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Nietzsche and the downfall of big publishing

In the dark alleyways of publishing, an author uprising is brewing against Big Publishing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about revolution lately thanks to the events unfolding in North Africa.

My wife, Lesleyann, has friends in Egypt, and they’ve kept us up to date via email. Their dispatches alternate between fear, uncertainty, optimism and celebration.

Revolutions are an awkward and messy business. They represent the end of one paradigm and the beginning of the next. While the root causes can trace back decades, when the uprising arrives it can occur with alarming rapidity.

The events in North Africa have recalibrated the meaning of “revolution” for me. I’m thinking now about revolution in the context of a popular uprising.

At the heart of any revolution is a loss of faith in the prevailing regime. In Egypt’s case, a number of catalysts precipitated the revolution; chief among them an oppressive political environment that offered little opportunity for democratic participation, freedom of speech and economic opportunity.

Frederick Nietzsche wrote, “God is dead.” I recall my philosophy professor at U.C. Berkeley 25 years ago explaining the quote with great passion. He said the beauty of the quote went beyond its immediate religious connotation – it was a metaphor for the power of faith. When you believe in something, your faith powers that in which you believe.

If we lose faith in an institution, a regime or a belief system, the very survival of that institution is imperiled.

Every institution is powered by faith. If your house catches on fire, you have faith the local fire department will respond. If you purchase a tomato from your local farmer’s market, you have faith the item you purchased will indeed taste like a tomato.

Often, faith is based on some future expected result. You can’t touch, smell or see it in the present. If we are rewarded for our faith, such as trusting that fire truck to come when we expect it, then our faith in that institution is reinforced.

Faith is the single most important force-of-nature driving all human experience.

Faith, religion, revolution, and publishing. Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this. The embedded PowerPoint below represents my attempt to pull it all together and make sense of where the publishing world is headed.

The Uprising in Book Publishing

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In the presentation, I draw parallels between the catalysts for the Egyptian revolution and the author uprising I foresee taking root in publishing.

If authors – the beating heart powering Big Publishing – lose faith in Big Publishing, then big publishing as we know it will die. By “Big Publishing,” I’m referring to the old, pre-self-publishing system embodied by the Big 6 New York publishers, in which the publisher serves as the author’s judge, jury, gatekeeper and executioner.

If Big Publishing approves of your book, they acquire it. Post-acquisition, an author can die happy knowing they’re a published author with all the esteem, respect and future possibilities embodied in this blessing. At least, that’s what most authors are trained to believe.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to find a traditionally published author who waxes eloquent about their post-publication experience. It’s like the author goes to heaven and reports back via John Edward (the guy who talks to dead people) that they discovered famine on the other side of the pearly gates.

Big Publishing, although it employs thousands of talented and well-intentioned professionals, is built upon a broken business model.

The cracks are growing more apparent, and before long, authors – both traditionally published and otherwise – will lose faith in the institution. When that happens, the seeds of revolution are sewn. Some might argue we’re already there.

Ask Not What your Publisher Can Do for You

Two questions and their answers will drive the author uprising against Big Publishing:

  1. What can a publisher do for me that I (the author) cannot do for myself?
  2. Might a big publisher actually harm my prospects as an author?

Ten years ago, the answers to these simple questions validated the need for Big Publishing. Why? In the old print world, Big Publishing controlled access to readers. They controlled the printing press and the access to retail distribution.

Yet these same questions asked today yield mixed results. In the last four or five months, Joe Konrath started urging readers of his blog to abandon Big Publishing (he calls it “Legacy Publishing”). He contends indie authors can produce, publish, price and promote a book more effectively than Big Publishing.

Amanda Hocking, in her recent interview with USA Today, was quoted as saying, “I can’t really say that I would have been more successful if I’d gone with a traditional publisher.”

No doubt, much of Hocking’s success is because she’s an indie author. She writes great books her readers love. She prices her series-starters at only $.99 and the rest at .99. Great books + low prices + enthusiastic fans + an author directly engaged with her fans = viral readership. Few big publishers are prepared to play by these new rules.

Every week we hear of self-published authors who were previously rejected by Big Publishing finding success with self-published ebooks. My presentation lists 50 Indie Ebook Authors to Watch. Brian Pratt, profiled here in December, is one such author. Ruth Ann Nordin is another. Nordin’s An Inconvenient Marriage is the #2 best-selling romance title today in the Apple iBookstore’s romance category, and #35 among all paid titles at Apple.

Two or three years from now when ebooks account for more than 50% of the book market, the same two dangerous questions above will yield a more unequivocal answer in favor of self-publishing.

All the major ebook retailers – Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Amazon – have embraced indie ebook authors and grant them equal shelf presence alongside Big Publishing authors. Smashwords is now distributing over 20,000 titles to most of these retailers (we’re not at Amazon yet). Readers, not publishers, decide what sells.

Do authors still need publishers in this new world order? I think it all goes back to my first question. To survive and thrive, publishers big and small must do for authors what authors cannot or will not do for themselves.

Via the Smashwords Blog

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