Things You Missed Last Week (№42): Competition is Competitive

For about a couple of weeks now, I have been predicting my own demise. Not too surprising, the usual estimate for each human being’s chance of death is 100%, after all. However, I’m speaking of ‘me’ as a publisher.

Scribner’s submissions readers deciding what to do with latest arrivals (Parker Brothers Ouija Board advert, Dec. 1969)
Scribner’s submissions readers deciding what to do with latest arrivals (Parker Brothers Ouija Board advert, Dec. 1969)

No, no; I’m not making some heavy-​​handed statement of portentous variety regarding lack of sales, quality of submissions, or the economy in general. I’m thinking in realistic terms about the likelihood and viability of publishers as ‘literary gate keepers’ or ‘curators of quality books’. I don’t foresee this as being something which either the reading public or the creative authors considering as tenable in the years to come.

Ever since someone said to Homer (no, not the yellow guy, the ancient Greek poet) “that’s great writing, but I don’t think we’ll be making copies of that story for people… try Demonites down the road, maybe he’s got room in his catalogue”, the Publisher has had control over what the public can read. Yes, there have been some notable exceptions to this power – DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, TE Lawrence’s (no relation) Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, and James Joyce’s Ulysses–but mostly due to either “unprintable words” or the fact that publishers thought no one would like to read a book about people living in Arabia. Publisher’s aren’t alone in making foolish oversights: the man at Capital Records, UK must still bemoan his note stating “people no longer are interested in Rock & Roll bands” after listening to the audition tapes for The Beatles, to the great gain of EMI.

As a side note, the nasty aspect of this attitude of “only we can declare what is ‘worthy’ of your reading time” manifests itself in murmurings such as the recent decrying of “readability” as something the Mann Booker Prize Jury considered as part of their deliberations. Apparently when deciding what is good fiction one isn’t supposed to ask questions like “is it fun to read?” and one should limit oneself to “is it good for you?” Poppycock, say I, and so does Graham Joyce, the currently Acting Chairman of the British Fantasy Society (but then, he would, wouldn’t he?) in his piece titled “Don’t Confuse ‘Readability’ with ‘Dumbing Down’ ”. As much as I’d like to take a piece out of the attitude that “fun” is akin to “low brow” or even “sinful”, the real problem here is that it’s thought to be ‘of reduced quality’. I’d be hard-​​pressed to locate a musician who can play much of the music of King Crimson, Queen, or Steely Dan, but it sure is fun! Complicated, complex, intricate, and brilliant, absolutely! But don’t confuse it’s “fun quality” with it being ‘easy’, or ‘popular’ with being ‘sub-​​par’!

Just after the start of the millennium, there was a big resurgence in the “why can’t we just print copies ourselves?” school of thinking, and three things resulted directly from this:

  1. small press formed in the vein of the Bloomsbury Generation style where everyone ran their own house and acted as launderers of literary works by their friends, or published works they truly believed in and nurtured them to perfection
  2. people truly self-​​published (sometimes using an editor but frequently not, more’s the pity)
  3. unscrupulous bastards started “author’s fulfilment houses’ which basically sucked every single cent out of the authors who innocently handed over all their worldly assets in order to see their name on the front cover of a book

I don’t see this as a bad thing (with the exception of the third, which is all bad plus a bag of chips). Some suggest that “it’s good for people to release crap that ought to have been edited, never mind proofed, as then the readers will understand just how valuable the publisher is!” This is the argument of the grumpy, self-​​important, and bitter. The reading of low-​​quality writing isn’t anything but harmful to everyone who writes, for this can only lead in the long term to people being ‘turned off’ to the joys of reading. I decry this situation and those who see it as good even in the short-​​term. Self-​​publishers should be encouraged to use editors and proof-​​readers for the simple reason it makes their work better in the same way it improved the works of  Dickens, Joyce, Christie, Atwood, and every other writer you can think of.

