A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The backlash against eBooks in general – and Amazon in particular – has been rumbling along, sotto voce, for some time, but recently, there have been howls of anguish in both US and UK media. (An American bookseller recently called Amazon ‘The Big Satan’!) The Little Pigs are besieged and Amazon is the Big Bad Wolf, come to blow their houses down. Traditional publishers are what they always have been: honourable gatekeepers, there to nurture, protect and promote writers. They are, in short, the fount of all virtue.
This would be just a little more believable if the last decade or so hadn’t seen mainstream publishers presiding over the slow decline and eventual death of the mid-list, that fertile centre ground of publishing, encompassing everything from well written genre fiction to literary novels, with all kinds of fascinating stuff in between. And for a very long time, they have managed to persuade mid-list writers like myself that it was all our fault. This centre ground used to be the seed bed from which the occasional (generally unpredictable) blockbuster success would spring. Sometimes – if the publisher got lucky – it might be an author’s first or second book; more frequently it would be their fourth, fifth, or even sixth book. And if a book did become a bestseller, some of those profits would be ploughed back into nurturing the other seedlings in the mid-list.
Then, slowly but relentlessly, everything changed. No matter what big publishers may say in their own justification, the experience of many writers – even those with agents – is that editors are now ruled and overruled by their marketing departments, and those marketing departments are looking for instant gratification in the shape of a quick and easy bestseller.
They find those bestsellers in ghost written sleb memoirs or autobiographies of sportsmen and television chefs. And cookery books. Such bricks and mortar book chains as remain are crammed with these glossy invaders which have ousted any fiction which doesn’t slot neatly into a set of increasingly narrow genres. It ill behoves publishers to wring their hands and weep crocodile tears over the death of the book, when they have effectively spent a decade or more kicking it in the teeth. Just about every writer of my acquaintance – and I know a lot of them – would tell of rejection letters all saying the same thing: ‘I love this, I think it’s wonderful and well written, but in the current climate, we can’t publish it.’ In other words, it’s a mid-list novel and the marketing department doesn’t know how to sell it fast enough. Editors have – privately, of course – named various wonderful novels of previous decades which ‘would not now find a publisher.’
Even more gobsmacking is the reiterated threat that ‘writers will have to get day jobs!’ I can count on the fingers of one hand – minus my thumb – the professional writers I know who actually make enough money from published books to be able to support themselves. Almost ALL writers have day jobs. They teach creative writing, run courses, lecture at universities, or – like myself – work at completely different businesses in an effort to buy time to write. How could it be otherwise, when you can be offered £1000 or £500 or a big fat zero advance (and a small royalty) on a book which has taken you a couple of years to research and write. The Passive Guy, whose consistently interesting blog (www.thepassivevoice.com ) tackles these issues in the US points out that ‘one of the strange aspects of publishing is that although it constantly requires new products, it is a large business that seldom develops any of its own.’ Looked at from this angle, it is the writer who takes most of the product development risk but reaps only a small reward. Even the ‘web marketing assistant’ within a reasonably big publishing company will be paid £19,000 – £22,000 per annum. The suppliers of the product, without whom none of the other jobs would exist, seldom find themselves so well remunerated.
eBook publishing often involves a ‘slow burn’ with sales taking off some time after publication. By contrast, conventional publishing nowadays demands the immediate and astronomical rise in sales and the ridiculously swift slide towards the remainder pile. With a few lucky exceptions, most writers will have been made to feel guilty about their inability to meet the unrealistic targets set by their publishers, and this with well written, well reviewed and popular books – just not instantly popular enough.
So what if there is a lot of dross out there? There’s plenty of mainstream dross as well and good books are hard to find, even in the real world. In fact good books are arguably even harder to find in the real world. In a virtual world, shelf space is unlimited but people are already hammering out ways of finding what they want. Writers are co-operating with each other, engaging with readers via blogs and review sites such as this one and the more eBook targeted ‘Indie eBook Review’ site. (http://indieebookreview.wordpress.com/) Besides, your dross might well be my good read.
It’s no surprise that many of indie publishing’s most enthusiastic proponents are older writers with a good, even award winning, track record (and a big back list) like myself, who have encountered obstacle after obstacle – as opposed to youngsters who have not yet had time to become jaded with the system. It would be far more helpful to ‘start-up writers’ to debate grown-up topics: the desirability of honing your craft, the importance of your cover image, of engaging professional editorial help, the need to get your head down and keep writing rather than resting on your laurels after one book – all these things are useful. Elitist hand-wringing is not.
Recently, I found myself reading two non-fiction books by the same writer. I bought one in paperback but because I wanted to consult the second in a hurry, I downloaded it to my Kindle. Both were published by a major publisher. The paperback is fine. But the formatting of the eBook is atrocious. It is clear that this large and successful company has no idea that when you convert a document into an eBook, there are certain conventions that make the whole thing look right (quite simple things such as page breaks between chapters) and that you have to check for the coding glitches that will inevitably occur. The whole thing looks amateurish and unprofessional.
All of which helps to explain why, for so many of us, the publishing industry has lost credibility as the keeper of culture it still imagines itself to be. I neither want, nor need to be nurtured. Nurturing is for babies. Being treated in a professional, businesslike manner would be good enough. And guess who does that most convincingly at the moment? I do believe it might be the Big Bad Wolf himself (aka The Big Satan). This may not always be the case, of course, but for now, I’m trying to build my house of bricks while he’s still in docile and co-operative mood.