Why Nobody Blames Authors (And Why You Should)

Whether it’s geo-restrictions, digital rights management (DRM), ebook pricing or ebook quality, it’s rare to hear a reader blame an author for the state of an ebook (unless it’s self-published, of course). And I can see why. Authors are the public face of what readers love about books. They are the creative geniuses behind all the amazing books you’ve ever read. And it’s not just that. Writing books is really hard, and most authors only do it for the love of it.

It’s for these reasons and many more that the last thing we want to do is hang all the things we hate about ebooks on our favourite authors. Especially not when there are publishers, agents and ebook vendors who perform that role very well indeed thank you very much. None of this, however, changes the fact that a big chunk of the blame for why the publishing industry is as slow-moving, old-fashioned and afraid of change as it is lies at the feet of authors. I’ve written before about the Luddite nature of most book editors. But that’s nothing in comparison to authors. Nobody talks about the smell of books more than traditionally published authors. Nobody is more wedded to the comfortable, cyclical traditional publishing model than authors. Most authors love book launches, writers’ festivals, tours, publicity and going into physical bookstores to sign copies of their books for their fans, despite what JA Konrath might say. A huge chunk of authors either support DRM or don’t know what it is, despite the fact that most authors have more direct contact with their readers than their publishers. Many authors don’t care about ebooks, or are afraid of them, and certainly don’t read ebooks themselves.

And then there are the digital holdouts. Publishers don’t like to talk about them, because at the end of the day, most publishers would prefer to protect their authors and keep selling their books than drag their names through the mud in order to deflect the blame. But there are more than a few authors out there who don’t want to sell their books as ebooks at all, and refuse to make them available out of fear, snobbery or greed. Some of them are very big. JK Rowling is perhaps the most high-profile of these, but there are others. Some of them are even Big and Fancy Australian authors.

The fact of the matter is, the reason many of the annoying things about the publishing industry exist are to protect or promote an author’s copyrighted material. Many of these things are not bad at all for authors. Geo-restrictions, as frustrating and exhausting as they are for global ebook readers, are the result of authors protecting their copyright. Authors have the right to sell their copyright in different countries to different companies. Those companies are sometimes in direct competition with one another. This means authors get better deals, are treated better and are publicised and distributed more widely than they would otherwise be if they were sold globally by one single company.

So next time you start working yourself up into a rage about the greed of publishers, agents, retailers and all the other ‘middle men’, ask yourself what the author you love has to gain from the situation they are in. If self-publishing ebooks were as easy and inevitable as it is often made out to be, why aren’t there more authors who are self-publishing ebooks without DRM at super-low prices? The answer is simple: because they’re getting as much out of it as their publishers.

And if you’re a traditionally published author reading this and thinking, ‘That’s not me! I love my readers! I want my ebooks sold at $0.99 without DRM internationally!’ Then please, comment below. And more importantly, speak to your publisher. Educate yourself about ebooks and digital publishing, and you can take advantage of the changes sweeping the reading world. Because ultimately it’s your book, and you get to decide how it reaches your readers.

Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Part 2

The following is the second part of a talk I gave at the APA’s Don’t Stet: Thinking About Tomorrow panel session on the future of the editor. You can find the first part here.

So, things are changing. But there are a lot of things we as editors can do to prepare ourselves.

We need to move away from the mental definition of a book being a printed object. Books are going to be different. Nobody knows exactly in what way, but the only way we can know what is going to work and what isn’t is to try new things. We need to experiment with publishing things that are probably not going to make much money, in the same way that we buy authors who aren’t going to make money because in three books’ time they might write a bestseller.

We also have to experiment with different kinds of reading. Below is a comment on a blog post I read recently about why someone would never want to start reading electronic books.

There is something about folding a paperback to snuggle down into the covers of a night. There’s something about being able to underline and use a highlighter for parts that stand out to you when reading and being able to put a date next to those. About being able to write notes with thoughts that have occurred when reading passages …

ALL this will no longer be possible if we lose the traditional book.

Books are my friends. Have been ever since I was young. They are an escape from life for a few hours to a distant land. A chance to grieve and mourn with others of a time long past when we read history …

Books in their printed hard or soft cover form also have something over the Kindle and other electronic forms of ‘books’. They will never run out of battery right in the middle of a really captivating part of the story, they can be read by anyone who can read the written language, so you don’t have to be up on the latest electronic gadgets. There is also the cost of a book compared to these newer readers.

Libraries also are WONDERFUL places to visit. The smells of the old books and the newer books as well.

I SO HOPE the paperbacks and hard covered books NEVER get taken away.

When I read this, I thought – what an idiot. And it’s not just because you can use a Kindle to write notes and highlight passages, or even that nobody is going to try and take printed books away  from anyone. It’s not even that line about books being the commenter’s friends. It’s because this kind of thinking is really common in the publishing industry, especially among editors.

And it is hubris to think that there is a right way and a wrong way to read books. Especially if you’re in the publishing industry. We are not passive consumers of books. Our choices help to define what a book is.

I know a whole lot of editors have ereaders already. But if you’re like the editors I know, you only use them so you don’t have to carry manuscripts around. When you want to relax with a book, you still curl up with the paper version.

Now there’s nothing wrong with having a preference for paper. There’s nothing wrong with this nostalgic, rosy-tinted view of books and reading. There’s also nothing wrong with thinking that books are your friends, either. But if you’re in the publishing industry, especially if you’re an editor, and you think of books in this protective ‘from my cold dead hands’ kind of way, then in less than five years time you’ll be ignoring the experience of a third of readers. And editors are supposed to be the reader’s advocate.

If we want to remain relevant, we need to innovate faster than our readers. We need to understand what readers want before they want it. Part of that is working out what kind of stories and content people want to read, and that’s something editors and publishers are already pretty good at. But another part of it is understanding how people want to read, and that’s not something we’ve had to think about for a long time. And if we start letting Amazon and Apple work that out for us, then we are going to end up working for Amazon and Apple. So we need to seek out new reading experiences, and try to understand them before they overtake us.

In our roles as author wranglers, we’re going to have to become, for some of our authors at least, the technology interpeter. If you’re not already familiar with the way Facebook and Twitter work, then it’s worth playing around with them. You can’t break the internet. Most authors in the next few years are going to have to develop a deep social networking presence, and if we want to remain relevant to them we have to know the answers before they start asking the questions.

Most of all, we need to learn to look past the limitations of technology and embrace the benefits. We no longer have the luxury of being precious about technology. It’s not worth focusing on the fact that you can’t read an ebook in the bath, or that you prefer the smell of paper books. The readers of the next ten years aren’t going to care about that. And if we want to publish books for those readers we need to know what they do care about.

And so to finish in the spirit of the structural edit, I just want to remind you that this is just my opinion – this is your industry. I eagerly anticipate your revisions.