Fear of a Writing Planet: On John Green, Self-Publishing, and Amazon

A thoughtful post by novelist John Green is making the rounds today regarding self-publishing and Amazon:

I wanted to criticize Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, because I felt that in his introduction of the new kindles, Bezos repeatedly peddled the lie that a book is created by one person, and that therefore a book’s author should be the sole entity to profit from the sale of the book. (Aside, of course, from Amazon itself.)

Bezos and Amazon are consistent in their promotion of this lie, because it encourages the idea that the publishing landscape today is bloated and inefficient and that there is a better, cheaper way to do it—a way where all books can cost $1.99 with most of that $1.99 going to the author. Readers and writers both win then, right?

Well, no. Because the truth is, most good books are NOT created solely by one person: Editors and publishers play a tremendously important role not just in the distribution of books, but in the creation of them…Without copyeditors and proofreaders, my books would be riddled with factual and grammatical errors that would pull you out of the story and give you a less immersive reading experience. Publishers add value, and lots of it, and without them the overall quality and diversity of books will suffer.

Unfortunately, as fair-minded as Green obviously tries to be, at least toward self-publishing in general if not toward Amazon, he falls into the same trap a lot of defenders of traditional publishing fall into. He assumes that the current publishing infrastructure isn’t replicable within a self-publishing paradigm. This is flatly untrue.

If an author publishes under the traditional system, which until very recently was pretty much the only option an author had, she signs away the overwhelming majority of the profits on her work in exchange for the distribution, promotion, and developmental services (that role in  creation which Green cites) offered by the publisher.

In contemporary publishing, traditional companies are rapidly losing any edge they’ve enjoyed in distribution thanks to ebooks and print-on-demand physical books, as well as the seismic crumbling of much of the retail ecosystem. Defenders of traditional publishing will invariably point to Amazon for the loss of bookstores, but in truth much of the blame is that of the traditional publishers themselves.  Green writes:

My fear is that if there are only two or three voices in the publishing retail landscape—say, Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon—that diversity will dramatically decrease. Only a few dozen books a year will be available at large retailers like Wal-Mart; the rest of literature will exist only in the kindle store.

This is deeply ironic. How much different is a retail landscape consisting of Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon than one consisting of Wal-Mart, Target, and Barnes & Noble? (I’d include Borders in there, but Borders went out of business due to its own shoddy business practices so its demise was inevitable). Defenders of traditional publishers, and those publishers themselves, are filling the air with wails of grief for Amazon’s murder of independent bookstores, when the actual murder weapon was deals made between publishers and big chain stores like Wal-Mart, Target, and B&N/Borders, which allowed the chains to sell books at sharply discounted prices that indie stores couldn’t afford to match. That practice all but destroyed small bookstore retail before Amazon really even became a player.

Indeed, there’s a resurgence now of small bookstores because of the loss of Borders and the weakening of B&N. A smartly run local shop can compete again, even with Amazon’s dominance online.

And Green says “the rest of literature will exist only in the Kindle store.” Ignoring the hyperbole which assumes a virtual marketplace consisting solely of Amazon, there is truth in that. The “rest of literature will exist” in an online venue. Literally. The rest. Everything. Anything you might want to read, right now. Not just whatever books the store happens to have in stock. Not just whatever books the publishers have opted to keep in print, or to promote. Everything. Right now.

I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. As a reader, I’m thrilled at being able to find any damn book I want to read, any damn time I want to read it. I see that as a positive, and in no way threatening to me as a writer, because I think my work can stand on its own and being able to keep all my work in print for the rest of my life is a huge benefit for both me and my readers. Green, however, says:

Those books [the “rest of literature”] will have difficulty being discovered, because there are so few readers and so many titles.

I can’t believe that Green actually, literally, thinks that readers having too many books to choose from is a bad thing, but that’s what he says. Better, I assume, to have only a limited pool of books available to choose from (including his own, I’m sure) at any one time, as has been traditional, because readers are frail and can’t deal with too much choice.

This of course bring us to how an author’s book manages to get noticed in that sea of titles, and it’s the same way it used to be: promotion. But traditional publishers have fumbled the ball there too. Most authors publishing today get effectively no promotional assistance from their publishers. None. Squat. Bupkis. Authors are strongly encouraged to do a buttload of promo on their own, and that’s part of the gantlet authors are expected to run nowadays to prove to the publisher that they’re worth publishing again. But in the current publishing system, actually getting any promotional help from your publisher is like winning the lottery your second time (the first time was managing to sell a book to them in the first place).

