Stuck between a technological rock and a hard publishing place, and I see light

About fifteen years ago, I was following the changes that technology started to affect on the music industry. Large music organisations feared for their own survival as people started downloading tracks through Napster and the likes. New bands and musicians started feeling democratised by being able to feature their own stuff on MySpace. For the first time, they could produce their own work and reach out to audiences directly. It was a time of free love for music.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and I find myself observing similar changes, but in publishing instead. Traditionalists fear for the quality of writing and books as we move into this world of easy-publishing. Technology is encouraging us to write more, publish more, and reach out directly to our readers. Many of us are doing it. And as with all industries, a small percentage of us are doing really well, while most of us are supporting our writing habits with paid work within and outside of publishing.

Changing habits

I first figured that I wanted to be a writer just over five years ago. And about three years back, I started poking my nose into publishing, learning through working with an indie publisher, with an editorial organisation, various types of authors, partnering with all sorts of creative types from artists, to technologists, to futurists. And what did I learn?

Recently, I found myself having strong opinions that opposed my colleagues who are involved in what is (probably wrongly) termed ‘traditional publishing’ (These are professionals who believe that the true route in publishing, is still through literary agents and large publishing houses.) They fight (rightly) for the importance of quality in writing and editing before anything else, but what I question is how ‘quality’ is rated. It is precisely this search for ‘quality’ that is bothering large publishing houses, that are trying to find new ways to find talent. Not only do they scout through traditional submissions, but they now also poach from the successful pools of self-published authors. So, you’ve sold over 50,000 copies of your book, does that mean you are ‘quality’? Who’s judging?

So, having started to do more work as a literary strategist, I find myself stuck between a technological rock and a hard publishing place. I get told that self-publishing is democratising. It is now time to show free love for writing! At the same time, I’m also told that I should still look down at writers who do not respect the processes needed. If they don’t have their work edited professionally, then it’s bad. If they don’t have a good designer to help with covers, then it’s not up to par. What do I think?

Well, it is true that when things are not done properly, they will be very obviously unprofessional. But, I don’t agree that we, who work in the industry, should be the ones to hold judgement. Yes, we should never cut corners and we should always promote quality in everything we do, but we should also consider our own standpoint on the matter. I might be stuck in this ‘difficult’ place, but I see light. A very bright light, actually. The light is the core element of this technological democratisation that we face, the light is the people, our readers.

if we go back to music, we’ll find that technology also encouraged a lot of amateur (unprofessional) musicians to showcase their work (good and bad) to the world. That was when everyone proudly presented (and still do) their garage studios, their little makeshift havens for music making. I know, as we have one at home too. That doesn’t make it wrong, or bad.

What it means is that we no longer rely as much on large corporations to tell us what is good or bad. The people can decide. With music, we see that the trends have now settled and there are clear habits to how people consume amateur music and professional music. In some rare cases, amazing amateur musicians then get discovered through these platforms, that allow them to choose whether to continue on their own, or through a record company. The large institutions with financial and people power are still important, as they provide pre-existing frameworks (through distribution and power of marketing) to launch acts in a way that indies would find difficult. However, the record companies’ ability to control public tastes are no longer as applicable (let’s face it, they’re still controlling our tastes somewhat, but it’s getting better). They are on longer the curators of quality music, but the representatives of quality music instead.

This is the biggest worry of large publishing houses, the loss of their roles as curators of quality writing. Perhaps publishers need to consider looking at perfecting the services they provide on their pre-existing frameworks (editorial, design, distribution and marketing) and reinvent the ways in which they find new books/talents to help.

As with the light, the people, the readers, that is another minefield to navigate, with new and old social platforms that segregate as well as amalgamate communities. Reading habits are still changing and the way new books and authors are discovered are still varied. How authors seek to gain validation from the people, will be down to creativity, skills, adaptability and a bit of luck. What’s great about working at getting approval from the people, is that we are also the people.

More anon.

PS. Since I wrote the above, I attended Disrupting the Book Publishing Industry event and would like to add a comment that was made by a fellow audience. He said that we (readers) need to look at mass published works as ‘information’ and beautifully published works as ‘art’, the latter being products that we would pay more money for. This is worth thinking about and keeping in mind, especially as we change our consumption habits going forward.


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