Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Black Swans in Publishing

Published in tandem with my Killer Nashville Blog post on May 30, 2017

Black Swans in Publishing

As a writer who has independently published my own work through my own publishing company, I am amazed at how little authors know about the publishing world they work in. While many writers are brilliant and even inspired, the gobbly-gook of the publishing world is just stuff out there to be handled by their agents and publishers. What I have seen change in the world of academic non-fiction and fiction over the last sixteen years and thirteen books is just, well, dumbfounding. As Dorothy said to the dog, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Amazon's Jeff Bezos
“Black Swan,” with its roots in a Latin phrase by Roman poet Juvenal, simply means being smacked against the side of the head with something so new, so shocking, and so disturbingly out of the normal as to change the whole direction of a thought, a thesis, a belief system, and even cultures and institutions. Ideas can be Black Swans and can change the course of history. Jesus Christ and Mohammed come to mind, as well as the American concept of democracy. The steam engine, electricity, even double entry bookkeeping radically changed the course of the normal. These things from out of left field can influence systems far beyond the original intent of the concept or invention.

Apple's Steve Jobs
In our world of words and story telling the publishing empire had settled comfortably on a simple, yet profitable, system. Writers write, agents sell, and publishers buy. Then publishers sell through distributors to the ultimate retail outlet, the bookstore. There the customer acquires the writer’s work, and after a hundred fingers claw out their few pennies, the writer declares: “What the hell?” The system obviously isn’t there to help the writer eat, clothe themselves, and live comfortably, but it certainly is there to enrich the publishing industry. Don’t get me wrong, the system worked well, exceedingly well, and many writers became successful and wealthy. But with success came complacency and fortress building. No matter how hard the writers and authors tried to breach the walls, it was very difficult to be invited inside through the well-defended gates. There were many who said enough and started their own publishing companies to get their words out. That was costly, and the doors to the bookstores were still well defended.

In the early part of the first decade of our twenty-first century, two Black Swans flew in by the names of Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs. Jobs and his development and reimagining of the personal computer and eventually the iPad, and Bezos with his new model for selling books (and a lot of other stuff) that led to the Kindle system and retail merchandising on a massive scale. From these sprang the ebook, a notion that had floated around for more than ten years but was impossible to seriously market and distribute (issues of copyrights, distribution, and bad hardware). The iPad (and its many facsimiles) changed how we use and access information on the portable level, the Kindle made it affordable and the software (mobi, epub, pdfs, and a few others), made it available to everyone. The first Kindle was released in 2007, the first iPad in 2010, since then the publishing world has been turned on its head.

With the invention of Print On Demand (POD), your words can be published and in your hand within a few days for minimal cost. POD simply took old copier systems and reimagined them into machines that print and manufacture a paper book with a professional look in minutes. Another system turned upside down.

Whole industries have grown and expanded within this new universe. The number of cover artists, copyeditors, story editors, marketing gurus, ebook facilitators, book builders and designers; have increased because there are now customers (writers) who are willing to pay for a quality product. However, as with any opportunity caution is advisable, costly horror stories have been reported due to ineptitude, unfulfilled promises, and outright fraud.

Today writers can finish a manuscript and within minutes have it available to the world. It was messy, especially during the first few years, but it has matured to a point where new systems of facilitating software (like the app industry that grew out of the iPad and its camp followers) are ubiquitous. Now everyone is in the pool, Google, Microsoft, the hardware manufacturers like Samsung, Apple, Amazon, and dozens of others, and software from Scrivner, Adobe, and Kindle. There are now millions of authors who keep at their craft because they get the satisfaction of seeing their words in print.

The traditional publishing industry was gobsmacked and immediately fought the revolution and reinforced the fortress. They trashed the ebook, the whole idea of the indie-publisher, and even put the shame and guilt of the collapse of the bookselling industry on the shoulders of Amazon. However, every system, no matter how seemingly successful, needs to be shaken to its core and rebuilt – ‘Creative Destruction,’ coined but Joseph Schumpeter in 1942, comes to mind. Now the publishing industry has thousands of new and experienced writers to consider and offer contracts. Not surprisingly some of these writers know more about the world of publishing and marketing than their own publishers. New genres have developed, expanded, and prospered – romance, erotica, steampunk, poetry, and dozens of others have spun out from the old genres. There aren’t enough genres to identify the subcategories at Amazon and the bestseller lists, and they keep adding new ones.

I’ve published and republished nine books all under my own publishing imprint. As one of those that not only writes but produces the whole package (cover, design, and marketing), I’m now convinced that anyone with even limited skills (or the desire to learn) can become a published author and bring to their customers a quality product. I’m also engaged with a leading publisher to bring out two thrillers next year under their imprint (great experiment here for me), and this particular publisher is one of the leading believers in Black Swans and how to radically change the face of publishing. It is an exciting time for authors and publishers, and more importantly for our readers.

Are there other Black Swans on the horizon? The nature of the phenomenon is sudden surprise and shock. So what might be out there? I see dramatic changes in the marketing of published works directly to the customer both directly and indirectly. There is huge potential for the integration of video into published works.The growth of audio books (commuters, travelers, those with sight issues, and of course that awful hour at the gym) now includes well-known actors and will continue to expand. The impact in intuitive/digital education has yet to be seen. The future is boundless. However, the true nature of a Black Swan is the profound wonder and the chaos that may ensue. It is by nature anarchy—and ain’t it great.

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