The new Gold Rush

Sophie Masson’s novel, My Australian Story: The Hunt for Ned Kelly, has been shortlisted for the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature. Good luck Sophie.

There’s a new Gold Rush apparently going on in the literary world in the USA, and though it hasn’t quite reached Australian shores yet, echoes of it are already echoing across the Pacific to us. And what is this new literary goldrush? Why, it’s the supposed fortunes to be made in the latest miracle medium – e-books – which if you believe all the excited stories about it, not only looks set to be the greatest thing in the books world since Gutenberg, but also ’empowers’ independent or ‘indie’ authors to do things their own way, without regard to those dreadful entities, publishers!

The Internet and other media are awash with excited stories of e-book self-publish millionaires like J.A. Konrath and Amanda Hocking who, bypassing traditional publishers, have done it all themselves—and reaped enormous amounts of buckaroos and vast numbers of readers. Now, self-publishing isn’t new; but traditionally it’s not only been regarded as second-rate, given the lack of third-party ‘quality control’, but also it has been expensive. Publishing a print book is not cheap, and then there’s the cost of marketing, distribution, warehousing etc. E-publishing cuts down on all of this. No need for warehousing. Distribution is apparently a cinch now that your e-book can be listed at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc etc. And if you’re willing to have a go, you can go through sites like www.smashwords.com to do all the production yourself, from go to whoa, perfectly free—and still get paid royalties, the rate of which seems much more attractive than at traditional publishing. Or if you’re a bit nervous of attempting the huge task of getting a book from rough ms to finished copy with cover and all in heaps of different formats—Kindle, other e-readers such as the Sony or the Kobo or the Nook, Ipad and smartphone applications—then you can get someone to do it for you, often for  not all that much(Smashwords recommends people who will transmute your Microsoft Word document into a finished book for about 25 bucks an hour, for instance.) Then hey presto, your book’s out there, listed on all those sites—all you have to do is sit back and wait for the gold to come rolling in and your book to climb to stratospheric heights on the Amazon lists—and all without those miserly ‘gatekeepers’, the publishing industry, who’ve been blocking your way into literary heaven. It’s a new literary gold rush, and it seems like more and more people want to rush off and join it, ditching prosaic thoughts of the ordinary publishing slog to dream of a chance at a Welcome Stranger, or at the very least, a bit of sparkly colour..

Trouble is, what a lot of people seem to have forgotten is that in the old Gold Rush, it’s only the very few who ended up rich enough to have their horses shod in gold and their significant others laden down with costly gems on every finger. A few more made a respectable income; but most gold-starry-eyed miners worked like Trojans wrestling with the miserly earth to yield them up a wage which was less than what they’d have got at a regular job. And it was those who provided the services—shopkeepers, lawyers, bankers, etc—who made the real and enduring money. This is exactly the same in publishing gold rushes!

As the refreshingly down to earth Hocking herself pointed out in a recent blog post,  e-publishing is exactly like traditional publishing in that you simply cannot predict what books are going to do well and which aren’t. Nobody—not authors, not critics, not publishers, marketers, booksellers or anyone else– has any real idea what will fire the reading public’s imagination and lead to mega publishing phenomena. Sure, you can have a general idea of what’s a reliable seller; but the literary Welcome Stranger is as difficult to predict as the metallic one—or even more so. Writing and publishing have a strong element of gambling which is what makes them such an exciting and frustrating business to be in. E-authoring and publishing will be no different. Indeed, no matter what the golden dreams of some today, I believe that if e-publishing does become the mainstream way of the future(which I am not at all convinced it will—see this interesting take on the subject here) it will be even harder in the future to even earn any kind of respectable income from writing, let alone strike it rich. Not only will there be growing problems with piracy(which have already appeared) but the drive by readers to want cheaper and cheaper books erodes any possibility publishers can have of making any kind of profit. And lest you think that doesn’t matter when the brave new world of literature will be controlled not by the reviled ‘middlemen’ but by the producers themselves, independent authors, then remember this: it’s already easy to be gobsmacked by the amount of books out there; but the positive tsunami of new authors that ‘indie’ digital self-publishing will unleash simply risks becoming so overwhelming for readers that they turn off completely and cannot be bothered wading through the dross to find, yes, that unmistakeable glint of literary gold.

Sophie Masson’s website is here…

Subscribe to Quadrant magazine here...

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.