By Karl Alexander
In the early 1900s, when H.G. Wells was worried about book sales, he hired men to wear sandwich boards displaying his latest title to stand in front of London’s bookstores. Though it may have cost him a few pounds, it didn’t change the way he worked or the process of writing and publishing.
In the late 1990s, as I recall, a writer still thought about characters, story, his prose, and his voice—those elements that make a novel or a nonfiction book worth reading. Once satisfied with his work, the writer looked for an agent, and if an agent liked the book, the agent submitted it. If the agent found a publisher, then the writer worked with an editor until the book was deemed ready for publication. Usually, the publisher handled publicity, marketing and distribution, and the writer looked forward to reviews, sometimes interviews and book signings, and most of all, his book in the stores. If he were lucky, his book would become a best-seller which would make writing a second book a joyous, adrenaline-fueled process. If he were even luckier, he might sell the film rights, and then he could buy a house, a new pickup, and go fishing.
In the early 21st Century, an author’s life has become more complicated and techno-driven. Most authors still want to write books worth reading, yet that is no longer their primary “literary” concern—if they want to avoid being penniless and invisible.
Now, with the Internet, our weapon of choice is a handheld device with so much shit on it that a savvy user could probably topple a shaky government with it. (Wikileaks, anyone?) Now, the arenas of choice are the social networks, and they have made communication and conversation a chore, an electronic addiction. They have changed human behavior. Including the process of writing and publishing.
Yes, people still go to work, go to school, date, get married and divorced, and do all the stuff they used to, but the social networks have ritualized common behavior much like cigarettes used to. After, say, a meal or sex, instead of lighting up, we take a picture, text someone, or run an app. Our normal activities get bookended with subtexts that are false, that resemble another 21st Century phenom, reality TV. Simple tasks have become artificially complex and inflated, most people believing—ironically so—that technology has made their lives easier.
A decade ago, Napster was born and irrevocably changed the music industry. Instead of going to, say, Tower Records, consumers downloaded their music, and if they were computer-clever, they paid nothing for it, hurting the record companies and the musicians. Yes, CDs are still in the stores, but they are irrelevant. They are dinosaurs that roam garage sales and landfills.
A decade later, history repeated itself. Now, the publishing industry is going through that same painful transformation, and we all wonder if bookstores and print books will be around in another ten years, especially after Borders folded. Everyone I talk to says they’d rather read a “real book” than an electronic one, yet earlier this year—“Hark the Herald, Amazon sings”—the electronic behemoth announced that it was selling more ebooks than print books.
Where does this leave us writers? Last year, the Authors Guild Bulletin explained the various royalty models for ebooks and concluded that writers make less royalties from ebooks than they do from print books. Last spring, the Bulletin published a symposium on the latest electronic knickknack to befuddle writers. Apps. An agent commented, “I used to tell all my clients, ‘Get a website.’ They all got a website. ‘Get a blog.’ They all got a blog. ‘Get a Facebook page,’ They all got Facebook. ‘Get Twitter.’ They all got Twitter. Now it’s ‘Get an app.’”
An app? That used to be the map on the inside cover of a book that took a reader to different locations if the characters hopped around the globe. Now it’s a potpourri of stills, video, music, f/x, and other stuff that tells someone who stumbled across it in the Apple app store to buy your book. Pretty cool except an app might cost a writer up to $5000.00 which means that he has to sell approximately 1,460 copies of his ebook (listed at 4.99) merely to cover the cost of the app. Just as a publisher does not advertise its ebook titles, I doubt that publishers will pay for the cost of an app, either.
So, these days, in addition to thinking about characters, story, prose and voice, a writer has to be concerned about gyrations in the electronic world that he may not know or care much about. He must spend hours at a keyboard—not writing, but trying to promote himself and his ebook titles. To survive, he must be “cyber visible.”
These days, if you’re a beginning writer, you might reconsider grad school and an MFA in writing. You might be better off spending that money on an MBA with a concentration in marketing and publicity. Or, if you have a print book in the stores, hire a sign-spinner to work in front of Barnes and Noble.
You laugh, but therein lies the million-dollar question: what exactly is the electronic version of a man wearing a sandwich board? Or a sign-spinner?
–Karl Alexander is the author of several books, including the best-selling Time After Time, which was made into a film starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. He has also optioned ten screenplays. His newest novel, 2011's Time-Crossed Lovers, is available now for download.
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