Friday, December 22, 2006

Learning the Wrong Lessons

One of the things that distinguishes successful people from unsuccessful people is the ability (and willingness) to learn. Not just from mistakes (although that is important), but also from the success of others.

An excellent example of this is PublishAmerica. Despite the opinions of industry professionals, writers, reviewers, agents and just about anyone with a working knowledge of how publishing works, PublishAmerica remains the 800 pound self-publishing gorilla that will not be going away any time soon.

The reason that PublishAmerica is so successful (profitable - not popular, and certainly not good) is that they have taken a good, hard look at the current publishing business model and figured out where the money is: the okaysellers. The okaysellers are the vast majority of books published by the industry, the books that make a profit in aggregate. And, because first-time okaysellers may or may not earn out their advances, the authors themselves become a more or less disposable commodity.

PublishAmerica has clearly paid attention to this aspect of the industry and realized that if the market in marginal books is able to sustain thousands of publishers, then it might as well be tapped to maintain yet another. The twist that PublishAmerica has applied to this marketing model is exactly the same thing that produces their bad reputation: they will publish anyone.

From a business perspective, this is brilliant. PublishAmerica’s website indicates that they publish on the order of thirty thousand new authors a year. If each of those authors only sells 100 copies, that’s still almost three hundred thousand books. Even better, they have no marketing budget, no minimum print run, no co-op to pay out, no returns to worry about, minimal advances and low expectations, so publishing everything is not a gamble (yet another lesson learned from established publishers – gambling is not a reliable method of earning money).

Even better – PublishAmerica has tapped a previously untapped market: the disenfranchised writers of the world. Not only are they providing a service that these writers want, but they are doing it in a way that forces those writers to do the marketing themselves. These writers will probably only market to their friends and families (which is where those hundred copies tend to go), but if those friends are anything like mine, they are not unusually avid readers. In effect, PublishAmerica is getting people who usually don’t buy books to buy books. Mainstream publishers cannot figure out how to make this happen – not even governmental literacy campaigns can make this happen. It turns out that all you have to do is let people publish anything and their immediate networks will buy into the market.

Granted, most of those market buy-ins are extremely limited. Even worse, PublishAmerica doesn’t really emphasize the fact that their authors should educate themselves about what they can expect. Instead, they subtly play up the idea that someone is holding the authors back and if they just had access to bookstores or better marketing… Well, we all know the arguments by now. Suffice it to say that PublishAmerica’s business ethics are really what leaves that lingering bad taste in everyone’s mouths.

While there is a collective dismay towards these practices, almost no one has really cottoned to the fact that the PublishAmerica embraced the central mantra of publishing professionals everywhere - “It’s a business!” - and tailored their process accordingly. After all, sales are the only metric that matters; if quality was important, there would be a way to accurately measure it and, more importantly, reliably make money on it.

From the perspective of the Science Fiction Writers Association (among others), the fact that PublishAmerica will publish anyone is a terrible thing, especially because PublishAmerica still claims that it won't. From the lofty heights of the published authors who managed to strike it lucky in the slush pile lottery, having no quality control filter is the worst possible thing that could happen to a publishing house. For a start, it means that there are no minimum standards with regards to spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization or storytelling ability. More than that, it takes great steps towards easing the high school popularity contest pressure cooker that the publishing community has created (intentionally or not) over the past few decades.

In response, the SFWA took a look at PublishAmerica’s standards and equated “PublishAmerica authors" to “unpublished slush pile authors” in their mental hierarchy. They even went so far as to put together a book called Atlanta Nights, specifically to point out how low PublishAmerica’s standards actually are. The intention was to attack PublishAmerica’s credibility, but this coalition of authors have spent so much time in the echo chamber of traditional publishing that it didn’t really occur to them that credibility attacks don’t really work on bottom feeders. For people who make their money providing a gateway to the cat piss men of the world, Atlanta Nights is less of a gotcha and more of an endorsement.

Lesson learned? Probably not.

PublishAmerica still acts like it doesn't cater to people who don't understand the difference between "everyone should be able to publish" and "everyone should publish." The SFWA is still high-fiving itself over the way it put one over on PublishAmerica and the overall situation has not changed.

There is an easy explanation for this state of affairs. As long as access to publishing resources is a matter of winning an attention lottery, there will always be good writers with bad timing. These writers will always want to publish and probably should publish. There are enough of these kinds of writers out there working to get noticed that sooner or later there will be a breakthrough; there are already breakthroughs happening all the time. Small, but significant.

PublishAmerica doesn't understand that it's offering a stepladder over the slushpile. It is very likely that PublishAmerica doesn't care. The publishing industry didn't learn the valuable lesson that was offered, either: as long as there are alternatives, writers will take them. Even good writers. Frustration is not necessarily tied to talent.

As long is there is an ongoing and healthy debate about the subject at a rational and mature level, self-publishing will get stronger. The best ideas survive the harshest criticisms because they allow themselves to be shaped into something stronger, more resilient.

The lesson learned from this situation is that credibility is an easy way to attack anyway. Bruce Sterling calls them centipedes. But if credibility can be established, then where does that leave self-publishing? In need of credibility.

As professional gamblers, industry insiders should be very nervous. The odds are very good that some major breakthrough will occur in self publishing. The numbers of people talking about it are simply too high for that not to occur. And it only takes one solid breakthrough to change everything.

I have no idea what form the breakthrough will take, but it is very likely to happen. It is only a matter of time, really. When the current floodwaters of self-publication ebb, there will be a variety of new oxbows in the publishing stream. These will not be regulated and any illusion of central control that currently exists will be seriously eroded. This is the true lesson that PublishAmerica has to teach us all. We just have to be very careful about where we step as we navigate our individual paths- there is still a lot of potential to get washed away.