Jun 9, 2011

Setting the WABAC Machine

Been enjoying a spirited conversation regarding the past, present and future of publishing over on Twitter today. It reminded me of the line from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" - life moves pretty fast; if you don't stop and look around, you could miss it. Because, seriously, the publishing world IS moving pretty quickly. Or is it?

I frequently examine the world of literary publishing and perform a compare/contrast to the world of music publishing - it seems like the rush and crush of the music industry's marketing blitz has driven the industry and technology a bit faster than book publishing, game publishing and the film industry (in no particular order). Or perhaps it's just that we've noticed them in a particular order and the technology just took a while longer for various industries to become readily apparent.

Back in the 90s, yes - I was focused primarily on the music industry, myself. Recording, live shows, publishing, etc. The digital age at that time was battling between DAT and CD, and the internet was a pale fetus of what it has developed into now. The only way to really get your music out and about was by doing shows or getting on the radio. And the latter was so much more of a challenge. AOR format kept most unpublished artists off the air - if you knew a DJ or were fortunate enough to live in a city that had any sort of "Local's Only" show, then you had the chance to get your song played at, like 11:35pm on a Thursday night or whatever. I was fortunate enough to know Nyk Fry when I was working on my album, who at the time was working at one of my local radio stations. He and I had worked together on a couple other things, and he had a free slot open on his show and invited me to come on and pimp my CD. It was a pretty great opportunity; I don't know how much of a dick I might have been on air, but to this day I remain very grateful for the chance.

Also, at the time, I was working days managing a downtown hotel - we hosted a lot of the bands who came through to play the Zephyr club or the Dead Goat Saloon, such as The Church, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and even Dee Snider. Christopher Titus stayed with us for a week, and a chunk of the crew working on the filming of The Stand even hung out with us while filming in Utah. It's so odd now to consider how much around the periphery I was to all these media outlets, and yet never really figured out a way to convert that into a more professionally creative endeavor. Different times, a different brain in my skull.

It's been over ten years, and though I no longer pursue the music as a professional path, the entire time period of "back then" taught me a great deal about how those things work.

And that makes it doubly strange in that a lot of the people running those organizations and corporations involved in music, books, film and video games seem to be struggling with how to adapt to these new technologies.

For example, look at music.

For the past few years, the RIAA has been complaining that their poor starving artists have been victimized by the horrors and atrocities of the heartless digital pirates, who have been stealing away millions of potential profits from the musicians they represent. They point to line and bar charts as evidence of their financial ruin, and draw a direct correlation to the increasing use of the internet. Oh, yes, obviously there is a connection there.

However, companies who have embraced the digital age have thrived and prospered. iTunes, Amazon MP3, Rhapsody, etc - - they're doing pretty well, in spite of the apocalypse that the RIAA has described.  But the truth is that these other companies have done well because they have evolved into the new business model as defined by the good ol dollar bill. The people have voted with their wallets and chosen the format they're most interested in. And people have frequently turned to the availability of music on the internet to sample and validate music to see if they want to actually purchase it. I have a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) who says he frequently downloads music to see if he likes it. And if he does, he deletes it and buys it through one of the online stores. And if not, he just deletes it. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me, but, then, I'm not a highly-paid RIAA lawyer.

Neil Gaiman did a test with his release of "American Gods", where he allowed a free copy of the book to be downloaded for, like, a month. And he noticed that sales actually spiked upwards as a direct result. That seems to go completely against the expectations we are led to believe from conventional wisdom. Some people point to his results as an anomaly, but either way, it's an interesting experiment.

But that's just one aspect of this topic. Book publishing is becoming an increasingly facilitated process: POD (Print on Demand), Vanity Press and e-publishing sites are making it easier and easier to snap the final pieces into place when publishing a book. For example, I can upload my book to CreateSpace and Kindle, and within two or three days (usually much less), I've got books for sale. It's actually Very Simple.

Now, no, I don't get the amazing distribution channels that the Big Publishers get. I can't manipulate the shelf real estate of a book store like they can; I'm just one author out in a sea of other authors. And in that way, "traditional publishers" still retain a perceived lion's share of the business. I'm not bitter or anything, I accept that this is how things go. They have the bigger quantities of authors to look out for, so clearly they're going to wrestle things in accordance with their best interests. And though I'm outside of their monkeysphere, I don't take it personally. We're both doing somewhat nicely in sharing our ecosystem.

But I keep hearing these strange rumblings coming out of them which sound disconcertingly similar to the panicked cries of music publisher stockholders from 5 or 6 years ago. I see strange declaratives being made about "book piracy" and "basement press market pollution" that seem to emanate from that same place of fear and confusion. Old School publishers are indicating that they're not making their same money, and, in their blind and unweildy fear, they're striking out at the people they have decided are responsible: self-publishers.

I can't help but worry that it's not just a coincidence that I've noticed so many one star reviews on Amazon which seem to attack specifically Self Published novels on the merits of...well, sometimes for no merit at all other than being self published. Terms of "Vanity Press" and "Self Published" get used as insults, as if those terms alone were valid arguments against them. I've read enough "Traditionally Published" books that contain typographical errors and poor narrative, 2-dimensional characters and flimsy story arcs to warrant the regret of 20 dollars poorly spent. But at the same time, I have a different view on purchasing music, books, films, and so forth. I'm not just supporting the label or the publisher or, sometimes, even, the artist. I support the industry itself. If I see something of quality, I'm as likely to buy it to help the industry itself take a small step forward. I also confess lately to be adjusting this, however. There are just so many new independent authors out there, whose books are every bit as good (or better) than the books I've read in the past from the Big Publishers. Did you really believe that a book is only good if it came from a company that's already published 10,000 books? Size really isn't everything, after all. Ask Goliath.

But here's where the title of today's blog comes in. Go back about a hundred or more years - go on, Mr Peabody, set the WABAC machine and let's go! And let's see how publishing worked - back before the day of the Conglomerate. Publishers were just a guy with a printing press and binder. You'd pay them to set it up and print it and bind it, and there you were, proud owner of a stack of books. Sounds awfully similar to vanity presses, come to think of it.

And now I read someone arguing on behalf of the publishing houses, claiming that they're not so much in this for the money as much as they're here for the readers. That's right, they're here on behalf of the readers, saving them from losing their money on rubbish. They're doing this for you, people. They're the watchers at the gate, keeping out the millions of craptastic novels written by people you really don't want to waste your hard earned dollars on. Very altruistic, huh?  Okay, okay, I don't want to pick on them too much. I know it's been hard for them lately, and I don't mean to kick them when they're down. Besides, one day, they might throw a bucket of money at me, and then won't I feel like a sham?

Seriously, though, my concern for them is really only that they - like so many other similar industries - have forgotten one of the primary concepts of success: Innovate or Die. Keep up, or fall behind. Evolve or become extinct.

It doesn't need to be a scary world. The asteroid hasn't hit the planet - well, okay, maybe it has - but they don't need to stumble around with their silly T-Rex arms. The publishing worlds are changing, and if only they were willing to evolve with it instead of trying to stop it, they'd probably be in much better shape.

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