Surviving Natural Selection.

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.


16 thoughts on “Surviving Natural Selection.

  1. John,

    Great insights. A pro shooter myself, I relate to the evolution of photography as well. My Crown Graphic once belonged to a missionary in Africa who souped his negs in a tent in the Congo before I was born.

    But you’re right, it’s about the pictures, always has been. I’d rather have a print shot with an oatmeal box and a pinhole by Ansel Adams than anything I could shoot with a new Nikon D3.

    I love hardback books, always have. Many of them are comfortable old friends. And I have to admit, as I work on my first novel, that the dream has been to have a “real” book to show my friends and family. But I understand the changing world we live in, and the market forces that manipulate the evolution of technology. And if books become something so far unrecognizable, so be it. I still want to write stories, and get paid for them.

    In photography, good pictures are more than specks of film grain or clumps of pixels. They are the result of using artistry to convey a story written in light.

    So will the stories of the future that are worth reading be the result of skill and artistry with words.

    I don’t care about point and shoot stories.

  2. Fantastic post. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. I just read an article about a fantasy writer who is starting to make decent money e-publishing on a site called wordcrunch. I get motivated and pumped when I think about the possibilities of making any sort of money by myself, without a major publisher. Though I still want to get published.

    I’m certain you’re wrong about one point though, when you say eventually we’ll reach a stage where big publishers don’t matter. That won’t happen, the big publishing houses will stay in the game no matter what, and the independent authors who are successful will eventually go to them, and make more money that way. Even in the digital age I feel it is all about having a machine behind you. It’s just not quite as important as it once was.

  3. Great post, John. For me, the major component that must always be there (along with a publishable story) is quality control. If an author decides to go it alone or outside the norm, he or she still has to have quality control: professional editing. There are very few writers who can have their draft go straight to the public without some form of editing. But as you said, hopefully, the good editors will find their place in this new way of doing things.

    Regarding publishers, here’s a fun game. Walk up to anyone in any books store and ask: “Who’s your favorite publisher?” Chances are, they’ll look at you like you have 3 eyes. Then ask: “Who’s your favorite author?” Big difference in their answers.

  4. Taylor, you are probably correct about the demise of publishers. It is not likely to happen because the money is the ultimate goal for their owners, and there are always ways to make money in any market and they can watch promising trends and use a part of their resources to stay ahead of the dangerous curves and exploit the straightaways.

  5. I agree that quality control is important, but I think what we will have are more smaller publishers with editing, formatting, cover art assistance and marketing targeted to internet impact.

  6. John, you’ve summed up here exactly whatI’ve been thinking (in increasing certainty) for about the past year. The medium is NOT the message for books, as it is/was for photography. The message is the message. And if it means we as authors actually have MORE control over our careers (writing what we want, putting books out when we’re ready and not having to wait) that’s gotta be a good thing. I foresee a (near) future where authors might form smaller groups the hire pubkicitist, editors, copy editors and create their own labels, if you will, like Charlie Chaplin and his buddies did in the early days of motion pictures when the created United Artist. Great post.

  7. You’re absolutely right that it is about the story. I don’t see many people reading their books on hand copied scrolls anymore, but we still read some of those books that were published that way. Whatever happens with the technology, the words are what are important.

    I’m not ready to call publishers out for the count yet. I think many have lost their way in recent times by cutting their budgets for editing and marketing, expecting authors to do things that most authors are not qualified to do. But 1,000,000 is a big number. Some of those books will naturally stand out because they on the only book on a topic people want to read about or because the author is well-known, but the rest are jockeying for position. The publisher that can make a name for itself for a certain type of book, such as what O’reilly has done, can give their authors a leg up on the competition. But it will only work if they make readers aware of what the various imprints represent. Harlequin does an excellent job of that, no matter what you might think of the books they publish.

    Even though technology exists that will take a manuscript to e-book, there will always be things that the typical author would rather other people do. That can be expensive when we realize many books don’t sell enough to make a profit. Because of the costs (both time and money) involved in publishing, authors will continue to look to publishers to take the risk.

  8. Most authors won’t criticize major publishers in such a small world as ours. Truth be told, if more authors did so, the houses would certainly be better off for it.

    I agree with Brett that there are definite advantages of being more in control. That way if you fail, it is more your fault. I remember my first editor telling me, “You just write them. It’s our job to sell them.”

