I've been reading a lot of publishing blogs lately, and the blogs of writers interested in publishing, and web 2.0 sites about do-it-yourself publishing, and angry blog comments about publishers and publishing.
And I work for a printer. And I write.
Because of these factors, I have been thinking about the future of printing and publishing to an fairly intense degree of late. So please excuse if the following essay makes the issues seem perhaps more dire than they might be the average person. I am, you might say, in the cognitive "thick" of it right now.
But, if you are in any way engaged with any of those categories listed above, then you might want to listen, because I think this is important for all of us.
The POD (print-on-demand) model is fucked. IT IS A REALLY BAD THING. I am saying this because it is one of the models towards which the printers, publishers, and writers are now drunkenly stumbling towards, hand in hand in hand.
I KNOW: it sounds great for many reasons. The writers can avoid the brutal publishing hierarchy, which is looking more and more like a reality show. The printers can utilize new digital printing technology to make money off short-run jobs, gaining a brand new customer base. And publishers can pick up books that have already been test marketed, more or less getting their prototyping for free.
It seems like everybody wins. But everybody is losing.
HERE'S WHY: the only thing this model is doing in putting words into print. I know, I know: 'but isn't that the point?'
NO: the point is distributing literature.
Distributing literature certainly encompasses many of the features of the POD model. For literature to be distributed, books must be actually made. Right? Well, at least in the old days.
Makin' books is less than half the battle. Let's sum up the steps to Distributing Literature:
1. Author, over a period of time, somehow produces a manuscript.
2. The manuscript must be edited. Must be edited.
3. From all the manuscripts which exist, some should be destroyed. A few should eventually be published.
4. The manuscript must be transformed into a print-ready document.
5. The document must be printed on paper (or on "e-"), and bound into a volume.
6. The volume must now be given, sold, lent, or forced upon a reader.
In the old days, the author took care of #1, the publisher handled #2-4, the printer did #5, and the distributor did #6. Under the POD model, the author is now responsible for #1-3 or 4, the printer/publisher combine for #4 and 5, and the baton is handed back to the author for #6, with the combine taking a cut (usually). Or a publisher can step in afterward, picking up #6 or starting the whole process over if they wish.
The most obvious problem is authors are, by themselves, not capable of anything other than #1. Perhaps they can use the Internet to work on #6, but #2 and 3, forget it.
But perhaps more seriously, the printer/publisher combine is certainly not interested in #2 and #3 in the slightest. The model works on the fact that the more authors they have lining up, the more profit they stand to make. What they've done is figured out a way to pimp short-runs together into a money-making harem, able to make up the quantity they are unable to sell through old-school published books via a dearth of authors, simply falling over themselves to pay to get into print.
And this is hardly the only problem. What do authors know about #5? Book quality? I'm not saying that POD is necessarily garbage. But how many POD authors choose hard-backing? Acid-free paper? A good binding? These customers want "book in print". The rest is details.
But then comes the real bomb. #6.
I'm not saying publishers have brilliant marketing strategies. Clearly, times have shown this requires as much work as anything. But what, if anything, can one learn about a book from a blog? From Twitter? These are free, and pretty brilliant free products at that. But it is only so much free junk mail, piling up with the rest of the folks trying to hype themselves in the big Internet hype pool. Yes, particularly buoyant books have floated to the top. But look at the detrius, sinking to the ocean floor!
And where do these darlings of POD end up?
The fucking Walmart of books. This is the part that really gets me. POD is being hyped as DIY, but all of these folks so stoked about "making my own book" are then turning around and giving most of the profit to the internet behemoth killing off your local book store. You sell your book from your blog, you use Pay Pal. You sell it with iUniverse or one of the others, and you use Amazon. Maybe you print off fifty extra copies and take them to consign at your local shop. Maybe they take you, maybe they don't. Maybe you sell a few, maybe you don't. But you know most of your sales are going to come online, where you're doing your real hype. And the reason is, your local bookshop still cares about literature. They stock the books they like (and maybe a few vampire ones) because they think they're still distributing literature. Maybe soon they will realize they need to jump on board the hype machine and move product, so they will listen to the Amazon reviews and comb the blogs, and maybe even start a web site of their own. But under the POD model, the local booksellers are the only ones still thinking of books as literature, and not crap to be pushed out to whomever will take them. And they're the ones who are going to catch it in the face when the distribution network for actual literature dries up.
