And now we’ve arrived at the fourth of the four questions I’m most frequently asked. I’ve answered: 1. Must you write to a preset wordcount, classify your novel in a predetermined genre, ‘dumb down’ your novel? and: 2. How do you know which freelance independent editors are good and which ones are shysters? and: 3. What is this Line Editing thing of which I speak, and why do I keep speaking of it?
So let’s tackle the one you’re all really interested in:
4. What’s the inside scoop on the state of publishing these days i.e. POD, ebooks, self-publishing, multimedia, et cetera? I mean, what’s really going on out there?
Short answer: fireworks.
Medium-short answer: the most exciting, innovative, anarchic era since the invention of the Gutenberg Press.
Long answer: Let’s sit down for a chat. Go ahead, get yourself a cup of tea. I’ll wait.
Got it? Good. Get comfy.
The crux of the matter is that, historically, printing a whole book has always been simply too complex and required too specialized of machinery for the average layperson to manage—meaning the distinction between writers (who need only pens and paper and at least one physical receptor on the material world) and publishers (who need that specialized machinery and its attendant expertise) has been vast and complex.
Remember those hand-cranked purple-ink mimeograph machines schools used to use for handouts? Well, it would’ve taken some real OCD dedication to turn out an entire purple-ink book that way. And, wow, did that ink smell.
Of course, there was a time—Virginia Woolf’s day—and a place—the small, circumscribed world of London publishing of that era—when you could still run out and buy a small offset printing press, install it in your basement, and just go into the publishing business for yourself.
Leonard Woolf actually bought the Hogarth Press to give Virginia something mindless and rote to do to stave off her recurring bouts of mental illness, which qualifications certainly describe setting type by hand. (As it turned out, that was a little too mindless and rote even for Virginia, so they wound up hiring aspiring young writers to do it for them instead, while Virginia wrote her books and lovely short stories until her mental illness got the best of her and she loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse.) Hogarth Press originally published such canonical luminaries as T.S. Eliot and Freud.
And, naturally, there was an even earlier time when every single copy of every single manuscript in circulation had to be handwritten by specially-trained monks with simply fabulous handwriting. That era ended with the invention of the Gutenberg Press, which extraordinary mechanical development not only launched the first major European marketing campaign that turned the Tudor family from scary-cousin violent ursurping freakazoids into a recognized and even acclaimed dynasty on the English throne, but also brought the concept of books out of libraries and into universities and, eventually, private homes.
Picture all those monks staring in amazement as they shook out their cramped and aching writing hands.
And the publishing industry has remained hooked to Gutenberg’s machine ever since. In our own twentieth century, printing presses became more and more sophisticated and consequently more expensive over the decades, until the only people who could afford to print books in the identical masses to which readers had grown accustomed were big publishing houses, most of them headquartered in New York City.
However, even into the 1960s and early ’70s small presses did frequently produce what appeared to be books straight off hand-cranked presses, especially in the heady anarchy-soused days of the 1960s. Richard Brautigan’s original works—which sold well enough for him to become an icon of his time—look as though he produced them in his basement.
But in the 1980s and, increasingly, the 1990s and twenty-first century, New York publishing became not about publication, but about creating a lucrative income stream for a tiny (and I mean tiny) handful of people. As of today, many of the best-respected publishing houses of the twentieth century have vanished into thin air (where are Charles Scribner’s Sons when you need them?).
New York’s contemporary Big 5 publishers—Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, MacMillan and Hatchette—are either controlled or owned outright by just five families.
That’s right—five self-proclaimed modern publishing dynasties.
One of them one man alone.
The Big 5
Random House is owned by Bertelsmann of Germany, which is owned by the Mohn family, whose leading members during WWII were SS men and the largest publishers of Nazi authors and propaganda—including the author who gave the commemorative speech during the 1933 Nazi book burning—and they did things like get busted for illegally selling bulk-quantity paper during the shortage that was one of the effects of the war (US publisher originally, bought in 1998).
Simon & Schuster is owned by National Amusements, which is controlled by the National Amusements theater franchise, its stock controlled by the Redstone family of Massachusetts (US publisher originally, bought by Gulf+Western/Paramount in 1975 which was bought by Viacom in 1994).
HarperCollins is owned by News Corporation, which is of course controlled by Rupert Murdoch (US publisher originally, Harper & Row bought in 1987, Collins bought in 1989, along with the Hearst Book Group including William Morrow & Company and Avon in 1999).
MacMillan is owned by the Holtzbrink family of Germany. (English publisher originally, bought in 1999).
Hatchette is owned by Legardere Group of France, which is controlled by the Legardere family (US publisher originally, Time Warner, including Little, Brown, merged in 1989, bought in 2006).
