Writing in the Digital Age: Interdependent ‘R Us

In the U.S., we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July (sorry Brits, but we do think we were better off without your taxes…we have enough trouble with our own). We cheer on our kids when they become independent — i.e. move out and stop making our electricity and grocery bills go through the roof. We pop champagne or sparkling grape juice corks to celebrate paying off a mortgage or car loan.

For the most part, though, true independence doesn’t exist. I used to catch an episode of Living With Ed every now and again, where Ed Begley, Jr. tries to live very green and off the grid. It’s a lot of work, but I admire him for it (and for making an amusing reality show around the idea, too). But he is dependent on many folks for his off-the-grid living. I can relate, as I’m dependent on many for my indie author career, as well.

Publishing has always been an interdependent business, and the digital age has increased the interdependence factor, which is something I’ve come to understand on an even deeper level since indie publishing my backlist over the last year and a half. Some might call this a granular level of understand, but I don’t like that word for some reason, so I don’t use it. But lots of people do. If you’re one of the, go for the granular.

For example, publishers have always depended upon authors to provide them material and authors have always relied upon publishers to package their writing in an attractive book form. Then publishers relied upon distributors to get that attractive book into shops to sell. To do these three steps (write, produce, distribute) required many things to go favorably:

  • Paper price and quality needed to be reasonable (I know many an old-time writer who wrote drafts on the back of drafts, to save paper; not to mention reinked typewriter ribbons; there’s a reason that a hundred year old letter was covered in writing from edge to edge — our 1 inch margins would look profligate to Jane Austen).
  • Postal service needed to be reliable (I love those stories about old love letters that get delivered 40 years after the fact…but old manuscripts? not so much).
  • Editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, typesetters, cover artists, graphic designers, all needed to be trained to a consistent “house” style, not to mention schedule and meet deadlines efficiently.
  • Publishers needed to get product to distributors when they said they would (not to mention catalogue it properly so distributors could sell it into shops with limited shelf space).
  • Distributors needed to get it to the shops when they said they would, in good condition (which meant transportation needs to be fast and reliable).
  • Shops needed staff to unpack and properly display the books (ever been in a jumbled used bookstore? hardcore readers love it — the general public? not so much).
  • Sales reporting — from shop to distributor to publisher to author — needed to be accurate (I don’t know a single author who actually trusts that his/her publisher’s royalty statement is 100% accurate, simply because of the “telephone game” effect of the reporting that depends up complete accuracy beginning with that minimum wage shop salesperson).

When things used to go wrong in this (somewhat invisible) interdependent cycle (trainload of books falls off a cliff, unproofread copy gets picked up as final copy and printed into 100,000 books), authors could complain about publisher incompetence (and publishers just accounted the sales loss to the author). In fact, complaining without actually trying to solve a problem is a big problem in any interdependent business.

Guess what hasn’t changed in the digital age? Practically nothing. With the ease of producing manuscripts brought about by computers and word processing programs one big change did occur: the publisher slush pile gave way to the agent slush pile and agents became ultimate gatekeepers to publishers. Yet another interdependency.

And we all still complain about glitches. Ebook price matched to a used book? Complain to your blog readers. Takes five tries to get your book approved by Smashwords? Complain to your fellow author list. Or Twitter. If there is anything most human beings excel at, it is complaining. Too bad it isn’t an Olympic event. I’d take a run for it myself, if it were.

Guess what has changed?

Traditional Publishing:

  1. Reliance on paper, toner, ink and postal service for the writer. Instead, a writer needs reliable internet access, an ability to handle Track Changes in Word, and a social media platform (some argue this is not necessary, but I’m hearing a lot of agents require this information in a query letter).
  2. Shrinking shelf space for paper books (this breaks my heart, as it does for most book lovers who considered bookstores our idea of heaven on earth).
  3. Even more emphasis on finding breakout debut bestsellers.
  4. Shrinking promotional budgets for any book that doesn’t have the “bestseller” status.

Indie Publishing:

  1. No longer is a self publisher required to pay someone to “publish” their book (minus editing and distribution, plus high per unit cost of book). There was a reason this was called Vanity Publishing. Shelling out $5,000 to have a garage full of your own books to slog took a very strong streak of egotistical salesmanship.
  2. Service providers are popping up all over to serve indie authors from everything to developmental edits to cover design to formatting for various ebook platforms to marketing. New interdependencies.
  3. When an indie author complains, she knows who to complain to, and what she’d like them to do to fix the problem. (Or maybe I’m just speaking for myself on that one.)

When I published my first dozen books with publishers, I was vaguely aware of these interdependencies. There were a few covers that I fell in love at first sight with. And some I had to come to love over time (after careful complaining only to those I was sure wouldn’t tattle on me). There were copyedits that impressed me and those that made me shake my head in distress and pull out my STET (complaints to the editor, restrained; to my fellow authors, unrestrained). But I lumped them all under the label “publisher,” just as I did when I saw reviews pop up here and there, or when my books were selected to be in the Scholastic newsletter. Or, more depressingly, when I would get plaintive emails from would-be-readers who couldn’t find my books in their local bookstore. It did not feel like I had any power to change what I didn’t like, or even thank anyone but my editor (Amy, Hilary, Michelle, Beth, Anica — THANKS AGAIN).

As an indie author, I’m in charge of all these relationships. I find my cover artist — convey to her the cover images I want, work with her to get them where I want them. I deal with editorial, formatting, uploading, descriptions, metadata, marketing. It is exhausting, but edifying. And requires a lot more personal thanking.

I could never go back to a traditional publishing deal without knowing much more intimately (granularly, for those who love that word) what steps must go right to get my book out there and give it a great shot at finding its readers. This knowledge makes me even more grateful for the myriad minimum-wage clerks who gave my books face-out status on their bookshelves. I’ll never know their names, but I thank them anyway.

Nowadays, those minimum-wage clerks have mostly given way to better paid programmers who create the ebook discoverability on sites like Amazon, B&N and Smashwords. I thank them, too. Even when they do things like tighten up the price-matching bots so that some ebooks start price-matching used books (or ten year old “new” books…what?!?). Because I know interdependence goes both ways. A temporary glitch in the bot price-matching algorithm is going to get fixed, just like the temporary downed power line gets fixed (is there any more interdependent structure than our power grids around the world?).

Maybe there should be an official “Hug Your Programmer” day? Hmmm. My son is a programmer. He does not like to be hugged. He does like Mountain Dew. And Twizzlers. President Obama? Congress? — your call.

Kelly McClymer is an opinionated new member of Book View Cafe, and a cheerleader of writers reaching readers however they can. You can visit her on her desperately-in-need-of-update website; Follow her on Twitter, hang with her onGoogle+, Like her on FaceBook, and share Pinterests with her. Oh, and she’s on Goodreads, too (once a reader, always a reader).

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Writing in the Digital Age: Interdependent ‘R Us — 2 Comments

  1. Due to paper shortages during WW2 the publishers split THE LORD OF THE RINGS into the three volumes we know today, entirely contrary to Tolkien’s intent. Also they ground out one volume at a time, which must have been excruciating for readers. Hobbled by lack of paper, when Tolkien revised and rewrote, he would just write new words over the old (handwritten) ones. As a result it has taken decades and decades for Christopher Tolkien to get the various volumes of his father’s ms out. I gather that each page has to be examined on a light table under magnification; Christopher T must be going blind.

  2. Brenda, I didn’t know that. But it is hard to imagine it bound with all three volumes together. That would have been a handful.

    What a great son Christopher is (not one of my children would be so inclined 🙂