  9. There seems little doubt that electronic distribution will eventually become the primary medium for book sales. And given the rapidly declining entry cost (with Kindles and Nooks approaching $100), I suspect the transition from bound books to e-books will occur faster than previously imagined. Certainly, faster than I had previously imagined.

    But, how should authors deal with the transition period as publishing moves through a very awkward evolution that will persist for the next several years –- probably at least the next ten years?

    Traditional publishers are quickly dismissed as being arcane institutions out of step with the emerging e-book market. There is probably significant truth in the view that traditional publishers have been too slow to adopt and are three steps behind the marketplace, but I think it’s a mistake to think that their vital editing and marketing roles can be easily replaced.

    Between 1980 and 2005, the number of traditionally published books increased two-fold in the U.S., to about 170,000 books per year. Add another 20-25,000 self-published books, and the total number of books approached 200,000 in 2005. With the e-book revolution and print-on-demand, in a few short years that number has ballooned to over 1,000,000 books. As every lumberjack in Ottawa discovers how easy it is to publish their life story in electronic format, that number will likely continue to climb.

    As that happens, how will the newly formed e-book distribution channels like Amazon sift through a million + new books each year and point readers to those deserving our attention?

    Even if the long-term prognosis for traditional publishers is dim (and I suspect they’ll adapt in ways that make predictions of their demise ultimately wrong), I think we can agree that traditional publishers will continue to publish a few hundred thousand books each year for at least the next several years. And it is only reasonable to assume that, in terms of quality, they will select from among the top quintile of manuscripts. Oh sure, they’ll miss some great books, and some great authors will eschew them, but generally speaking they’ll skim most of the cream over the next several years, at least.

    So, if you are an author who has written a worthy book that was overlooked by traditional publishers, you now have to compete with the 800,000 + (and growing) authors in the e-book marketplace. And let’s face it: most of these 800,000 books are of significantly lower quality than the 200,000 scooped up by publishing houses. Not all, but most.

    It’s a daunting prospect, I think. While a few mid-list authors who lost their traditional publishing contracts have had early success in the e-book marketplace, I suspect much of this “success” will prove fleeting as thousands of additional mid-list authors enter the e-book marketplace, joining the millions of self-published authors in an already saturated marketplace.

    Ultimately, my question is, during the next several years, how will authors producing worthy e-books outside of traditional publishing channels attract the attention of readers when the noise level in the e-book marketplace is likely to become deafening?

  10. Philip brings up an interesting class of people—not the lumberjacks per se, but authors who are out to publish their life story and perhaps make money at it. I wonder if perhaps the trend toward e-books will actually reduce their numbers rather than causing them to increase. There’s something rewarding about holding a physical book that you wrote in your hands. While the story remains in the Kindle, there isn’t much difference between seeing it in the Kindle than seeing it on a blog. Once the novelty of e-books wears off, I can’t help but wonder if people in that class will give up and just publish to blogs rather than messing with formatting their story in the form of an e-book.

  11. Timothy, my guess is, the opposite will happen. As software tools are developed that make formatting and cover art easier and more affordable, the number of poorly-written books about two-headed vampires will increase exponentially.

  12. Philip,

    The problem I see with that guess is that there aren’t enough authors for such stories to increase exponentially. Publishing isn’t likely to get much easier than it is now. You can already dump some text into a form, choose from among some stock photos hit a button and a book comes out with your name on the front and all essentially for free. What a computer can’t do for you is write the book. No matter how bad the story may be, it still takes a significant effort on someones part to write the story. For an author to invest that kind of effort, he has to have some kind of incentive. For some, it might be money, but once they figure out they aren’t going to make anything that incentive won’t help. Another incentive is recognition for writing a book. If we reach the point where a book is about as noteworthy of a blog, that incentive goes away too.

  13. Interesting posts.

    I am curious to know if anyone has a handle on what the genre distribution of this incredible increase in published (traditional and electronic)books is?

    I particpate in classes and seminars in a well-known writing instruction institution. I am surprised by the preponderance of those who identify ‘memoir’ as their area of interest. Is this or other genre(s) accounting for a marked proportion of the flood in published titles.
    Any idea how mystery/thriller is represented?

    Anyone know?

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