Damnit, e-readers will not democratize publishing

Galleycat posted an interview of Tess Gerritsen, who contends that the e-reader will democratize publishing. She gives all of the usual reasons: people who can't break in through traditional houses will still be able to disseminate their work, which people will then find and read and appreciate, blah blah blah.

This is chronic, terrible, oft regurgitated bullshit (which I will explain in two points!).

First, there is a reason a lot of titles can't get published, and for the most part it is because they are terrible. The last book you read that you thought was horrendous was a) probably pretty bad, yea, and b) better than anything else the agent and publisher could find.

Second, just because a title is out there doesn't mean people will read it. There are about 300,000 books published annually through the traditional model. This means that if you only read new titles for a year, you need to read 34 books an hour for the entire year to read everything put out through traditional publishing, which are the titles that were plucked out from the general morass.* Most of these titles will not sell well or be read by many people, and they will have the benefit of professional publicists and book sellers behind them. Just because a title exists on the internet does not make it equal to a traditionally published book--not necessarily because of quality, but because of exposure and the publicity weight behind it.

Scribd CTO Jared Friedman, wants to increase the number of books published annually from 300,000 to 3 million, saying:
Our thesis is that the limiting factor in the number of books that are published per year is not the amount of content that people are able to write and it's not the amount of content that people are able to read. Rather it's a structural limitation of the publishing industry itself.... We think that if we can cast off the artificial limitations that are imposed by the way the economics of the publishing industry currently work, we could potentially dramatically increase the amount of work that is published.
He cites Harry Potter's temporary stint in the slush pile, saying there are many HPotts just waiting to break out. But if no one is reading the already existing 300,000 titles published every year, who is going to dig through this new e-slush pile? Not me, thank you--I will stick with the handful of traditionally published books I slog through annually.

*Math! 365 (days per year) x 24 (hours per day) = 8,760 hours per year. 
300,000 (books per year) / 8,760 (hours per year) = 34.2 books per hour.


  1. Please note, I myself never said the term "democratize" in the interview. It was simply what was chosen for the headline. Here's what I actually said about e-publishing:

    "[eBooks] make it very easy for new authors. Because there's really no need for a publisher for someone who hasn't broken into publishing or can't break in the traditional way. For regular authors, we still get royalties--it's just another way to find readers."

    I fail to see how any of that is untrue. It DOES make it easy for someone who can't break in the traditional way to be published. I said nothing about the quality of that content.

  2. As an addendum, you might want to see my blogpost for tomorrow's Murderati about the subject:

    "Judging by all the E-reader products -- and the interest in those products -- a tipping point has clearly been reached. E-readers are the future, and whether you think it's a good thing or a bad thing, we writers can't afford to ignore the tidal wave that's rushing toward us.

    Nor can publishers. Because along with the E-reader revolution comes a publishing revolution. As a writer, you can now publish with any number of e-book sites, and sell your work directly to readers -- without any publisher involved. It means there will be an overwhelming amount of content for consumers to choose from, much of it low-quality. E-book land is going to be a busy, anarchic universe with a dizzying array of great books sold along with bad books, and lord knows how it's all going to shake out.

    And hanging over us all will be the one thing that could doom us all. Piracy. Once books can be copied and disseminated for free, there will be no way to make a living in the writing profession. I fear that it's only a matter of time before that happens.

    And we will look back on this era as the last age of the professional writer."

  3. Hello Tess! This is why I shouldn't write while tired. As you pointed out in your comment, it was the title and the framing of your comments by Galleycat that irked me, rather than your comments themselves (which were interesting and, I think, on point). I should have mentioned that I felt that Galleycat's framing misrepresented your comments as being more salacious than they actually were. Apologies!

    I am an e-reader fan, and I do agree that they are the future, and also agree with your comments posted above (and look forward to reading your full post for Murderati!). What I take issue with is the oft propagated idea that e-books and e-readers will take down the "publishing machine" writ large through the spread of previously deemed unpublishable material--which Scribd CTO Jason Friedman points to as the future. I don't think the format will negate the need (and desire) for gatekeepers.

    So, the short of it: I was busy getting on my high horse and in the process misrepresented you, and accept the (deserved) slap on the wrist. Thanks for checking in!

  4. As a former retail store book buyer I generally ignored the self-published book because publishers want to publish books people want to read. The one exception was the book with a subject of limited interest. While I was at Tower Records and Books (in Sherman Oaks aka Los Angeles) I would grab anything featuring music, published or not, because our customers were interested in the subject. The e-book will allow books on subjects with a very tiny market to reach the few readers interested. Yes, one book one reader just like one vote one person. Power to the Reader!

  5. hi laura, I think you and I are in complete agreement about the possibilities and the pitfalls of e-publishing. Thanks for letting me clarify!

  6. I intended to write a comment v. nobly defending the voiceless Tess Gerritsen, with the addition of a little name-dropping because, after all, _I_ have attended her book readings, as so have insight into her soul.

    Well, there goes _that_ plan.

    That said, I think this is wrong-headed:

    "Because along with the E-reader revolution comes a publishing revolution. As a writer, you can now publish with any number of e-book sites, and sell your work directly to readers -- without any publisher involved."

    That's like saying, 'Along with the World Wide Web comes a fine art revolution. As a fine artist, you can now print your art on any number of websites, and sell your work directly to buyers--without any gallery involved.'

    And yet, professional fine artists aren't exactly trembling in their boots.

    The publishing industry offers more than distribution. It offers quality control. (With mixed results, of course--but that's the business model.) Any business that doesn't attempt to do that is in a different field entirely.

  7. bingol,

    I completely agree with you about the value of the traditional publisher. I myself have no intention of being published any other way. And I don't think traditionally pubbed authors consider purely e-pubbed authors as a real threat to our incomes.

    But things are changing, and it's soon going to be a wild and woolly e-book world where there's no quality control to guide consumers. For better or worse, e-publishing will open the marketplace to everyone who wants to sell their novels -- good or bad -- to willing buyers.

  8. The volume of self-e-publishd material is deifnitely a key factor that people seem to overlook. Anyone who has created other types of creative work and tried to develop an audience can attest to this. Music, for example: in the age of Garage Band, mp3s and MySpace, the Web is flooded with people who have created their own music and made it available for free. Most of it is so amateurish that the prospect of wading through it looking for one good artist is daunting. Instead people seek recommendations from friends, reviewers, Amazon or whatever. I think the horror of the slush pile will guarantee a place for some industry authority that promises to provide only the good stuff.

  9. There's a guy who wanders around Seattle trying to sell handmade (that is, photocopied, folded and stapled) books of poetry on the street. How is he significantly different from a self-published ebook author? Am I to believe that his work, which he can't get published, is as good as T.S. Eliot's but he just hasn't been "discovered" yet? I don't believe that. And I fear the era of three million undifferentiated crap ebooks through which I must sort in order to find one book by a new author that's going to be worth reading. We're all doomed, is what we are.

    Jared Friedman is just helping to perpetuate the idea that bad writers can suddenly become equivalent to prizewinning authors, that the only thing separating them from Hemingway is having their work printed up and offered for sale somewhere. This idea is a lie, and it exposes Friedman's opinion of literature.