The new digital world of Amazon and self-published authors has provoked surprising hostility among traditional publishers. Amazon is viewed as a threatening gorilla breaking all the rules of the game in the publishing industry. There was a lot of hang-wringing and hair-tearing when it recently bought Goodreads, the biggest online book reading club on the planet with some 16 million members. And traditional agents and editors view self-published authors as little better than self-indulging, worthless vanity press authors.
Is it an "ossified" old man's reaction to technological change?
One may well wonder. Recently author Barry Eisler raised a storm with his article in the Guardian tellingly titled: The Digital Truths Traditional Publishers Don't Want to Hear. Barry Eisler writes thrillers and is one of the new hugely successful "hybrid authors" (i.e. self-published but also published by Amazon and legacy publishers). His article was instantly picked up by the Passive Voice and it provoked some very interesting comments (to read
As Eisler points out, before November 2007 when Amazon introduced the Kindle, "the only viable means of book distribution was paper... If a writer wanted distribution, she had to pay a publisher 85% of her revenues for the entire publishing package: editorial, copy-editing, proofreading, jacket design, printing, and marketing, all bundled with distribution." This worked wonders for some authors like JK Rowling who made millions, but not for others. With the digital revolution, book distribution became, as he puts it, "a push-button à la carte service offered by companies like
Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Google, Kobo, and Smashwords".
The digital alternative had arrived and it was grabbed by an increasing numbers of writers: author David Gaughran convincingly argues that some 25% of the total $1.3 billion e-book sales in 2012 is attributable to self-published authors (read his comment on Nathan Bransford fascinating blog post about e-book sales - that are NOT slowing down! - and David's own post here).
Barry Eisler is so articulate that it's always worth reading him and I'm not surprised he's raised a storm among legacy publishers' supporters. In his Guardian article, he recounts how as he was talking about all this at a recent major writers' conference, many in the audience ostensibly walked out, others took to Twitter to urge boycotting him, yet others indulged in name calling - which is both silly and rude. A point that was picked up by the commentators on The Passive Voice who marveled - along with Passive Guy - at this futile desire to kill the messenger.
I would only add one thing: there's one aspect of the process of bringing a book to market that is NOT covered by Barry Eisler. It has to do with the book promotion role of legacy publishers: they are able to do something self-published authors cannot. They do this through their hold and control over major literary prizes (the Pulitzer, the Man Booker etc) which are, as we all know, still closed to indies. Furthermore, they are able to "place" the books they publish in major literary journals and get the attention of major literary critics as well as journalists in the main media like the New York Times, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal, among others.
That's a powerful tool for book discovery and it is still in the hands of legacy publishers...Will they be able to play this card and regain the lost terrain? Or is Amazon going to pick it up and run with it, the way they've done with Goodreads?
What do you think?