When I was a child, my home had a 20-inch black-and-white television. We could tune in about nine channels; the signal was free, and the selection was more than enough. Today we have a 46-inch hi-def color flat screen with access to hundreds of channels, but we only watch about six of them. And I have to pay for it!
Back then, we looked forward to a future of supersonic flight. This wonderful machine, which we knew as the SST, would be able to take us anywhere on earth in just a couple of hours. But only about 20 were ever made, and the entire fleet was grounded after only 27 years of service.
All through my youth, I begged my parents to buy me the newest, most popular toy: A Pet Rock, a Simon, or a Rubik’s Cube. I played with them for maybe a month, and then I lost interest. Today I can buy all of the toys I want, including a state-of-the-art smartphone; I use it to…talk to people. My office closet is filled with obsolete computer gadgets that I will never use again, but I can’t seem to summon the will to throw them away. Who knew?
Such is the very essence of human vanity. That is, we get what we want, only to find that it doesn’t satisfy.
Over the past 20 years, the book industry has evolved more quickly and more drastically than it did in the previous 2,000. New technology has changed our lives in ways that we never imagined, even a generation ago.
Or has it?
For about a century of American history, the most high-tech apparatus in a publisher’s toolbox was an offset press that used 19th-century technology. Today, we can read a paperless book on a lightweight handheld computer. A bookstore can print a single copy of a book for you in just a few minutes. But perhaps the most fantastic development of all is that anyone can produce their own book -- without an agent or publisher -- with only a few keystrokes, and without leaving home.
How cool is that?
I came into this business from a different direction than most: I began as a freelance editor, then managed a writers’ conference. And for the past five years, I’ve worked full-time as a literary agent. These experiences have caused me to adopt a perspective that’s very different from most people I meet: The business hasn’t changed as much as you think.
First, offset printing is superior to any POD process. (I have some experience here.) The print is sharper, the ink doesn’t smudge, and the whole process is quicker and cheaper. I have a few POD books here on my desk, and they’re falling apart faster than my 80 year-old Bible. Consumers will eventually figure this out, and demand better.
Second, the stats you’ve seen about the popularity of ebooks are largely misleading. Millions of consumers are simply replacing their old copies of Steinbeck and Hemingway; they’re not necessarily looking for anything new from you or me. Recent reports from all over show that many buyers had a fling with e-readers, enjoyed them for a time, and are now returning to the old familiar.
As for the Espresso Book Machine? Nine years after the first one was installed at the New York Public Library, only 28 exist. Clearly, this technology hasn’t brought the revolution we expected.
Now, what about the explosion in self-publishing?
A few years ago, Amazon made a big splash by introducing Kindle Direct: Anyone can write and publish a book with no interference from a corporate gatekeeper, and maintain total control over their work. Industry veterans widely lamented the low quality, and typical sales were dismal. But today, the thrill is (largely) gone; even Amazon itself is cracking down on the worst offenders.
Technology is good, but it only gets us so far. I enjoyed having 500 channels of cable TV…for about five minutes. The Concorde was cool, but who has $8,000 for an airline flight? POD serves a purpose, but truly worthy books will merit longer runs. The EBM is clever, but it hasn’t lived up to its promise. Self-pub works well for some, but often it only gives false hope to writers and crowds out the good stuff.
After all is said and done, the fundamentals of the business remain unchanged. This industry will continue to be a buyer’s market, a Darwinian construct where only the fittest thrive. Good writing will always matter. Platform and marketing will only become more and more important for new authors who desire to make their mark.
So, you want to be a writer? You want to get published? Good. Start now. Find a group. Find a mentor. Up your game. Make the cut. Pay attention. Pay your dues. Pay it forward. Leverage every rejection into an opportunity for education, not an excuse for bitterness. (In other words, do it the old-fashioned way.) Then when you succeed, you won’t just be a published author.
You’ll be a better person.