Even with Books, All Technology Devolves to Rocks
Back when I started, we had bond paper, a typewriter, and manila envelopes. We mailed our work to magazines far, far away, and hoped that anything rejected came back sufficiently intact to be sent out to the next victim without having to be retyped. A self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) went out with every submission.
Hopefully, if your work was accepted, you would be mailed a copy of the magazine in which your piece appeared - for, unless you lived in a major city, chances are the nearest edition of the periodical you were appearing in would be in a library a hundred miles off. You could not subscribe to every magazine, but you had as many as you could handle brought and stuffed into your mailbox once every quarter.
In those dim days of drudgery, we did have Walden's Bookstore, and a handful of quirky independent book sellers -- but no Amazon, no Barnes and Noble, no Borders. If I wanted free-range literary magazines loose on the shelf, I had to drive north to Washington, D.C. and go exploring in the college and arty districts. Here, in my region of merely two million souls, you could not find anything but a row of classics in Walden's - usually a 'classics on the cheap' series display, and nothing else.
Publishing was largely monolithic, or perhaps Paleolithic. A number of independent small press magazines existed, and the occasional small press would put out a book here and there. The big publishing houses were as stodgy as they are today. The void was filled by university presses and that aforementioned small but growing small press trade.
There was, of course, vanity publishing. You could pay someone to print your book. This was looked down upon fiercely, and simply was not an option for the serious writer.
The serious writer. A bit of pique, it would seem, even in the term.
Somewhere along the way, the personal computer got invented, and then word processing came along; and then the Internet and desktop publishing and webzines and an Internet porn industry that makes more money than some regional wars cost. Recent inventions: there is now the e-book and print-on-demand (POD) publishing.
It has sure gotten more complicated than when I first started out. Back then, there were good ways and bad ways and good guys and bad guys and paper with a variety of bindings.
We can make even more of a muddle of it if we look at E.L James (Erika Leonard) and Fifty Shades of Grey. Let us leave alone the debate about whether it is a copy of an earlier book, or a rehash of fan fiction - you can look up its "Master of the Universe" and "Twilight" connections if you want to - or if it is merely straight porn. It started out as a self-published e-book and has now gone on to a major publishing house and sold more than seventy million copies.
I have read the book. It is ridiculous. I have nothing against pornography. People who write porn generally make much more from writing than I do. But this book was simply poorly written. Plot lines died, characters were flat and uninspiring. The whole thing seemed to be written at an eighth grade level, and much of the emotional involvement in the book seemed, for all the sex, no more elevated.
But we are missing the matter. The book was a self-published e-book, hurled effortlessly in the path of perhaps a quarter billion English readers. Before the days of the computer, the book would have had to have been vanity published, delivered in boxes, and would have had no distribution model. No one outside of Ms. Leonard's circle of friends would have had access to the book. Given our more modern platform, the independent e-book sales eventually prodded a brick-and-mortar publisher to buy the rights to the book and issue it as a standard product.
This fact is not lost on the publishing houses. As fast as they can, they are building divisions whose purpose is to trawl the waters for successful self-published e-books that they can turn into bookshelf gold. Why go through the editing process? E-books can be grand publishing's minor league farm system.
This can only occur when you marry desktop publishing with the Internet as a distribution system. Most people can format their own e-book; if they cannot, there are a myriad of vendors who can do it for you for around $200.00. Less, if you are not looking for a good cover image.
The Internet miracle applies also to magazines. Paper, boxes, shipping, warehousing are all expensive; a web page can be cheap. Magazines have been migrating to the Internet since the 90s. Anyone with a search engine can find you. Your potential audience goes instantly into the billions of hearts and millions of minds.
There is yet another innovation - Print on Demand (POD). My third book, Constant Animals, is available from Amazon. You don't think Amazon would warehouse the book of an irascible, largely ignored writer like me, do you? No. I created a file from which my book could be printed by their book spitting machine. If you want my book, you go to Amazon and pay for it, and they kick the machine to have it push out a paper copy of my book. You can also get it as an e-book. All of which is electronically held with millions of other books by thousands of other people, all on comparatively little magnetic storage, just waiting for someone to place an order. No shipping, no warehousing, no returns, no spoilage. I can check my sales on Amazon, and they deposit any proceeds due me directly into my bank account.
But we are again back at self-publishing. Years ago, we would have called it vanity publishing. Perhaps it is vanity publishing, simply with the author getting to play with the tools, rather than the distant vanity publisher taking care of everything. And what quality control is there? Your neighbor could write thirty-seven sex, bubble gum, and badminton fantasies about your daughter, format them, emit them as an e-book, and be selling it from a dozen web sites next week. Many of the e-books out there are far worse than Fifty Shades of Grey. Quite a few look like they were written with rocks, by rocks, for rocks, on rocks.
Sometimes the exceeding effort required to do a thing reduces the subset of people who will do it down to those who have at least some skill and devotion. Make it easy, and people with nothing to invest will stand in line to abuse the novelty.
