The Seedy Underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution
So, I’ll start by saying that I see the arrival of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution as largely a good thing. It’s more confusing than the old world – now instead of a comparatively straight-forward process of submitting to agents and editors and hoping for the best while expecting the worst, you’ve got a thousand different possible levers you can try and pull. (Some of them you can’t actually reach. Some of them don’t actually do anything when you pull them. Some of them have an effect, but it’s hard to figure out what that effect is.)
But, largely, it’s a good thing because it gives writers and readers both new options that they didn’t have before.
Still, I’m put off by the revolution’s cheerleaders who shout hurrahs: “The Revolution has come! Publishing is disintermediating! The Traditional Publishers are dying, and good riddance for they were made of EVIL and soon it will be complete freedom for writers and readers and puppies and kitties will rain from the skies forever! Amen! P.S. And we’re all going to get so rich by writing!”
That’s hyperbole. But the basic message is the same. If you move in writing circles, you can’t help but read one or two such blog posts on various blogs per week. And that’s if you don’t actively follow Joe Konrath or Dean Wesley Smith or others like them. But their message puts me off, not only because I think it’s an unrealistic vision of the future, but because something about this vision seems a little off to me.
In the past few weeks, I’ve come to understand a little better why I’m vaguely uncomfortable and unsettled about the digital self-publishing revolution. There is something dark, something unspoken, something critically unexamined staining the underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution. I don’t think these are things talked about enough, yet.
What follows are some links for your perusal and thinkifying gratification.
First up, Amazon has started testing the waters, with publishers, for launching an e-book subscription service. They’re looking for publisher buy-in. But the unasked question: what’s in it for the authors?
What, I realized, was unsettling to me about this phase of the digital self-publishing revolution is the degree to which, as it is currently constituted, it overrelies on the “benevolence” of Amazon: a company which is not known to have been truly benevolent to writers in the past. Right now, the vast majority of self-published ebook sales are through Amazon. In effect, Amazon’s plan seems to be not to make it rain puppies and kitties forever and also to make you rich. No, it is to become the one, the only, the de facto monopoly-publisher of all books.
The short version: Amazon doesn’t care if you sell books. Amazon cares if Amazon sells books. And Amazon doesn’t care if you get paid. And Amazon doesn’t care if you are the sole copyright holder of your work. You are small potatoes. What scares me: when Amazon is the only game left in town, what’s to stop Amazon from changing the rules for writers? They’ve already demonstrated their willingness to screw the little guy (i.e. authors) on their quest to strong-arm publishers and get their way. I don’t trust Amazon not to keep on screwing the little guy at every opportunity.
And so… the extent to which Amazon is the Digital Self-publishing Revolution: that unnerves me. I’m not ready to embrace it.
And that’s what Scalzi and Valente are getting at in their posts: Amazon’s proposed e-book subscription service looks great on paper: for publishers. But there’s no mechanism in it to support the authors whose works are being exploited. It’s another push applied in the downward pressure to make the value of an author’s work indistinguishable from the number 0. There are those who rationalize it away and pretend it isn’t happening, who have placed their faith wholly in “the new paradigm”. (What’s hilarious about that last link: in a post where Konrath swats at flies, trying to refute the idea that there are significant downward pressures on the economic value of the writer’s craft, he later states: “[Writers] aren’t entitled to earn a living at their craft. Talent and hard work does not mean the world owes you. You have to keep at it until you get lucky.” A tacit if indirect admission that world values what writers do, in an economic sense, less and less… unless you get “lucky”. You’re right, Konrath: you win the argument. Talent and hard work are meaningless. Ultimately, only luck matters.) But I don’t think the new paradigm as earned that trust. A year or two of happy times does not a long-term trend make.
I’m not saying I don’t think there’s a viable, and possibly even sustainable, business model in there somewhere. I’m saying I haven’t seen the evidence, and given the past track record of the major players, I’m uneasy.
Turning on a Tangential Dime, I find that’s only one part of what makes me uneasy about digital self-publishing. There are other factors that are equally disturbing. But I’ve gone on long enough, for today, so tomorrow I’ll continue on this theme.
Bracing for deluge of comments from digital self-publishing cheerleaders, supporters, and fan-club in…
(Oh. Wait. I don’t really have that large a web presence, do I? Sigh. My site is too small to house a troll.)
Leave your own thoughts and comments and angry retorts on the topic. Let’s discuss, shall we?