The way things used to be . . . perhaps: Part Two

IMG_1200How, then, have changes outlined in the first part of this blog (the introduction of personal computers and wordprocessing software, the re-definition of publishing as a commodity industry and the dawning of the Internet Age) affected the course of this honorable endeavor? Here’s my admittedly biased but informed take on each factor.

Personal computers & wordprocessing software. Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that, if 100 monkeys were given typewriters (what is a typewriter, anyway?), they would, in time, produce the collected works of William Shakespeare. I’m no foe of modern technology but its easy availability has encouraged many (many) people to act on the maxim that “everybody has a book inside her/him.” All that is necessary is to let . . . it . . . out!

I believe that, in the past, the challenge of composing a manuscript longhand or via typewriter dissuaded many would be authors from taking the plunge. It took too long and was too difficult of an undertaking. I mean, dealing with White-Out and carbon paper were enough to make the staunchest heart flutter. On the other hand, personal computers enable even folks like yours truly (a molasses-in-January touch typist and possessor of unreadable penmanship, if ever there was one) to whip out a potential New York Times Bestseller in a flash.

The dawning of the Internet Age. Authoring a magnum opus in a limited amount of time is one thing. Utilizing the same platform to seek out potential literary agents and publishers is another, for it magnifies the problem. Since the dawn of publishing people have bemoaned the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts that landed on their desks. Underlings of various kinds had the thankless job of trolling the accumulated stacks of paper, in the off chance of finding a diamond hidden within. It’s been known to happen: sometime I will write about Charles Frazier’s 1997 Civil War novel Cold Mountain.

Nowadays digital files constitute the slush pile. You’d think the fact that agents typically restrict wannabe authors’ submissions to a synopsis and/or a few chapters would dramatically cut down the amount of stuff they have to deal with. I am not sure: somebody still has to review the material, and those daggum personal computers simply ratchet up the number of requests with which literary agents (found online, naturally) are inundated.

The latest wrinkle in the tech age is SELF-PUBLISHING. (Can you hear trumpets or angelic choirs?) The ‘Net is replete with service providers in the fields of editorial, cover design and short-run manufacturing. Obtaining several boxes of your pride and joy isn’t all that costly. So, doesn’t self-publishing make the odds of realizing fame and fortune better than winning the lottery?

Uh, no. It is true that a very small number of self-published works attract readers’ attention. If enough “copies” of their book are purchased for Kindle, Nook, etc., a traditional publisher may reward the author with a multi-book contract. (Footnote: the existence of e-readers was thought to spell the doom of three-dimensional books. I’m relieved to say that, in recent years, the percentage of “content” represented by such devices has plateaued, with good ‘ole 3-D books making a comeback, albeit a modest one. No one knows what the future will bring.)

The fly in the ointment for anyone that engages in self-publishing is the unromantic industrial process called DISTRIBUTION. The author can manage the process that yields a physical object. What she cannot control is the process that results in her self-published work earning a place on a brick-and-mortar bookstore’s shelf. For the bookseller it all boils down to convenience and economics. Ordering the book from its author necessitates paying for it after it is sold. This requires cutting a separate check, likely for a modest amount of money, and mailing it to the author. All this takes time away from the myriad duties endemic to running a small business.

Booksellers have long relied on distributors, who stock titles from hundreds of publishers, to supply their needs. The essential advantage this poses for the retailer resides in packing books from a variety of sources together, so they cross the transom together. This makes it economical to ship, and affordable to purchase, even one copy of a particular work. Also, a single check pays for titles from many publishers.

No individual author can match this economy of scale. Even if she can convince a bookstore to carry her work, the burden of packing, shipping, bill collecting and – worst of all – processing returns of damaged goods and overstock returns falls squarely on her shoulders. It is possible for and like firms to handle distribution, at a cost to the author. Even in that eventuality it is still up to the author to market his work, in the hope that potential purchasers will seek it online.

Publishing as a commodity industry. Have you ever noticed that your local Costco or Sam’s Club devotes a substantial amount of square footage to towers of books? These tomes are discounted at a level that may rival online retailers; brick-and-mortar booksellers cannot match them.

Cynics in publishing may refer to this phenomenon as “books by the pound,” but it hasn’t dissuaded their companies from selling the Big Boxes truckloads of their wares, at bargain prices. Indeed, huge orders from such accounts boost print runs, whose numbers may be touted in industry publications as proof of a book’s success.

Makes you want to square your shoulders, settle down in front of a blank Microsoft Word file and get to work, doesn’t it? As my Scots grandma used to say, while rolling her eyes, “Och, aye!”

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