Thursday, July 22, 2010

The coming e-pocalypse

After Amazon's triumphal chest-beating earlier this week, prognosticators of the e-pocalypse are riding high.  Salon's Laura Miller imagines the future e-bookstore becoming a nightmare moonscape of noxious slush, as authors rush to e-publish their hideous and misshapen manuscripts on Kindle.  Literary agent Nathan Bransford says this won't be such a bad thing.  But he lives in such a place already.  I agree with Miller; if e-books substantially replace conventional books, things will get a lot worse for authors and for readers.

Social networking tools will help your book find an audience
My concern is not that technology will allow the denizens of the slushpile to disseminate their work.  It's easy for authors to do that through POD and vanity presses, and it's easy for readers to ignore these books.  The Internet is a vast slushpile.  Anyone can publish a blog that nobody will read.  I am doing it right now!

The problem, however, is that e-books could tear down the institutions that identify the gems among the slush; bookstores and publishers and agents. If e-books continue geometric growth in market share, and that growth comes at the expense of traditional book sales, bookstores will not survive. If you cut revenues in half, stores will no longer earn enough to pay staff or rent.  That's true for your favorite local indie store.  It's true for Barnes & Noble.  

If bookstores disappear, publishers cannot continue to exist in anything like their current form. Nationwide bookstore distribution is the key service publishers offer authors that isn't available elsewhere. If the bookstores die, publishers become near obsolete; their sales mechanism isn't structured to work in a marketplace where online vendors are the only accounts.  Unless they can adapt and find a way to differentiate their product from the slush on Amazon, they're not going to survive in an e-book world, just as major record labels have struggled financially as online sales killed off record stores.

In the current structure, authors who do good work differentiate from the slushpile through a very simple mechanism; they submit to agents.  The agents sift out the best stuff, and submit it to publishers, who sift it again.

If that infrastructure collapses, authors who would ordinarily go through traditional channels will be kicked into a world where they have to self-publish their work and try to connect with readers entirely on their own. 

But, unlike agents, media consumers aren't interested in searching for the rare gems among thousands of amateur submissions.  That's not their job, and they don't have time for it.  People defer to expert opinion, whether it's listening to whatever music the radio DJs are playing, or buying the books that are on the front table at Barnes and Noble.

It's likely that, in such an environment, a new tastemaker will emerge, possibly the Amazon "top reviewers." I kind of doubt their reign will be an improvement. 

I suspect, instead of being paid advances in a post-bookstore world, authors will have to pay for freelance editorial, freelance marketing and publicity and freelance cover design. They'll probably have to bribe reviewers under the table, or spend a lot of time working out deals to swap positive reviews to juice their ratings. Then, in most cases, they'll still get no sales.

This situation is not an improvement for anyone except authors who would self-publish anyway.  However, I still think Amazon is using the most favorable metrics to exaggerate its e-book numbers and I'm skeptical about predictions that e-books will eat the world.

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