Tuesday, February 21, 2012

From the Trenches

Focusing the eyepiece on my writer’s periscope from my protective bunker, I see the survivors of publishing past scurrying around, some still standing, some fallen. The electronic frenzy of our times is felt like taser hits as frequent and disruptive as a summer lightning storm in Phoenix. What is a writer to do?

It was what, less than six years ago, when one approached an agent via bond typing paper carefully crafted from assessing dozens of examples from experts on how to approach an agent without getting bit. The mortality rate for virgin authors was enormous. The selection process was a derivative of smoke filled meetings with publishers behind the scenes in private retreats or luncheons in four-star restaurants off 59th Street and Broadway in New York City. You had to know somebody or be somebody to ever be taken seriously and for good reason. The investment cycle in an author is a high risk adventure of ever seeing any ROI.

Then the elusive butterfly settled on the flower, soon delivering the caterpillar that would eat up too much of the profits — self-published books from PODs. It sounded like evil alien species oozing from cracks in the system, spilling out of their pods and into the mainstream, the stream the elite publishers on the East Coast drank from. The water now being polluted caused and uproar. Condemnations, allegation of foul play, some well justified, as the con-men came out of the woodwork promising the Moon to every sucker that answered their e-mail or advertisement in a writers magazine. Junk bonds and junk books were partners of the same ilk.

The determination of the average writer to get a book in hand was well underestimated by the Big Six in New York. The idea of unedited, poorly printed books making a mockery of the glitterati of the literary world was too much to bear. The system broke down. But how?

Electronic everything. Printing became a digital process. The book-copy manuscript was not script boxes filled with sparsely worded, double spaced airy fluff so editors had enough margin to write copious critiques in red, badgering the writer, no shaping the writer into a corporate puppet. E-mailing agents came in the night. It’s easier, less expensive, and once in Adobe Acrobat could be dispersed to editor aides and professional eyes to peruse and comment without one single piece of paper being generated to later have to shred. But you had to be of a newer generation, someone savvy to the ways of technology. That was not in any resume of the typical publisher.

The writers themselves banished the shoddy self-publishing scams after many a bank account was raided and sunk costs took their dreams to the bottom. Soon more electronic cycle-riding demons with skulls on fire came into view.

Digital processes are an abstraction of tiny circuits that just switch on or off. What they represent is up to the fantasies of the designer, the programmer, the one with the vision. In the publishing world, the idea of electronic books was born. Google tried to digitize all the books of value in the world and store them in a database that could be searched by anyone much like their world maps that span the globe. You can even drive an imaginary airplane through the Himalaya or across the Dead Sea. It’s just data.

Most books are only words, some pictures, many elaborate works of art, but groups of people around the world focused on the core of how to digitize a book and came to create a set of rules that define the EPUB format, which is a shell game if you know what it is really down inside. But any book can be stuffed inside, distributed anywhere in the world in seconds, and the cost is pennies verses thousands of dollars. Money is a force of nature. The potential difference between pennies and stacks of currency causes paradigm shift. When things cost very little to produce, are in the confines of a computer screen or Smart-Phone makes backing multi-million dollar Big Box Bookstore chains a waste of money. Things have changed.

The publishing industry has been routed. The players scattered, running for their economic lives. Herein lies the future of today’s tech-savvy author. The playing field has been leveled, in fact, ground to a fine polish. Now instead of hack, ghetto-hoods getting into your bank account, grinning greed on the face of corporate giants like Amazon are marching over the horizon bent on taking out the opposition—Big Easy in New York. How to court a venture capitalist is now becoming another task like finding a publicist or marketing manager.

Successful writing draws the money makers. It has never been easier to grab a gold ring and take the ride, but becoming aware of the rules of the game has never been so important. Why, because from my bunker in the trenches, the wars have just begun. Keep your head down and identify the enemy soon enough to hit their delete button before they hack into your personal savings. We all live behind the glass screen of the computer now.


Penelope J. said...

Outstanding assessment of the publishing scene. You hit the jackpot with the points you make and the words you use to describe them - "felt like taser hits as frequent ... "The mortality rate for virgin authors" "Junk books and junk bonds were partners of the same ilk" (a winner!) and "electronic cycle-riding demons" are but a few.

A Cassandra prophecy - or warning?

You write, "with Amazon taking on the Big Easy the wars have just begun." As an author on the verge of self-publishing, I should take care with the choices I make.

John Wolf said...

Hi PJ,
Glad you liked the post. Yea, the publishing business has gotten more shady. If you're a small fry, the independent route is good, but you have to do all the heavy lifting, have a savvy business mind, and have a target audience in mind to direct your marketing towards. But then there is always the path of signing with an agent even if it takes years of trying.