I gave a talk at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory last week, and one of the questions that came up during the Q&A was whether I’m a pessimist or an optimist. The second part of the question was if I thought the world I depict in WOOL has any chance of coming to fruition.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard a variant of this question. Often it’s as blunt as: “Why do you write such depressing stories? You seem like such a happy guy!”
I believe there’s a fine balance between begging for a better future and also being thankful for the progress of the past. If you ask me, the world is getting measurably better for the vast majority of people year after year. I think Steven Pinker’s work on this topic covers it best, especially his excellent Better Angels of our Nature. What’s important, in my view, is to pause in our protestations now and then and give homage to the progress others have made, to recognize the change happening around us before we dust ourselves off and demand one more concession.
This is true of social, ethical, and political progress. But it applies to less important things as well, like book publishing.
Those of us who self-publish are nimble. We can pivot on a dime and publish at the drop of one. If we have an idea, we can implement it the same day, see how it works, share our results, and at the same time learn from others. Not even Amazon moves fast enough for us. We often complain about how long it takes the ‘Zon to implement ideas. To the five major New York publishers, of course, Amazon’s advances must seem like the blitzkrieg.
If the five major New York publishers are like oil tankers, then Amazon is a destroyer, and we are erratic (and possibly annoying) jetskis. We are impatient for progress much as revolutionaries (and visionaries) in other fields often are. But I think it’s important to remember that there are visionaries on the decks of those other ships as well. A lot of smart people see where we need to go. Some of them have even turned over the wheel. It just takes longer for these behemoths to bend their wake.
Before I list a handful of the signs of progress I’ve seen the past year or so, I want to head off the cries of “but they have this and this to do.” Of course they have a lot to catch up on. That will almost certainly always be the case. We race rings around these lumbering craft, but let’s be aware of progress made. Let’s even cheer them on now and then. Stuff I’ve seen in the past year:
- After years of wondering why publishers don’t sell direct in order to gather customer data and avoid issues with retail partners, Harper Collins launched their own retail site.
- Something I hesitated to suggest as a distant possibility came to fruition much earlier than expected (last year in fact) when Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint began celebrating and hyping a number of its authors as “Indies.” Rather than be cynical about this, I see it as a positive sign that the stigma of self-publishing has plummeted at major publishing houses. More than plummet, the notion of self-publishers as something to aspire to has become a reality.
- Publishers are starting to experiment with reasonable ebook prices. Many of the top-selling traditionally published ebooks this year were in the $4.99 range, including John Green’s excellent The Fault in our Stars. (Now back up to $7+, but it was at $4.99 for most of this year.)
- Backlist titles are also becoming more affordable. I’m buying traditionally published ebooks more often, as the number that I see priced above $8.99 are becoming fewer and fewer.
- At least three publishers are rumored to be working on moving their operations out of the most expensive real estate in one of the priciest cities in the world.
- A few publishers are experimenting with subscription services on a limited basis.
- Random House launched a portal for its authors that in some ways is superior to anything offered by digital retailers. The portal shows sales, foreign rights acquisitions, royalty statements, and includes marketing tip videos.
- Random House (and I believe others) have worked on creating communities among their authors, including forums where authors can meet and share advice. Tapping into authors as a resource is a very positive sign from the world’s largest publisher.
- Release schedules are picking up, with books and sequels coming out in the same calendar year. The hesitation to publish two books by the same author in a 12-month span has rapidly deteriorated.
- Publishers (following Baen’s 2008 experiments) have worked on ways of crowdsourcing the slush pile and opening themselves to general un-agented submissions.
- More digital-first imprints are giving a wider range of authors a chance to work with a publisher, build a readership, and hone their craft.
- On the contract side, my agent has seen progress on a number of fronts, including the openness to strike non-compete clauses, better thresholds for reversion, a little movement on the deep discount royalty rate, and other positive signs that show self-publishing is having an impact as a competitive route to publication.
- Not quite publisher-directed, but there were indie winners at both the Rita’s and the Hugo’s this year. And several conventions saw modest progress in becoming more inclusive to self-published authors.
- Nook Press and The Bookseller are now working together to highlight 10 new self-published works every month that they believe in.
There are certainly areas of improvement that I’m leaving out. Make a note in the comments, and I’ll add them to the list. And again, this is a break from pointing out all the places where further progress can be made (even refinements to the items listed above). No doubt there are plenty. But the tankers are turning. We’re just zipping around too fast to notice most of the time.