Over at the Kindle Boards site – where Kindle readers and writers exchange views – there’s been animated discussion in the last 24 hours about ‘How to get rid of the indie stigma?’.
Smashwords, Amazon (i.e. Kindle) and others have made it possible for writers to e-publish their books without the intervention of agents and publishers. Writers have responded with enthusiasm: Smashwords has published just over 10,000 books and half a million words to date, and they’re forecasting that the totals may double by the end of 2010. Readers too seem to have jumped onto the ebook bandwagon, particularly for budget books. In an illuminating article, mid-list author J.A. Konrath reports that he’s selling 180 $1.99 ebooks a day, and that although published research says that ebooks are only one-tenth of the total market for books, his ebook sales are keeping pace with his print sales.
But the problem is that if anyone can publish, then what happens to standards? Yes, inevitably there will be some great books self-published by great writers who might otherwise have been lost in the slush pile. But there will also be other books that should have been burnt before they even reached the slush stage. Who will protect the reader? And what if a reader comes across three appalling books in a row, and swears never to read an indie book again. There’s the stigma. If we ally ourselves with failure, might we not be labelled failures ourselves? Can anyone take our work seriously if it doesn’t have a proper publisher’s stamp of approval?
I saw the problem at first hand last night. I’d been telling an old friend about my novel – it turned out that he’d already bought it after spotting my LinkedIn announcement. He then wrote: ‘Have you ever come across XXXXX.com? Its a web-based bookshop site partially owned by a friend of mine – good ideas – but they need stuff that is already published – don’t know if it may offer a channel?’ Did you spot the stigma? He wasn’t meaning to be unkind, but because I’d released my novel as an ebook, he considered it still unpublished.
For a few seconds I was hurt. But not for long. Because this whole venture is not just about independence. It’s about innovation – about embracing innovation. And throughout history, innovators have always been treated with a wry smile, suspicion or outright hostility.
What happened when the printing press was invented? The Church felt threatened. Suddenly the world of knowledge and learning wasn’t their exclusive domain any more. Anyone could read books. There was a demand for Bibles in the native language for Heavens sake. Not in Latin, the language of the Church. Surely this was opening the floodgates too far – the democratization of learning was a threat to the status quo. Today they’d call it socialism – and we all know how dangerous that is, don’t we? The Church tried to get books banned – and burned printer/publishers at the stake. And we’re worried about a little stigma?
From that media revolution, the novel was born. And from today’s media revolution – electronic publishing – who knows? At the moment, we still think of the book like a printed book, and everyone’s trying to replicate the experience. For example, when we publish an ebook we include a static book-sized cover with the file. But when will someone realize that we don’t need to do that. Why does it need to be that size? Why does it need to be static – why not a sequence of images or a video, or like the Harry Potter’s photographs why can’t the characters on the cover be waving or chatting to each other? Stupid? Perhaps. But let me pose another question. Why does the book need to be a one-way experience, from writer to reader? Why can’t it be interactive, since e-publishing would easily allow that? And why oh why, has the iPad used the cheesy page-turning icon when you move from one page to the next? It would drive me mad … if they ever release the iPad here in the UK.
Who’s going to lead innovation? Not the traditional publishers, I’m almost sure of that. At a time when anyone familiar with the web knows the power of free and the impact of viral marketing, the big six are fighting to raise prices and are delaying their e-editions to protect the time-honored print model. Surely it makes sense to release the e-version first, make sure there is a market for a book, and then release the print version. Perhaps then they wouldn’t make losses on so much of their fiction list.
So I’m happy to live with condescension as I retain my freedom to experiment. But I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as Margaret Lake on Kindle Boards, who’s waiting, tongue in cheek, for the time when “we’ll be saying to authors with publishers and editors and agents and publicists … Couldn’t make it on your own, huh?” Retaining your independence doesn’t necessarily mean going it alone. There are advantages to hunting with the pack, as we’ll see next time.