I'm not a proponent of the old days. I'm not going to tell you a book is the doorway to the immaculate soul, and ask you to burn your e-reader and tattoo your library card number on your forehead (but really, please do this). I'm also not attempting to morally sway people. I know folks will still do POD because they want to see their work in print, and love ordering things online. But if the art of distributing literature is to be saved at all, we cannot rely on POD. We, the authors, as the base of pillar, have to stand up and reform this industry.
Here are some things I would stand behind:
Actual DIY: If you want to see your work in print, and want to push it through yourself, do it yourself. Find out the production in each step--typesetting, printing, cutting, and binding. I work for a small print shop, and I can tell you if you priced out the job right you could do it as cheap yourself as any POD plant. Or hand bind it! It's not that hard. I did my novella. Only thing I paid for was paper, toner, and cutting (which I actually did myself, but at work). By jumping into the product that is POD, you are the customer, not the seller. And making "getting into print" a commodity does not benefit us.
More than paperback: The POD model seems set up almost universally around the the 4-5" x 6-7" soft cover, perfect-bound book (although I understand there are companies who specialize in typical comic formats as well, and of course, photography books). This is because it is formulaic, easy to run and reproduce, and in the mind of the customer, the authors, it "looks like a real book". This is because it also worked well for big publishers in the "run and reproduce" category, it is sells as a trade paperback. But if the means of production are going to evolve for literature, its finally form will probably change as well. There are many cheaper alternatives, which are just as readable, and just as nice. They also have the potential to distinguish your book from the rest. Chap-books, fold-outs, unconventional sizes, hand-made cloth bindings, tape bindings or other sorts of bindings might work well for your piece, and are often cheaper or easily done yourself with a little bit of hand work. It's time to think about our books creatively, not just trying squeeze our book into the mold the POD crowd is looking to sell. Writing a cookbook? Think about a coil binding. Poetry, or unconventional novel? Try getting your sheets cut to size, then add your own pull out pages and invest in a heavy stapler for the binding (you can even get colored staples these days). Put the craft back in bookmaking. It could be what makes your book loved. (Or think about what a "hand-bound by the author" copy of your first novel will go for on eBay once you've won a Pulitzer... that's what I do. :)
New Publishing: The thing that we have to figure out as authors, is how to take care of steps #2, 3, and 6. Without these, we are flooding a struggling marketplace with crap, and that is a sure way to destroy demand completely. My idea is simple: don't go it alone! POD is dividing and destroying us. We were already set against each other by the competition of the publishing market. And now we are a mob, lining up at the edge of the Internet to throw our books (and our money) into the murky depths. Join the Syndicate! If you're an author, you know other authors! Get together, and edit and proof each others work. Then, split print costs among yourselves. Or do the POD, but make sure you handle steps #2, 3 and 6 yourself, with due diligence! BE BRUTAL with steps 2 and 3. Hurt your friends feelings--save literature. It's the only thing that will save us as authors. Print on your own demand. Then, work the marketing strategies together. Form your own imprint. Some of the greatest publishing entities in history were formed by authors and literature critics themselves, and the costs necessary have never been lower. Don't whore yourself to POD and Amazon any longer. Join us! (Or don't join me, make your own damn imprint!)
The Internet: The Internet is great. The best part about it is it can be run by the users. Why be part of the POD/swill combine? Why join the Amazon mob? Why give your work to another company that will only do what you could have done yourself? Experiment with new marketing strategies, don't just flood Twitter and the message boards (see above). Produce your own audio books. Make your own e-books, in non-DRM format. Produce your own video game! It's the Internet, man!
The good thing about authors is there are tons of us, and we care. If we only wanted to be famous, we would be buying turntables, or guitars, something else. We care about literature. And luckily, we are the ones who control the production. Now we just need to push that care from the bottom on up.
Predictions for 2012
5 years ago