“We’re dealing with corporations who only care about maximizing profits.”
— Sloane Leong, cartoonist (Knight 2023)
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Food evolved with the inventions of the stove and the pot. Communication evolved with the invention of the printed word. But the printed word can only go as far as what’s allowed to be printed. The publishing industry keeps us cooking over an open fire.
I’ve self-published six books and made audiobooks out of most of them (https://www.mindstrengthbooks.com). Three more are on the way. Writing, designing, printing, and selling are not the problem. Marketing and distribution is.
Marketing makes products noticeable, it determines what you see. Distribution makes them accessible, it defines what you can get. The internet has enlarged both of these, but the spigots are still constricted.
To carry forward the cooking pot analogy, I have a friend who’s designed a better salad bowl (https://lotusbowl.co/). To make something you can buy, she has had to design, engineer, prototype, tool, test, collaborate, produce, package, ship, and warehouse the idea.
She will put the product on Amazon, which is itself a revolution, but how would you know to look for it? The idea will be inaccessible without marketing and distribution.
Access Remains Closed
Computers have revolutionized engineering and production, but they have not revolutionized marketing and distribution. They have had a large effect, but they haven’t changed who controls these bottlenecks.
The marketing and distribution of communications is still controlled by archaic publishers and blind agents. Like the dinosaurs they are, they prey on our ignorance and work to keep us stupid. The reason literature does not change is not for a lack of authors, it’s a lack of publishers.
This is changing, but change is slow and not for the best. It puzzles me why some change is rapid and positive, and other change is absent or corrupt. Where there is pressure to change, there are predators, but that doesn’t explain the lack of progress.
To create a book, you must write it, refine it, design, format, package, and print it. Writing has been a human skill, but now artificially intelligent systems can also write, but they cannot write well. By their nature, A.I. can only achieve what’s average and what’s formularized. This means that they can produce correct grammar and derivative ideas. A.I. may take over journalism, but it won’t threaten insightful or creative writing.
I’ve contacted nonfiction, art, and game publishers. The nonfiction and art publishers produce books, the game publishers produce boxed products. In each sector there are stages of creation and production. There are obvious differences in consumer tastes, but there seems to be little difference in what I’ll call the ignorance of publishers.
Human beings are a spectacularly successful species, but this is not a foregone conclusion and it’s not an accident. We’re successful because we have evolved opportunistically, and that has happened because we’ve changed quickly and effectively.
To change in this manner, a species has to retire old ideas and structures and replace them with new, better ideas and structures. This notably does not require skill, it requires insight and agility.
A Meeting of the School Trustees, 1885 by Robert Harris
Progress, Not So Much
The calligraphers of the middle ages had skill but not insight or agility. As a result, they no longer exist. The dinosaurs were skilled and so were the neanderthals, but they didn’t adapt fast enough. Some dinosaurs turned into birds, but that was an accident. Neanderthals were not sufficiently reproductive or opportunistic, so we killed them.
Corporations are dinosaurs. They neither reproduce nor adapt. Their entire purpose is the immortal preservation of themselves and the status quo. We fault them for their policies, but their real flaw is that they are fundamentally nonadaptive. Homo sapiens greatest weakness, our proclivity to engage in warfare, is not a human flaw, it’s a corporate behavior.
I encountered the game publishing industry when I started designing games. I’ve designed and prototyped 23 board games focusing on novelty, innovation, and education. As I explored publication I learned there were large distributors only interested in what sold in the past, and small publishers pushing marginally innovative ideas, hoping to break into the larger publishers’ distribution market. This competition crushed innovation to the level of derivative products.
Two thousand versions of Monopoly (https://monopoly.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_Monopoly_Games_(Board)) does not reflect the public’s obsessive interest in Monopoly, it reflects a lack of understanding of the potential of games. Publishers are much like the humorless goblin bankers in the Harry Potter movies. We need a meteor to hit their industry.
The book publishing industry is strangely reminiscent of other industries as it has publishers producing derivative products, and agents pitching derivative ideas. The publishers are corporate men who produce books without any literary insight, while agents, young women with Bachelor’s degrees in English Lit., act as talent scouts. Does this sound like elementary school?
This is like pitching French cooking to carnivorous beasts. The publishers don’t want quality and agents have no incentive to look for it. What quality appears is not a product of the industry, it’s an accident of exceptions.
And then there are the predators. In a healthy ecology, predators cull the weak from the herd. In the publishing ecology, predators prey on the innovators. I spoke with one (https://www.brownbooks.com/) who displayed all the ploys of a shady construction contractor: misleading claims, front-loaded fees, and a reputation for poor service.
What You Can Do
What is missing is an optimized wholesale tier to connect booksellers with independent authors. This would free bookstores from corporate publishing. Amazon serves the retail customer, not the wholesale customer, and that’s the way wholesale publishing wants it to stay.
Digital publishing is a direct connection between authors and readers. Going digital doesn’t assure high quality, as it’s easy to produce poor digital material. On the other hand, if you’ve got a good product, then it’s amazingly easy to turn your text into an ebook. I use a product called Jutoh (https://www.jutoh.com/index.html) which costs less than US$50 for a lifetime license. I can’t sing its praises loudly enough.
One of the bottlenecks is brick-and-mortar retail outlets who rely almost entirely on corporate publishers. Don’t limit your searches to corporate publishing outlets. Most bookstores limit their inventory to the catalogs of the large publishers. These are vendors like Barnes & Noble, Indigo, Costco, and Walmart.
Don’t limit yourself to mass media reviews. For new titles, visit Independent Publisher (https://www.independentpublisher.com/reviews.php), and Independent Book Review (https://independentbookreview.com/).
Search the internet for your topics and resources. Buy from digital vendors like Kobo (https://www.kobo.com), Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com), hoopla (https://www.hoopladigital.com), and Angus & Robertson in Australia (https://www.angusrobertson.com.au).
“Whether reimagining publishing, creating a safety net from nothing, or building a community that will serve artists both new and old, there’s hope for the industry. But it doesn’t come from the work-for-hire system, intellectual property rights, or the corporations that uphold them; it comes from the creators themselves.”
— Rosie Knight (2023)
You are the reason change doesn’t happen faster. Only your actions will cause improvements.
Knight, R. (2023 Oct 13). The comics industry has left creators to drown, so some are building lifeboats. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/23914388/comics-broke-me-page-rates-creator-union-cartoonist-cooperative-hero-initiative
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