There is a dark side to publishing, one that takes advantage of artists and writers leaving them starving even though they are doing the work they love. Many times they are forced to give up rights to their work, sign in-perpetuity clauses, follow rigid rules, and give up creative control in exchange for being published. However, we are living in a time when the rich, powerful, and traditional publishers that have built the foundations of the industry are getting weaker by the minute due to the advent of technology and the revolution of the Internet. The traditionally established publishing industry’s high barriers of entry and long history of tactics, processes, and perceptions are now outdated like yesterday’s iPhone. This current situation has provided a landscape of people pounding through the broken glass doors to make their point, proving the need for change, showing direct approval of the masses.
Can you feel a bit of tension in those words?
Yes, I’m kind of mad. I have a love-hate relationship with publishing right now and let me tell you why. I had some precursor thoughts about the publishing world before jumping full fledge into it. Then as I swam among what the tide brought after the dam was broken and experienced the masses walking within the rubble rebuilding where they could apply their talents and expertise. This has led to a complete lack of structure that is driving me crazy. As a former project manager that found planning very natural, this was immediately painful for me. As any successful human needs to do, I adapted, and this state of the union is my overview of what I have observed and reflected upon over the past two years as an indie publisher and literary artist.
This report comes from a very objective point of view. Although I went to college for quite a long period of my life, my degrees were not in English, I had never completed a full book, and all I knew about publishing was the top handful of names like Random, Hatchett, and Wiley. I was in for a shock as I entered this world of disarray with solely pure passion.
Let me begin with emphasizing that the industry is in a state of overflow leading to a primordial state of chaos. Those living in these new conditions have created a diverse array of options, products, and services in so many variations that it’s hard to keep track. There are hybrids upon hybrids of business models that are growing at a distressing rate. Some are sustainable, some are not. The testing of hundreds of different ideas are being done to see which ones have traction and can survive the climate change. It reminds me of the thoughts I have when I read about the asteroids that supposedly hit and killed the dinosaurs, wiping out and creating a new host of life in its ashes. The diverse spawn of life that reemerged was drastically different from what was there before.
The prior purpose of traditional publishing houses was to weed through the available work and publish what they thought would be bestsellers. Just like fine wine, however, reading tastes are very subjective. Consumers of reading material left it up to these houses to make decisions for them on what they should be reading. Now with thousands of indie publishing companies and a multitude of writers and artists self-publishing their own books through online vanity publishers like LuLu.com, readers have a brand new selection of reading material at their disposal like they never had before. Readers can finally choose for themselves what they do and don't like. This mass access has led to a saturated system, making discovery and marketing very difficult, for both the author and the reader.
One of the best things that the traditional publishers did was groom the books they published by removing errors and creating reputable book design by using internal expertise to polish and edit professionally. Many self-published authors and indie publishers do not get the privilege of having this grooming process to the extent that traditional publishers do. This creates a disadvantage to those who don't have the finances to obtain these pricey services on their own, or aren’t educated enough to have a personal process in place for decent edits and design completed. I can’t imagine any reader, especially a seasoned reader, wanting to read something that hasn't been polished. Yes, even traditionally edited books will have errors but some self-published books are beyond acceptable. I must admit it took me time to really understand the depth of this, but now I do wholeheartedly. Readers have now become their own quality control which is almost a foreign concept to them as well as a time-consuming task. At some point, readers will get tired of this and will shy away from new authors, stick to just a few, or continue to only follow books that are published from traditional houses. Thankfully, through kindness and mutual sharing of passion, volunteer editors and designers have kept the breath inside the lives of some indie publishers like me.
This leads us to ultimately the most difficult issue for any publisher, artist, and author: discoverability. The website is the new phone book and an absolute requirement for visual artists and writers. Like it or not, Google now determines which products do the best. We are now living in an era of tags, keywords, and search engine optimization (SEO), and books, art, and online magazines must fit into search algorithms. The Google brand is now a household name that everyone turns to daily. Google is our go to for everything in our life. Google is now not only a company name, it’s a verb. Google is the lifeblood of discoverability. Those who can afford expensive SEO for their websites will reach the top of Google and feed our attentions every time we turn to it. I find when I research on Google that the top front page list results aren’t always the best products, or articles I need. Instead, most of it are companies that can afford to be placed there. Those like me who have figured this out have been privy to experience the Page 3 and Page 10 of Google results. It’s there that I find a tremendous sea of diverse thought, products, and services… driven by passion, and not a lot of money. This ideal of second best has created a sub-culture that has not yet been tapped into. Passion and quality seem to have been removed from Google’s search equations. There is a large sea of creatures that live in the depths with content, community, and value if you swim deep enough. Google has yet to tap into the beauty of its later pages. How can those within the depths be discovered? It then becomes frustrating to grab the attention of those in the light from the darkness when the internet has created an impulsive urge to immediacy and impatience. How can indie publishers and artists find their readers and markets with Google then? Discoverability will remain a hurdle and limitation for quite a while.