The principle that I see being served is that of “providing an increased choice of material”. There are only so many books I can publish, no matter my desire. There are only so many books Simon & Shuster or Random House can put out each week. The more books which are made available, the greater the selection available.

Around the same time as the above three points came to pass, there was a common view that a narrower and narrower variety of books were being released; especially in the UK bookshops. There were oodles of new books coming out, have no doubt! But they were all of a piece: homogeneous in style, length, story, and often even in their cover art. The notion that “fantastical fiction” (SF, Fantasy, Horror, or amalgam of all three plus some other things as well) might see the surface of a shelf in a store was anathema to the large-​​house publishers, as the Big Boys® were of the opinion that ‘people aren’t buying those sorts of books any more’ and then they’d chuckle in that superior way of someone who had all of the answers.

However, obviously the large houses’ eschewing of SF&F titles was correct in one simple way. People such as Orion, Spectra, and Del-​​Ray were keeping things going as well as they could, but if you don’t release lots of SF&F titles, then it’s quite difficult for anyone to buy lots of lots of SF&F titles. QED.

So, a large number of people who loved ‘those sorts of books’ decided to do something about it and started small presses in the UK and North America so as to release either their own work, the work of others whose writing was in many instances excellent, as well as long out-​​of-​​print titles which couldn’t be found in anything but the rarest editions. Things were furthered by word-​​of-​​mouth and the development of superior “digital printing techniques” which made the printing of books in quantities as small as 200 the same wholesale cost per unit as doing a run of eight hundred or a thousand using traditional lithographic /​ offset techniques. Hooray!

Fast forward to today, and the matter gets a great deal easier for the author or “hobby” publisher to release works, as well as those such as myself who make this a full-​​time concern.

The main benefit to the author or “hobby” publisher is Amazon for various reasons, but they all come down to being a single source of solutions to every imaginable problem: electronic books (Kindle Direct Publishing, née “Digital Text Platform”), as well as paperback and hardback books (Create Space) can be had easily as well as providing a place to sell them to the world (Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de, Amazon.jp) and the author/​publisher can keep a piece of the retail action if they set-​​up their links correctly (Amazon Associates Programme).

The side-​​effect of this is that Amazon has essentially destroyed the necessity of the “bricks and mortars” store, especially the independent book shop. There is no conceivable way for even a ‘big box’ book retailer to have close to the selection of titles that Amazon has on its sites. Even Chapters.Indigo.ca has a far larger selection than the biggest location you can walk into. The average small– or one-​​location bookstore owner has to compete in the only way they can: by specialisation in a particular content type.

There are other ways, obviously, as WH Smith has started to do recently, as their deal with Kobo looks far more to the future than simply making space in their stores for the hardware and their site for the eBooks by connecting with the largest eBook catalogue in the world. Again, the approach here is the re-​​gain the customers both through their stores as well as individual homes or offices (or wherever they’re using their computers).

In addition to adding eBooks to the shop, the other way a ‘high street’ operation can compete with the vast selection of titles offered on line is to install the Espresso Book Machine, something which has been around for a number of years now, and seems to arrived at an iteration which offers both decent-​​enough quality and reasonably good value for reader, store-​​owner, publisher and author alike. Next week I’ll babble about that here.

Next week will also see the announcement of winners in the two “get your book signed to you by the author!” contests, so head over to order your copies of Dirk Danger Loves Life and Terribilis today! This week is also your final opportunity to get both printed editions and eBooks on sale, so head to the Book Catalogue to fill your basket. 

“This Week’s Fish Wrap” is an on-​​​​​​going series of posts summing up the news of the previous seven days in the publishing industry, and/​​or announce the latest news Atomic Fez has about the publishing house, and appears here each Monday. It’s also quite possible that the posts merely serve as a dumping ground of links so that Atomic Fez Proprietor Ian Alexander Martin can find articles later to include in his occasional rants about how ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS ENTIRELY WRONG’ about various things.

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