were anything my agent could sell she’d have them! But they aren’t, so I might as well make butter ‘n egg money over letting them sit in a file.
    Perhaps publishing as we know it will go belly up, but not today or in the next year or so. In the meantime I will strive to keep my celestial agent busy.

  6. How little things have actually changed. Publishers still produce print books; print sales still dominate publishing; the best-seller lists still reflect print sales; publishers still generate their semiannual catalogs of print titles.In spite of all the internet babble, there’s not a lot of change in publishing, and not likely to be soon. And publishers are likely to become even more profitable as electronic downloads and POD publishing reduce warehousing, fulfillment, returns, remaindering, and production costs. It is a good idea to treat all the talk about radical change and collapse with a good dose of skepticism.

  7. What we have is something of a “tragedy of the commons” going on.
    The “commons” in question is the attention of the casual browser who wanders into a virtual bookstore not really knowing what it is they want.
    In my opinion, that commons has already been thoroughly polluted, and there’s no way to get it back. It’s gone. Nobody goes to Amazon.com, or Smashwords, or any other site, without already knowing what they want, because most of what they find there will be, as you say, drivel.
    There’s nothing to be done about it but mourn (if you think it was a good thing) and move on.
    They find what they want elsewhere, and simply go there to make the purchase. The job of curation (that is, telling people what is good) is not being done before books go to market anymore, because it’s impossible to stop bad books from being sold.
    That job of curation is now being done by book bloggers, reviewers, and readers in general, and it’s happening after the books go to market. If an author is good, his readers will spread the word, make recommendations, and come back for more. They’ll buy print versions to get autographs, whether available in offset or POD. They’ll consider the books keepsakes rather than just a few hours entertainment.
    If not, then the reader will delete the file after getting bored/disturbed/whatever, and not likely come back. A lot of authors will get burned by having their early work poison their careers forever, but is that really much different than an author who has his first novel rejected by everyone and decides to never publish again?
    For the author, the fundamentals haven’t changed. Write. Keep writing. Keep learning. Write good books.
    The people who need to figure out where they stand in the new marketplace are the middlemen. Agents, editors, publishers–they need to offer the author some return for the share of the cover price that they take. Merely offering access to the market (which is what many offered before) is no longer enough.

  8. Interesting ideas all around…..but there seems to be an assumption that Kindle’s file format will remain the dominate file format in the end….and if history (records, 8tracks, cassete tapes, etc., etc.)is any guide, then that is unlikely.
    Three things will determine the future of e-books….The first company to market a reader under $100….Second, is a standard format. Those of who have been through the media/format changes with music & game systems are hesitant to reinvest every few years, when paper format books will still be around. It must also be noted that the majority of book buyers are older and not as tech savey as younger users/buyers who actually buy less books….Third is a standardized pricing system. The publishing indurstry’s claim that it is not that much cheaper to produce an e-book compared to a traditional paper format book, simply is not true. I make that statement as someone who worked in the book printing industry for 15 years during which I saw it go from film and metal plates to digital files, and as a amateur musician….the costs are not even remotely close.

  9. Jack King posted some fascinating and revealing stats on Joe’s blog…
    Amazon’s Kindle platform is almost three years old.
    In the last three years, New York has published 150,000 novels.
    Today, there are 700,000 books on Kindle. 100,000 are novels.
    35,000 romance
    25,000 thrillers
    15,000 historical
    15,000 literary
    10,000 sci-fi
    10,000 fantasy
    25,000 Kindle novels have no customer reviews.
    40,000 Kindle novels have customer reviews of 4-stars or higher.
    1000 Kindle novels per year sell more than 5000 copies.
    10,000 New York novels per year sell more than 5000 copies.
    95% of bestselling Kindle novels are published by New York.

  10. Jack King writes: 1000 Kindle novels per year sell more than 5000 copies.
    10,000 New York novels per year sell more than 5000 copies.
    95% of bestselling Kindle novels are published by New York.

    Those are eye-opening numbers. In other words, despite all the hype and wishful thinking of “indie” writers, print still dominates. And in the e-world, NY publishers still dominate in sales, if not in number of e-book titles published. What these numbers tell us is that readers are still turning to recognized publishers and authors over “indie” fare…
    Of course, that could change. But if you only believed what you read in the comments here, the NY publishing business has toppled and “indie” writers are taking over.
    Brick-and-mortar bookstores may be on the way out….but NY Publishing companies will evolve in the same way the record companies had to with the demise of record stores.
    The editing skills and marketing muscle of NY Publishers will still be appreciated by authors…as will the negotiating skills and connections of agents.
    The big question is whether the advances and royalties offered by NY will make it a more attractive choice than self-publishing…

