“Transition” is the word I most associate with 2010.
2010 will always be a year of major transition for me personally as it was the year I disembarked from an eight-year stint in publishing for a new life in the tech world. But it was also a year of major transition for the industry as a whole. Transition transition transition.
And the effect of all this transition is what I like to call the Big Squeeze.
Whatever the causes, whatever the broader forces at play, the reality is that we as a culture are moving at seemingly every level to a stark divide between the haves and the have nots. Whether it’s income distribution or blockbuster movies, books, music, and celebrities, or even when you look at politics, for whatever reason we’re at a time of polarization. There are a few people who win and find themselves at the top and have gazillions of dollars and fame and are bigger than ever, and a lot of people below the tip of the pyramid who are part of the long tail and living in the Big Squeeze.
Life inside the Big Squeeze is hard, and chances are if you’re reading this blog you’ve experienced it. You’re scrambling with lots of different people to try and get to the top, you have sent queries that have gone unanswered and feel lost in a sea of insurmountable numbers. The competition is ruthless and at times seemingly random. Who knows what will emerge from the scrum and why? But every now and then a book will become a force of nature and reach megabestsellerdom, a level that agents and publishers now increasingly depend upon discovering to make their careers and provide a reliable income/bottom line.
The day to day reality of life in the Big Squeeze is frustrating, especially if you are trying to make a living within that environment. There are obstacles at every turn, the successes are hard won, and the odds are always against you. And for me personally, a new opportunity came along in 2010 that was just so amazing I had to take it, so I’m opting out of the Big Squeeze. (At least for my day job. I’m still in the scrum as an author.)
But the Big Squeeze is about more than just the day to day struggles of trying to make it as a writer in a blockbuster world. It may be inevitable that the supply of books outstrips the demand and this will inexorably drive down e-book prices. There are a whole lot of books out there, and lots of authors who are willing to do whatever it takes to find their audiences.
Enter the agency model in 2010, which is essentially five of the major publishers’ attempt to raise the dam to stop a great and probably inevitable flood. They are trying to hold the line at e-book prices above $10 even as the levees are springing leaks right and left, whether it’s J.A. Konrath selling his books for cheap, or the thousands of authors out there who are willing to heavily discount or even give away books for free just to find their readership.
Maybe the quality of the books the publishers curate will be sufficient that people will pay a premium for them, and the levees will hold. Or, much like how journalism has been drowned in a sea of free and often inferior online content, prices may have to come down in order to compete with people willing to write for free or near free. The future of the industry as we know it likely hinges on the balance between these competing factors.
Publishers are hoping the levees hold, but there’s a lot of water behind those dams.
And yet! If you’re an author, things are not so bad as all that. These are tricky times to be a publishing employee, and I don’t envy my former comrades-at-arms as they try to navigate these difficult waters. But if you’re an author: it’s still the best of times.
Your success is still not totally within your hands and the whims of fate are still very much alive, but your success is more in your hands than it ever has been. No manuscript has to disappear into a drawer. The ease of access to the marketplace has never been greater. The ease finding a potential audience has never been greater.
Within the Big Squeeze are so many success stories and so much day to day happiness, people finding their readers and sharing their books with friends and loved ones, and the happy feedback that comes with putting your work out there. As long as you’re not counting on megabestsellerdom to satisfy your personal happiness or to pay your bills, there is so much satisfaction to be had.
So the best of times and worst of times continues to be an apt phrase for the book world in this time of transition. It’s an industry I’m no longer a part of as an employee, but I’m very much enjoying the ride as an author.