Then again, a major publishing house did bring out Fifty Shades of Grey. So much for the cream rising to the top. If this is what you get from the grand publishing houses, you cannot fault almost any alternative.
And after we jump and cheer for the democratization of the gates to publishing, we need to step back and look at the underside.
Magazines may have migrated to the web, and have a potential billion head audience - but that audience is watching cat videos on YouTube, surfing porn, building the personalities they do not have on Facebook, playing Internet games, chasing down celebrity fashion malfunctions. Some literary sites will tout their hits, but those can be spiders and crawlers and indexing engines and teenagers surfing for porn without really knowing where to look. How many people actually go to a literary web site and read?
At one time, we could excuse our lack of an audience through lack of access. The big book stores would not carry us, opting instead to give the space to the latest space opera or the last western where the hero never reloads. But now: web, here we are.
Is anyone out there? I know of no real way to gauge how many people actually read a site, but those with automatic counters seldom have huge numbers - and some of those numbers are those spiders and crawlers running about. Paid circulation is a hard fact; casual browsing is difficult to classify or quantify. Web based magazines are usually free to view, so it is difficult to tell who is viewing and how thoroughly they view. Where sales are tracked, it is easier.
I've been out to some of the e-book sales sites that carry my book and checked out the top sellers. On one site devoted purely to e-books, of the top selling fifty e-book originals at the time I checked, nineteen listed themselves as "Erotica" or "BDSM". Not risqué. Not Adult Content. I suspect some under the "Romance" heading might as well have been shaded more to the skirts of Erotica, but the classifier did not want to scare some in the potential audience. Not that I mind porn. But I do marvel at its market strength.
Then again, Fifty Shades of Grey has sold seventy million copies as a flawed, poorly written, and superficial tramp around a sexual sadism relationship. Admittedly, other books have sold in large numbers recently, as well. John Grisham is whirling out books as fast as he can. Look at all the ghost-written James Patterson books. They do well. Before you go to look at a best sellers list, remember these are the choices made by people who buy and read books. The air there is already somewhat rarefied. The fellow watching those reruns of last season's top reality series on his smart phone is not counted.
After all of the deafening reality assessment, however, some of us just cannot help but try our hand with a book.
If you plan to write something of literary pretense, it looks like your options are fairly small. You can hope an established publishing house takes your work, after you get an agent to represent you. You can make the rounds at the literary presses. Have a thick checkbook, as many these days charge reading fees - often disguised as 'contest fees'. Don't blame them for doing so unless you have five of their latest books in your book case. To stay alive, they have to get income from someplace.
As an aside, one hint: you should go to the web and buy five small press books.
The small press prints 200 copies of your book, you stick fifty in your basement, they stick 150 in their basement. The average small press book sells less than 100 copies. Fifty copies in some cases is a triumph. People are not maxing out the small press web servers, desperate for content. Your book will go out of print thirty seconds after the last one drops off the printing press.
Then again, you could self-publish. You won't get any marketing help, nor any advance advertising - but just how much do you think you will get from a literary press, with nearly no budget; or a major publisher, who probably would not take your untried book anyway, and who would, if they did take it, not invest in you much beyond print and ink? Do an e-book/POD combination, and it will stay out there on a number of vendors' magnetic disks for years, with everyone hoping someone buys it. You can put the link on your personal web page to send viewers back to the sellers of your book, and put a link in any of your bio notes. Go with one of the low-cost e-book distributors and you can appear along such titles as Nymphomaniac Diaries, or Girl Alone With Fifty-Seven Men, or How I Done Fixed The Toilet Meself: A How-To Guide Fer Home Dudes.
I did Constant Animals as an e-book/POD combination. I sent out postcards advertising it, have linked to it in about thirty bio-notes in more than two dozen webzines, referenced it in a few print venues, and have a link on my web page back to Amazon and Smashwords and Kobo and the two bookstores that carry it. It has been a year now, and I have no regrets. I am hoping soon to cross twenty copies in sales.
We can spend a lot of time worrying about the how and the why, but if we do not have the audience, it simply does not matter. The big presses are not interested in literature, and neither the small presses nor self-publishing can give you the resources to grab the public by the shoulders and shake the life out of them. There should be no stigma to self-publishing; no more than there is concern, when you are standing waste deep just beyond the turmoil of the waves, which ocean you are pissing in. Under the modern paradigm, it all ends up in the same place.
And, if you have not bought those five small press titles, stop being part of the problem. Buy those five books. Read them, tell your friends how wonderful they were, take them to the local independent bookstore to be sold as second hand reads. We will all still go to hell in a hand basket, but you might feel like singing as we travel.
Ken Poyner has had fiction of late in Corium and Kill Author, and poetry in Adirondack Review, Medulla Review, Blue Collar Review, Poet Lore and about forty other places. His wife is a world class power lifter and the two together live a somewhat strange life in the right hand bottom corner of Virginia. His book "Constant Animals", 42 unruly fictions, is $4.99 as an e-book and vendor links are available at www.kpoyner.com.