Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Naked Emperor - Karen Ball

Following on from Nicola's fascinating post yesterday, I thought I'd take a snapshot of publishing as it is right at this moment, for a typical book buyer - me! The above photo reveals three purchases that reflect what my money is being spent on, why, and what this means for our future as authors.

The hardback reference book
I read about 'Merchants of Culture' by John B Thompson online. In a blog or on Twitter, I can't remember now. I ordered it from Amazon UK - and then waited four weeks for it to be delivered. (I think it's a US edition that probably needed to be ordered in.) Wow, this book is fascinating. As soon as I tore open the box, I had to start reading. As my computer's desktop sluggishly opened, during my lunch hour, on the tube home. It's an assessment of the publishing business in the 21st century. Undoubtedly, it became out of date the moment it hit the printing press but it is the first study of its kind in 30 years and oh-so-timely. It's frank, comprehensive, well-researched, with lots of interviews with people who know - and it pulls no punches. Want to know about the rise of the literary agent or why your mid-list books aren't marketed properly or what the digital revolution means for the author in the street? Then buy this book. It's not cheap - I paid £15 - but it's brutally honest. Can your author ego take the straight-talking of 'the jackal' - America's notorious literary agent, Andrew Wylie? Here's his assessment of the writers he first encountered, putting their faith in old-school literary agents who fitted snugly in the pockets of publishers: 'the writers, were uneducated, uninformed, sentimental, self-interested fools, children.' Ouch. I think I may actually have winced at that point. But there's a lot of solid opinion and information alongside the occasional insult (!) and if you want a book that's going to tell you how it is right now and what you need to wake up to, buy this. I can't stop thinking about it.

The first edition
So, the book is dead and long live the app. Right? Well, maybe not. Some of my money recently has gone towards this gift, a first edition copy of a friend's favourite book. (I've blocked out the title to avoid spoiling surprises, in case he/she is reading this blog!) This book wasn't cheap, but it was a no-brainer as the perfect item. If we're all so fed up with books, then why are charity shops and online secondhand book traders flourishing with their sales? I think this item is a wonderful balance to my final purchase...

The app
I'm going to Paris next month, so I've downloaded the Lonely Planet Paris app. It won't be as heavy as carrying a guide book around in my tourist bag, and there'll be lots of extra features that I wouldn't enjoy via the printed page. All for £3.95 and perfect for my needs when I'm pounding the streets of a foreign city. What's to complain about?

What do these purchases tell us? I like to think that they're a fair reflection of how publishing is and will continue to be. Books flourishing alongside exciting new apps, expensive reference books still being purchased, first editions being cherished. There's room for everything. But as authors, we need to look at ourselves afresh in this brave new world. Things are changing. They've changed even since this time last year when I remember some people saying to me, 'What recession?' Now, they're saying, 'Ooh, publishers are being cautious, aren't they? And what's all this about electronic royalties?' We really need to be on our toes. Nicola Morgan has been one of the first British children's authors with a strong online presence to dare cry, 'But the emperor has no clothes!' Our authorial wardrobe has been depleted. Contracts suspended or terminated, perfectly good manuscripts rejected, names removed from party guest lists (I'm not bitter), advances reduced. All this has been stripped away and replaced with... That's the problem. Nobody knows what. Publishers are reticent and cautious and scared. They don't know what's going to happen next and they're waiting for someone else to make the first move into the future. Someone will make it - someone brave. As authors, we don't want to be left behind. My own policy is to stay connected, stay informed, keep watching, keep writing - have an opinion when it matters.

And in the meantime? Going naked can be a bit chilly, I'll admit. But it can also be exhilerating. Skinny dip, anyone? There's a big, inviting pool just waiting for someone to break the surface.

For a fascinating article on Andrew Wylie and the electronic rights debate, click here.

You can visit my website at www.karen-ball.com.


catdownunder said...

Interesting Karen because my father and I went to see "Creation" last night (Charles Darwin) and today I went to the library to see what I could find on Charles Darwin for my father. The reason? He had enjoyed the film immensely but now he wants to "read and reflect" on what he saw there. I think that publishing works a bit the same way. We will find old things we want to keep, new things we want to read, books we merely want to refer to on a temporary basis that can be in e-form and others that we want to retain in other formats because they are easier to use that way.
Diversity is good and access to diversity is essential.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Merchants of Culture ordered very snappily after your post Karen. Can't wait to get it! My local independent says he'll have it for me tomorrow. It's published in the UK but you were probably such an 'early adopter' that it wasn't in the warehouse yet.

Linda Strachan said...

I am sure that the debate about where publishing is going is one that will continue for a while yet.

With all the new technology, the way we access information that was once only available in printed form, either fiction or non fiction, is changing almost daily.

I don't believe 'the book is dead' prophesies but I do think that it will all take a while to shake down.

It might possibly be years before we see the full extent of the changes and I think those years are going to be painful for the publishing industry as it evolves so that it can not only accept, but flourish in the new landscape.

Technology has changed our lives so much, even in the last 5-10 years. I am sure it is the generation born into and growing up with this technology who will, in the future, have the vision to see what possibilities it offers and hopefully challenge it, rather than just react to changes technology imposes on them - as we are doing at the moment.

Leila said...

Yes, I'll definitely be ordering Merchants of Culture, thanks for telling us about it!
I think you actually have put it in a nutshell - different ways of reading will go on parallel to each other.
All this news of rejections and contracts cancelled and so on is scary and true, but I wonder if I'm paying too much attention to it. After all, what can I do about it? I'm not a business person, not a publisher or an agent, or someone with their finger on the pulse of modern life. I'm just a writer, so I'll just go on writing, trying to write the best book I possibly can, the one I'd love to read myself. And hope for the best! :)

Nicola Morgan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicola Morgan said...

Leila - I think there are things we can do, if we want to stay published and survive. Three main things: first, adapt our writing, if we wish, to accommodate the perceived shorter attention span of readers that publishers are trying to accommodate. This is the adapt or die mentality, and there's a place for it. It's not selling out - and I'm not someone who could ever bring herself to write something I couldn't be proud of, even if it's different from what I might have written 5 years ago. Second, get genned up on what's going on so that we can work with our agents to exploit all the rights and power we have. Where publishers have not made ebook versions of our backlist, we should ask for those rights back so we can do it, in co-operation with the publisher - in other words to boost sales of all our books, together, positively. And third, diversify - everything we do as writers can impact positively on our position and "profile" and our attractiveness to publishers. I think we could take control of our lives more than we sometimes feel we can.