Toward Another Next Kind of Publishing

MCMWednesday, April 14, 2021

It's been a long time since I wrote a post theorizing about the future of the publishing industry — a decade, in fact, which is all kinds of shocking — but the last few years have been pushing me toward this idea that we're still not quite done innovating in the novelsphere. This time, though, I won't be taking so much of a "burn it all down" approach as I have in the past. I mean, I have a lot of friends and colleagues who work in the entities I'd be setting on fire, so I'm kinda inclined to do the good 'ol internet trick and route around damage instead.

Last time I talked about all this, ebooks were just starting to become a thing, and there was a theory that Old Publishing would implode under the strain of so much competition from the unwashed masses. Apple and Amazon (and to a lesser extent Kobo) were driving prices down, the market was being flooded with half-baked garbage, and it was only a matter of time before Random House declared bankruptcy.

Not entirely surprisingly, none of that happened. Yes, the landscape is changed and yes, people in Old Publishing look back on the pre-internet days with blissful nostalgia, but all in all, the market stabilized and everyone came out in one piece.

The current state of affairs seems to be, from the perspective of someone who kinda treads around the fringes of the industry, this:

  • Marquee authors do just fine. I get the sense they're on more of a grind than before, but their releases still hit the lists and from what I hear, their advances are more than enough to live off of. The turbulence may have rocked them a little, but in the end, popular fiction is popular for a reason.

  • Fewer in-betweeners. I assume this has always been largely true, but the impression I get from formerly-midlist authors is that they are constantly on the knife's edge between having a career, and packing it in for good — and it's not because tastes are changing, it's because there is much less midlist to be a part of. These are people who have sizeable followings and a good-sized back catalogue, but they're terrified of falling on the wrong side of a tipping point where they're just not worth the investment anymore. It's like the industry is saying they either have to dig deep and become a marquee writer, or else get replaced by...

  • A fantastic churn of newbies. And by "newbie" I don't mean "not good", I just mean they're coming at the industry totally fresh, usually out of nowhere, and very very fast. Some may be wattpad darlings cashing in on their existing success, but others are just the more-traditional diamond in the rough, picked out of obscurity, given a book deal and a social media plan, and thrown off the cliff to see if they can fly. Very few of them do.

  • Big publishers do just fine and I suspect it's because they're exploiting the technological change they used to wail about, and good for them. Workflows seem to be closer to efficient, processes are optimized, and they're doing demographics research that would make Netflix swoon. I used to strongly dislike big publishers on account of their luddite tendencies, but I think the luddites have all retired or something, because the operations I've glimpsed are very 21st century.

  • Smaller publishers are suffering. This isn't a huge surprise, because these were always the ones in the crosshairs: they don't have the resources to upgrade technologically, and they don't have the market heft to push through regardless. In a lot of ways, they're operating at the same level as direct-to-KDPers, which is not a great place to be when you have offices and staff to pay for. The worst part is, I see authors either getting or feeling neglected by these publishers, and looking for a way out. That'll only bring about the end even faster.

  • Book packagers are picking up that slack. There are more than a few of these hyper-digital book packagers out there now, and they are sharp. They have carved out a clever niche in the market: they pay slightly more than most authors will earn in an advance in exchange for a full buy-out, which lets them run the long tail without the administrative hassle of paying out royalties. They move fast and in bulk (several ghostwriters working on the same series at once) and are armed with next-level market data. If you're a small press sitting in a viable market, look out. The packagers are coming for you.

  • Micropresses live and die like fireflies. 1889 Labs was a micropress of this modern era, I think: lightweight on the admin side (often virtual), they don't promise huge print runs or press tours, but they provide the editing, production and distribution most authors can't manage on their own. Some pay advances — and I'm not one of those people who say "don't work with someone who won't pay you an advance" — but either way, micropresses give authors enough of a leg up that they stand some chance of standing out in the sea of...

  • The KDP battle royale. It's only gotten worse since I last ventured into it, which is saying something. Between offshore content farms and repackaging classics (or pirated books), and between semi-literate folks hitting "publish" after ignoring spellcheck and actually-talented writers putting their all into a title with a kinda meh cover, self-publishing still isn't the cesspool of mediocrity that publishing snobs liked to make it out to be — it's even worse, because it's just so noisy there's no way to tell the good from the truly terrible.

All of which brings me to my unfortunate conclusion at this stage of the game: authors are interchangeable widgets who don't mean a thing unless they've got momentum, and momentum is a fickle thing.

Now, one thing that seems to have stayed static in the past decade is the authors' need to be seen. Not in terms of ego, I mean in practical terms, you can't be an author of any kind if your name doesn't ring any bells. Whether you're being asked by a big publisher to spend half of your advance on a marketing team, or you're a micropress hiring virtual assistants to drum up press, or you're an indie author working your brains out to push your Facebook likes into the thousands, authors need to be seen. And by and large, they're not — not without insane amounts of work that I have actually seen ruin people's lives. Chasing retweets at the expense of your actual, paying day job is not a great idea, but it's an infectious one that the industry actively promotes to people.

And, well. There needs to be a better way — a system that doesn't replace the structures that already exist, and isn't trying to be another wattpad or similar aggregator, or a crowdfunding alternative like Patreon. What we need is something that connects into the gaps in the system to provide the insight and assistance that makes this whole situation so perilous.

In programming terms, we need a polyfill: a set of instructions that help bring advanced features to an outdated system.

But that'll have to wait for another post :)

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