Take a look at those dates, guys.
Almost all of this has happened within the past thirty years, the bulk of it in a six-year window between 1994 and 1999.
That’s a lot of tectonic shift in just six years!
What this means is that when the people controlling the financial interests of the Big 5 of American publishing today tell the old joke—“How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large fortune”—they are laughing in their sleeves all the way to the bank.
And this is the situation that we writers lived with for several increasingly-confusing decades (in great frustration and despair) when the technology for Print-on-Demand (POD) and ebooks suddenly hit the publishing scene right around the turn of the millenium.
- Print-On-Demand (POD)
Lightning Source, owned by Ingram Distributors, incorporated in 1997 to use new printing press technology to print books individually rather than in print runs of many multiple copies.
Suddenly—you don’t have to print a copy of a book until it’s paid for.
In fact, you don’t even have to know anything about printing technology.
I cannot tell you how this totally alters the distinction between writers and publishers that’s been the great, insurmountable obstacle throughout history.
Although the concept of digital books has been in use since the inception of Project Gutenberg in 1970, the first machines designed and produced for the reading of books in digital form were marketed in 1998, only a few years after the launch of Amazon online bookstore began decimating the independent bookstore landscape.
Within ten years, Amazon had become the Godzilla of the online publishing industry—remarkably and inexplicably remaining to this day unchallenged by the Big 5, who could take it down any time they seriously felt like pooling their resources—and was launching their own ereader, engaging in ungentlemanly hand-to-hand combat over their efforts to leverage their Godzilladom into a monopoly on the ebook market.
Barnes & Noble is still giving ole Godzilla a run for its money with their monopoly on brick-&-mortar stores and their own online bookstore (while their only real brick-&-mortar competition, Borders, gives a single high shriek and melts like the Wicked Witch of the West), but at this point nobody thinks it will last.
And this all took a nasty but not unexpected turn when the Silicon Valley Wizard of Oz, Steve Jobs, tapped his chin thoughtfully and said to himself, “I think I’ll take a piece of that pie.”
Meanwhile, at some point around that time it occurred to everyone else with access to a computer and the Internet that an ebook is just a PDF with a college degree.
You could publish a book any time you wanted without a printer.
In fact, your reader doesn’t even need an ereader, so long as they also have access to a computer and the Internet.
Again, the great, insurmountable obstacle between writers and publishers falls like the Berlin Wall, without so much as a shot fired.
This combination of developments has turned what was previously a small but valiant subculture of hardy souls—who’d been for a long time investing their own hard-earned money in offset printing and hand-selling of their books out of the backs of their cars—into a primordial explosion of inexpert and often only semi-literate typists who would like very much to become J.K. Rowling.
The noise of that initial detonation was supersonic and continues to reverberate even as we speak.
Along with the rise of publishing technology, the similar-but-distinct rise of computer technology in the past generation (I used to typeset typewritten and hand-edited copy on a CompuGraphic IV while a friend was getting his computer science degree using punch cards) has created a whole other world of computer graphic and Graphical User Interface (GUI) tools, making it possible for those same eager typists to incorporate all kinds of neat whizbang and even interactive stuff into their works, which at that point become really no longer books.
So where does that leave you?
Should you self-publish—or keep slogging away at the bottleneck of traditional publishing, bowing to its increasingly restrictive dictates on form and content and hoping against hope you’ll be one of the lucky handful caught up in the lucrative income stream for which those restrictive dictates are designed?
Should you release your book for $.99 on Kindle, beg all your friends to buy it the same day, and let Amazon do the rest?
Should you become a self-marketing expert? A newbie-novelist/blogger guru? A GUI programmer? Rupert Murdoch’s masseuse/masseur?
I’m not going to make any quantifiable predictions about the future of publishing—there are plenty of industry insiders doing that already.
I am only going to say this: at a time when the traditional publishing industry continues to speed its own decline in the plummeting quality and intellectual level of its product, and yet the blogosphere continues to deliver onto these literary shores tens of thousands more aspiring writers every day, all seeking a new land of opportunity and hope, and computer technology continues to revolutionize faster and faster what’s possible in the real and virtual worlds with the means at our disposal. . .
The stories and novels that comprise the height of quality literature so far on this planet are still available to us (some of them even back in print after decades of obscurity), still accessible to absolutely anyone with the dedication, passion, and a modicum of intelligence who would like study and model their craft upon them.
Right now—before the paper of those printed pages succumbs to entropy or, if salvaged from the garbage, to the inevitable disintegration of age—they still exist.
The apex of literature.
At the same time as this exponentially-expanding power of publication technology.
We—you and I—are standing this very moment at a crossroads in fiction of unprecedented, almost unimaginable potential.
Can you feel the ground shaking under your feet?