Building A Better Industry Bewares Publishing

Mike Shatzkin is confused. He can’t seem to understand why self-publishers spend so much time documenting the ills of the publishing industry.

Or, as Shatzkin puts it in one of his typically snappy headlines, “The motivation of the publisher-bashing commentariat is what I cannot figure out.”

I did a fair bit of bashing myself last week when I said that “Publishing Is Rotten To The Core.” I had intended to follow that up with a more positive counterpoint in a couple of weeks, but Shatzkin’s post demanded an immediate response.

Motivations are less interesting to me than the arguments themselves, and questions about motivations can often be an attempt to avoid the actual issues, or a simple fishing expedition – i.e. looking for a point of entry for an ad hominem attack. But the misunderstanding on this issue is so fundamental that it is worth addressing.

So, why do we care? Is Jamie Ford correct when he claims that we are motivated by bitterness? Was he right when he said that we’re all “people who’ve been told that their baby is ugly”?

It’s possible that bitterness/rejection is a factor for some self-publishers. And maybe even most of them at some level. But the idea that it’s the prime motivation, or any significant factor here, doesn’t stand up to any real scrutiny because the “publisher-bashing commentariat” doesn’t just list the failings of the business, but also suggests remedies.

If we wanted to destroy publishers (or cackle as they destroyed themselves), why would we write posts suggesting that they drop DRM, embrace low pricing, and hurl themselves with lustful abandon into the digital future?

Mike Shatzkin is right when he says that it’s not in our narrow self-interest to do so. But I think there are several flaws with thinking in that very narrow sense. Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader nails it:

I am tired of Mike’s assumption that anyone who bashes the publishing industry wants Amazon to win […] some actually are socially aware, and are joining in the debate so they can point out what they see as the best way forward for the publishing industry.

He’s right, but there’s more to it. Here are my motivations, in no particular order:

  1. I have several friends who are either hybrid authors or traditionally published. I want publishers to reform so that my friends are treated better.
  2. Like many, I have a sense of fellow feeling with my colleagues – possibly because writers have been historically treated so poorly (or maybe because I’m a human being who can occasionally rise above considerations of narrow self-interest) – and I want conditions to improve for all authors, however they decide to publish their work.
  3. There is a lot of FUD around which can cause writers to make poor choices, or take decisions for the wrong reasons. I feel a need to counter that, perhaps because of (2) above.
  4. I can’t see myself signing a traditional deal (absent an obscene amount of money) because we seem to have diametrically opposing views on key issues like contracts, piracy, pricing, and marketing. That limits my options as an author to self-publishing, or (perhaps, this is not a given) signing a deal with one of the Amazon imprints. Self-publishing has been very good to me, but I would also like more options because it’s always good to have more options. If publishers get smarter about all this stuff, then I will have them. So will everyone else who currently can’t imagine signing a deal. And that, in turn, will act as an incentive for all players to improve their treatment of writers. (Note: the “obscene amount of money” is attractive for obvious reasons, but that theoretical level of demand for my work probably means I could get rid of the contract stuff that bothers me, have the publisher really back the book, and have actual input on key decisions.)
  5. Some of the things that publishers get up to are simply unconscionable, from using corporate sleight-of-hand to screw authors out of royalties, to profiting from predatory vanity imprints. It’s certainly not in my self-interest to speak up about this crap, but I hate to see writers suffer and cheats prosper, and I can’t abide the hypocrisy/stupidity of FREAKING OUT about what Amazon might do in the future when publishers are doing this stuff today.

Now, in case you think this is an argument I’m constructing after-the-fact, let me point you towards a discussion I had with Chuck Wendig back in August. You’ll see I made many of the same points there.

And if the negative criticism from the “publisher-bashing commentariat” outweighs the positive suggestions, I respectfully suggest that’s because it’s much harder to get people to consider an alternative approach if they don’t accept there is a problem in the first place.

DRM doesn’t “prevent piracy,” it causes it. Higher pricing doesn’t “protect the literary way of life,” it is killing it. Writers aren’t being “treated as true partners in the publishing process,” they are being exploited.

Here’s the curious conclusion to all of this. In one sense, both myself and Mike Shatzkin want the same thing: a diverse retail and publishing landscape. And we both believe that’s best for the industry. Where we differ is in the approach to achieving that diversity.

Mike Shatzkin wants some form of (yet to be explained) governmental intervention to restrict Amazon’s market power. I think that would be a terrible move and publishers, as well as Amazon’s retail competition, would have zero incentive to reform or innovate.

Instead, I want to see publishers actually compete. I want them to embrace the future, drop DRM, stop pretending the internet is going to go away, get rid of dumb non-compete clauses, realize that readers are your customers now and not just bookstores, resist the temptation to screw writers with crappy option clauses and toothless reversion clauses, understand that reading is in competition with all sorts of other forms of entertainment and that they need to start pricing much, much cheaper (particularly for debut authors), and, finally, stop scamming writers with exploitative vanity imprints.

I also want to see retailers adopt Amazon’s core philosophy of always trying to display the book the reader is most likely to purchase – no matter who the publisher is or what price it’s selling at. I’d like them to understand that the store is at least as important as the device, that they should develop a fully fledged recommendation ecostructure and beef up their email marketing, and that they need to give up more of the co-op reserved for publishers to organic, targeted recommendations. (And, to be fair, this is starting to happen.)

In other words, I’d like to see a world with several retailers taking Amazon’s approach, as well as a plethora of future-forward publishers, with real digital savvy, who actually respect authors, treat them fairly, and consider them real partners in the process of publishing books and reaching readers.

Because that would be better for everyone. (Including me.)

Is that really so hard to understand?

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.