Is Publishing a Class System?| Writing on the Ether

6 February 2014 iStock_000030159004Small photog filmfoto texted story image 3

Table of Contents

  1. Is Publishing a Class System?
  2. Jane and Jason: “Inclusion of All Paths”
  3. Don and Doubt: “Not the glorious revolution”
  4. Hugh’s House: “Commitment to Advocacy”
  5. Philip and the perplexity: “Amazon will roar back”

Is Publishing a Class System?

What is important are the ethics of publishing.

Baldur Bjarnason
Baldur Bjarnason

If I knew what’s good for me, I’d just thank Baldur Bjarnason for that line and meet you in the comments section below, right?

Well, not so fast. After all, this is the Ether, so you’ve already packed a lunch. And, yes, Victoria Noe (a newly registered member of the BEA uPublishU Author Hub) is waiting to tell me that Mercury retrograde is having tidal effects on my Campari.

But listen to the sobering but resilient tone in Bjarnason’s Intermission: sorting through the banal. His comments are part of a long, personal assessment being echoed by other strong, sensible voices in the mix right now.

The only danger is that what you hear doesn’t always sound like happy talk. It could be misconstrued as “depressing,” “negative,” “downbeat,” “pessimistic”…and how many such words have you heard thrown onto the fire of publishing’s distress in the last few years?

In truth, these comments and developments, appraisals and assessments—some very pointed, others more exploratory—have these things in common: candor, surprise, and exhaustion, as in the healthy exhaustion that arrives when we stop struggling and face up to some long-developing realities.

Here’s how Bjarnason goes on after saying that what’s important are the ethics of publishing. I’m bulleting his points to make them easier to parse:

  • Don’t choose a publisher who prevents you from self-publishing as well.
  • Don’t choose a publisher who by offering insulting contracts treats you like ignorant chattel.
  • Don’t choose a publisher who expects you to do all the marketing.
  • Don’t be the self-publisher who uses misleading covers.
  • Don’t be the self-publisher who treats cover designers worse than a large publisher treats a first time author.
  • Don’t buy reviews.
  • Don’t try and trick people into buying your books.
  • Have some dignity and don’t release books that violate every platform’s terms of service.
  • Make sure all the contracts you sign are honest, fair, and ethical.
  • Make sure all of the contracts you offer are honest, fair, and ethical.

In Bjarnason’s Ten Commandments (yes, I counted), you’re reading references from sock puppetry to Kobo’s “EroticaGate” in its UK online store. These are defining episodes in the digital transformation of the business which now can be understood to have taught us something.

The phrase inflection point refers to a changed curvature. The point is a place in which curvature changes from convex to concave, or the other way.

What if we’re far enough along on publishing’s long, tortured curve into its digital future that we may be at or near an inflection point in how we gather, sort, and evaluate where we are?

But what if we’re rounding the bend only to find a new dilemma waiting?

What if we’re moving from what one revered observer calls an effort to transcend the idea of two classes of authors — to what another highly respected commentator says is a three-class system?

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Jane and Jason: “Without Two ‘Classes’”

Jane Friedman
Jane Friedman

By now, I hope you’ve found agent and consultant Jason Allen Ashlock’s interview with Ether host Jane Friedman in her capacity (and she has a lot of capacities) as co-creator and -editor with Manjula Martin of the new Scratch Magazine.

The article, Writing + Money + Life awaits you in the spacious, interactive realm of Medium. You can leave comments as you read. (Annotation is at hand, in case this is still new to you. Eureka and woot.)

One of Friedman’s comments highlighted by Ashlock is:

What we’re getting right about author education: the increasing acceptance and inclusion of all paths to publication in educational programming, without two “classes” of authors, and the increasing hands-on opportunities for authors to learn about tools and technology that will empower them.

4 February 2014 iStock_000002845516Small photog PacaYPalla texted story image
Image – iStockphoto: PacaYPalla

And this is what you could hear yesterday in our #EtherIssue live discussion in the Tweeterie for Publishing Perspectives. Based in our background story, Issues on the Ether: Howe Is Self-Publishing Maturing?, the lively exchange of views spun around just such a concept as Friedman is highlighting. I’ll show you a couple of parallels.

