Sunday, 18 May 2008

Publish and be Damned

By Darren E Laws

There are many different disparaging terminologies used to describe the current trend of authors and publishers embracing print-on demand (POD) and independent and self publishing, most of them instigated by an industry that sees little, if any, worth in the product being produced. Is this a valid judgement on the actual merit of each of these titles, be they fiction or non-fiction. Or is it the reaction to the democratisation of publishing. Like it or not the advent of new technology and the internet has levelled the playing field, but only marginally. Yet to hear the braying, antagonistic bashing it receives you could be mistaken for believing it was the cause of all the publishing industry’s ills. Let's not kid ourselves, independent authors and independent publishers are viewed as a blip on the landscape; the ugly pimple on the backside of a beautiful butterfly. So terminologies such as 'vanity publishing' exists to denigrate all who choose to tread what can at best be called a truly exciting experience and at worst a lonely and extremely difficult path.

But this path has been walked down many times before, proving that the industry is often apt to ignoring talent, or at the very least, not always recognising it. You may know of some of these names, John Grisham, Robert James Waller, Ezra Pound, Zane Grey, Deepak Chopra, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Marcel Proust, Margaret Atwood amongst a few; all of these people reached a point in their career where there was no option but to self-publish. How vain were these people?

Of course it would be foolish to suggest that each new POD title is worthy of mainstream attention and should reach a large audience. Many only reach sales that would preclude any form of career as an author, but this should not prevent them from reaching whatever audience they do attain, using whatever means possible. Is it not for the audience and market to judge one’s validity? How many times have we seen mainstream publishers handing out large advances like candy to authors who fail to produce that illusive best-seller, even with the backing of a huge marketing budget or the kudos of a prestigous award. I saw DBC Pierre’s follow up to the Man Booker prize winning novel, Vernon God Little, ‘Ludmila’s Broken English’ sitting on the shelves of ‘Poundstreatcher’. DBC Pierre, a winner in 2003, clearly struggled to retain the sales of his prize winning d├ębut. This is not a reflection of DBC Pierre at all, but clearly an indication of how the industry works and at times fails to work.

The question needs to be asked though; at what point though does a self published author become respectable in the eyes of the industry? Jhumpa Lahiri is the latest self-published author to make the industry sit up and take notice. Her latest collection of stories, 'Unaccustomed Earth' recently topped the US book charts and is in the running for the 35,000, Frank O'Connor International Short Story prize.

Yet the publishing industry appears to be ready to jump into bed with any celebrity, regardless of talent and ability to write (and one may even speculate, read) to publish not only their memoirs, but now the increasing trend of the celebrity novel (Usually a book so ghost-written that it would take a team of mediums to trace the actual author.). Often the only time a 'celebrity' would have written anything constructive in the book would be when they hastily scribble their moniker inside for an adoring fan who probably does not know or care what involvement the 'star' had with the work, as long as their picture adorned the cover. If ever the term vanity could legitimately be used in the industry with absolute accuracy then surely it is here. At least those tarred with the stigma of vanity publishing have had the tenacity, gumption and love of writing to have applied themselves to their work and actually written it themselves, regardless of the perceived quality.

So who’s fooling who, the author that for one reason or another might not manage to get their manuscript to the top of the slush pile with a mainstream publisher and decide to have the gumption to at least tackle the market head-on, or the publisher who commissions an army of ghost-writers to churn out fodder for the masses and endorse it with a ‘celebrities’ name? While you ponder that question think about this short list of authors who did not find instant success.

