Monday, 14 January 2013

What the other half are saying...

So, on the 30th of December, the Observer newspaper published this article, making ten predictions about publishing in 2013. I agree with some of them (ebooks continuing to cost less than an espresso), and I can't honestly say I outright disagree with any (except the tongue-in-cheek hope that Amazon will be boycotted over their tax practices - there's a knotty moral problem in this area, but I'll reserve it for another time). What niggled at me was the overall establishment sense of the piece, from the closest thing the British press has to a paper that should know better.

For example, prediction #3 reads: "As the self-published market booms, more writers will be scouted on Wattpad and more publishers will launch self-publishing services, like Simon & Schuster's controversial Archway." This is probably all true, but the description of Archway as 'controversial' is at best generous. Archway is Author Solutions, and that Writer Beware article summarises the problem better than I can.

In fact, as Writer Beware points out, contracting with Author Solutions to run a 'self-publishing service' is already in vogue among the big six, which is the single biggest piece of evidence yet to emerge that they really don't care about anything resembling ethics or responsible business practices. Now, the Observer is supposed to be Britain's most intellectually rigorous, sensibly left-wing paper - why is their mention of this trend so uncritical? It's not just British manners. Were I writing an article like this for the Observer (and yes, I'm aware there's a risk of being sued for libel, because our libel laws are ridiculous over here), this note would read 'More traditional publishers will contract with Author Solutions to tempt naive authors with overpriced 'self-publishing' package deals of dubious value.' - and if there wasn't the threat of lawsuits, I'd word this rather more strongly.

Prediction #5 puts a rather positive spin on things, too; "Traditional publishing will become more experimental." Now, without wanting to start sniping, I can't help but hear Joe Konrath's voice completing this sentence with ' a desperate attempt to catch up to the innovations of the independent sector.' The examples the Observer gives focus on "stretch[ing] the definition of 'book'", but while there will be a degree of that on both sides of the fence, the internet has been doing this in a huge variety of ways for fifteen years or more, just as it's stretched the definitions of 'film', 'newspaper', 'comic' and countless other terms.

The innovations that are coming out of the digital publishing revolution aren't artistic revolutions - those were happening anyway, and will continue to do so. The digital publishing revolution is an industrial revolution, and its innovations are in pricing models, distribution, product life-cycles and so on. Perhaps most importantly, the digital revolution might be producing changes in reading habits, with more people now reading on their commutes, and possibly even more people reading overall, mainly thanks to Amazon and Apple - organisations that certainly can't be included in the label 'Traditional Publishing'.

#4 sounds hopelessly out of touch when it says, "Self-published authors will start to form co-operatives, such as Awesome Indies." It's the 'start' that's problematic; after all, I can remember finding my way to the Indie Book Collective website right at the start of my interest in self-publishing, almost two years ago. Where's the mention of Carolyn Arnold's Celebrating Authors, which has been knocking around for at least a year, or Kristen Lamb's #MyWANA, which has been a feature of the self-publishing landscape as long as I've been aware of there being a self-publishing landscape? For that matter, what about Booktrope, which an author-led group far more substantial than just 'a collective'?

One thing I wholeheartedly agree on is #9: "Libraries and publishers will fail to see eye to eye on ebook lending." But this is not a problem that's coming from the library side. This is conservative, reactionary publishers making life difficult for libraries and readers alike out of paranoia about lost profits. Given how (rightly) furious the British left wing got in defence of our libraries after the Cameron government came to power in 2010, why is there no censure at all here of the corporate publishers?

It would be both trite and unfair to suggest that this was a deliberate ideological move to close ranks with other big publishing institutions (the Guardian-Observer group of papers is the only segment of the British press to be financially protected from corporate and political influence). The problem in this case - and the only thing that makes this article worth talking about, because most of the other broadsheets will have made similar predictions, but without the independence that the Observer has - is rather that we, the footsoldiers of the digital revolution, are failing to get the message out.

If a paper as scrupulous as the Observer can be this blind to where the frontiers currently lie, and to the realities of policies like 'not seeing eye to eye' with libraries and hiring Author bloody Solutions to run your self-publishing platform, we have a long way to go before gaining the parity that we need and deserve with the traditional machine.

I'm not normally this belligerent, but the Observer article was a real eye-opener. There's a big gulf between how we see what we're doing and how the world outside sees it, and we're not going to overcome the prejudice against self-published books until we change that.

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