From Amy: “Seeing your facebook posts in relation to self-publishing today, i’m very curious as to why you seem to be so upset when continuously you encourage self publishing of other media. Just look at Vlogbrothers itself. In fact, you addressed this in Hitler and Sex. What about all of the amazing musicians that DFTBA Records picked up. The internet enabled these people to get out there and start something big. Why are books not okay?”
I haven’t sorted my feelings out, and I may be inconsistent/wrong. But to be clear: I did not intend to attack or criticize self-publishing itself. Many great books are being self-published, and that has been the case for centuries.
I wanted to criticize Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, because I felt that in his introduction of the new kindles, Bezos repeatedly peddled the lie that a book is created by one person, and that therefore a book’s author should be the sole entity to profit from the sale of the book. (Aside, of course, from Amazon itself.)
Bezos and Amazon are consistent in their promotion of this lie, because it encourages the idea that the publishing landscape today is bloated and inefficient and that there is a better, cheaper way to do it—a way where all books can cost $1.99 with most of that $1.99 going to the author. Readers and writers both win then, right?
Well, no. Because the truth is, most good books are NOT created solely by one person: Editors and publishers play a tremendously important role not just in the distribution of books, but in the creation of them. Without my editor, there would be no great perhaps in Looking for Alaska, no Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars, and no Agloe, New York in Paper Towns. Without copyeditors and proofreaders, my books would be riddled with factual and grammatical errors that would pull you out of the story and give you a less immersive reading experience. Publishers add value, and lots of it, and without them the overall quality and diversity of books will suffer.
There is lots of room in this world for indie publishing, and I’m excited about all the reading opportunities that the Internet has given us, from blogs to fan fiction to direct-to-ereader novels. But comparing publishing to music or TV is really troubling to me, because people listen to a lot of music: In an average week, I probably listen to 200 songs. I probably watch 5 hours of television or YouTube. But in an average week, I read one book (and that puts me on the far end of the reading bell curve among Americans). Given how few books are read—perhaps 500 million a year—the current publishing landscape does an astonishingly good job of making sure there are plenty of books available to a wide variety of audiences. There are books about little people who survived the Holocaust and the Islamization of the Uzbeks and how to swing a golf club.
My fear is that if there are only two or three voices in the publishing retail landscape—say, Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon—that diversity will dramatically decrease. Only a few dozen books a year will be available at large retailers like Wal-Mart; the rest of literature will exist only in the kindle store. Those books will have difficulty being discovered, because there are so few readers and so many titles. (You are starting to see a similar phenomenon on YouTube right now, actually, but in publishing it will be far worse, because it usually only takes a few minutes to watch a YouTube video.)
Here’s my concern: What will happen to the next generation’s Toni Morrison? How will she—a brilliant, Nobel-worthy writer who doesn’t have a huge built-in audience—get the financial and editorial support her talent deserves? (You’ll note that there’s no self-published literary fiction anywhere near the kindle bestseller lists.) Amazon will have absolutely no investment in that writer, and they won’t need to. Over time, I’m worried this lack of investment will hurt the quality and breadth of literature we actually read, even if literature remains broadly available.
So my issue is not with self-publishing. My issue is with Bezos profiting from this false narrative that an Amazon monopoly will benefit both readers and writers. In truth, I don’t think it will benefit anyone. In the long run, I don’t even think it will benefit Amazon, because if they succeed in destroying publishers, the quality of the books they sell will suffer, and even fewer people will be inclined to spend their evenings reading.
FWIW, I agree with John.