In talking with Ashlock, Friedman goes on:

What we’re getting wrong usually amounts to one-rule-fits-all-advice, with little room for the individual author to scope out his own path based on his strengths and the unique qualities of his work. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to tell authors, “No, you don’t have to use [XYZ social media platform] if you don’t like it.”

Dan Holloway
Dan Holloway

That observation was echoed in the #EtherIssue debate by a call for tolerance—for support of individual creativity and drive and concept—that UK-based poet and author Dan Holloway brought to the table. (Holloway is speaking, February 28, at the London Author Fair.)

His phrase is “diversity” and he sees it threatened, as he explains in a comment on the Ether:

The real glory of self-publishing’s diversity is that each strand within it does not have to, should not have to, place itself in the context of an orthodoxy…The reason why it is important that we keep pointing out that this diversity is not and should not be related to a fundamental “standard model” is that each of these strands deserves its voice to be heard, each should be heard, and the media should be talking about each.

And if you’re finding it hard to hear or be heard in such discussions, let alone in the marketplace, Friedman is right there with you.

Jason Allen Ashlock
Jason Allen Ashlock

In response to Ashlock’s prudent question about changes in publishing, Friedman tells him:

Because all the gates are open, and so many people are experimenting, it’s tough to break through the noise. Plus there’s not enough time to consume all the great stuff that exists. I don’t believe quality rises to the top—it fights its way there, then it fights to stay there amidst other distractions.

Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig

One of the more wrenching but healthy elements of the debate along the digital curve here is just that: does the plethora of ill-prepared, amateurish junk being published with digital tools bring down the entire canon and damage even the best practitioners?

It’s what hybrid author Chuck Wendig describes with characteristic flair, the Self-Publishing Shit Volcano.

Some say not to worry: the bad work sinks, the good rises, no harm done by the ongoing lava runs of the self-publishing eruption. Others have something more Pompeian in mind.

The good news here is that a rousing hashing of these issues, as we saw on #EtherIssue, can be accomplished without the seething, sneering exchanges that once were self-publishing’s most animating feature. If exhaustion is helping us anywhere, it’s in the snot-nerds who may have worn themselves out screaming about how much they hate New York.

Scratch Hunger edition coverIt’s easier to put the shriek-fest behind you—and re-think whether the blogs you frequent are helping you focus or just raising your blood pressure—when you read Friedman saying this:

People gravitate toward communities or brands or people that deeply resonate with them, that lend meaning and identity, or that align with their needs or values. I know that writers hate thinking of themselves as brands, but if they can at least see themselves as a unique voice, with a unique position or perspective on the world, that can help create a plan or strategy that encompasses many possible models for creating content and services, particularly models that connect directly with readers, and go beyond the traditional pitch-and-publish gatekeeper model.

Friedman mentions “two ‘classes’ of authors” to Ashlock. She’s referring, of course, to traditionally published and self-publishing authors.

Hold on as the publishing curvature sharpens just a little.

Someone else is talking “classes” of authors, and he’s doing it a different way.

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Don and Doubt: “The New Class System”

What’s happened is an evolution of the publishing world into a new class system, and like any class system it has winners, losers and opportunities. It’s a system that, if not recognized for what it is, will trap frustrated writers in a pit far more hopeless than the one they yearned to escape.

Flickr Creative Commons: Jonathan Kos-Read, from Writer Unboxed
Flickr Creative Commons: Jonathan Kos-Read, from Writer Unboxed

We’re not in Friedman’s Kansas anymore. Agent Donald Maass, a fellow contributor with Friedman (and me) to Writer Unboxed (WU), has just fired The New Class System over the bow of the Good Ship SelfPub as part of WU’s  focus this month on the industry! the industry!

It’s safe to say, at least here in the bunkered security of the Ether, that our good colleague Maass has at times found it necessary to offer not only his keen insights into writerly effectiveness but also his wary views of digital’s incursions into the realm. In this post, he looks to make what he later (in comments) calls “my cheeky view of the state of the industry.” Like many, he has made adjustments from time to time. Unlike many, he brings a handsome dexterity to the job, producing such Gatekeeper Anonymous scriptures as these from his new essay:

It’s true that I’m a gatekeeper, a longtime member (to my surprise) of the industry establishment. But I am no worshiper of the old ways. Traditional publishing always was cost-heavy and inefficient. It’s a wonder that it worked. But the new electronic “paradigm” is not the glorious revolution that true believers would like it to be.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road Press
Donald Maass

That, I believe, is candor, and I thank him for it.

