Teething Problems

Where are we going?

I’ve asked this question of writers, publishers and editors. It seems there’s a very pessimistic view of the future of reading and book production. When ebooks came to the fore, we all said that this is the future of book production. I still believe that’s right but it’s having long term teething problems.

As electronic publishers for over 20 years, the first problem we encountered was the lack of a good ebook device. Several manufacturers produced devices, the first and most well known being the Rocket and Soft Book. Both were developed in Silicon Valley, USA. We visited both these manufacturers and discussed their marketing programme. Somehow, we felt it to be too controlled – lacking in flexibility. Other devices were created and we made more visits but, until Amazon brought out the Kindle, there was nothing which provided an open publishing programme for authors and publishers. Sadly, Amazon also have their weaknesses.

The benefits which come with the ease of self, low cost, publishing in electronic format result in a lack of censorship in terms of writing, quality and moral content. In the case of paper and hard back books, the publisher provides this literary censorship as the cost of production and distribution demands that the books are acceptable to the market. Otherwise, they are not commercially viable.

Clearly, the difficulty in achieving any significant sales in a market which is flooded by much which is inferior, is discouraging for good, aspiring authors. Although they benefit from the ease and low cost of publishing, their chance of being seen and bought by perceptive readers is so slim they give up. Also, much is being overlooked which could make an enjoyable read.

For individuals and small publishers, the means and cost of financing any significant promotion is unsatisfactory and includes high financial risk.

When you think all this is happening on the world wide web, which attracts millions of readers, it stands to reason that there is enough business to satisfy all quality authors. However, if the present situation continues, the finding of these quality authors will be like the finding of the proverbial needle in the hay stack.


2 thoughts on “Teething Problems

  1. As a writer, I have had to redefine my relationship to publishing over and over. I’ve made a good living, but much of my income has come from non-fiction. I’ve won quite a few awards for my fiction, but the award money is not enough to pay for food, shelter, and gasoline by itself. The apparent downward spiral in earnings for writers and publishers because of monopoly practices and dreadful content saturating the market is certainly a problem.

    Still, I see hope for story tellers and those who produce and promote books.

    Here is what I mean. Stories are, and have always been, part of human experience. Reading has come into existence more recently, but reading stories has been part of life since before Gilgamesh was pressed into clay. The human race is certainly not going to stop reading, nor will readers stop searching for just one good book.

    So, the trick is to write (or for publishers find ) one good book.

    Which begs the question, what is a good book? Is it a book that hits some best seller list? Is it a book that meets the standards of an academic literary pundit? Is it a book that gets 10,000 likes from a web bot army?

    No. None of these. The only judgement of a good book is the decision of the reader holding the book in their hand. One book. One reader. That reader, assuming the book’s quality was sufficient to allow them to read to the end, will judge the book. I’ll just dispense with any book they put down and never finished. I’m only interested in a book that kept the reader engaged in some way to the end. Now, maybe they decide the book is terrible. That is a powerful emotional response.

    Does anyone remember when The Bridges of Madison County came out and how many people talked about how terrible it was? It was so terrible that it only sold many millions of copies world wide. Well, how did that happen if the book was terrible?

    Something about that story captured the heart of the readers. Maybe critics were right. Maybe that story was poorly written. Maybe it was “just a romance.” Maybe it was “crass commercialism” or “blatant emotional manipulation.” None of those tags mattered because the people who were willing to let the story fill them up judged the book to be heartbreaking and emotionally powerful. They, in turn, told others about it. Those people read it and cried. They, in turn, told others, who read it and cried. So it went until demand became so large that the original print runs seemed like spit in the sand. The publishing company opened up the floodgates and let flow The Bridges of Madison County. Hollywood opened the money hose and created the blockbuster film.

    In short, the key to a great story of any kind is its ability to touch the heart of the reader. No matter how badly written, how many rejections, how many bad reviews, a book that touches a heart deeply will be discussed. That discussion will create another sale.

    We now call this cascade effect a viral event or a viral meme. Those terms were coined in the 80s by Douglas Hofstadter, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1981 for his amazing book, Godel, Escher, Bach. He could not have predicted then what a powerful impact global information networks would have on the dissemination of viral memes. Retrospectively, it’s obvious. But back then, the first emails had only just recently been sent.

    Today, the hope for publishing is not in the ability to advertise or the bankroll of the publisher. Today, the hope for publishing is in the human heart and in the hands of writers who know how to reach that soft and glorious place in the breast of every human being. One book in the hands of one reader can change the world.

    Paulo Coelho’s international best selling novel, The Alchemist, only sold two copies in the first two years it was in print. However, one tourist reader picked it up in Brazil, read it, went home to New York, and convinced a publisher to put out a small run. One of the readers of that first print run was Bill Clinton, who was seen carrying it onto Air Force One. One reader. Later, Madonna read it and raved about it. One reader.

    One book. One reader. One heart.

    That is the hope of modern publishing. That is the hope for the million voices who cannot find a publisher because their book is “not right for us at this time.” Your book–my book–only has to be right for one reader one time. The rest is up to forces beyond us all.

    Luck and skill to all who write and send.

    Eric Witchey

  2. Thank you so much for this comment. What you say is interesting and encouraging. It’s thoughts of others that keep us writing. To know that someone, somewhere is touched by our stories, encourages us to go on. And we know there will always be more than one who is moved by what we say . . . Keep it up!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *