Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Publishing’s Dust Bowl

For those who need a history lesson, I’ll give you the condensed version along with its literary parallel. In the late nineteen twenties, America, along with the rest of the world, was thrust into a deep depression. Sound familiar? Shortly thereafter in the early nineteen thirties, the entire Midwestern part of the United States and its millions of acres of grasslands were over-farmed and parched by drought, causing the once lush prairies of buffalo grass to transform into a second version of the Sahara Desert. Enough with the history already, right? Not quite.

When the wheat farmers noticed how the price of their crops fell due to the plunging stock market, they did what most people would do to make up for their losses. They farmed even more land and produced as much wheat as they could. However, wheat continued to drop in value like never before. The U.S. government begged the farmers to stop because they had flooded an already weak market with their worthless crop, which now had much more supply than demand. Countless excess truckloads of grain were dumped by the roadside as the once fertile soil of the great prairie homesteads dried up. The green buffalo grass became millions of acres of brown dirt that later amassed into thirty-foot mounds of drifting sand.

Nature’s blustering rage swept across the Midwestern landscape in the form of dust storms that were hundreds of miles long and thousands of feet high. These monster storms choked out the midday sun and turned noon black as pitch. As each gigantic, menacing black cloud seemed worse than the last, people suffered severe respiratory distress and some even died as a result. Hope of what once was soon disappeared into the searing sixty mile per hour winds. “The Dust Bowl,” as one journalist coined the phrase, quickly turned from a small problem into a disaster of epic proportions. These apocalyptic dust storms sometimes swept over the entire country. The gritty dirt from the western frontier would blow thousands of miles in one storm, draping over New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., and even up to three hundred miles straight out into the Atlantic Ocean.

This is happening again to us now. The entire publishing world with its authors, agents, editors, and, yes, even the major publishing houses, are being engulfed by an evil black cloud. In the late nineteen twenties, the tractor was the major change in technology that became the key factor in the events that led to the Dust Bowl. Likewise today, increased technology allows everyone from everywhere to produce a sea of literature, which threatens to drown us all in its wake. There is simply too much literature in too many places for anyone to keep track of or distinguish themselves from.

Most Indie literary works are either ninety-nine cents or free at this point, which to me means that even the authors themselves believe that the creative bounty that sprouts from the lush soil of their mind, is, well, pretty much worthless. Just to clarify, I don’t believe that my hard work and limited time is worthless, and neither should you. It’s very hard coming up with an idea and then refining it until a reader can understand what you’re thinking. It takes a lot of thought to intimately converse with the masses, which are rarely likeminded and made up of every age, gender, and ethnic background. It’s hard to actually get people to read your book rather than put it on a TBR shelf for all of eternity in a sort of purgatory for the living dead of literature. Is all of this not worth more than a dollar?

People with e-readers have grown accustomed to free or near-free literature thrown at them by Indie authors from every direction. Even on my beloved Goodreads, there’s so much with the words ninety-nine cents or free that people have come to think if an e-book is priced any higher that it’s a personal insult to them. However, in reality, most people spend at least ten dollars a day on some type of junk food value meal that they’ll just inevitably expel in a few hours. Yet a book, now that used to be something of value. Books were always admired and once even sought after like fine treasure. So what happened? Well, mediocrity happened, and people have accepted subpar storylines with holes so big that you could drive a truck through them. Not every book is good, but my taste is different than your taste. And after all, taste is subjective. It’s not math. There’s no one right answer when it comes to literature. But it took time to write that novel—many hours. Nobody wants to show up for a job that pays ninety-nine cents, or, even worse, to break their back for no wage at all.

I believe that Indie, at its core, is a good thing. People deserve more. Give people what they want. Give people creative diversity. Give them some more choices in this life. But how does an author ever get noticed in a market that’s both flooded and closed at the same time? Actually, fixing this problem isn’t that difficult. In one swoop, you could repair the publishing model and remove the stigma from Indie and self-published authors, while detaching the aloof and elitist view that many have of the traditional publishing market as we know it.

It’s not a secret that traditional publishing hates Indie. There’s hurt feelings, jealousy, and spite on both sides. Sites like Smashwords and Amazon KDP, just to name a few, have taken many dollars out of the traditional publisher’s hands. Jobs have been lost, sales are down for everyone, and to complicate matters, when people buy an e-reader these days, more than a few act shocked that they still have to pay for a book after they just shelled out a lot of money for their e-reader. The e-book market is being flooded, driving down the value for everyone.

What’s needed is a talent scouting pool for authors. And despite the stories that you’ve heard from some authors stating that their first novel was written while still in their mother’s womb—obviously I’m kidding here—but nobody is born a writer, and all talent needs to be both refined and discovered. How else would we ever know if some obscure writer is any good at all? Maybe they could become a great novelist if they were only given a legitimate chance to compete. Traditional publishing houses seem complacent toward their audience these days. I see the same old books lazily occupying shelf space while hungry, talented writers with new ideas wait in the wings.

Now back to the talent scouting pool. The first thing you’d need would be a massive website for Indie authors to download their works. I know we have a ton of them out there, and that’s the major problem. The new site would eventually become the single umbrella for which all independent authors would sell under. Indie authors would want this, because like the innovative and unbridled farming techniques that destroyed the soil causing The Dust Bowl, the current publishing model is unsustainable for everyone involved. But if Mark Coker (founder of Smashwords), Indie authors, and the major six publishing houses worked together, everyone could win big here.

Each author would pay a small monthly fee to keep their literary works active on the website. The public could buy the e-books that the Indie authors released. There would be no free or ninety-nine cent books at all. Book pricing would start at $2.99 for forty thousand words and go up from there based on word count. To eliminate dishonest returns by speed readers, a sample of one third of every book would be displayed. So once the entire book is purchased, it’s purchased. All of the genres and subgenres would be present. Now here’s the part I call American Idol for authors. Literary agents and publishers would also pay a fee to have access to every book on the website. With anonymity, they could peruse for anything that resembles what’s on the season’s hot trendy lists. In return, every literary work posted would already have soft rights attached to them and the details could be worked out if and when a contract was offered in the future. Every Indie would still be Indie as order is restored to the publishing market. If you ever wanted to be traditionally published someday, you would have to commit to this new website, which I call UREZBOOK (pronounced “your easy book”) and you would only release your works through UREZBOOK alone.

To ensure quality control, a basic edit by a team of well-experienced editors would be required as an add-on fee. No other prepared packages would be extended to any author. If you can’t format and publish your own stuff for the website, then this site will be waiting when you either learn how to do it yourself or get a friend to donate their knowledge and time while helping you do it. Everyone would carry their own load. Indie authors would have the hope that someday an agent or publisher might just pick up their work for traditional publishing. That would motivate hopeful authors to always put their best work forward and slush piles could be eliminated by literary agencies forever.

These are just a few points that could usher in a real golden age for authors and publishers alike. Everyone would see increased profits, and Indie authors would feel validated. Many out-of-work agents and editors would have more work than they could have ever imagined. Once again, the lush buffalo grass would grow wildly as it cooled the parched literary desert plains in a new spirit of trust between agents, authors, and publishers like never before.

Joel T. McGrath