Naturally we are then brought to competition, and a lot of it, all trying to successfully evolve out of the primordial pool and survive on land. Since the industry is in a diversity boom, taking the usual approach to competition is not sustainable. Society is used to a handful of competition within industries. Currently that is not the case in publishing, as there are hundreds of thousands of competitors, depending on how you look at what your competition is. The perception of competition needs to change, from one in battle, to that of survival. To that end, I have decided to take a different approach and encourage collaboration instead. Publishers, authors, and artists working together to share best practices, lessons learned, cross promotion, and motivating each other to keep moving along the flow of our passion. We were never meant to do things alone, as humanity in its entirety thrives on being in unison. I am a true believer that when we assist each other in surviving, everyone benefits. Everyone in the publishing industry should cheer each other on, instead of booing the other teams.
The traditional distribution chain is responsible for getting print books into the stores of neighborhood books shops and all the brick and mortar chains we are all familiar with such as Barnes & Noble,Tower, and Blackwell’s. It is nearly impossible for the small indie press and the self-published author to make successful strides in the traditional distribution chain, not to mention getting into libraries. Innovative technology has allowed the ability for books to be printed on demand (POD), removing the need for the traditional distribution and very large and expensive print runs. Although this is of great service to the needs of those who have troubles going the traditional distribution route, this has made book covers the wine labels of the publishing industry – as discoverability now includes the ability to catch an eye as they lie in thumbnail form in a row with the next. Though sales of physical books are still higher than ebooks, this is changing year after year. Further, with the rising inflationary symptoms of our global economy most consumers are saving money wherever they can. As the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, this disturbing truth will make it even harder for print books and the shops they are bought in, to survive. Most of the time ebooks are cheaper (although not always) and consumers are jumping in. It is for these reasons I have vouched that every ebook published through Thought Collection Publishingwill be 2.99 cents, as I believe very strongly in equal access to art and literature. I will only spend very little energy and effort on physical book distribution and will stick to the POD until better opportunities exist in the traditional distribution model for indie publishers.
I know and respect the reasons why people and companies hate Amazon, as no one wants a monopoly whose power over prices and just about everything else, can turn into abuse, but none of the other online retailers are giving publishers the tools and access to the market we need like Amazon is. If other retailers worked as hard and thought as smartly about strategy and process like Amazon does, they would be better competitors, but they aren’t. Amazon is the epitome of everything I learned in business school. The company is truly the market leader in many industries, not just publishing. There are people and companies that hate this and I totally get it. I agree in healthy competition. To that end, I challenge Nook, Kobo, Google, Apple, Smashwords, and other up and coming retailers to give Amazon a fair fight. So far these retailers just have not yet figured out how to win. I recommend a book to all leaders and change agents in those organizations – The Art Of War by Sun Tsu. The issue I do have with Amazon is their need for exclusivity. As a writer I enjoy my rights and not having the right to place my ebooks on other retailer sites in order to take advantage of Amazon’s marketing tools really annoys me. This is one of moral aptitude that Amazon hasn't yet included into their guiding principles. The retailer Magzter is definitely doing a good job being innovative in providing free marketing services to their publishers as they understand that when they help their publishers, everyone wins.
Lastly, some other rants I must include in this specialized venting session on the state of the publishing union include:
• Authors and visual artists are now business owners. Gone are the days of just being a writer, photographer, or painter. We must also have some business sense. If you do not, or wish not to, being successful will be difficult.
• Unless you know someone or have the finances to use services that still aren’t guaranteed, press releases will never get published.
• Unless you know someone or have the finances to use a third party company, your books will never be reviewed as much as it needs to trigger online algorithms to make books discoverable to your market.
• Literary and visual artists must now accept the fact that taking time away from their writing and art for online marketing is absolutely necessary. Although many are opposed to this virtual living, embracing the personal online presence is now required. It is this digital revolution that has created the much needed change within the publishing industry, so it must be embraced by its participants. The problem of online marketing lies in where to market, as this is still changing daily. I have spent hours upon hours on marketing that didn’t work. This is wasted time I could have spent writing. It appears that relationship building on the internet is definitely harder than in person. Some of us are still adjusting to becoming social online as it feels almost science fiction, or unnatural, but the rise of social media and online social interactions is because of us; we embraced it wholeheartedly.
Since we are on the verge of a new era, and extreme change is happening within publishing, I propose some traits the newly evolved creatures that arise from the primordial pond should have: altruistic, inventive, clever, independent, original, progressive, visionary, and fun. So what happens in nature when there is disorder? Eventually gravity will make energy coalesce and order will spontaneously appear. I have no doubt that the future in publishing will hold amazing specimens of life, capable of great things. One thing is for certain, however, it will NOT be where it was ten years ago. One of the key laws and rules observed and proved in science is survival of the fittest. Those that can adapt and keep up will be the ones that survive. Traditional publishing companies will never truly accept this fate as they will hold tightly to their attributes and preconceptions that dominated their original form. It is now up to the Indies to rise. Self-publishers and “Indies” of all kinds, it’s now time to unite and spread a different cause. Thought Collection Publishing is building a community of new creatures growing from this global primordial publishing pond. Come visit my side of the publishing world as I attempt to build a community of those likeminded publishers, writers, artists, and consumers. Together in the Author & Artist Collective we can be more effective as a group as we collectively scan the latest developments in publishing, pass on tips, and share experiences. Visit our Marketplace and help us build our opportunity space, ridding competition and collaborating instead.
Community is the answer for now in the current state of the publishing union; strength in numbers.
Update Note: These communities no longer exist, however, Kat still believes in strength in numbers and is working on developing communities in the future.
See other reports on the State Of The (Indie) Publishing Union: