John Ramsey Miller
In the 1970s and through the early 90s I was a professional photographer and although technology made yearly advances (improvements) to be kept up with, everything I captured was on film stock of one kind or another. I read the other day that Kodachrome (the most remarkably permanent color transparency stock) was no longer being sold or processed by Kodak. If you’ve seen color pictures from World War II they were made on Kodachrome or Kodacolor prints. My father used Kodachrome exclusively in the fifties and those chromes are as crisp and bright today as they were when he shot them. I read this news with a sense of sadness. Over the years I have seen so many of the tools I used, loved, and even mastered become obsolete. There’s black & White silver based paper and film stock and the chemicals associated with them. (Well they are available for perfectionists, but expensive and increasingly harder to get). There were vibrant Dye Transfers and Cibachrome Prints, Polaroid 4×5 positive negative in B&W. I could go on and on, but we all know the drill. I had a friend in the late seventies whose custom color lab I used. He told me that one day in the not-to-distant future all pictures would be taken by means of circuitry and pictures would be stored on tape in digital form as was the case with video cameras. I said there would always be film based on what I knew about digital images and the problems with storage. Boy was he right.
An holographic scientist told me that by using holography lenses of any focal length––even zooms––could be created on paper thin sheets of clear plastic and function as well as a lens made by Zeiss.
I’ve gone with the flow. Today my old Crown Graphic is in a box somewhere in the shed. My Nikon is digital D-50 and I have about as much memory capacity in my computer and extra hard drives as MIT had in the seventies in their mainframes. (I’m just guessing here). I also read that digital point and shoot cameras are going the way of the rotary dial telephone because cell phone cameras are taking their place.
So, old things are made obsolete by new things that are better––or that are are accepted and used by more people than others. This is evolution at work, or natural selection. The marketplace dictates which technology is rules and for how long. So we see amazing changes. CDs are no more necessary to enjoy music than are LPs or reel-to reel-tapes. In fact with my iPod and iTunes my CDs are just wasting space.
We have discussed the future of paper books here a lot and as much as us old guys and gals are fighting the thought of a paperless library, our grandchildren’s children will probably have no choice to make. As our children never used a rotary phone, theirs will not have bookshelves in their homes as we do.
Book stores are in trouble, especially the huge chains. This may mean that independent stores will have a profitable place in the market again. At least while our generation is reading and buying books.
I admit that I really love my Kindle (I’m presently reading something called VAMPIRE EMPIRE) on it. I would rather listen to a book than read it. I’m thinking out loud here that the future of mid-list authors may not lie with the publishers we have always depended on. We’ve been conditioned to think we can’t be real authors without our work being produced by a house. We have been conditioned to believe that hard covers validate a work, that paperback originals are inferior to hard covers, and that the best work goes to the top of the market. Now those assumptions are looking like aging out illusions as the world changes we and publishers follow as best we can.
I appreciate the publisher of my novels and I love my editors. In the old days publishers nourished us mid-list authors, nurtured them, and were content to make their money on runs batted in and not focusing on home runs. As more and more people bought books, and more money was made by the houses, they were merged into a few huge houses, and bean counters took over and the which-authors’-books-were-bought decisions were made by marketing departments, and everything became bonuses and stockholder dividends and authors who weren’t their best selling authors were ignored and cast aside. Okay, so business is business, and pigs is pigs and in the end we are seen as no more to a publisher than a parts producer is seen by an automobile company. We are either making an Edsel grill or a windshield wiper motor.
Okay, kids, it’s extinction time. The dinosaurs will chew their cuds until they they discover there’s no grass to eat, they’ll drop on a barren landscape while the quick little guys who saw the sky turning yellow and got into caves live to eat another day.
I think a lot of authors are going to figure out how to live without publishers and their advances in lieu of a larger percentage of profits. Publishers have been expecting authors to do their own promoting and marketing for a while now. Most authors won’t be needing the paper book distribution networks, or the cookie-cutter promotion departments that send out the same form-promo sheets to the same people. New and well-told stories will always be in demand, I’m just no longer sure publishers are going to be as necessary to the process as they have been. Amazon and the other fulfillment outlets will pay the author the lion’s share of the sale price of the ebooks, where publishers pay far less, or split the profits after expenses or something.
There were something like a million books published last year, and there will be more (or a few less) published this year. The trick will be, as it always has been, to be able to produce a book that rises through the din and sells in sufficient numbers to pay the author for the effort.
I think what most of us authors will continue to need are the same quality of editors that publishers have on their payrolls, and little else they have to offer. Cover artists are easy to find. I hope editors are more appreciated and better paid than they have been, or they will find they can make a better living taking free-lance projects and a percentage of the profits. For the moment a lot of us still think its important, if not crucial, to be affiliated with a house for credibility or prestige or whatever, but I think individual authors can gain their own credibility and status by writing books that people enjoy and talk about. I doubt readers in the future will care who publishes the books they read. I truly believe that the future, though confusing and out of focus at the moment for a lot of us, is going to provide more opportunity and prove brighter than ever.
As I learned by watching what happened to my beloved and trusted film, the medium matters only as a transmission platform for the message. A story on paper hits me with the same impact that one on a screen or in words traveling into my ear.
Bullshit, smoke, money, and mirrors aside, it’s always been and will always be about the stories. I’m pretty sure that much is impervious to natural selection.