Thursday, March 03, 2011


Sorting the rubble of the electronic book revolution is a daunting task because it’s clear now that there are a lot of small but crucial aspects that we have to rethink.  Like, how does a library check out ebooks?   Some mechanical way, like on a thumb or DVD?  Or does one simply download from the library’s hard drive by using a password.  Shock waves are now traveling the library world because some publishers are selling access to the library to “loan” ebooks to their customers, but limiting the number of viewings per book.  After two dozen “borrowers,” the access is canceled.  What if the publisher goes broke in the meantime and no longer maintains its hard drive?   A big part of some authors’ income is contracts with publishers to supply the kinds of books that libraries like, including big-print books, on a near-automatic basis.  What happens to big-print books when ebooks can adjust the size of the font?  
What the used book and remainders market discovered was the “long tail,” which means that there will be a few people who are interested in material long after it’s created, whether or not it’s popular in the moment.  I watched a Charlie Rose vid last night on which Charlie remarked that he was amazed how much viewership there was for his old program vids.  Of course, if people are watching his videos, they are leaving behind their internet addresses and creating marketable lists of “the kind of people who watch Charlie Rose.”  I’m getting offers for lists of what the computer thinks might be my customers.  (Pretty coarse-grained at present, but possibly valuable in the future.  Since it's cheap to send emails, one only needs a small proportion of responses.)  
It looks pretty clear that most of the intermediaries (agents, editors, publicists) between authors and readers are going to be evaporated by electronic publishing.  This makes everything cheaper, but also disperses it among a variety of modes: electronic readers, print-on-demand, audible, mixed media (inclusion of music and video) to the extent that most authors will want to hire a new kind of intermediary who can keep track of all this stuff as it develops.  A book keeper sort of person.
In recent years publishers have required authors to do as much personal selling of themselves as is decent.  They call it “platform.”  Or “branding.” This, of course, used to apply to the publisher.  If it doesn’t, who needs ‘em?  As publishers have dropped their identities in order to keep up with sales, they’ve gone to a “whaddya want?” mode and asked for surveys of what is successful or maybe advice from their sales reps, what's left of them.  “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog” is an old answer.  Today?  I’m afraid to guess.  “The Sexy Teenaged Robot Vampire?”  It won’t be “literary” in the traditional sense.
Another “sign of the times” is that though I’m small potatoes I’m getting mail from publicity companies wanting to sell me contracts for promotion.  What could a guy in New York City who knows nothing about Western art or bronzes do to promote “Bronze Inside and Out?”  The more specialized the material, the less helpful publicists are unless they inhabit the specialty and most of them don’t.  They’re just in line for author money.  If the authors are doing the "branding," then they have the mailing lists.  And who’s responsible for maintaining author websites?  Many of the ones I visit are outdated and dormant.
I think I’ve already talked about how “peer-reviewed journals” have crashed.  First, because they are too slow when times are moving the way they are now; second, because the previously defined “peers” of defined traditional disciplines are often dinosaurs by now; and, third,  it’s easier to just blog and let the comments roll. Fourth, because when things get into specialties, regions, sub-categories, suddenly there is a small enough group to see who the peer-reviewers are and realize new thinkers are in competition with them -- NOT collaboration in the interest of something objective.
Electronic books seem to be slowing down the trend to “Espresso” instant one-copy print-on-demand, but not printing services online like Lulu, particularly when bulk orders are wanted (for a classroom, or to take on the road and hand sell).  Both the POD printers and eBooks are opening up a great flood of new subjects, new writers, material once below the horizon of ordinary publishers.  Prestige is going up as the original class of vanity writers fall away, but also because the vanity presses are competing with so much free or low-cost service that don't need traditional presses or bindings.  How can they charge someone a LOT of money for a thousand copies of a story that interests only the author’s family -- destined for basement storage -- when the story can be put online at and only printed when someone really wants a copy?  The copies are quite nice.
Or why not just blog the same material?  It’s simply a matter of being indexed on Google instead of Amazon.  There are companies that will make blogs into printed books if someone wants them.  It’s easy enough to download and bind.  Blogging is “publishing” in the sense of making the material available to the general reading public.  It is NOT publishing in the sense of having a book entrepreneur (publisher) investing money in your text in order to print as many copies as they think they can sell.
I noticed when I went to add a post to my blog it had not had any of the upgrades that has enjoyed.  I’m sure this is because my readership for Prairie Mary is over a thousand hits a week and because I post a thousand words every single day.  I haven’t used any of the gimmicks: twitter, Facebook, et al, except that I do repost to  when I think the subject is of interest to a national audience.  I have not figured out the global audience.  One day my Blogger stats “hit map” shows Argentina, then it drops Argentina in favor of China.  But Clustrmaps (on my website) shows no readers in China, no one in Madagascar and someone mysteriously floating in the China Sea.  And someone is evidently reading my blog daily to find a "hook" to put on my highest Google entry.
I’m getting email from people who want to post to my blog and then link it to their own.  Often they're selling something.  They’re reacting to advice from people who know how to sell “stuff.”  I do not write “stuff.”  I write the highest quality content I can manage, though I choose topics that might not interest everyone or even appeal to the same people from one day to the next.  I’m convinced that in the end what counts is CONTENT.  That’s always what has counted.  Except that the guide to content used to be tied to the publisher, a business that could deteriorate or simply evaporate.  Now the content is tied to the author.  The new problem is match-making between authors and readers -- directly.  The question is whether one intermediary can serve both authors and readers, which is the “inter” part.  More questions than answers.

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