I recently posted an article at Angie's Diaries on a concept called The Grand Illusion. This entails the theory that self publishers, as a collective, reinforce each others' delusion that they have what it takes to produce quality work, when in fact only a small percentage are able to. While not a surprise, there was a discussion following this article that included folk who immediately interpreted my comments as being derogatory on ALL self publishers, or those specific individuals, despite disclaimers and careful multiple instances of wording to totally avoid absolute statements – just on that phenomenon, I rest my case regarding The Grand Illusion.
While contributing to post-article discussions, I stumbled on a fascinating article by David Vinjamuri (contributor to Forbes Magazine) that attempted to provide an even-handed approach to the state of the publishing industry – and didn't do a too bad job of it, although by its very nature, left out some important elements, like the small and middle sized publishing houses. He pointed out some pertinent points about the weaknesses of the large publishing houses' reaction to self-publishing and other technological and business innovations, as well as the effects of self-publishing 'flooding'. The latter analysis, with predictions, rang true with me, and consequently I would like to spend the rest of this blog post on the topic.
A major problem facing publishing in general at this time is the flooding of self-published books – and more pertinently, where the majority of 'quality' ranges from utter shit to underwhelming. Most good self-publishers will agree, but few would admit it because they don't want to be tainted with the stigma, and on top of this, many are caught in The Grand Illusion. This flooding hurts everyone. Readers become frustrated by having to wade through, and in most cases purchase, volumes of substandard work. While the flooding has an effect on the bottom line of large traditional publishers, smaller publishers are more affected, as their material often are in direct competition with self-published work. Finally, the good to excellent self-publishers get washed into oblivion in many cases, due to the sheer weight of self-published titles.
Vinjamuri made a few insightful comments on flooding. The one that resonated with me the most is comparing the written word publishing industry with music. It is an apt simile: in the music industry, for years, people have been able to record their own music, play it in the streets and uTube etc, and sell, without the benefit of the support of a music company. Musicians who are good, rise to the ocassion, and eventually get noticed. They move from the base strata into the higher echelons. Musical contests, such as American Idol and a vast array of others, all allow the best to move into professionalism. More pertinently, consumers have a mechanism to separate the obviously bad from the good, to feel like they have a fighting chance to purchase music that they will like. On a similar level, Vinjamuri used the example of Rotten Tomatoes, a site that compiles prominent critic reviews of films, that provides filmgoers with confidence with regard to what to see. Vinjamuri's major thesis is that written word publishing hasn't got mechanisms in place to stratify titles by quality like the music and film industries – to enable readers to make informed decisions. There is no Rotten Tomatoes for them.
Amazon, among others, opened the flood gates to make money from self-publishers, knowing that flooding would occur; knowing that readers would get inundated. Essentially, they have chosen to become mega-Vanity Publishers and make mega-bucks doing so. As I stated above, good writers from all sectors of the industry, including self-publishing, are seriously disadvantaged by this.
So where to from here? As I stated in my Angie's Diary article, I believe readers will eventually reshape the industry. They will want mechanisms in place to make informed decisions, and before you know it, stratification will occur. The publishers will have to adjust again, but they are well placed to slide in because, after all, they have the lion's share of personnel, technologies and connections to have their work placed in the higher echelons. And so they should. What I dearly hope is that the good writers who are currently self-publishing will be more easily recognized and be allowed, again appropriately, to rise up the ladder.