His essay at times, yes, sets out a given without a take. For example, he notes that “low-cost/high-margin ebooks have been a bright spot” for publishers without mentioning that those high margins are due, in part, to publishers’ refusal to raise digital royalty rates for authors above 25 percent.

He does get to this, again, in that benedictory comment, in which he writes:

Print publishers will learn new digital strategies and, slowly, be forced into—hear me now—higher digital royalties.  Competition will make it necessary, and indeed it’s happening around the edges already. A more profitable picture for authors and better online strategies by “traditional” publishers will make that option newly attractive and its downsides less depressing.

I think he’s right in his perspective, as laid out there, on the digital royalties issue.

But I wonder if, in celebrating how ebooks have “kept publishers profitable even as brick-and-mortar book retailing has shrunk and consumers have grown cautious,” Maass anticipates being joined by our entire choir in the cheers he leads. Probably not. He’s pretty savvy to the divisions of opinion and purview around him.

More to our point here today is his delineation of his “three classes.” I’ll leave it to you to read his fully-fleshed detailing of his thoughts, and just give you now those classes with his top-line descriptors. Maass offers immediate seating in these classes:

Freight Class. “Self-published authors and electronic micro-presses must haul themselves…While the Kindle bookstore can be an incubator of innovative fiction, for the most part it is an ocean of genre imitations if not amateurish writing. ”

Coach Class. “Here we find decently-written literary fiction and nicely-crafted commercial fiction that achieves print publication but sells best at trade-paperback level ($14.99 or so), or discounted in e-book form. Coach Class novelists support each other yet find it difficult to gain a foothold with the public…Coach Class authors, however, are professionally edited and get goodies like nice covers, ARC’s, and plenty of blurbs. Plus, their books are in bookstores, a big boost in visibility.”

First Class. “The cream class gets a double shot of extended life in bookstores, both in hardcover and later in paper. Their books can sell well at $25 and live long in trade paper. For First Class authors, success looks effortless…Lines are long at BEA booth signings and readers are fiercely loyal.”

You see easily how the inflection here may look concave to some and convex to others.

Many will nod in agreement that All Gaul is indeed divided into these three parts. Maass Aurelius has sized up our current Rubicon with the alacrity and charm for which we all like him.

On the other hand, many moderns will quickly rush to point out that Maass has not enunciated the term “hybrid” or some other acknowledgment of the more fluid model of career production being built by, for example, the bestselling authors featured in today’s promo at the top and bottom of the Ether for BookExpo America’s uPublishU Author Hub.

Maass does assert that because “authorship is a true meritocracy…you can change your class, though of course it’s not always easy to do so.” Be a better writer, he’s saying, claw your way out of steerage. Yes.

But is that enough? Even as Maass leaves us whistling past those never-speak-them issues of (shhh) talent and skill, writing, “You can change your class by yourself, right at home, one keystroke at a time,” there’s surprise to be factored in.

And one such instance was being announced just as Maass’ column ran this week.

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Hugh’s House: “Commitment to Advocacy”

Overseas publishers are so nimble and creative. They get putting the reader first. I can’t wait to see what they [Random House UK] do with Sand.

The "Sand" omnibus cover is by Jason Gurley of Portland
The “Sand” omnibus cover is by Jason Gurley of Portland

When I reached Hugh Howey in Taiwan—he’s there for the 2014 Taipei International Book Fair—he was adamant, “thrilled,” about his new contract with Random House UK’s (RH UK) Century imprint for both the print and digital publishing of his new novel Sand (US here, newly in the UK here from Cornerstone Digital, part of Random House UK).

(Some readers are letting me know they hadn’t realized that Howey would sign over digital rights. In fact, RH UK’s publishing deal for all three books of the “Silo Saga” trilogy included digital as well as print. The Sand contract replicates that model. Howey has written that he has “far less of a problem signing digital rights overseas.”)

This is the guy many might have assumed was so thorough a torch-bearer for self-publishing and so outspoken a champion of entrepreneurial authors that he’d throw scones at the huge traditional British house that wanted to handle his new work.

Not so. Howey is among the most candid of the major successes in our ranks. He told me in a #PorterMeets interview for The Bookseller in December, “I love working with publishers. Especially if they are flexible and want to partner rather than own.” RH UK is that to him.

