As you already know, the publishing industry has undergone some drastic changes in recent years. Some of the ‘big players’ are still there, but it’s a new landscape. There are large traditional publishers, smaller traditional publishers, and independent publishers. There’s also self-publishing. And all of these options have been radically changed by the Internet and other technology.
What does all of this mean for the reader? It means the number of reading choices has risen dramatically, and books are available in more formats than ever. And with blogging and other online reviews, it’s extremely easy to find out about new books coming out and communicate with other readers. In one sense it’s frustrating; it means there’s no way, really, to read all of the great books out there. The more fine books we hear about, the more we want to read and that can be disheartening. On the other hand, it means that readers have easy access to a global database of books. What’s more, readers can share ideas with other readers – even if they live in different parts of the world – in milliseconds. The end result is that it’s arguably harder, even if one wanted to, to limit or prevent access to a book. Even if a book isn’t published in one’s own country, it’s usually possible to get it from elsewhere, either through some online store or from a friend or family member.
One of the other challenges for the reader in this technology age is that the sheer number of available books means that there’ll be plenty that are disappointing. They may not be to the reader’s taste, or they may be, bluntly, badly written. That can be doubly annoying for the reader who doesn’t have a lot of time to dive into a book. It takes perhaps more caution these days to choose exactly the books one would like to read, simply because there are so many choices. But the benefit to this is that there are so many choices. Today’s readers aren’t limited by anything, really, but taste, budget and time.
What about writers? The new publishing landscape has led to a lot of changes in the way writers go about what they do. On the one hand, writers have a lot of options. They can try to get a traditional publishing contract. Or they can try to work with a smaller or independent publisher. Or they can choose to pay a publisher to have their work made available. Writers can of course self-publish, too. And when it comes to self-publishing, a writer can have a story published within a day or so of uploading it. All of these options means that writers have many potential outlets for their work, and a potential global audience. Of course any writer can tell you that it doesn’t really work that easily. There are a lot of hurdles and complexities that face writers. But the potential is arguably there as it never was.
But that doesn’t mean the new publishing world is, as the saying goes, all roses. Writers have to be very savvy about the publishers and technical support companies they approach. For one thing, there are a lot of unethical companies out there that are all too willing to separate eager writers from their money. For another, writers have a lot of competition. Publishers choose the work they think will be a good fit for them and that will be to their business advantage. So there’s no guarantee that any given publisher will accept any given writer’s work.
And then there’s the matter of marketing and promotion. No matter how a writer’s work is published, there’s a lot of competition for readers’ attention. So writers have to savvy about how to promote their work in ways that won’t put readers off. They have to be familiar with all sorts of social media and other modern ways of reaching readers. And they have to think of themselves as business people in ways that weren’t the case just a few decades ago.
But speaking as both a reader and a writer, I think this is a very good time for books, despite the continuing economic difficulties in a lot of places. Here’s my view on why; please feel free to disagree with me if you do.
As a reader, I can get virtually any book I want, with little restriction. Because of today’s technology and today’s publishing world, there are a number of online places where all kinds of books are available. There are even publishers that are bringing back long-lost series and books. Technology means I can learn about an exciting book written by someone no-one’s ever heard of, buy the book, savour it, and tell everyone about it. Or, I can be thoroughly disappointed in that book and spread the word about that too. Even in cases where a book’s not available in my country, I’ve got contacts all over the world, and if they’re willing, I can arrange to get that book. I’m not saying there are no difficulties, but a whole world of reading is open to me, with very little limitation.
As a writer, I can share my ideas and not worry about the price I’ll pay for that. I can write my stories, share them potentially with the world, and there aren’t consequences if my ideas are not the same as others’. My stories may not be to everyone’s taste, but I can share them. With a global audience, too. And I can learn from what other writers do, even writers with whom I disagree about some things. Yes, I’ll admit; it’s a bit frustrating at times to get the word out about my writing. I don’t have a ‘household’ kind of a name, and I don’t have a large publisher doing my marketing. But at the same time, the only limit to what I can share is my own store of ideas, my willingness to work hard and whatever talent I may or may not have. And that is a very good thing, I think.
This is not at all to say that the books and other stories can’t be challenged or even banned. Even with the Internet, there’ve certainly been attempts, some more successful than others, at limiting the spread of ideas, stories and so on. I invite you, for instance, to read Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China for an interesting look at the Chinese government’s monitoring of the Internet. And that’s not the only government that does that sort of thing.
That said though, the modern publishing landscape has in many ways made it more possible than ever for people all over the world to share their ideas and their books. For readers, it’s frustrating, sometimes disheartening, and can be bewildering to sift through all of the book options. And that’s to say nothing of the never-ending TBR list. For writers, it’s also frustrating at times, and has meant a whole new definition of what it is to be a writer. But even so, the new world of publishing makes for a freer and easier exchange of ideas. I, for one, am willing to put up with the annoyances and upsets just for that reason alone.
What’s your view on this issue? Do you think today’s publishing world has had an impact on what’s available vs what’s not available? If you’re a writer, how do you see yourself fitting in?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad.