Thursday, 13 December 2012

All shall be published

In the latest issue of The Author (official magazine of The Society of Authors) I have an op-ed piece about digital publishing and its possible consequences for the professional writer. In the magazine my contribution has the title 'Indiscriminate tide'. I have reproduced the article below under its original title 'All shall be published'.
Around about the time of the liberal, permissive (and much-missed) 1960s a well-worn expression was 'All shall have prizes'. This encapsulated the philosophy that participation was more important than competition. In certain circles the notion of winners and losers became anathema as it was too hard on the losers and discouraged involvement. Too great an emphasis on high standards would act as a disincentive to the mediocre - that is, most of us.
There was a certain logic to these ideas, but the counter-argument was that there was no reward for genuine ability and hard work, and less motivation for the highly skilled. Also, when the time inevitably came for selection (for university, for serious sport, for a job) how could selectors effectively discern who among the crowd was the real star, the person they needed?

This is a preamble to my thinking about the way publishing seems to be going. These days it has never been harder or easier to be published. On the one hand mainstream publishers are ever more nervous of trusting new talent, or even moderate successes of the past, relying instead on high profile established names and increasingly on celebrities for their publishing and marketing efforts. On the other hand, through Amazon, Smashwords and the rest, it is possible for anyone who wishes it were so to be published, at least in digital form, without any real expenditure and, significantly, without any quality standard or objective test of merit. Marketing, of course, is left entirely to the authors.

With what seems to be the inevitable demise of printed books in the near or long term in favour of the ebook format, and the correlative decline of the traditional apparatus (agents, publishers, bookshops) what we will be left with is a few huge digital bookstores. The good news for the would-be author is that it will be the easiest task in the world to self-publish and present in these bookstores - the new axiom is 'All shall be published.' No need now for those mind-cudgelling synopses and tricky pitches; no more dollars and pounds spent posting heavy manuscripts to every possible contact in the Writers' & Authors' Yearbook; no more waiting weeks and months for a reply; no more rejection slips; no more disappointment.
Who would deny any writer the pleasure of seeing their work in print? Who could object that good writers with interesting stories who would otherwise be ignored by a celebrity-obsessed publishing sector should be given the opportunity to show the reading public what they can do, what they have done? Surely no-one: but when the barriers are down aren't we all - writers and readers alike - in danger of being drowned in the flood? How is any writer - good, bad or indifferent - going to be able to keep her head above water? to be spotted? to be picked out? to be read?

If the answer is word of mouth - or viral attention in digital-speak - I fear for the future of careful quality writing and editing. Infinite Shades of Grey, it seems, is what we have to look forward to. 

It's true there never was a Golden Age, and in writing as in other forms of the arts excellence rarely equates with popularity - which is why quality newspapers generally struggle to achieve a circulation that will keep them financially sound, and why few first-rate authors ever make it to the Rich List - but until recently it was just about possible to make a living. Now, apart from the difficulties of gaining attention in a world where the noise-to-signal ratio produces so much distortion, there is the growing problem of perceived value. 

The price of ebooks is generally way below their printed cousins (of course the production costs are much less) and the tendency is very much southwards. Hundreds of thousands of ebooks are available for free, either permanently or temporarily. Price promotions and heavy discounts are the norm, whether from the giants of distribution (Amazon, Sony) or directly from the digital publishers. One of my own publishers, Wild Wolf, regularly offers free downloads on its titles for the short term promotional gain the tactic provides - and I have personally benefited from a modest upsurge in real sales after the promotion ceases. But the cumulative effect is to devalue the printed word in general. As customers we are conditioned to become highly resistant to paying much, if at all, for what we read. 

The amateur author may be quite happy to place a zero price tag on his ebook in the hope of winning readership, and there is no gainsaying that. Except we all have children to feed. The professional has somehow to make a living, but the prospect of doing so is receding rapidly for most. High quality writing does not come exclusively from the full-time professional - of course not - but just as professional sportspeople tend to be those at the peak of excellence because a) they have been through a careful, rigorous selection process and b) they hone their skills all day and every day, such is the general case for writers. 

It would be to the detriment of mankind if economic exigency led to the literary art becoming once again the exclusive pursuit of the leisured or moneyed classes, or relegated to the province of the casual amateur. Ironically, what might be seen on the one hand as the democratisation of publishing in the digital age, accessible to all, could have the unintended effect of pushing us back into a pre-democratic age of inequality with the doors firmly shut on the aspiring professional.


  1. A lot of good points here. I am considering e-publishing (mainly because I occupy a niche market that I don't think is going to be reached traditionally) but when quality goes readership does as well. 5000 people "buying" a free e-book with no merit will be less likely to want to pay for one later, even if they've been told it's excellent.

    If there's going to be a market, there has to be both a gatekeeper (someone to verify quality) and knowledge on the part of the author. I think that most drivel is published simply because the author doesn't know any better. With full disclosure about the process, I think the garbage will begin to diminish. Right now we're in the same position as the printing press, when anyone who could afford it was publishing.

    There will always be people who want to be published no matter what, but for the most part they seem to be content with the few book sales to their family and friends.

    Then there are those few who believe they know it all without learning anything. They're more difficult to deal with, and once established I can almost guarantee they'll be ashamed to have their name on what they published initially.


  2. Some excellent additional points, Lauren - thanks.

  3. My two cents is that like all endeavours with low entry barriers, there will be a flood of low quality work but the public will quickly sort the wheat from the chaff. Undoubtedly there will be some birthing pains, but the talented will always be in a class of their own. The tectonic shift in publishing is in the midst of its cataclysm and how it will sort itself out is still a work in progress. I do not see writing talent put out of business any time soon.

  4. Thanks, andersm, for your twopennorth (as we say this side of the pond :-))