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Friday, November 21, 2008

Publishing Futures

I've been reading a lot of posts lately urging everyone to buy more paper books in reaction to the major layoffs in bookstores and publishing houses.

That's a little like putting a band aid on a corpse.

People have their hearts in the right place, but they're not thinking this all the way through.

Book publishing is and will continue to change from what we have always known. Trying to induce a buying trend is not only impossible (unless you're Oprah), it's also temporary (even for Oprah).

At best you might stave off the wolf for the season, but the bottom line is, consumers simply aren't buying books the way they used to. And little old you isn't going to change consumer buying habits in scope or permanence.

Books as entertainment cannot compete with movies, music, e-books, audio books and games. But let's take a look at these shanghai trouble makers. What do all these items have in common?

They are all digital technology.

As Steve Busceme's character "Rockhound" said in Armageddon: "Guess what guys, it's time to embrace the horror."

Case in point:
I forget what decade it was but Greg kept nagging me to get a CD player. I was a purist. I believed all music should be played on albums. I probably stood my ground for well over a year. Finally, I gave in. It was getting harder and harder to find albums anymore and I had to admit the quality of digital sound was superior to my cumbersome grooved Frisbees.

Flash forward a few years and CDs have since been replaced by I-pods. I blanch every time I remember how silly I was to resist digital technology. What the hell was I afraid of?

The sound is better. It lasts longer. And it's far more convenient to store and carry.

hmm…sound familiar?

Instead of rousing the troops and looking for ways to save print publishing--which was a loss leader in the best of times--look for ways to support the medium as it evolves.

Buying more print books is not going to be enough to resuscitate a half dead dinosaur. But writing for products that consumers clamor for--like role playing games, video games, graphic novels and short stories not only will keep your name in circulation, it gives you more clout with your agent or publisher because you will establish a following. And let's not forget it's also politically correct (and morally wise) to be green. Another formidable push toward digital that appears to be gaining momentum.

Print books will never go away. Let me repeat that. Print books will NEVER go away. We will always make room for books we love. And we will always have an audience for print. But the days of big advances and hungry agents are long over. Agents and editors have to be pickier. I can't blame them. Their butts are on the line.

I have a friend who's a great writer with a proven track record. She's had an agent for more than three years and still hasn't sold a book to the NY market.

It's not a case of talent, but having the product that publishers think people want to read. Even then, it's a matter of being at the right place at the right time with the right product.

Take for example Twilight. God love Stephenie Meyer. She's probably dancing in her sleep. No way could she or her agent have known her books would storm the market. Is her writing any better than a half dozen other vampire lovin' authors? Nope. But she found that elusive "it" quality that will make her a millionaire.

Like Rowling before her, she found an outlet for idol-worshipping pre-teens.

Think about how many authors you personally know. How many have hit it big? --I mean, quit-your-day-job-forever big?

In the old world when publishers were more willing to take risks, authors like us had a fair chance of getting noticed. Now that pond has dried up into a puddle.

Do you do a death roll in the mud, or dig yourself a new pond?

I say we stop begging for support and start digging. Stop bashing digital technology--or you'll end up looking like me in all my ridiculousness when I finally accepted CDs.

Instead, use the new mediums for all their worth. Tap into resources you haven't tried before. You may discover muscles you didn't know you had.

The pond may have dried up, but that doesn't mean we can't dig into a fresh underground spring.

I'm not going to pin all my hopes and dreams on a system that is rapidly dissolving. But I would love to be there for the birth of a new publishing model. One that works.