How can we unleash more creativity in the literary world?
Problem – The Existing Model
Before the era of printing presses, books were laboriously created by scribes, meticulously copying an existing manuscript, in response to an order from a nobleman or someone in the Church’s hierarchy. It was literally “print-on-demand” using a quill pen. The rich and powerful controlled book publishing, dictating what would be printed. Few writers could expect to have their writings accessible to a wide audience.
In the first centuries after the introduction of printing presses with moveable type, nearly all books were self-published [what we might today also call “independently published”]. Usually the author would split the investment, and any profits, with a printing press owner. (That typical business arrangement led to a printer having shared common law liability with the author or publisher – even today – for libel, slander and breach of copyright.) So although the investment was a large one, affluent or sponsored authors had an opportunity to be published. Writers such as Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and Beatrix Potter are examples of indie authors of that era.
Over the past 100 years, the book industry evolved to being controlled by a few players. Apparently the six largest publishing houses headquartered in New York City now account for about 80% of all books sold in the English language! They, and the medium-size publishers, shun manuscript and proposals from new authors. They are pursuing the goal of having a “bestseller” to make up financially for all the poorly-selling titles they launch. The distribution and retailing decisions are also in few hands – it is a near oligopoly situation in which access and business terms are dictated by billion dollar companies such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Libri.
Nowadays, millions of people wish to write books and, in so doing, to have an impact on the lives of their fellow inhabitants of this planet. Authors wish to educate, entertain, persuade, inspire, reprimand, document, help… There are no shortages of authors, new ideas and manuscripts. There are, however, many barriers in today’s book industry stopping a freer flow of new books. We are all impoverished when so much of the world’s creativity is being stifled and suppressed.
With few exceptions, independently-produced books are refused by distributors and retailers. In large part due to ‘returnable’ terms [see other posting], the book trade has evolved into a closed shop catering only to the “mainstream” publishing houses who in turn dictate who will be published. The publishing houses, with limited capital to venture on new talent, become “gatekeepers” to the literary commons, barring the work of so many.
Even if accepted by the gatekeepers, the words and ideas of a manuscript face multiple layers of editing and a refinement process that, some authors claim, polishes away or distorts their originality and creativity. For those authors determined to control the content and presentation, independent publishing is the only option, and fortunately, the business world is evolving and new mechanisms are available.
Solution – The New Model
The world is changing rapidly with the introduction and proliferation of new technologies:
- Indie authors are discovering the innovative print-on-demand publishing services that reduce complexity and costs drastically, while providing access to global markets. Books can be publicized and sold over the Internet to people worldwide. Although tens of thousands of indie authors have adopted this solution, awareness is still limited to a tiny fraction of all writers and readers – mostly in the most technologically-advanced countries. As more writers and readers – especially those in disenfranchised portions of society – learn about new publishing services, everyone’s cultural choices and our collective literary legacy will be greatly enriched. Some of these services are Agio Publishing House, AuthorHouse, Blurb, BookSurge, CreateSpace, iUniverse, Lulu, Trafford and Xlibris.
- Publishing in the new e-book formats presents a more “level playing field” for all. Although this medium has not yet attained mainstream acceptance in sales, it is clearly only a matter of time until better displays are introduced to allow for a totally-acceptable reading experience.
- When the bane of “returnability” distribution is conquered, publishing will become more profitable for all involved. And if publishing houses are freed of their “blockbuster” fixation, they will be able to apply their editing talents and marketing expense to a wider range of new talents.
What can individuals do to help unleash creativity?
- Spread the word about on-demand publishing and other innovations which make independent publishing now very affordable, convenient and efficient. Emphasize that the author retains the control of the content, presentation and marketing. Some publishing services will pay you a referral fee as a thank-you.
- Test out the e-book reading experience. Only with a growing “critical mass” of consumers will this publishing method improve and eventually thrive.
- Opt for reading books by independent authors and small publishers to encourage literary diversity. Give those over-hyped “bestsellers” a pass.