Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Mind Boggling Evolution of Publishing

"The printing press is either the greatest blessing, or the greatest curse of modern times, one sometimes forgets which.” – James Matthew Barrie

At a recent Southwest Florida Writers Association meeting, the speaker, James M. Abraham, Book Broker, gave an interesting talk about the evolution of printing from the Gutenberg printing press in the mid 15th century to the present technology. I could never recite all the facts, even if I was a note taker, or capture the tone of his eloquent delivery, so I’m doing a fast forward recap.

Prior to the invention of the printing press, monks were responsible for hand lettering most books. Only a few of the very wealthiest of people could afford to hire a monk to moonlight in order to publish their own work. Thus most everything “released” was Church oriented. The advent of the Gutenberg printing press allowed a much larger segment of society to own and publish books. Bypassing the Church expanded the types of books available.

Skip ahead about five centuries (I told you this was the fast forward version) to the digital world and vanity publishing. Instead of circumventing the Church, authors finally had a way to get around the powerful New York Publishing Houses. If a writer couldn’t get the attention of these publishers, for a price, they could still get their books in print.

As the technology improved, companies sprang up that could now help authors avoid vanity presses and simply, again for a price, self-publish.

I’m adding my two-cents worth here. I say that so you won’t blame Mr. Abraham for my viewpoints. Now e-publishing is possible, which skirts the self-publishing presses and allows a writer to make their work available, often with no fees at all. This means anyone who has even the vaguest dream of becoming a “published author,” can fulfill that dream.

As an author published by a small traditional publisher who takes advantage of POD technology, I am grateful for the advances that have been made in the publishing world. It was exciting, to say the least, to see my very own work transformed into a “real” book, with my name on the cover. I don't begrudge anyone that opportunity.

My point (I’m sure you’re wondering if I’d ever get there) is that I find myself questioning if the more recent advances are a hindrance to authors who hope to have a successful career as a writer. After all, with more books in print and an endless supply of e-books, there is more competition than ever for sales. Getting your book noticed has never been easy, but I’m thinking it’s becoming even more difficult.

Some books are very well done, regardless of the publishing method, some very poorly. Buyers are, rightfully so, a bit skittish. Is their money going to buy a professional product they will enjoy or an inferior creation published only to soothe someone’s ego?

With the numerous advances in the publishing industry, it boggles my mind (which, I admit, is easy to do these days) at what the future in this field holds in store. Toddlers using voice recognition to tell their life story? Embryos using brain waves to publish tell-alls about their mother’s diet prior to birth?

Help unboggle my mind with what you think. Do the publishing options available these days offer equal opportunities to all aspiring authors? Are readers better off with more material to choose from? Or, does it provide a platform for inferior work, watering down the attempts of those who hope to make a living from writing books? What’s the next advance in the publishing world?

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: Barrie, James Abraham, Gutenberg printing press, POD, self-publishing,vanity publishing, Southwest Florida Writers Association,


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm not sure. I think that's it's great to level the playing field between large and small publishers (the e-book phenom is what I'm thinking of here), but then, for the reader, the sheer *amount* of books to wade through could be daunting.

Mystery Writing is Murder

L. Diane Wolfe said...

As an author in the same position as you, I am grateful for the advances!

But you're right - with so many options, there's a lot of competition. A Time article earlier this year said that eventually the bulk of reading material would be free online and less authors will make money writing. Kinda scary. But there is some good free stuff out there. I've read some outstanding fanfiction of which the writer can never make money.

Tamika: said...

I really don't know much about the publishing history, but from my limited opinion this opens the arena for a flood of material. That will ultimately distract from quality rather than quantity.

Helen Ginger said...

It is so difficult to predict what will happen in the future. Just when you think you know, something new comes up or things change. Just a few years ago, we wouldn't have envisioned e-books!

Straight From Hel

Joanne said...

I'm not sure what's next. The Publishing World seems to be in a bit of a tailspin these days, grasping at many different avenues without a real strong vision. Almost like it's on its way to spreading itself too thin?

Carol Kilgore said...

I think it will be a few years yet before we see how this is all going to shake out. I hope it's in a way that benefits writers and readers. If publishers can free themselves of the returns system through ebooks, POD, whatever, it should benefit their bottom line enough for them to take more chances on emerging writers.

Karen Walker said...

I am just happy that there are options for writers who aren't lucky enough to land a traditional publishing deal. I think readers can discern crap from quality.

The Old Silly said...

Wow, what a comprehensive post. Mind boggling, indeed, and I have no idea whether or not current trends are going to be "good" or "bad" for authors, publishers, etc. Changing times, for sure.

Marvin D Wilson

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Elizabeth, I like the idea of a level playing field between large and small publishers – now if we could only get that to carry over to bookstore managers who still look down on the smaller publishers, vanity presses and self-published.

Diane, I guess that is proof that many authors write for the enjoyment it brings them and not for the money.

Tamika, I agree that quantity can distract from quality. I’m afraid if book buyers get burned too often, they’ll simply quit buying.

You’re so right Ginger. I would have never have dreamed e-books would become so popular. I know it’s silly to worry about the future of publishing, yet I find myself doing it.

Well said, Joanne. It is like they are spread too thin.

Good point, Carol. Returns are definitely a big problem for publishers and authors.

Karen, I agree it is important to have options, but I wonder if there might be a point where there’s too many options.

Marvin, if I only had the knack to figure out the trends before they become trendy… Guess I have no choice but to wait and see what happens.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

I love a level playing field. The more options, the better. I agree with Karen Walker, the public will figure out what they do or don't want to read.

Best Regards, Galen.

arlee bird said...

The platform for inferior work has always been there. I guess now more people can do it at a cheaper price. The way I see it, the more options that exist, the better to accomodate all the different needs writers have to get their works out to the readers they want to reach.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane,

Great post. Being a small press author as well, I know how tough it is to be heard. But I'm thankful that there are venues out now that bypass the marketing departments ideas of what current trends are. I'm curious to see what happens next. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

I suppose with POD and e-books, fewer resources are used and there is ultimately less waste. That's not bad, but we do have the quality of books to be concerned with as well as the quantity that's out there. Just because anybody can do it now doesn't mean they should.

Anonymous said...

I think that regardless of the path an author takes, the cream of the crop will rise to the top. I'm not too concerned about the market being flooded with junk. If an author has an above average work and can promote through word of mouth as well as book stores, they have a great chance of being successful.

Stephen Tremp

Enid Wilson said...

Embryo writing story? Huh, amazing thought.

Steamy Darcy

Anonymous said...

I honestly think more choices are a good thing. Even if the publishing industry ignored these changes, people would continue to post material for free on the internet and if that material was of good enough quality than it would impact the industry. The fact that people can now cheaply publish their own books is just another means for them to share their work.
It is an interesting discussion that will continue for some time but I like to think things will work out for the best. (Possibly a foolish optimism)

writer said...

The many options on publishing and finding the right market will be the topic of discussion at the Southwest Florida Writer meeting at Edison College on Saturday Jan 9th 2010 held in the Rush Library Media room from 1.00Pm to 3:pm. No cost everyone is welcome to join in this open discussion. Peter Yule

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world