Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What Simon Cowell Taught Me

Well, mostly when I watch Simon Cowell, he reminds me not to be a jerk. I mean, IMO it's possible to be honest without being condescending or mean. I know, I know... for many people his caustic remarks are what makes the show. I just think he comes off as an arrogant jerk.

But beyond lessons in manners, his new line this season (instead of calling people cruise-line singers or karaoke singers, or theme park singers, bar band singers) is to say, "There are thousands like you doing that on the internet."

Seriously, the ones I liked best the week of the top 24, he almost universally said something like this to them: It was good, but I can see that any day on YouTube. And maybe he's right. Dunno. I don't cruise YouTube searching for indie music often.

But I found his new stock criticism really interesting, because I heard him say it not long after reading a Publisher's Weekly article (that I can't find now!!!) that compared what's happening in publishing, to what's already happened in music. And I do think the comparison is valid. And it scares me a little. Okay, a lot.

Just like it became easier over the past decade or so for a singer to be their own recording engineer and producer using their laptop, just like venues like MySpace and YouTube made it possible for musicians to act as their own record labels and distributors, it's become relatively easy these days to publish a novel. That is, there are many self-publishing options as well as a plethora of small, digital-first (or digital only) publishers.

Anyone who can get their opus down on paper (and by paper, I mean typed into the computer), can be a published novelist. Easy peasy. Not that it's easy to write a novel. I don't mean to trivialize what a huge accomplishment it is to finish a novel. But once it's written if you're determined to have it published, you will find a route to do it. (Whether you'll get paid or people will buy it is another matter.)

What I fear, somewhat, is that the already very crowded and saturated book market will become so crowded that it will become virtually impossible for any one book to stand out in the crowd, and that with so many more books published each year, the odds that readers will find or buy your book will go down dramatically. (And let's face it, even in the "old world" of publishing, the odds were pretty bad.)

Anyone who's taken Econ 101 knows that the law of supply and demand means this will devalue books. Just look at the recent battles in publishing over the deep discounts on hard covers and the pricing of e-books as evidence that I'm not the only one worried about this. And for those of you wanting an Econ 101 refresher... if demand stays constant, while supply goes up, prices will go down. (If you could find diamonds in your back yard, they wouldn't be so expensive.) And I fail to see any reason why the demand for reading will go up, simply because there are more books published... Maybe a little. But I fear the volume increase won't be enough to make up for the difference and that to get readers to try new authors the books will have to be virtually free, making it even harder than it already is to earn a living as a novelist.

And while many claim the above mentioned changes have been positive for musicians, it has to be pointed out that musicians also earn part of their living from performing. For writers, publishing is the only source of earning money from their creations. People don't go to concerts or bars to dance to the latest unknown authors reading...

But that's all doom and gloom. I could totally be wrong. I lack a crystal ball. (It's in the shop.) And on the positive side, if one believes that quality always wins out in the end and that word of mouth sells books, then perhaps nothing will change that much. The creme will rise to the top of the ever-expanding pack (vat of milk?) and the best books will still sell well, in the same way books in the traditional publishing world had to rise above the pack to be published by an old skool publisher in the first place.

And there's the real lesson in Cowell's new stock criticism: be different, be better, be unique. Don't be the same as the other thousands of books he read on the internet.

8 comments:

Eileen said...

Oh, Maureen, I so want people to come to a bar to dance while I read from my novel. What a picture!

Here's my completely meaningless opinion on the explosion in self-publishing. Yes, anybody can get their book published. What they can't get is distribution. Without distribution, you've got nothing. Even if it's there on the Internet for free, people have to find it.

I really think it's part of why e-publishing has done so well with erotica. It was a method of distribution that was discrete. Not everyone who wants to read erotica wants to walk into their local bookstore to buy it when they might run into their kid's second grade teacher. It was a smart distribution move.

Without being able to get you into brick and mortar stores, grocery stores, drug stores, airport bookstores . . . a publisher can't make you any money and that has to create some attrition.

Subourbon Wife said...

As a writer trying to get my first book published, this is distressing. I've considered going the self-publishing route, but distribution would be a problem. Now I'm wondering if I should just read aloud from my book on YouTube. Thanks again, Simon Cowell!!!

Molly O'Keefe said...

I totally agree with Simon Cowell and I agree with you - I think to keep us all from lowering our standards and expectations - publishers need to get savvy and how about e-books. It's going to be more and more popular and I think more and more readers choose only to read on e-readers, which is giving all the self-pubbed and e-first pubbed, some momentum.

Publishers need to stop dicking around, playing with the relase dates, figure out the reasonable price for ebooks and get in the game.

Alli said...

Oh, Maureen, lots of food for thought here. I'm afraid to say that you're right. I want to believe that truly good books will find homes with reputable publishers and readers, but I know that is not always the case. Depressing? Yes. Will I keep trying to get my MS published with a traditional publisher because that's the route I want to go? Yes. Will it be nigh impossible? Maybe. But it won't stop me. :-)
Thanks for a really great post, Maureen.

Karen W said...

Getting published by a reputable publisher ISN'T impossible. If one works hard, learns their craft, and rewrites, submits, files the rejections, writes some more, submits some more, it is doable. It took me 9 years, but I did it. If I can do it... ya know? 26 books later...

Sinead M said...

I agree with Eileen on distribution, it is the key to sales, but I also strongly believe being unique and better are absolutely necessary to building buzz, which is what builds a bestselling author.

All of which is so easy to do, right?

Maureen McGowan said...

The interesting thing about distribution, is whether or not digital publishing changes that balance...

I still firmly believe the big publishers will not blow this... That if the balance swings such that more books are bought digitally than on paper (as is true with music now) that they will find a way to get their (IMHO) better product in front of consumers....

But is scares me. As does the whole giving away books for almost free thing.

Kimber Chin said...

Change is painful for an industry but it is necessary for that industry to survive. I really don't see this change as a bad thing. I think the future of books and reading will be stronger for it.

YES, distribution counts in eBook publishing as well as in print book publishing. And YES, the big publishers are already trying to block the indies out of that distribution game (a clear example is B&N's acquisition of Fictionwise).

As someone who likes reading and writing variety, I don't think that is a good thing. Only in publishing is independent art frowned upon.

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