So, the publishers can distribute your book, but so can you.

So, the publishers can make you do all the work promoting your book, but you can do that on your own.

So that leaves the creation services as the primary argument for giving 90% of the profits from your book to a publisher. Developmental editing. Copyediting. Book design.

And that’s what John Green is mostly concerned about. He fears that the next Toni Morrison will flounder out in the broader, more accessible, ecosystem without the sweet nurturance of a loving publisher. Never mind that most of what makes Toni Morrison Toni Morrison is Toni Morrison, not her editor, copy-editor, or the gals in the art department choosing her cover art for her (because she’s an author and can’t be trusted with that sort of thing). And never mind all the other potential Toni Morrisons who are either being ignored within the publishing paradigm they sold into, which treats them as SKUs not people, or who are never able to break in at all.

A side issue, of course, is can those potential Toni Morrisons succeed in the self-publishing ecosystem? Green writes:

You’ll note that there’s no self-published literary fiction anywhere near the kindle bestseller lists.

I don’t know if that’s hyperbole, and I’m not gonna go digging around to check, but it is probably largely true. But you know what? Most bestselling books, however they’re published, are genre books and potboilers and shitty celebrity tomes (which garner their “authors” a level of support truly talented authors rarely see in traditional publishing). And the fans and writers of literary fiction are their own worst enemies in this matter: if literary readers are too snobbish to look outside the “acceptable” gatekeepers for books to read, it’s not Amazon’s fault, it’s their own. Jonathan Franzen cringes from ebooks because he’s so wedded to the traditional system, but hey, there are still writers out there writing their books with fountain pens, too.

If you can’t adapt to the changing market, and use it to your advantage, that’s your bad. You can still be a literary romantic and join the rest of us in the new millennium.

I suspect that as the new ecosystem matures, literary writers will find their place in it, and benefit just as genre writers are. Because if your book sells only a thousand copies, you’re still going to make more off of it if you’re getting a 70% royalty than if you’re getting a 10% royalty. And that principle holds true even with higher sales. And you’re doing your own damn promotion, anyway, so the success of the book is up to your talent as a writer and your ability to make people notice your work, either way.

Anyway, we were discussing editing and all that. It’s true you get those services with big publishers. It’s also true that you can subcontract out for those services as a self-publisher, and that you probably should. Most writers need editors. Even the best writers can benefit from an insightful second opinion. Even the best spellers mistype sometimes.

More and more, I think the role of editors will be as a hired gun. They won’t necessarily be workers with high salaries (paid for with 90% of the profits from many an author’s books)  in Manhattan offices (paid for with 90% of the profits from many an author’s books) with full benefits packages (paid for with 90% of the profits from many an author’s books) whose personal moods and tastes will decide what’s available for the whole wide world to read. Rather, there will be a freelance legion of editors who live book to book, rising on their own skill and reputation as well as they can. I know that’s a lot less appealing than the salary, nice office, and benefits package, but you know what?

Welcome to the world traditional publishing has always forced its writers to inhabit.

Talent will rise. Authors who put care into their work, and hire out for the assistance they need, can succeed as self-publishers and make a whole hell of a lot more money for their work. John Green thinks good books won’t happen without good editing, and that may be true. But good editing isn’t available only in New York, any more than good writing is.

Writers are still writing. Editors are still editing. And publishers? Well, they’re still publishing…only more and more, a lot of them are folks doing it for themselves.

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3 comments on “Fear of a Writing Planet: On John Green, Self-Publishing, and Amazon

  1. I’m still looking at that picture…

  2. A few things come to mind:

    Traditional publishing had already largely abandoned good editing; this took place probably 20 years go. Books today are riddled with errors, and only an utterly useless editor can explain the existence of writing as shoddy as that done by, say, Dan Brown. And publishing houses are far more concerned with creating franchises and turning one book into a trilogy than they are with good editing at either the micro or macro level.

    I do think, however, that there are too many books and that most people should just stop. Solomon complained about it 3,500 years ago . . . and that was before we’d even made the shift from scrolls to the codex! A national moratorium on memoirs would benefit us all. Allow maybe three a year.

  3. gwcopeland says:

    Great piece. And the reasoning is impeccable. The tacit theme here, of indies creating not only a solid footing in the book universe, but of effectively taking it over, however, will require a level of dogged persistence we are thus far shirking, on a topic that seems to generate alot of fear and loathing: reviews, and the need to raise the indie bar. More on this subject at https://gwcopeland.wordpress.com/ or http://www.hondoross.com

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