  11. One of the biggest problems with self-publishing is that most newbies don’t think about editing. If you are going to be your own publisher, you have to spend some money on editing. No one should publish without editing. I’ve read too many self pubbed Kindle titles that needed editing and far too many more that needed more than that.
    Authors also need to understand that Joe Konrath has spent years of time and thousands of dollars getting his name out there and building a readership. Of course he’s got huge Kindle numbers he’s worked his butt off for them. We could all learn something about promotion from watching Joe. Don’t think just because you have a book on Kindle you’re going to support yourself with your writing. Even if you have a great product you still have to get out there and tell people about it.
    Becoming a self published author means you’ve taken on all the work and expense of the publisher in addition to the writing and promotion you were already doing. It’s exhausting and leaves little time or energy for writing. It’s no walk in the park.

  12. Some stats re book sales from BEA (U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis): 7% of books published generate 87% of book sales. And 93% of all published books sell less than 1,000 copies each.

  13. I`m not sure how e-publishing is going to evolve except that it certainly will continue to grow: 4 million e-readers were sold in 2009, it`s estimated that 10 million will be sold in 2010, with the iPad as the increasing e-reader of choice since it can do so much more than other e-readers and will certainly come down in price. But if I`m not sure how e-publishing will evolve, I am pretty sure that *following the money* is a rewarding method in trying to figure it out.
    I`ve posted before that S&S had $793 million in revenue in 2009, a figure gleaned from owner CBS`s 2009 annual report. What is new, here, is the figure of $42 million in operating income after depreciation and amortization. S&S actually had yearly expenses of about $565 million, but with added corporate doodle-dums like restructuring charges and the issuing of stock options and the payment of interest charges on their debt, the revenues of $793 million – expenses of $565 million = a gross profit of $228 million get whittled down, including expenses like lunch for the exec`s. So a lot of the gross revenue is going to pay for a lot of other things besides author royalties. Enter e-publishing.
    S&S published 2,000 books in 2009. Ok, let`s e-publish all these books at a price to the consumer of 99 cents a book. Let`s call total expense to the consumer a nice round $2 thousand dollars. Therefore, if we do away with the publishing infrastructure there would be a total of $793 million dollars – $2 thousand dollars or, let`s call it $793 million dollars still in the pockets of consumers that is now available, at 70%, to flow into the pockets of writers. I like S&S and I`d love to be published by them, but print publishing is just to expensive to the consumer and too unrewarding to the authors as the figures show.
    Ok, but many more books will be e-published, so how does the added competition affect writers. Basically, writers who are print published will succeed far more e-published. The reason for this is quality. With so many more books available, and with readers able to post reviews, and rate books with two or more stars, the talented writers will rise to the top and sell many more copies and make a much better royalty rate. It stands to reason. The consumers have more money to spend and they`ll spend it on the good books, and the good books will be identified by word of mouth.
    I`m not saying print publishing will fade away. I`m just saying that good writers have nothing to fear from the rise of e-publishing. Talent and quality will win out as they do with every other product. It`s good to be a writer in this financial environment.

  14. There was a math error in my previous post. What I should have said was, let`s suppose 93 million e-copies of S&S`s 2,000 books were sold, which would equal a total cost to the consumer of $93 million dollars. This would then leave $700 million dollars in consumers pockets to buy even more books (rather then, as I wrote, $793 million dollars). Still, aren’t the figures attractive for established writers of high quality books.

  15. Dang, I LOVE numbers. There is a purity about them. Numbers don’t have opinions, they just *are*.
    But some context on the 40,000 Kindle novels with 4-star and higher reviews could be even more entertaining.
    I can’t help but think that the vast portion of those 4-5-star reviews were sock puppets from the author or the author’s enabling friends.

  16. I think, for me, writing has always been less about “prestige” and more about “quality of life.” Like many creative people, I desperately want to make a decent living as an author, so I can quit my soul-draining day job and live the freedom-filled life of an artist. This is a lot more important to me than finding my book at the front window of the local Barnes and Noble.
    So if a larger percentage of writers can make a living by self-publishing e-books, I think that’s a good thing. If I have a backlist of 10 novels and have each of them sell 2,000 copies a year, I can theoretically make a middle class living under the new model. Under the dead tree system, a mid-list writer selling 20,000 paperbacks probably wouldn’t last too long. That’s why so many of them have vanished over the past decade, or are writing under pseudonyms.
    Of course the vast majority of Kindle authors aren’t going to sell tens of thousands of copies per year. But if you’re writing is polished and exceptional, and you’re a savvy on-line marketer, it’s a lot more possible than being one of the publishing industry’s “chosen ones” — i.e. the next Elizabeth Kostova, Chelsea Cain, or Justin Cronin.


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