I have officially been in the book business since the late 70s, when I started work in the finance department at B. Daltons; I’ve been selling my writing since 1980, when Ace books bought my first novel, Shadow Magic. So that’s a bit more than thirty-three years, or slightly more than half my life.
And one of the things that has bugged me about the book business, right from the start, is the way business decisions and business discussions are driven by emotions and rumor, often to the exclusion of facts, logic, and common sense. And I don’t mean just among people who desperately want to become writers, either; I’m talking about everybody, up and down the chain, from writers to editors to booksellers to readers.
I can understand some of it. The book business is populated largely by people who love books, and that can’t help but skew the way decisions get made. And let’s face it, everyone makes emotional decisions now and again. But somehow the book business seems to have more than its fair share. And it hurts everybody.
What got me off on this was a discussion I saw a few months back on a writer’s forum, bemoaning the horrible effect that the Borders bankruptcy has had on book sales and worrying over whether Barnes & Noble will be going the same way soon, and how horrible that will be for book lovers everywhere if it happens. And I had one of those do-I-laugh-or-cry moments, because for at least the first ten years of my book business career, from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, all I heard from “book people” – especially authors – was how evil the chain bookstores were, how they’d been driving traditional independent bookstores out of business, how much better independent bookstores were, and how great it would be if the big chains like Barnes & Noble would disappear.
I heard the same things for the next ten years or so, only by then it wasn’t the mere existence of chain bookstores folks were bemoaning, it was the “superstore” bookstores they were opening to drive their competition out of business. And now, of course, all those writers are exercised about the very thing that they spent all those years supposedly hoping for – to wit, the potential demise of the bricks-and-mortar chain bookstores.
The context is, of course, different. What is driving the chain bookstores to the brink are ebooks and Amazon and iPads and Kindles and the availability of huge quantities of out-of-copyright fiction for free online. But when it comes right down to it, I don’t think that’s the ultimate problem here.
The real problem, as I see it, is that people don’t like change. They don’t like not knowing how the system works, and they really don’t like not being able to find anyone they trust who is willing to explain the new system to them (even if the explanation is wrong).
I was at a panel a few years ago in which five relatively new writers (i.e., folks with one to five novel sales under their belts) were supposed to talk about the brave new e-publishing and e-marketing world. Instead, the panel turned into fifty minutes of those writers complaining, sometimes bitterly, about how they were floundering around because none of the older, more established writers in the community would explain to them how all this electronic publishing stuff worked and what deals would be good ones and how to use social media to best advantage.
The irony was that the audience was full of older, more established writers who were all hoping that these bright young stars who’d grown up with computers and the Internet and e-everything would explain all this stuff to us.
Change is inevitable, and so, I suppose, is complaining about it. Not everyone is going to like the New Thing that’s replacing their beloved Old Thing, whether that Old Thing is paper and pen being replaced by a typewriter, a typewriter being replaced by a computer, one’s local indie bookstore being replaced by a cookie-cutter chain store, or one’s local chain store going the way of the dodo because they can’t compete with the online retailer.
Still, one doesn’t have to like something in order to cope with it. One does, however, have to admit that it has to be coped with. Continuing to do business-as-usual while complaining bitterly that nothing is like it used to be is not coping. Neither is waiting for someone else to come along and explain it.
The first step in coping is realizing that one needs to do so. The second step is to collect enough information to decide on the third step, which is either to find or hire someone to handle it for you, or else to educate yourself further so that you can handle it yourself. (“It” in this case being everything from online marketing and publicity-via-social-media to ebook contracts [whether with an e-publisher or for direct placement/self-publishing]).
It is perfectly possible to be a happy Luddite about all the online stuff (I know several), but unless you have someone knowledgeable who will keep an eye on it for you, odds are this will come back to bite you in the end. Unless you are lucky and there is another total sea-change in the publishing business before the alligators come after you on this one.