A funny thing happened to ebooks last year – they became legit.
Last January, right after I got my kindle, I started noticing stories about Amanda Hocking and a few other ebook superstars in places like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The articles had a semi-surprised, “look at this,” tone. No longer. Now an ebook author doing well raises no more eyebrows than John Grisham writing another best seller.
Even though I was paying attention, I don’t quite know when the shift in attitude happened. It was a done-deal by October. That’s when a local member of the California Writer’s Club asked advice from the group: his manuscript was ready. Should he submit it through traditional channels or go the ebook route? Everyone in the room, with no exceptions, recommended the ebook option.
As recently as twelve months ago, people still talked of ebooks as “self-publishing,” a phrase that carries a touch of “vanity press” stigma. That has changed. Now we speak of “traditionally published” in contrast to “independently published” authors. Listen to the words: traditional vs. independent. Which one has more panache?
Not long ago, approval by traditional agents and editors signified quality. I think the rapid loss of brick and mortar stores was a factor in changing that. When Borders folded, half the gates that gatekeepers kept disappeared. As the industry scrambles to find new ways to stay afloat, literary quality may not be so big a factor in the mix. Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords put it like this: “The cachet of traditional publishing is fading fast. Authors with finished manuscripts will grow impatient and resentful as they wait to be discovered by big publishers otherwise preoccupied with publishing celebrity drivel from Snooki, Justin Bieber and the Kardashians.
When you consider more serious fiction, odds seem to favor established names more than ever these days, in stores both large and small. I stopped at an independent bookstore last fall in a small town. It has been around for a while and continues to thrive. There were lots of attractive craft and gift items – pens, handmade notebooks, and things like that. The books were shelved by genre, and carefully chosen to reflect popular titles and series. It was easy to find something good to read, but almost all the choices were books by established authors. I’d do the same if I was the owner and wanted to stay in business, but that’s bad news for authors just starting out.
This is where time enters the equation for everyone, especially for older writers. The man who asked the ebook question at CWC was about my age and put it like this: “I don’t have forever.” Mid-list titles, which authors used to be able to sell while learning their craft are an endangered species. “Their demise has been predicted for years,” said agent Donald Maass. “This time it’s true.” As all these trends converge, the attraction of the ebook publishing has exploded.
One thing I notice consistently in the ebooks I have enjoyed is a certain playfulness or quirkiness, a willingness to step off the path of genre convention. I’m reminded of fantasy fiction in the ’80’s, when getting published wasn’t such a nail biting affair. The stories were full of surprises. Writers took more chances than those I see today at Barnes&Noble.
Recently, a well-meaning writer friend warned me that, “Editors don’t like colons.” That’s the second time someone has said that, and I’ve heard exclamation points are out of favor too! The only kind of writer who’s going to remember tidbits like that is one who is contentious, dedicated to learning her craft, and interested in giving her peers a leg up. And yet…isn’t that kind of “wisdom” going to backfire? Where is my imagination when I’m trying to remember which punctuation marks are okay to use? I’m not going to be fully engaged in telling the best story I can, especially if runs afoul of news of “what editors are looking for now.”
Everyone has to come to their own conclusions about what to read, what to write, and what to do with their writing. I find myself ever more grateful for ebooks and independently published authors. I plan to champion more of them this year.