Not So Fast: Ideas to Rethink
With publishing in the middle of a revolution, ideas and opinions are constantly being tossed around on the Internet — tried on, parsed, heralded, criticized, and endlessly discussed. I’ve noticed that there are a few ideas that have taken hold and started to be thought of as “truth,” but I’m not so quick to go there.
Here are a few examples:
The idea that maybe in the book world, “quality” matters less these days.
It’s true that books at every different level of “quality” (however you want to define it) are selling. But just because Fifty Shades of Grey, a trilogy that nobody is lauding for its literary distinction, is a record-breaking bestseller, it doesn’t lead to the conclusion that readers no longer care about quality. The fact is, there is a massive spectrum of “quality” and there are readers for every kind of book on the spectrum. You can see this dynamic in television and in movies: everything from crass, mindless entertainment to highbrow art can find an audience. Some are clamoring for more “Jersey Shore,” but others want more “Mad Men” or “Downton Abbey.” It’s the same with books. Don’t decry the state of publishing, thinking there’s no place for quality anymore. Look at the big picture, and be glad we still have access to such a wide variety of books.
The idea that as publishing changes, there will be reduced need for agents.
Over the next decade, there may be fewer books being published traditionally by the large New York publishing houses; with fewer deals being done, there will be fewer agents. However, for those authors still working with traditional publishers, I believe the need for an agent will be greater than ever. As publishing models continue to evolve and publishers tighten their belts, an author will need an experienced agent to help them navigate the waters. Publishing contracts will keep getting more complicated and difficult to negotiate, as they have been the last couple of years. I don’t think it will be an environment in which most authors will have the time, energy, or knowledge to go it alone with a large publisher.
The idea that publishing is changing rapidly and very soon it will be completely different from what we’ve always known.
No doubt about it — our industry is changing as disruptive technologies take hold, and there is still a lot more change to come. But I don’t think it will be as rapid as many people believe. I recently read that disruptive cycles in business usually take place over periods of 15 to 30 years.* If we’re five years into our digital revolution (as Mike Shatzkin says), that would predict we’re still 10 to 25 years away from publishing looking completely different than what we’re used to. Granted, things are probably moving faster than they did in the past. Still, we can expect many more years of evolving… years in which we can all be watching what’s happening and doing our best to be prepared and positioned for whatever comes next.
The idea that self-publishing is an easier road to the goal of a published book — even a bestselling book.
I’m not against self-publishing or digital publishing of any kind. But I do think many authors are getting a skewed idea about self publishing. Here are my cautions: (1) Doing it well is not nearly as easy as many advocates make it sound. And (2) While there are obviously some highly visible spectacular successes, I’m still observing that the majority of self-published authors are seeing modest success. I also see many who are disappointed in their self-publishing experience, simply because the publishing media has given them unrealistic expectations. This is NOT to discourage anyone from trying it! But I encourage you to approach it with realism, and to plan to put a great deal of effort behind it, if you want to find success.
Have you bought into any of these ideas? Do you agree with my assessment? What are some other thoughts and opinions being tossed around these days that you’re not sure you buy into?
*Statistic about disruptive cycles is from a fascinating article in Harvard Business Review, The Inevitable Disruption of Television.