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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Lit Rant: A Few Thousand People Does Not a Movement Make (Or Why Podcasting Ain't That Great)

One thing that irks me about all these online movements is the people of these movements--particularly the folks who hold some sort of fame--assume that their "successes" have had a legitimate affect on the publishing industry (or whatever industry they are a part of). This is especially so with the podcasting world. Those of us who pay attention to podfiction (and related podcasts) are constantly told that "publishing has changed, and we did it...and so can you." This is disingenuous. Publishing hasn't changed. If that were true we would see mainstream publishing scrambling to pick up the next big podcaster; we would see huge paychecks issued out to existing podcasters and more people than just those who happen to know what a podcast is would be talking about it.

But guess what...this isn't happening. A handful of podcasters have succeeded in getting legitimately published, but they haven't changed publishing in any way. Most of them are published with particularly small presses, which is fine, except that a small press is unlikely to influence the larger publishing presses who actually have a stake in the persistence of the publishing industry as a whole; small presses are not the ones making bookselling a billion dollar industry, and likewise are almost never involved in the grander elements of publishing (can anyone name a small press book that was only published via a small press and was then turned into a major motion picture?). Even the top voices in podcasting are, at best, midlist authors, and, at worst, obscure names who are part of a very selective niche; they have gained notoriety not necessarily as writers, but more as entertainers who wrote a book.

I'm not trying to belittle what these podcasters have done; I only want to put things into the proper perspective, because too many people think podcasting is the answer to all their publishing woes, when in reality it isn't. I have an enormous problem with podfiction authors and the way they represent themselves, because all I see are people being duped into something based on a lie--almost like vanity presses. Most podfiction authors are entirely willing to peddle fantasy without playing the truth card as well. What is the truth?
  • You are unlikely to get a particular work published. Ever.
  • If you do get published, it's unlikely that a large press will take notice and it's equally as unlikely that you will be successful enough to warrant quitting your day job.
  • Most publishers don't necessarily care about a work that has already been put out there, just as they are not likely to snatch up a book you self-published via Lulu (and exceptions have been made, but your chances are next to nil)
  • You're not likely to make any money at it.
  • You're not likely to build a sizable fanbase. Only a few podcasters actually have this, and most of those folks have been at this for years. Almost all podcasters come in, try it, and fade out of existence, just as anyway, only somewhat more brutally since you put significantly more time into a podcast production than you would if you published a book with a traditional publisher (since the publisher would put in most of the work of actually putting your book into stores).
  • It's a hell of a lot of work. You can't just read a book and expect people to love it. Quality and content play a big role.
  • Podcasting your fiction is not the answer to not being picked up by a publisher. It's also not always the best answer for your writing. Sometimes you just suck.
  • Podcasting is self-publishing. There is no difference except that one is print and the other is audio. It's still self-publishing, no matter what title you put it under. Exception is made to already published books that are podcast for promotional purposes (and there's almost never and instance of such a thing that isn't meant for promotion).
  • There are no Stephen Kings or Stephanie Meyers' in the podcasting world. None. There are some slightly successful authors, but none of them are selling at the level of the big names in traditional publishing (Grisham, King, Meyers, Rowling, Roberts, Brown, and the hundreds of others who have sold at least 100,000 copies of a single book).
Again, I don't want this rant to be misconstrued as a way of belittling podcasting, but I think it is necessary to be harsh on this "industry" because it is so often improperly represented as something that it is not. At best, podfiction has influenced publishing only so much as to make traditional publishers see the value in providing free content to potential readers, but the model of publishing has not changed at all. Major publishers, the real pushers in fiction, are not going to buy a book because they think it might make a good podcast, or because it happened to be a podcast; they are going to buy a book because they think they can sell it and make money on it. That's the most important reason for purchases by such publishers. It's a fact of life: publishers are trying to make a profit, and to do that they need to buy books they think readers will like.

A few thousand people does not a movement make. No matter how much you might think you're changing things, you need to face facts. Sometimes you have no influence whatsoever, and sometimes your influence is not what you think it is. We might look at the gay movement as a good analogy here: the movement was not successful when it was small and immobile, but when the gay community got fed up, they rose up in the millions, and got noticed; now we have five states that have legalized gay marriage. Podcasting has yet to have this movement, and maybe it never will.

It's surprising that podcasting took off in the first place considering how easy it is to find video-based programs all over the Internet. Perhaps the one thing that podfiction has going for it is that it has revived an old style of radio drama, something largely lost to the wee hours of NPR programming. If it persists, maybe we'll see some changes, but let's be realistic in telling the truth about what is going on. The movers and the shakers are not moving and shaking over podcasting. They may be happy about the stuff, but they certainly aren't scrambling to get on the bandwagon.

What do you all think about this? Am I being too harsh? Let me know in the comments!

P.S.: To clarify, I am specifically talking about podcast fiction in this post. Non-fiction programming such as interview podcasts and the like really are simply part of an already-free landscape of audio productions (such as might be found on the radio); the only difference is in the delivery (i.e. via the Internet and download rather than as a streamed program on the radio or elsewhere). I am a huge fan of non-fiction podcast programs, simply because they provide a service that is otherwise hard to find on traditional radio (such as author interviews and the like). But the hosts of such shows aren't really running around saying "Radio is changing and it's because of us!"

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