Friday, April 2, 2021

Horses for Courses

by Abir

As there's more and more consolidation in the world of publishing, how do you view—generally, and for you personally—big publisher vs small publisher vs self-publishing now? Have your views changed since you were first published?  

So here’s the thing. I’m old, and the modern world feels dangerous and scary to me. Technology peaked with the moon landings and the VCR and any developments thereafter have basically been unnecessary frippery designed to keep young people occupied so they don't mug older people. So when the internets came along and the Amazon changed from being a river to a bookshop and then a behemoth that was scared of unionisation, I was rather sniffy.


I sometimes wish I’d been born twenty years earlier. I reckon the halcyon days of publishing were probably the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century. Back then, publishing in the UK looked pretty easy: You were a white, upper-middle class male; you had an idea for a novel; you pitched it to old Bunty whom you were at Oxford with, and who now did something terribly interesting at Harper & Schuster, preferably over a nice lunch at the Ivy, and Bob’s your uncle. Hey presto, a book deal with a nice, tasty advance; enough to keep you in lunches for a while. All you had to do was go home, write the bloody thing and old Bunty and his pals at the publishers would take care of the rest – the editing, the marketing, the press and all the other black magic that went with it, including selling the rights to johnny foreigner and the colonies. It was, I daresay, a good life for a certain sort of writer.


But then things started changing. They started letting others into the club. Different types, who wrote different things that weren’t set in England or New York, and ended up with fatwas being issued and authors going into hiding. Funny sort of business all round, really.


And then came the bloody technology. The Amazon arrived, pretending at first to be a bookshop in the sky, before revealing its true intention to be the only friend you’d ever need: your God, your mother and your shopkeeper all rolled into one. They began offering this service – self publishing – they called it, ‘democratisation of the industry’, they said. Now I’m all for power to the people, just as long as it’s the right people, and my first thought was – wait, isn’t this simply vanity publishing in a different guise? Simply a rather foul rose parading under a different name? Yes, the costs would be lower – there’d be no printing costs or stocking costs and anyone anywhere could purchase a copy from the worldwide web – but was that really progress? Surely the barriers to entry were a good thing? They kept out the dross. Suddenly every Tom, Dinesh and Sally would be publishing their banal, ill-considered and poorly edited musings, and did the world really need that?


But, dear heart, I have to say, I was wrong. As much as I hate to admit it, change is a good thing. Nothing improves without the impetus for change. Self publishing didn’t lower standards, instead it broke up a closed shop and spawned new opportunities. Industries grew up around it – an army of freelance editors to fix your book – a veritable feast of artists to help you with covers and artwork – and social media fixers to help you publicise your work. And these new entrepreneurs, empowered by the Amazon weren’t just in London or New York, they weren’t even in just Middle America or Middle England, they were all over the world, in Eastern Europe and Africa and Asia. Suddenly, one could write a book in Scotland, have it edited by someone in Baltimore, with a cover designed by a woman in Mumbai and marketed by a team in Cape Town, AND the quality of the output could be every bit as good as what the traditional publishers were offering. True, you didn’t get an advance to keep you in lunches at the Ivy, and you probably had to pay for the editing, the marketing and the artwork from your own pocket, but you got to keep a much higher percentage of any revenues.


But self publishing isn’t for everyone. It’s probably not for me, not at the moment anyway, because to make money self-publishing, I think, requires you to be a lot more than just a writer. To do it well, you need to be an entrepreneur, a data analyst, a PR guru and probably many things besides, because the self-pub market is immense. There are probably 20 million e books on the Amazon website, with several million more added each year. To stand out in that crowd, you need marketing skills and data skills and a container lorry of luck. Some do manage it, and they make an extremely good living from it, but for most people that’s not the case.


Yet traditional publishing is no panacea either these days. The market, partly because of changing tastes and partly because of so much choice, has fragmented. For a writer starting now, I wonder if it’s even possible to garner the sort of loyal readership of a Lee Child or a Dean Koontz or a Stephen King. Very few trad published authors ever earn out their advances, and the advances themselves are getting smaller.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. A traditional publisher still offers you the editing, the marketing and the artwork while picking up the tab, and it also offers you the oxygen of newspaper and TV publicity, and that can make a huge difference to an author’s career. And every year, a few lucky authors are offered six and seven figure advances which can change their lives. The conditions might be tougher than they were thirty or forty years ago, but the pot of gold is still there, and a wider cross section of society has a chance to reach for it.


I’ll end by saying this. I believe that self-publishing has brought with it opportunities for many writers who previously might not have had a chance to be published. Its advent has also helped push traditional publishing to question its own practices and to dispense with its comfortable, ‘old-boy’ ways. For the ‘haves’ it’s made things harder, and for the ‘have-nots’, it’s given them a chance. It’s still bloody difficult to make it as a full time writer, but for the majority of people, the opportunity to try has never been greater.




Brenda Chapman said...

Well said, Abir. Lots of change for good (and some ill) going on in the publishing industry. Diversity and increased opportunities are on the plus side.

Abir said...

Cheers Brenda! Interesting times!