Norman Mailer - The Naked and the Dead - Rejected 12 times

Richard Bach - Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Rejected 20 times

Joseph Heller - Catch-22 – Rejected 22 times (Wouldn’t you know)

Robert Persig - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Rejected 121 times, and of course John Grisham - A Time to Kill - 15 publishers and 30 agents before publishing it himself. It makes you wonder what the world of literature would be like if it were not for the tenacity of many authors willing to go that extra mile and not take rejection by the mainstream industry that for one reason or another could not see worth in the work being presented. These authors took that leap of faith, a leap of faith in their own work, skill, ability, tenacity and talent. They did not listen to the voice of rejection they said “Publish and be damned”

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The Dark Days Aren’t Coming, They’re Here

In a week which has seen a growing upsurge against traditional industry practices and a realisation by retailers and publishers that we cannot continue running the book publishing industry the way it has traditionally ran for the last 50 years, calls have been made from established figures for a change. The failure to embrace new lines of production and new printing methods and formats is hardly news in the publishing world, but now it would appear hands are being forced through other issues such as the rising cost of paper and escalating fuel prices. CEO Carolyn Reidy at Simon & Schuster has been reported as saying that the escalating prices have made Simon & Schuster “take a fresh look at the way we do business. Our basic costs are up dramatically." With estimates of rises in costs between 10 and 40% this year (so far) it is obvious that something will have to give. The question is what. Will these lions, these demigods of publishing finally address the way they do business or will they take the easy route and pass the charge down the line to the consumer.

Robert Miller, the founder of Walt Disney’s ‘Hyperion Books’ now heads up a new imprint at HarperCollins, he sees an area that is the bane for publishers, which is not only crazy but in this day and age, unacceptable environmentally mental. Figures from the US show that in 2005 there were approximately 1.5 billion books published and distributed to retail outlets. Out of these a staggering 465 million were returned as unsold. What does this tell us about the industry? It tells us that there is a cartel between publishers and the retail industry that is willing to absorb a system of waste and that something is drastically wrong with the process of buying books. Just for a moment stop and think about the sheer amount of energy spent in producing the books, transporting the books, having them sit around in stores being heated and cooled with air conditioning for months on end and then being returned unsold due to little or no demand. Sadly the story does not end with the books being returned. From this point books can then be shipped off to remainder outlets or pulped, both are practices which expand a heck of a lot of energy and resources.

Interestingly this week Faber also announced that it was going to reprint its ‘Classics’ line using Print on Demand (POD) technology. Is this a dry run for the shape of things to come? POD is certainly a leaner and greener method of getting books into store. Congratulations Faber, but what of this archaic returns policy. Why do retailers overstock and spend so much of its buying power leaving precious little left to experiment with indie publishers and small publishers. It is partly this short-sightedness which is leading to many shoppers turning to the internet. April Hamilton, author and publisher, describes the lamentable situation in the USA in her latest blog post – No,Mr. Murdoch : that was a movie, this is a book. “Thanks to over two decades of consolidation, the U.S. publishing industry is now lorded over by just six media mega conglomerates, Viacom, Time Warner and News Corp. among them. If these names sound familiar, it’s because they belong to the artistic visionaries who brought us The Moment of Truth TV show, virtually every Adam Sandler movie ever made, People magazine and much more of the same. They’ve made a lucrative science of cranking out the media equivalent of junk food: over-packaged, over-hyped, disposable distractions that never turn out to be quite as satisfying as they looked in the ad, and sometimes even leave you feeling a little guilty.”

Hamilton’s point is that this is an industry that refuses to face some harsh realities that it should be addressing. At present it is happy to churn out a billon point five books and see nearly 500 million returned and then bleat about rising costs. The responsibility lies with every single area within the industry to address over-stocking, address over-printing and address itself, before owning a book becomes a dirty habit, something to be ashamed of. Imagine, you are the owner of the latest hyped blockbuster, but in this green world word gets out about the carbon footprint, the waste of resources due to mass production, the gallons of fuel spent driving those books back and forth to the retailer only to see millions of copies burned or pulped in the greatest funeral pyre since the dark days of the Second World War. Maybe you would turn to an eBook rather than be seen holding a copy while sitting on a bus or travelling on a train, or you would open a Kindle and sneer at the person sitting opposite holding a carbon relic of the past. Books are a thing of beauty, a physical bond develops between reader and storyteller, but can the world and the industry continue to afford such a waste. POD provides a book on demand; it is as simple as that. If there is no demand there is no sales, which is sad but at least there is no waste.