Publishing Wool, Shift, and Dust with RH UK last year was a good experience for him. So good that he was ready to go back, although his Stateside experience is not the same. (The print-only deal for Wool with Simon & Schuster is for the first book of the trilogy only.)

Kristin Nelson
Kristin Nelson

And in writing up Hugh Howey re-signs with Random House UK for The Bookseller, I picked up on some of the open letter with which Kristin Nelson, Howey’s agent, announced the UK deal, I was struck by her taking the chance to make this point:

Every negotiation is an opportunity to create a tiny bit of change in how publishing works in this global landscape. If there is one thing that I want you to know about Hugh and me, his literary agent, it is this: we are committed to advocating on behalf of change for authors in this rapidly evolving industry. For anything within our power. Always. And this commitment to advocacy takes time and many conversations.

Nelson’s is a different message than the one you hear from her literary-agent counterpart Donald Maass, isn’t it? (Mr. Holloway, we’ve got your “diversity” right here.)

Howey’s upcoming appearances this spring include the PubSmart Conference in Charleston (an early-bird rate extension lasts to the 14th);  London Book Fair’s Publishing for Digital Minds Conference (first early bird deadline is Friday, February 7, for best prices); the annual Klopotek Publishers Forum in Berlin; and the newly created BookExpo America (BEA) uPublishU Author Hub on the floor of the trade show in New York City.

And, by they way, the blog post headline under which Nelson’s message appears at Howey’s site, “A Letter from ‘Lil Kris,” is the author’s reference to Kristin Nelson’s affectionate “rap nickname” among her clients, who include Howey’s fellow self-publishing and hybrid  bestsellers Barbara Freethy, Jasinda Wilder, and Courtney Milan, as well as the literary novelists Jamie Ford and Josh Malerman.

One update to our Bookseller report: we now have a date of June 19 for the release of the UK hardcover edition Random Century will produce. Pre-orders on the Amazon UK site are open.

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Philip and the perplexity: “Amazon will roar back”

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

Some publishers have over the past year suggested to me that their physical business through Amazon has stopped growing, with the shift ameliorated by the growth in their digital business through the Luxembourg giant. There have been suggestions that Amazon was deliberately switching its business, driving more customers to digital at the expense of print, rather than losing sales impetus. But with e-book sales also coming off the boil, where does this leave overall growth?

In What do we do if Amazon stops growing? at The FutureBook, The Bookseller’s Philip Jones explores the fact that “We have for so long thought of Amazon as a dominant player in the books market, that we might have forgotten to think about what will happen when the giant retailer stops growing.”

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, author platform, blog, blogging, journalism, TOC, #TOCcon, Author (R)evolution Day, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, DBW, #DBW13, Publishers Launch, Authors Launch, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, The Bookseller, TheFutureBookThis is a carefully poised write that recognizes, as Jones notes, “We can never write off Amazon.” Of course not. And the indications he cites of slowing growth in the UK (like ebooks, not business but growth-of-activity, mind you) are not surprising to those who understand that adoption curves and commercial insurgencies have natural dynamics and predictable changes in pace.

What’s important in Jones’ positioning of the moment on this big, long curve of publishing’s digital disruption is what he smartly identifies as a double-bind for publishers—both a conundrum and a chance:

Porter Anderson,, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookThey [publishers] gripe about Amazon’s dominance but won’t want to see growth rates flatten. But they will also see that this represents a moment for them to take a lead in growing sales: something we can see a hint of perhaps in last week’s deal between Penguin Random House and Sainsbury’s to give away e-books on cereal packets. It also opens up a gap for another competitor to come in and stimulate the market, with my money on Tesco’s spring launch of BlinkBoxBooks, about which publishers seem unfeasibly excited. Amazon will roar back, for sure, but others may find their voice.

And now it’s time for you to find yours. Tell me if you, too, detect shifts in our dialog, in the way we understand where we are and debate where we may go.

Can you hear perspectives coming together in patterns you can detect and start to depend on? But are those patterns the formation of new classes? Could they be, in fact, the firming up of old classes? Are we closer to a more egalitarian stance for authors and other publishing professionals now? Or have we not even started to turn the corner of that curvature?

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Main image – iStockphoto: FilmFoto

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