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.
Yesterday on twitter, I expressed annoyance with the hundreds of people who send me emails or tumblr messages or whatever to let me know that they illegally downloaded one of my books, as if they expect me to reply with my hearty congratulations that they are technologically sophisticated enough to use google or whatever. (I dislike it when people pirate my books. I know that not all authors feel this way, but I do. As I’ve discussed before, I think copyright law is disastrously stupid in the US, but I don’t think piracy is an appropriate response to that stupidity.*)
I then pointed out that my books are already available for free at thousands of public libraries not just in the US, but also in Europe, South America, Australia, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, the UK, etc., to which many people replied, What’s the difference between pirating a book and checking it out from the library?
1. Libraries are broadly collecting institutions curated by experts. The curation facet of a library is hugely important: We train these librarians to organize information based not solely on what is popular (which is what piracy does), but also on what is good. The truth is you can’t get “anything” via piracy; there are hundreds of thousands of books you can’t get, because they aren’t yet popular. American public and school libraries play a huge role in preserving the breadth of American literature by collecting and sharing books that are excellent but may not be written by YouTubers with large bulit-in audiences.
Libraries improve the quality of discourse in their communities in ways that piracy simply does not. And if it weren’t for the broad but carefully curated collection practices of libraries, the world of American literature would look a lot like the world of American film: Instead of hundreds of books being published every week, there would be four or five.
2. Libraries buy books. Lots of them. And there are tens of thousands of libraries around the country. That is good for me and good for my book. (Like, the average library copy of The Fault in Our Stars might get checked out 100 times, or even a thousand, butsingle files of Looking for Alaska have been illegally downloaded more than 50,000 times.)
3. For the more than 100 million Americans without Internet access at home, libraries are the only free places to use the web to search for jobs or connect with family or buy t-shirts at dftba.com. I am very happy if my books can help add value to institutions that facilitate such important services. I do not feel the same way about BitTorrent.
4. And this is the most important: I believe that creators of books should have control over how their work is distributed. If, for instance, a musician doesn’t want her songs played during Rick Santorum rallies, then Rick Santorum should not be allowed to use them. I don’t want my books to be available for free download (unless you borrow an e-copy from a library, that is). I just don’t. It’s not because I’m a greedy bastard or want to keep my books from people who might otherwise read them. It’s because I believe books are valuable. Right now, on Amazon, my brand new hardcover book costs about $10, which represents 1.2 hours of work at the federal minimum wage. I believe books are worth 1.2 hours of work.
One last thing: A lot of people compare the world of books with the world of music. I think this comparison is unfair. For one thing, CDs were overpriced before Napster. I really don’t believe that books—at least my books—are currently overpriced**. More importantly, most musicians have a secondary source of income: They can charge for live performances. Writers—or at least the vast majority of writers—can’t do this. The book is The Thing. The book is all we have to offer.
And in my opinion, libraries preserve the integrity and the value of the book in ways that piracy simply does not.
Based on how many of you have already seen Season 2 of Sherlock, I realize that most of you disagree with me. And I’m happy to acknowledge that I might be wrong. I welcome your thoughts and responses on these complicated questions.
* The whole argument that piracy is some kind of civil disobedience in response to unfair copyright laws is ridiculous and indicates to me that not enough people are reading Civil Disobedience, or even the wikipedia article about it.
** As pointed out by no less an authority than John Darnielle, CDs weren’t overpriced by many independent record labels. Also, I should add that many books—particularly literary fiction hardcovers published for adults—are overpriced, sometimes dramatically. I think this is a bad and discouraging trend, which is one of the (many) reasons why I like publishing my books the way I do: It’s still possible for a hardcover to cost less than $20, and if you adjust for inflation, it always should be.
Richard Beeman, in the preface to his book, “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution.”
I have a feeling I will be referencing this book quite a lot as I read it.