You can use words in two ways: to hide the truth and to reveal it. When I was a journalist it was always the latter because the first was wrong, and got you fired. Now I write fiction things are the same but different. I write lies in order to reveal a murkier truth beneath them.
But what I don’t do is try to disguise the truth beyond my work. That’s bad. It’s deceptive and dodgy. It’s also very current at the moment. Let’s look at two of the weasel words of the current phoney revolution in the ever-more-bizarre world of ebooks. First…
Joe Konrath, who seems to be setting himself up as the L. Ron Hubbard of the self-publishing scene, may well have a good claim to this one, not that it’s original of course. Back in the 1990s when the web was starting to come alive business was buzzing with talk of ‘disintermediation’ and how a new breed of etailer would come along and sweep away the staid ‘legacy corporations’ who then ruled the world of commerce. Remember those great innovative dotcoms Webvan, Pets.com, Kozmo.com. Boo.com…? Well probably not, since they all went bust.
Did the web change retailing? Of course it did, but mainly through consolidation in the shape of a couple of dominant outlier efforts that got in early and commandeered the market. Take a bow Apple for iTunes, the world’s biggest music retailer. Take a bow Amazon who sell, well, pretty much anything you can imagine. The good legacy retailers of the 1990s are still around, refreshed for the digital age, sometimes struggling like most of us, sometimes, like John Lewis in the UK, doing pretty well, thank you.
The web came late to publishing distribution. It didn’t really get started until Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing came along. Now we have an astonishing number of people pinning their authorial hopes on self-published titles through these channels. And an awful lot of them seem to follow Konrath’s lead in damning the ‘legacy publishers’, most of whom have rejected the works they’re now putting out themselves.
Let’s look beyond the bluster and examine some numbers.
In May in the UK the Publishers Association reported that all digital formats — ebooks, audio and subscriptions — accounted for just eight per cent of the total invoiced value of book sales in 2011. Yes consumer ebook sales grew by a staggering 366% on the previous year while print sales were down by seven per cent. But… those ebook sales came in at £92 million while the print sales were £1.579 billion.
In the US? The latest figures I can find are these for the first quarter of 2012 from Galleycat.
The US figures are impressive, showing ebooks surpassing hardback sales and closing on paperback. But even in the US combined print sales are still more than double ebook revenues. No one doubts the gaps are closing. But print is still the bigger business and there’s a feeling in some quarters that ebook growth is slowing from exponential to incremental. In money terms they’re still a long away apart. And get this from the UK stats…
41% of revenues earned through export – with East & South Asia and Central & South America, notably Brazil, showing the strongest growth performance
There’s the second clue why ‘legacy publishing’ is a term without meaning. Yes, digital is big in the US and getting bigger in the UK. But in the rest of the world it’s either in its infancy or hasn’t even started. Some of that may be due to slow acceptance of the technology. But at least a part of it is cultural: some countries still prefer paper books for now.
Is this going to change? Yes. Will ebooks sweep the planet and become the dominant international publishing medium over the next few years? Not a chance.
So here’s what ‘legacy publishing’ actually means…
The form of publishing by which most of the world gets its books, and will do for some considerable time to come (however much Joe Konrath shouts)
Someone was mulling on Twitter the other day…
Why the animosity between indie and traditional authors? Do indie and traditional MUSICIANS fight, too? Indie and Trad FILMMAKERS? Come on.—
Rob Gregory Browne (@Robert_Browne) August 29, 2012
I get asked this from time to time too. It baffles me. I guess I’m a ‘traditional’ author, in that I predate Kindle Direct Publishing. But I don’t sit around thinking, ‘Damn those self publishers stealing the bread from my mouth.’ Nor does any other traditional author I know. We’re too busy and it would be both pointless and hypocritical, since lots of us, myself included, have self-published backlist ourselves. I even have one produced specifically for Kindle, Writing A Novel With Scrivener and I’m very pleased indeed with the way that’s gone.
But let’s focus on that word ‘indie’. What does it mean? Independent? I’m independent. I write the books I want for the publishers I choose. I was even independent when it came to writing The Killing, in the sense that it was agreed from the start this would be based on the TV series, but I could still change what I want, and I’d keep copyright of the finished book. I can’t think of a single ‘traditional’ author I know who isn’t ‘independent’ in that sense too.
So what’s this term about? Oh yes, I see. It’s about saying the new breed of writers who throw this moniker around are somehow cooler, hipper, more adventurous than the rest of us. And hiding that term ‘self published’ too, of course, since that’s seen as a touch pejorative, not that I understand why.
Does any of this make sense? Not much. As I’ve written here before, one of the worrying aspects of the current ebook scene is the way it is honing in on specific genres, not broadening the range of literature out there. Indie, in terms of cinema and music, means stuff that sits outside the mainstream and tries to push the envelope.
In self publishing, the work that seems to be getting the attention and, yes, the sales is usually derivative, predictable and firmly set in the latest genre to sell. Which currently is soft porn — sorry ‘erotica’, to use one more current euphemism.
Only the other day Konrath was holding up a couple of his latest adoring pinup ‘indie’ authors as exemplars for the rest of us to follow. Here they are…
Alice in Wonderland rewritten as porn. And a porn book about a woman having sex with a rich man written as… porn.
Look. I’ve got nothing against this kind of thing. If people want to write it and others want to read it, fine. But it’s not exactly Sundance or Lollapalooza is it?
‘Indie’ surely means adventurous, different, pushing at boundaries, ignoring commercial constraints to challenge conventions regardless of the financial consequences. Not hacking out unoriginal, derivative me-too copies of an out-of-copyright classic rejigged as soft porn, or trying to cash in on the latest brief I-had-weird-sex-with-a-guy-who-owns-a-Merc mayfly hit to race to the top of the bestseller charts.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing either of those things. But please… don’t try and wear a trendy tag round your neck while churning out this stuff. It’s insulting and ridiculous. We all know what you’re after and it’s not writing a great book or trying to extend the reach and richness of storytelling.
Konrath spells it out in a paragraph like this in virtually every one one of his messages to the faithful…
If she wrote 20 ebooks (15 titles and 5 collections) and each one earns only $150 a day, that’s a million dollars a year. That’s just 75 ebook sales and loans a day per title, and I’ve hit that number many times and for extended periods.
I rest my case, m’lud.