Are self-publishing and ebooks destroying our bookstore heritage?

BarnesNobleThere has been considerable press for years about what effect self-publishing and ebooks are having on our literary culture, be it bookstores and libraries or even literary masterpieces themselves. I’m sure you’ve all heard the rhetoric that allowing “normal” folk to publish whatever they want with no agent or publisher to act as a gatekeeper for quality, will result in a deluge of crap flooding the markets. On the face if it, it’s a valid concern; no one wants to wade through junk to find a gem of entertainment, any form of entertainment.

Ebooks and self-publishing hit mainstream consciousness about 5 years ago, give or take. Ask yourself: Do you find yourself buying dross time and again and being unable to find anything decent to read? I would hazard to guess that this is NOT your situation, or indeed anyone’s. Survey after survey have shown that the single most important factor influencing whether you buy a book is word of mouth. Did your family and friends enthuse about it? Have you read dozens or hundreds of reviews recommending it? There are far too many books in the world for you to just pick one up on spec, with no reader feedback, and decide to try it. How often do you do that?


This, of course, makes it much harder for we, the new authors, to make our mark. We represent that last scenario: an author you’ve never heard of with little to recommend us. But even as an author struggling to reach a wider audience, I argue that this is ok. Really. Respect is earned. With every book I write, first a couple of hundred, then thousands of readers will try me out, like what they read and review my books favorably, and – hopefully – tell all their friends. It’s an apprenticeship system. Sure, some debut authors break out big, but for every one of them, there are likely 10,000 of us slowly building our reputation. It forms a self-filtering system to keep out all the crap that doomsayers are so concerned about. If I write crap then who will buy my next book? Who will recommend it? It’s literary Darwinism.

Over the last year or two, Scott Turow has dished out considerable damnation of self-publishing and ebooks, claiming they are destroying our literary heritage. Turow, for those unfamiliar, is the President of the Author’s Guild. I won’t even try to debunk his fanciful naysaying here, suffice to say that numerous writers more eloquent than myself have done so: Barry Eisler, David Gaughran, Joe Konrath, Forbes magazine. It does seem as if, far from representing all authors, large and small, as you’d expect the head of the Author’s Guild to do, he is simply trying to preserve the old way of life for the elite bestsellers paid substantial sums by publishing companies.

No, I’m not going to trash publishers, agents, nor traditionally published authors. I just happen to believe, like a growing number of authors, that self-publishing and ebooks simply ADD to our literary heritage. Having already debunked the “more-is-crap” myth above, then having more books, more authors, more ideas in more formats can only be a good thing for everyone. A very good thing. This is what freedoms are all about: seek an agent and a contract with a large publisher, or do it yourself. Is one better than the other? No. Is one easier than the other? No.

A couple of weeks ago, James Patterson, yes THE James Patterson, took out a full page ad on the rear of the NYT Review, in which he stated ,in no uncertain terms, that self-publishing and ebooks are destroying bookstores, libraries and the very concept of classic literature! Wow. The sky is falling! He went on to suggest that the government bail out the publishing industry like it did the auto industry. **Speechless**. Patterson is a damn fine author, but I just lost respect for him. Here’s his defense of that ad in Salon.

Didn’t we hear similar arguments when music moved to MP3′s and iTunes? Wasn’t that supposed to destroy our rich culture of music and fill it with crap, destroying the industry? And, yeah, it did. No wait, no it didn’t. Music today is vibrant with an eclectic mix of major bands, solo artists, garage bands and Indies, and the consumer is sucking up content and reveling in the choice. Sure, we no longer see gargantuan music stores like Tower and Virgin but does that really matter?  OK, one can probably prove that ebooks are leading to the closure of big-chain bookstores, and we can argue that bookstores are different than music stores, because there is that culture of wandering around, touching books, drinking coffee and reading in easy chairs. But there is absolutely no reason we can’t enjoy that today if companies would simply embrace change and adapt. What’s wrong with wandering into Barnes & Noble with your ereader, sinking into a chair, downloading samples of books to try, while sipping your latte? As for boutique, used bookstores, they will likely remain for decades to come, in the same way that vinyl music stores do. Some bands are even releasing new material on vinyl for the discerning audiophile. I’m sure there will always be a demand for gorgeously produced books, maybe first or special editions and omnibuses. Those little mom and pop bookstores are likely to survive longer than the big chains, and that’s a good thing. In my experience, the little stores are run by bibliophiles for the love of books, whereas chains are run for pure profit.

Amazon always seems to be the scapegoat for claims that ebooks are destroying paper books and bookstores. Ask yourself just why this “demon of literary destruction” called Amazon became so popular? Could it be that their prices were more reasonable, their selection greater, and the fact that most people probably don’t want to traipse down to their bookstore – they want to download their book right now, while they are reading in bed or in the garden? If people didn’t want Amazon’s services, it wouldn’t be the giant it is today, as simple as that. It is part of the human condition to lament “the good old days”, but that doesn’t always gel with our actual actions. Amazon moves with the times too – it embraced ebooks and then self-publishing, and, again, these things have become so rabidly popular among authors and readers because that is what people want.

I’d love to hear what you think? Are self-publishing and ebooks destroying our literary heritage? Is it all going to end in tears and a sea of dross, or a new era of choice and fresh talent?


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