Tipping Points and Paradigm Shifts

The Internet has been buzzing this past week in the wake of a candid, productive discussion concerning the realities of publishing and the compensation (or lack thereof) that many authors receive for their work. That lack of compensation is monetary, of course, but it also stems from a lack of authorial input on a project and a dearth of editorial attention.

This most recent discussion began with a simple recognition of a post on author earnings (and I haven't found the author's original post anywhere online, so I don't know the totals that were being discussed) over at the illuminating industry blog The Passive Voice, and what followed was a discussion about traditional publishing, contemporary self publishing, the landscape of the book industry overall, and the relative positive and negative aspects of working with a publisher or going it alone. 

Kensington CEO Steven Zacharius, to his credit, did a nice job of outlining his case from the publisher's seat. Joe Konrath (who is a fine writer, but perhaps an even better advocate for author equity in what can often be a predatory industry) created a larger forum for the discussion over at his blog, and a number of former Kensington authors, in addition to scores of independent writers, contributed to what has mostly been a very civil, passionate, and enlightening discussion. 

I'd like to focus here on a bit of academic reading that I've been doing at UCF that seems to address at least a few components of this discussion.

In his chapter "How to Start an Avant-Garde," Robert Ray writes:

  • The Impressionists, on the other hand, the first avant-garde, understood almost immediately that assimilation was a necessary goal. As a result, those wanting to start a new avant-garde should study their strategies, especially those designed to deal with the one great problem that, since Impressionism, has dictated the shape of the art world--the problem of the Gap. As a movement, Impressionism arrived at a moment when art (and, by implication, almost any innovative activity) encountered a new set of circumstances. In particular, for the first time in history, the art world began to assume that between the introduction of a new style and its acceptance by the public, a gap would inevitably exist. As Jerrold Seigel summarizes:
  • The Impressionists' self-conscious experimentalism, their exploration of the conditions and implications of artistic production in a modern market setting, and their sense that they bore the burden of an unavoidable opposition between innovation in art and society's hostile incomprehension--all made their experience paradigmatic.
There is another, more lyrical, way of putting the matter: 
  •  No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who are also creating their own time refuse to accept. And they refuse to accept it for a very simple reason and that is that they do not have to accept it for any reason... (Ray 75)
Just as there is much to unpack in the debate between Konrath and Zacharius, there is a lot to consider in that pithy little passage above. Ultimately, it's a matter of thinking about one's position within the framework of what has for so long been a closed system. There are advantages, mainly in marketing and self-esteem (some would call it ego), to working with traditional publishers in 2014. 

There are also disadvantages to working with these companies, including loss of control and agility (and, to hear many disgruntled former traditionally published authors discuss it, poor marketing is yet another issue). The lag time between getting a book through editorial and into the marketplace is improving, but it's still woefully slow, overall.

I have had a book out on submission for more than a year. It's made the rounds at a snail's pace and was pushed a fair distance forward (to the point where notes were exchanged on my willingness to make changes with the text and discuss various market focuses) in the process. I think often about how well that book might have done in all those months if available on B&N, Amazon, and other digital publishing services.

Although I didn't participate in the polls that are referenced at Digital Book World indicating that most authors make less than a thousand dollars a year, I have more than doubled that number in each of the past two years. Most of those sales are online, though I usually sell a number of short stories to magazines and anthologies throughout the year. In 2013, I focused on scholarship and was fortunate to place a pair of essays with journals at UC-Riverside and Florida Atlantic.

I have worked with e-stributors in the past on my currently available works, ceding a portion of the book's proceeds until a financial threshold was met. These texts have largely been well received by readers, and they provide a steady stream of income for my family. The folks I worked with have backgrounds in traditional publishing, but they have also become disenfranchised by the rapid changes taking place in the industry. If their stories are any indication, it is not only authors, but designers, editors, and artists that are losing stability in a shifting marketplace.

Thankfully, a new market is emerging, and folks are finding their way in it.

The marketplace, by the way, has always been defined by traditional publishing. Earning a contract with a traditional publishing entity, in some ways, has been the litmus test for success in this field, though that is rapidly changing as many revered authors are taking control of their works and publishing them through emerging technologies.

It's not lost on me that one of the largest albums of 2013 was Beyonce's self-titled project that she uploaded in the middle of the night and then publicized with a simple message on Instagram. Of course I'm not an artist of her recognition, and never will be. But her successful experiment illustrates how some modern artists are harnessing the possibilities of new artistic production models in the emerging market setting.

In my view, this is a paradigm shift, and we're standing hip-deep in the middle of it.

Mr. Zacharius, to his credit, seemed genuinely interested (in places) in learning about the digital landscape, but it's also clear that he is still of the old guard. He's working toward developing hybrid agility with Lyrical, and I commend him for that, but it still seems to me that he has a lot of disdain for the independent ethos and the diminution of the traditional gatekeeper system (even as those same gatekeepers cling to their often-tenuous positions in that very system). I say that only because of the tone of some of his questions and responses. The idea of segregating writing is absurd, and it shows a little bit of competitive fear (or at least apprehension) on the part of traditional publishing. It's almost like Kensington doesn't want to have its carefully crafted "artworks" dipping their toes in the same water as the pieces created by the upstart author in his or her home office.

Another aspect of Ray's text that I find intriguing is the notion of the Gap. We're already seeing how the digital environment has opened up opportunities for short stories and magazines (hey, it is possible to actually make a small-press magazine sustainable), and for novellas and projects that resist classification. I've noticed more markets paying pro rates (.05 per word) in the genres in the last six months than at any other time when I began submitting about five years ago. I'm also noticing that the trends on word counts are shrinking, so 4,000-5,000 words seems to be a salable length. If you want to stretch it out (unless you're submitting to Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's, or Analog) over 10,000 words, you might want to consider the possibility on the front end that your work will have to go to market under your own steam.

There's both trepidation and liberation in that, but that's fine. Folks can make these choices for themselves.

These trends, toward shorter works and serialization and bundling and collaboration, are filling in the Gap. And they are carving out the landscape at an opportune time, because I think we are nearing a tipping point. 

As Google becomes a larger player in the digital arena and more works are consumed on phones and tablets, the 70/30 market split that gets bandied about so often will move toward equilibrium. Storytelling will also change, as more transmedia storytelling (that piece is on journalism, but it's points ring true for fiction as well) emerges. A generation of tech-savvy youngsters will have access to more options than at any other time in human history (especially as many disenfranchised traditional writers receive their backlists and go indie). Guess what? They will find the works that interest them, and writers, content creators, and game designers will increasingly reap the direct benefits of their market choices.

I have been working on a novel for the last few months, and I'm not sure I want to keep sending it out on submission. In fact, as I write this, the final components of Adobe's Creative Cloud are installing on my laptop. I am a quick learner with a nice eye for detail. I thoroughly enjoy the creative process of building things (books, worlds, stories), and I feel like my work is starting to find a pretty definitive audience.

I'm leaning more and more toward bringing this story to market on my own, and that's a good thing--for the reader and the artist... 

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