While I have often patted myself on the back for recognizing more than fifteen years ago that e-books would one day surpass the printed book as the ultimate first choice of dedicated readers everywhere, I had not reckoned on the unintended consequences of an unfiltered tsunami of self-published books that would one day overtake the traditional distribution patterns of the publishing industry.
The number of self-published e-books has surpassed and will continue to surpass, by far, books published through the time-honored process of editing and distribution that has been the practice of publishing companies for centuries.
A cottage industry that was once denigrated as an exercise in vanity for wannabe writers who could not get published through established channels, has become a burgeoning industry for entrepreneurs who produce, promote, publish and sell marketing services to those authors who choose to go this route.
Online bookstores such as Amazon, Nook and iPad are eager to publish these efforts looking to increase the volume of sales through betting that every book published will garner some sales, however miniscule. If every author of a self-published book, for example, sold 25 copies to relatives and friends, that would result in sales of millions of which the online bookstore would get a piece.
Believe me, I am in no way insulting the efforts of such authors who choose this mode of self-expression. There is a lot to say for the psychic joys of creating and publishing a book and hopefully getting it in the hands of a reader. Many of these authors have spent sweat, treasure and time writing and then trying to market their work to agents, editors, publishers, film producers and whoever is in the business of monetizing their efforts. The overwhelming majority have not succeeded in attracting their attention for reasons that are often obscure and baffling.
And while there are countless categories of books being offered within non-fiction and fiction areas, my own authorial interest is in the fate of the mainstream novel, a long form work of the imagination that cannot be defined by any established genre.
Having grown up on a rich diet of reading, studying and writing mainstream novels, a process that I personally consider among the highest forms of artistic expression, I worry that the ever growing glut of novels thrown into cyberspace will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the reader to differentiate between authors and find those who reach into the heart of their understanding, insight and pleasure.
With the shrinking output of traditional sources of book information and reviews in newspapers and magazines, the fractionalizing of online sites dealing with reviewing books and the collapse of the usual so called quality filters, the methods of book selection, particularly serious mainstream fiction is severely restricted.
The great breakout books by serious authors that gained attention in the last century like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Joyce, Greene, Maugham, Waugh, O’Hara and numerous others that transcend my personal bias will be tough acts to follow simply because they will be difficult to cut from the giant pack of novel offerings. Authors will be hard put to get their books noticed, reviewed and honestly recommended.
Of course, traditional publishers are attempting a wide variety of marketing experiments and strategies to extend the public reach of their authors, but the impact on advances and sales will be profound. Authors already well branded in the age before e-books will survive, of course, but their readership will diminish in the future as the marketing funnels become clogged and their original enthusiastic fans die out.
There will be opportunities in the film and television markets if authors are lucky enough to have their books adapted to those mediums, especially if the producers keep the book titles intact. But even that will be no guarantee of crossover sales.
Since most things are transitory and unintended consequences can morph into other unintended consequences and corrections, the chances are that authors, publishers, Internet innovators, or various consultants and deep thinkers will find a way to create “differentiation” methods so that readers can find their most meaningful personal reading choices, I am forever optimistic.
For those authors who see this essay as portending gloom and doom, take heart. At the very least the serious author of imaginative fiction will no longer have to see his or her work live a life of perpetual exile in a computer file or in the bottom drawer of his or her home desk.
Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections published in numerous languages. Films adapted from his books include “The War of the Roses”, “Random Hearts” and the PBS trilogy “The Sunset Gang.” He is a pioneer in digital publishing.