23 January 2013

The Modern Reader

With hindsight it is easy to see that the last thing to change in the e-publishing revolution would be the readers. Any lack of clarity in the chain of distribution between author and reader will lead to the reader finding a clearer channel of communication.

For this reason in the hotbed of new developments for indie authors the customer has stuck to the old channels of communication and continued to purchase traditional product in the traditional way. For most people this is not a problem and probably will not change substantially as time marches on. What's important though is that the lack of change will be perceptual, not actual. The reason that the average book punter will not perceive the change is because the change happens, if you like, "upstream" of where they are standing.

There's a scene in the movie (and possibly in the book that I have not read) The Devil Wears Prada in which the bitchy boss deconstructs the protagonist's blue sweater. In this example the protagonist of TDWP is the average book punter, any well-known author is played by the blue sweater and the world of publishing is played by the world of fashion.

Let me see if I can get a quote... ah here:
"...that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. And you're ... blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent... who showed cerulean military jackets... And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it ... filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room..."
Possibly you are already pointing to the work of folks like JK Rowling or Stephen King as examples to the contrary of 'being selected for success'. This is because those authors who are best known in the modern world are the breakaway surprise best sellers. They play by their own rules, so I will not be considering them here.

I'm not entirely sure that fashion has an equivalent for the breakaway surprise bestseller (which is any best seller by an author no one was previously aware existed) as I do not follow fashion. Unfortunately the breakaway bestseller model is how most people think of the whole of the world of publishing. This is not the case.

Many authors that people know of, I'm thinking of someone like Michael Connelly or Robert Crais here, got to their current position by the sweat of their brow and by finding out a particular group of readers. These readers, the equivalent of people who take a keen interest in not only items of fashion but also the workings of the fashion industry, are people who hunt out the new thing, who wish to proudly proclaim that they were into x way before everyone else even knew x was a thing.

Segue into the music industry. Our early adopter reader also has a little in common with the people who hang out in grungy clubs listening to a bunch of appalling noise in the hope of glimpsing the birth of the next rock god. At the moment the overlap is very slight. It's going to grow and grow in days to come.

There's a key difference between fashion and music. New designers quickly become 'legitimate' when they start to make a noise. The gap between being nobody and being a 'face' in fashion is infinitesimal. This is exactly equivalent to the paradigm of traditional publishing. Either you are published by one of the big houses or you are not. If you are not, in this paradigm, you are no one at all.

In music you may not be 'signed' to a major label but that does not mean that you are nobody. Indeed, in the world of music being 'indie' can be a badge of honour. Every so often a small indie fish gains traction and enjoys some success. There's a whole mess of stuff attached to success in music to do with 'selling out' or 'becoming commercial' possibly this will not infect the world of publishing... possibly it already has.

That's the delightful thing. Publishing is not music and publishing is not fashion. This group of hardcore indie readers will behave in their own way, possibly influenced by, but not exactly identical to, the way in which the dedicated followers of fashion or music behave.

The uncertainty in how they actually will behave arises from the fact that, at this stage, we just don't know. I am one of a small band of pioneers, I hunt for novels with no reviews, written by someone no one's ever heard of and I want to say 'I read so-and-so before they broke big'. That concept excites me, and I know I'm not alone.

The problem I face in this crazy world of indie authored ebooks in which we find ourselves is that finding 'the good stuff' is a bit of a challenge. Every book I have read recently has been "a little bit indier" than the one before it. In my quest I do feel somewhat alone, there are no book groups to visit, there is no channel to receive information that is on a level beyond the broadcast of indie-marketing blurb. I am sensing a lack of organised community. Indie writers are all telling each other about their work but I have not encountered many indie-only book enthusiasts; all that I have are lone rangers, blazing their own lonely trail into the world of indie-book culture.

This is a brave new world and all it really needs is some coherent notion of who should inhabit it. I look forward, eagerly, to discovering my fellow inhabitants of this indie-lit Arcadia.

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