Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Bankruptcy of Publishing

Ok, I'll admit that the title of the blog is for one primary reason -- I'm testing out how Google works. I really do want to talk about how I perceive the publishing industry is changing from my perspective in Ogden, Utah, but I also want to see how titles and labels effected Google's search engines. Which actually is a great segue way into what this post, inspired by a blog post by my lovely and talented writer/wife, is actually about --- How does a writer get heard in the digital age?

When I was growing up (a long, long time ago in a county pretty dang close), musical taste was dictated by two things -- Kasey Kasem's American Top 40 (the morbid Seasons in the Sun at the top of the charts week after week) and the Friday Night Battle of the Records which lead to the perennial champions -- Goodbye Yellowbrick Road, Cherokee People and much to my adult chagrin and childish delight, The Bay City Roller's Saturday Night. It frightens me that I remember that.

Musical tastes were spun out of the mass media, record label machine into my head through the only radio station that played anything remotely young and pop-ish in the early 70s. If you wanted to make it big in the record biz, you were going to need to sign with a big label. Today, we have Pandora and the record industry is a lot like a very nice vase that got dropped on a very hard floor from a very high height. Forget labels, American Top 40 and Friday Night Battle of the Records and think DRM (Digital Rights Management), iPod, indie and bit torrent.

From what I can see, the publishing industry is also a vase that is hitting the floor and it is as if I'm watching the pieces scatter in slow motion. Terminology has not caught up. The Wall Street Journal just this week called digital publishing "Vanity Publishing." Digital publishing is the same as regular publishing at least to the extent that it has vanity and non-vanity versions. J.A. Konrath sells some self-published books, but authors have often self-published and that is technically different from vanity publishing. Konrath is also published by -- and this is a very important point -- Amazon Encore.

What did traditional publisher's do? They prepared the product for mass marketing. They mass marketed the product through the current media -- TV, print and radio. They sold the book to libraries. Libraries were the repositories for the community's books. We shared books as a community. The books we read were determined by teachers, friends and word of mouth.

Amazon is acting just like a traditional publisher. Only a couple of things have changed. The cost of distribution has shrunk to pennies if it is digital. The mass market is disappearing. Traditional advertising has diminished and fractured. Libraries have shrunk. Amazon steps in and is not only the publisher, but the book warehouse, the delivery truck, the book store and the promotional advertising media promoting the books and even a really massive pay as you go library -- all rolled into one digital company. Amazon also changes the community so that you can connect with a community of your very own idiosyncratic tastes. Your friends and word of mouth aren't relegated to a quiet little rural town in Utah. The writer's reviews and Amazon rankings and referrals carry more weight than the publishing equivalent of American's Top 40 -- The New York Time's Bestseller List.

The rules of the game have changed, but the ultimate game for the writer has not. The writer must write. The writer must write words that other people want to read -- and other people need to talk about it so that the writer gets read. The task of writing (and reading) is as David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen concluded -- an act to assuage loneliness and separateness of being human and provide connection with someone else, somewhere at sometime who felt the same way.

The words are the only salve for mortality.