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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Publishing: The Big Change?

I was recently reading this post regarding what might be a change in the way publishing works around these parts (these parts being everywhere) and it got me thinking: maybe there will be a change, but that change might actually be a bad thing.
The author of the post I linked sites examples within music (Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead) in which the musicians bypassed the traditional route (record labels) and recorded/published their work themselves. The problem I see with the argument is that these aren't good examples of "self-publishing" within the music industry. Both NIN and Radiohead were popular before they broke from their labels. Granted, NIN had a lot of issues with the music industry from the get go, but they were still popularized while with a label. They're not good examples of folks bypassing traditional routes and becoming popular. But that's really not directly related to what is being argued.
The argument is that the introduction of services like Lulu and Amazon's version of self-publishing (plus loads of other sites offering free publishing services using a POD model) now allows a lot of folks to publish without incurring the cost during the process (mostly, since you do have to pay a small fee to be able to distribute via Amazon and what not). But will this become a means by which everyone goes to bypass publishing traditions? Even a better question is whether it should?
Well, for obvious reasons the first question is pretty much answered. Folks are using Lulu and such. They are self-publishing their work and distributing it. This is good and bad at the same time. It's good because there are authors who simply can't get with a traditional publisher because they write niche stuff, and now such authors have a place they can publish without paying a year's worth of wages for printing. I just finished a book that had this very issue that was self-published and it was actually a fantastic read, in all honesty. But that also means that loads and loads of horrible garbage is printed that wouldn't be picked up by a real publisher even if it were the proper genre/style. I've been exposed to this too. In fact, there has been a recent feud over at YWO regarding this very subject: one young author published his book and could not take the criticism offered by those that did not share his enthusiasm of greatness. This author has, of course, gone off the deep end and begun attacking me on Twitter as well, seeing how I was apparently the most brutal of the bullies, when really I only submitted that his book was horribly written, because it was (it was practically unreadable and just because you self-published something doesn't make you a great writer).
I have a lot of issues with the inclusion of the ease of self-publishing. My main problem is that it's a self-damning process. Yes, there are going to be a few fantastic books done through Lulu, and likewise there will be many good books, but for every one fantastic book there are about two hundred wretched books, and that leaves it to the customer to wade through all the crap just to find something that is even readable. At least when you go to Borders or B&N you know that the vast majority of things in the store are at least edited, copy edited, and basically readable. But with self-publishing you're basically taking a wild gamble no matter what you buy. Maybe you'll get a good book, but most likely you'll end up with something under-par, something you'd rather not have wasted $17 on in the first place.
So, I see problems with the self-publishing model, especially the fact that it is so easy, and I see the change as more negative than positive. If more folks were spending the appropriate time and cash to edit their novels, it might be different (and Lulu offers these services for a fee, by the way), but practically nobody is doing this. We're left with unedited tripe that floods the self-pubbed market and makes it impossible to wade through. I've never bought anything directly from Lulu because of this very problem.
Perhaps we'll see more authors taking control of their work, but will this be a good thing overall? Perhaps for popular authors, ones who already have a following, but I don't see the self-publishing model improving in quality, just in quantity. Yes, Lulu is a great service. It's wonderful if you need a printing for something you want to put out and don't want to spend thousands of dollars. Lulu has also made it tremendously easy for folks to print works as the "publisher" rather than the author, which is fantastic for the rise of independent presses. The problem, however, is that such things are a rarity, and that is perhaps because many of the folks who would be up for such a thing are burdened by the negativity that comes with vanity presses and even Lulu. Lulu is great, but we all know it's a self-publishing firm and that there are thousands of hopelessly terrible books floating around in its catalogue.
The question now is whether I truly feel there will be a change in publishing. Yes, and I'm very much against it. I fully and totally agree that the current publishing models adopted and desperately clung to by the larger publishing houses is outdated and is in great need of adjustment not only for the sake of publishing in general, but for readers and writers alike. But, and this is a big but, if changing means reducing the quality of literature--and by quality I mean simple things like writing that is readable both stylistically, grammatically, and spelling based--then we are going to deal with what might be the first actual death of literature. Do any of us honestly believe that people will keep reading if all they get is garbage? None of us like wading through trash to find something we'll at least enjoy enough to finish. True, we might hate how the current publishing model works, especially us writerly folk, but surely it is better than what could happen if we make drastic changes in who has power in the industry, right?
This is why I am against the shifting of power from the publishing house to the individual. Yes, I agree that authors should have more control over their books. The fact that most authors have no say over what cover art they receive is rather disturbing, especially since sometimes you end up with cover art that looks like someone wiped their arse with it. But we have editors and copy editors and publishing houses there for a reason: it makes writing stronger than it would be without such services. How many of those self-published authors spent the time or money getting a professional editor? Maybe a couple at most? You might be a great writer, but even great writers make mistakes. Few writers, if any, catch all their mistakes (published authors too). Should the public be subjected to such lack of quality just so the publishing model becomes more friendly to the writer and reader?
Changes will occur, but I think the changes should be more with how the publishing houses operate than with who controls the process. We need more good books in this world, not a plethora of trashy novels overrun with mistakes. Let's make the right changes occur. That's what will be best for literature as a whole.

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