The best of all possible worlds

Last night I walked a couple of blocks down Fifth Avenue to the brownstone home of the Salmagundi Art Club for a panel discussion of “Publishing in the Digital Age” hosted by the Deadline Club.  It was a miserable evening, weather-wise (as soon as I walked out the door of 1 Union Square West, the heavens opened, cabs splashed water as I waited for the lights to change, and my hair took on the proportions of Diana Ross’ favorite wig), but the panel discussion was lively and informative.

The question on everyone’s mind seemed to be “Should we panic about the state of the book business in the wake of the digital revolution or do we dare be optimistic.”  Our job on the panel was to illuminate the big issues preoccupying publishers and authors while attempting not to freak anyone out.  Overall, my fellow panelists and I were quite optimistic about the opportunities digital publishing affords while still admitting to twinges of regret over the passing of the traditional, wood paneled, musty smelling industry we all came of age in.

The optimism on our end came down to “choice.”  Authors have more choices now than they ever did.  They can self-publish easily and relatively economically if they choose or they can go through the traditional channels and, if that doesn’t pan out, go back to the idea of self-publishing.  Before e-books, if an author was rejected by enough agents and publishers, the idea of printing and distributing his or her own work was a daunting one.  Now, it’s a relatively painless process.

So, how is this good news to us inside the industry?  Well, what empowers authors usually empowers agents and, perhaps to a lesser degree, publishers.  Publishers and agents still provide an invaluable service in terms of curating literary material.  We still bring experience, love of craft, and critical acumen to bear on the process of book making and we’re pretty good at it.  And, authors and readers know this.  While self-publishing is now a thriving business, traditional publishing continues to publish more (digital and print) books every year.   And readers continue to buy these curated products.   Despite the perception of the business as the Titanic wildly trying to skirt the iceberg, publishers are making real efforts to keep up with the changing times so that they can bring their traditional talents to bear on the work authors are producing today.

Not to get all Panglossian about it, but isn’t this the best of all possible worlds?

5 Responses to The best of all possible worlds

  1. Tom Mitchell says:

    Great read, especially as I’m a sucker for Candide.

  2. Emily Carter says:

    I think it is a great opportunity — especially with the millions of times a day people are looking at their digital devices. Egad — sorry B&N — but on your best day, there were never millions of customers in you retail stores.

    So the smart money is on those businesses that learn how to be the one seen at least once a day by all those people consulting their doo-dads ever few minutes.

  3. This is a great complement to an interview posted today of CJ Lyons explaining how she has built her career on the very choice you’re writing about here (on Jane Friedman’s blog:

    It’s illuminating to see how these changes can work from both the author’s and the ‘industry’ perspective.


  4. EDWARD says:

    Yes and No. It is a positive thing that authors have more and easier outlets than ever before, and it is wonderful that there is such a massive volume of books to choose from as never before. After wallowing in the oceans of choice and ever flowing diversity, my tendency is to gurgle out, “bring back the dreaded Gatekeepers!” An efficient way of separating the quality prose from the drech is all but gone. Just about everything can and does get published. I am tired of reading YA fantasies that are a bunch of made-up names on a made-up planet retelling the story of ROMEO AND JULIET and thinking they have written something original and brilliant. There is an absolute abundance of this stuff. And apparently more in the pipeline. There is an argument for keeping the process of getting published somewhat difficult.

    • D. C. DaCosta says:

      Great point, Edward!

      I was paging through “Military Officer” magazine today and found the column where members can advertised their (military-related) books. I was shocked to see that about half had CreateSpace or similar services listed as the publisher. While many military officers have great stories to tell, many of them can’t write worth a bean and I tremble to think what might be passing as a “book”.

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