So says Robert the Bruce to his leperous father in Braveheart. Standing on the brink of this uprising, father and son look at the opportunity in two different ways. The younger Bruce is ready to shake off the past and embrace this exciting new future. His father is not, instead advocating patience, caution, and maintaining the status quo. For awhile, the elder Bruce’s strategy seems wise, but eventually it becomes apparent this was not just a expression of frustration and discontent, but in fact a seminal moment in the fight for Scottish independence.
It seems reasonable to declare that writers are in the midst of their own revolution, one that began with the invention of the printing press and accelerated by such things as typewriters and copy machines.
Computers and word processing programs were a serendipity for writers, making it even easier for us to express ourselves. Although few probably realized it at the time, the internet was another quantum leap, the last piece needed to completely change the distribution of the printed word.
Until a few years ago, would be authors submitted themselves to the arduous process of traditional publishing, gaining permission of the gatekeepers; the literary agents and publishers. These individuals decided what the public would like to read. For many years, writers frustrated by this glacial process would sometimes self publish, a process derided as motivated by vanity.
However, with the advent of ebooks, self publishing has gradually lost its stigma. It’s become an inexpensive way for writers to speak and readers to listen. For some time now, agents and publishers have taken the stance of Robert’s slowly dying father, holding fast to the status quo, knowing theirs was a respected and established instituion. Surely this fad called ebooks would pass. This infatuation of the public would wane and then they would be back to selling books at their time honored prices, in the time honored way.
Except it has not happened that way. Amazon recently announced in 2010 they sold more ebooks than traditional books. That was a seminal moment. Perhaps one cannot have the same tactile experience with an ebook, but at one tenth the price, it’s a sacrifice the public seems willing to make. Perhaps an author gets a thrill found nowhere else in holding their newly published book and turning the pages; in signing it for a friend. But the ease of publication and a comparable royalty seems like a trade off they are willing to accept.
Thousands more writers are flooding the market with their books, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers. Do we still have gatekeepers? Of course we do; the buyers and the readers decide which books are good. Many new writers will not succeed, but it will not be because they didn’t have the chance. Their success will now be solely based on their talent.
This radical change greatly diminishes the importance of the traditional publishing business. I would not surprise me if literary agents become an obsolete profession in less than five years. Just as in the newspaper business, there will surely be major shakeups in the publishing business.
Bookstores are also feeling the pinch. Borders Books recently declared bankruptcy, and certainly they’re not the last to do so. We have, in Portland Oregon, a store called Powell’s Books. They are often considered the largest independent bookstore in at least the USA, with more than a million titles. Even they’ve laid off employees in the past year and it’s hard to imagine their restructuring is over.
In the past few months I’ve seen writing friends break off relationships with agents and publishers to strike off on their own. Emboldened by their example, I ended my relationship with my own agent, also feeling frustrated by the traditional, slow process. Shortly thereafter I was approached by a British publisher wanting a full read of my book Draegnstoen. Two years ago I would’ve been doing cartwheels, but instead I calmly checked them out. Because they were a very new publisher and hadn’t even released their first title yet, I thanked them and declined their offer. It felt odd, but I know it was the right thing to do. I will be self publishing Draegnstoen before the end of July, and Highland King before the end of August.
It’s an exciting time to be a writer. Why? A rebellion has begun…