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Dinosaurs And Pod People

by Tom Lewis (editor), , September 29, 2009

Book Publishing Undergoes Paradigm Shift: Many Trampled

The big, traditional book-publishing companies are the dinosaurs of our time: huge, slow-moving and doomed. Like their brethren the newspaper, magazine and broadcast companies, they have watched through slow-blinking eyes as a wildfire revolution has transformed, and continues to transform, the way people get and use information. 

I, having committed three books with and for the fossil book industry (plus two others for hire and a couple dozen edits), decided to surf the tsunami of change with my next title; I have joined the POD people, and I am not sure that the future is here yet. But before I get to that, a look backward.

There are a lot of zombie business plans out there these days: newspapers that are still charging for personal classified ads, that believe the best use of the internet is to sell papers; banks and companies that charge stiff fees for no-cost electronic transactions while giving away the laborious processing of written checks; countries and politicians that still think they can operate in secret. But none of them can equal the sheer goofiness of book-publishing's standard operating procedures.

First, you -- the publisher -- pay a writer a wad of cash for the promise of a future book. You pay a writer! In advance! Shouldn't you take out a writer-default swap on every such contract? The next time I apply for a regular job, I'm going to promise to do really well, but insist on being paid for two years in advance. 

So you the publisher contract for, say, a book on growing peonies, to be delivered in two years. Eight years later you get a manuscript that has something to do with discovering one's inner gardener with garlic. Then things start to get strange.

You the publisher now have to print a gazillion of these books, enough to stock the shelves of every Books-R-Us store in the country, plus enough to assure that any orders can be fulfilled instantly. The thing is, you have no idea, really, whether anybody is going to order this turkey, or buy it from Books-R-Us. 

Plus -- now here it gets really strange -- all those books you've shipped to all those book stores? You still own them. Until and unless the retailer sells the books and gets the money -- months from now, after a succession of auto mechanics have spent their lunch hours thumbing though YOUR books with axle grease on their thumbs -- the book store has the right to send the book back to you and get a full refund. 

So, to review, the author has got her money in advance -- most books don't earn the writer much more than the original advance against his 10% royalty -- the bookseller gets his money back, and in most cases there you are with a warehouse full of books bound for remainder tables and landfills. Ecologically speaking, a California wildfire would probably have been less destructive. At least a wildfire contributes to the future health of the forest.

As ugly as this picture is, it doesn't get any better when you look at it from the writer's perspective. To begin with, only a tiny few of us writers are ever going to get a publishing contract unless we change our name to Stephen King or Bob Woodward. We can't even send a proposal to a publisher any more, they won't open it for fear we will promptly sue them for stealing our ideas. (Unpublished authors have this touching belief that the idea for a book is, somehow, real. Like the book that every one of us has "in" us. They seem to think that this slender notion, before the long years of bleeding, sweating agony required to hammer it into a book, has value.) To get our mail opened, we have to have an agent, and there goes 10% of our advance. When and if we do get an advance, we can only hope that it amounts to, say, a buck for every rejection slip in our file, or maybe two bucks for every hour we've agonized over how to describe our inner gardener.

Except that in these parlous times, with the Great Recession further depriving the dinosaur publishers of their leafy green sustenance, you probably won't even be offered an advance. "You get paid when we get paid," is the new mantra, and as we have seen that puts the writer somewhere behind the last dinosaur in line. Similarly the publishers, feeling dizzy and knowing that once they have fallen they can't get up, are asking -- begging, really -- the bookstores to voluntarily give up their customary right to return any book any time. Which is like asking Sarah Palin or Jesse Jackson to voluntarily withdraw from public life. 

Even more than before, a publisher will invest in a book only when assured it's exactly like the book that just became a best seller. Like if it's by the same author, or has the same characters and plot with a couple of the letters changed. [See Robert Parker's Spencer series.] Remember those English Majors in college who were forever charting the attributes of best-sellers, so as to know exactly how to produce one? Ever wonder why you never saw the name of even one of them on the best-seller lists? It's because you looked in the wrong place. They all became CEOs of publishing houses.

So the book publishers are going down. What's going to replace them? What does the new paradigm look like? No one has a clue, any more than anyone knows what will arise to replace the dying newspapers and broadcast networks.

But we do know that whereas the newspaper and network dinosaurs had their atmosphere changed by one asteroid strike -- the coming of the Internet -- book publishers are being suffocated by a second -- the rise of POD.

Printing On Demand. You (you're the publisher again) link a computer to a very high quality laser printer and binder, and when someone orders a book that you have on file, you click the mouse and print one copy, which usually ships within 24 hours. No more warehouse, no more slaying vast expanses of trees for a book no one wants, no more risking the entire trust fund on selling the idea of enlightenment via garlic.

Of course there are drawbacks. Laser printing is not quite as durable as offset printing, so if you're really worried about being read in 2209, go with offset and risk the trust fund. Laser printing is not quite as crisp as offset, either, which you are not going to notice when you're looking at type, line drawings or even black and white photos. Nor does it reproduce color photographs as well, so if what you have in mind is a coffee table book of color wildlife photography, POD is not the way to go. 

But if all you want to do is publish a book -- your poems from your garlic period, let's say -- and get it out there in cyberspace where it just might catch on -- a few hundred bucks will put you in play. Just type "self publishing" into a search engine and go.

Just as the Internet has made Everyman and Everywoman a writer, PODing has made everyone a publisher. Should the world be grateful that every voice can now be heard and every book, published? Remains to be seen. 

Be advised that whatever you do put out there on your own hook will carry the stigma of what cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking editors at major houses long ago branded the "vanity press." Self-publishing, when dinosaurs reigned, was the last refuge of people with large egos and no talent who, for some reason, could not get a job as an editor at a major house. Many dinosaur newspapers will not review submissions bearing the brand of a vanity press; they do not yet know that the author they thus snub can get his book looked at by more people with a cheap ad on Google Ads or Yahoo.

As, one by one, the dinosaurs thud to the ground and begin their long conversion to museum displays, will the POD people replace them? We'll see. I am about to bring a book to market [Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age by Sustainable Living] using Outskirts Press in Denver, Colorado, one of the new companies that has sprung up to serve those among us who have Something to Say. I figured the experience could not be worse than my previous enterprises with the likes of HarperCollins and John Wiley & Sons. Now that I'm almost through the process, I'm not so sure. I will report in detail at another time.    



About the Writer

Tom Lewis is an editor for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on Dinosaurs And Pod People

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By Theresa H Hall on December 03, 2009 at 03:33 pm

Your article is filled with information on this subject and while I love the internet, books, magazines and newspapers are still a huge part of my life. There is much to be said for holding something in ones' hands and turning the pages. It's a personal experience which I will never wish to relinquish.

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