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3.21.2012

How the Digital Revolution is Changing Publishing: The Good and the Bad

publish #01Publish and Perish! publish #101 (Photo credit: mediamolecule)
In the three years since the Digital Revolution started, it has already changed publishing in many ways, good and bad. It's early days to pass a final judgment, but some of the impact is already very clear.

First, the Digital Revolution has opened the doors to indies, i.e. self-published authors, bringing a measure of respectability to self-publishing.  Authors found they no longer were the prey of so-called "vanity presses": they could take the jump and go to Smashwords or Amazon's KDP Select (the easiest way to do this) and several have made it big - notably Amanda Hocking, Konrath and John Locke. 

That was good. 

Unfortunately is had a bad result: so many would-be authors rushed to self-publish that what was once hidden from view - the infamous "slush pile", i.e. all those (often half-baked) manuscripts send in by aspiring writers to literary agents and editors - is now published for all to see.


Result? A lot of awful fiction from indies. Yet it keeps rolling out and selling, mainly because of the window of opportunity that traditional publishers have unwittingly created with the "agency model", imposing on all e-book sellers, from Apple to Amazon, a high price on e-book versions of their titles published in print. These high e-prices (generally around $15 to $17) were meant to protect the publishers' profits on printed books but opened the door to low prices for self-published authors. Indies were quick to take advantage, competing for readers by offering low prices for their books from 99 cents to a maximum of $4 or $5 - not to mention the use (and abuse) of free promotions.


The US Department of Justice has recently launched an anti-trust action that could eventually close that window of opportunity for indies, forcing traditional publishers to abandon the "agency model". When that happens, the playing field will be leveled and indies won't be able to compete with traditionally published authors merely through low prices: they will have to fight the good old fight on grounds of literary quality - not price.


Book "discoverability" is the other big victim of the Digital Revolution. Traditional publishers had book discoverability down pat, linking it to various strategies like participation in national literary awards (eg. the Pulitzer Prize), obtaining reviews in respected journals, placing books on best selling lists etc. Indies have none of these options opened to them. And in the vast and growing tsunami-like market (over a million titles so far - probably more like a million and half by the latest count), this problem will only grow more acute.

There's a lot of hype about how digital authors thanks to the Digital Revolution can at last connect directly with their readers. Sounds good but it only happens if your readers know you exist and have found your book and liked it. 

There's no doubt that traditionally published authors have an advantage over indies, assuming of course trad publishers do flex their marketing muscle and organize tours, contact reviewers etc etc - but of course we know that many don't and tend to reserve their marketing efforts to their star writers and other celebs.


There's also the theory that the market will naturally weed out the bad from the good - that the good, like cream, will float to the top. This is however just a theory that still needs to be proved. There's a lot of enthusiastic talk about the digital "long tail", that books are not on shelves for a couple of months the way they used to be in physical bookstores, but that they are up on digital shelves forever (or just about). 

However, being up there in the ether forever isn't going to do you any good if nobody knows you're there. The only advantage of the "long tail" is that you can plan your marketing over a much a longer time - much more than the 3 to 6 months max that is standard for traditionally printed books. Print-on-demand books of course do away with the distribution and storage problems and are theoretically much closer to e-books than to printed books (though production costs are naturally higher than for e-books that require no printing at all). So, if your books are only e-produced or PoD, you've got plenty of time to do your marketing...years even, to fill your shelf with your books, grow your blog, multiply your contacts on social media, make yourself known in reading communities, first among them Goodreads. 

Time is on your side, but don't kid yourself, it could take years and years, decades even...

So far, the real winners of the Digital Revolution are mid-list authors who have decided to go digital and e-publish their back list. Compared to indies, these authors already have a name and a fan base: that gives them assurance that they will sell a minimum of books from day one. And once the ball gets rolling, it just rolls...Much to the delight of readers who have never had it so good, especially genre readers (romance and sci-fi) that have almost a limitless choice of titles at their fingertips. Oh, the joys of the Digital Revolution!


There is a way however that the Digital Revolution has made a change that could be really good for authors: it has turned short stories and novellas into lucrative market propositions. Before the Digital Revolution, short fiction was a clear non-starter: no agent or editor worth her salt would look at a short piece unless you were already a well-known author and/or a celebrity. All you could do with your short story was to sell it to a specialized magazine and hope to be paid (with luck) two or three hundred dollars. 

However, with e-readers, the length of a book is not readily apparent - it doesn't really matter. Amazon was the first to realize the change and it was quick to launch its Kindle Single program with considerable success. In the 14 months the program has been running, Amazon reports it has sold more than 2 million Kindle Singles (see article below). Other publishers have followed suit - especially in the non-fiction area - and the format is gaining ground every day.


For writers, this is a bonus, a veritable God-sent. Short fiction is obviously less time-consuming to produce than a full novel. You can populate your virtual shelf with short stories and novellas, with non-fiction essays - all at "natural length" as touted by Amazon for its Kindle Singles.


But, there's a but (there always is), short fiction is not that easy to pull off. A lot of writers are more comfortable with the long form. A short story requires absolute control over every single word that goes into it. And (as I've blogged before) short stories for the Digital Age have to meet some pretty steep requirements to be successful. 

Just to recap here:

1. A fast and snappy opening, a maximum of ten words to grab the reader's attention

2. A well-paced plot and a minimum of back story, enough to give the reader a clear image of who the protagonists are and why they're doing what they are doing. The suspense should never flag.

3. A surprise ending, good and short, no elaboration, the reader's imagination should be set for flying. It has to leave the reader thinking about the story and wanting to read another one. 


These are demanding rules for creating model short stories. Do they cover flash fiction? Yes, but shortening should not be brought to extremes: a short story should not be so short that it leaves the reader with a feeling it is incomplete.  The satisfaction of reading a short story must be total. It is successful both for what is in it and for what is not.  




Why is it this way? Why can't short stories be the way they used to be, impressionistic, mood-catching, almost pieces of poetry...Well, of course, no one says they can't be that way still, but your average stressed out, multi-tasking citizen can't get immersed in it. No time for it when you stand in line at the post office, you wait for your doctor's appointment or you're catching your daily commuting train. 

Also, there's something else at work: you're bombarded with news. Since you're forced to participate in this globalized world, you welcome something that will take you out of it and make you think. You need to set a distance between the daily avalanche of information and yourself: 
"stop the world, I want to get off"! 

That is the feeling a short fiction writer should try to address.That is the feeling I tried to address in my collection of short stories, DEATH ON FACEBOOK - subtitled and that was deliberate: Short Stories for the Digital Age.


When I read short stories, those are the rules I judged them by...Whether I've lived up to my own rules, I'll let you decide. If you want to check them out, click here to get my short story collection:
Death on Facebook, Short Stories for the Digital Age



Short fiction, in my view, is uniquely adapted to our Times and could well become the next Big-selling genre...
What is your take?


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