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The New Literary Democracy: Differentiating The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

March 25, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 119

They say that 82% of Americans would like to write a book. Tens of thousands of them do. The vast majority of the books that are flooding into the muddled market space of independent publishing are read only by the author and the author's mother. This is the Gutenberg revolution on steroids. Anyone with the will to write can upload their books on Amazon, Smashwords and Createspace, to name only a few, for free and have instant global distribution. Of course, like all mass processes, no one is going to notice that you book is even there without some intervening process.

The question on the minds of most in the literary world is - is this massive flow of written words competing for attention a good thing?

There can be no doubt that the former literary establishment that used to dominate the publication of the written word like haughty aristocrats denied all too many worthy voices the right to be heard and be considered by society at large. The best book ever written in Twentieth Century may very well be rotting in a three-ring binder in a landfill having been discarded by its frustrated author many years ago. In the bourgeois era of literature, it was not good enough to be an excellent author, you had to be connected, or by some miracle be noticed by an industry insider, if you ever hoped to find an audience. There was simply no other way to get distribution. One has to wonder how many voices of sheer genius were shut out in the cold never to be heard.

The internet has punched a hole in the literary establishment and it is bleeding profusely. It will not fade away entirely just like the recording industry has not faded away entirely. But it will never again possess the glamour of exclusivity that it once enjoyed. Like the damage done to theatre by movies in the early Twentieth Century, the literati will continue to control what is left of the most influential sources of newspaper and other mass media resources for book promotion and review. The New York Times best sellers lists will remain as the principle vehicle into sales hyperspace. Oprah will still have the power to make a best seller by merely whispering a title to her following. All the while, indie writers will struggle to sell a hundred copies a book through the enormous effort of ten thousand tweets or more.

This is what market space reorganization looks like after a major technological innovation. The old guard dies or declines while many fortune hunters rush in to try to compete for the low hanging fruit that is usually gone after the first few prospectors arrive. This ignites competition and innovation as the fortune hunters scramble to get to the gold buried deeper and deeper in the ground. Eventually, a new guard emerges from the cloud of confusion and chaos that will ultimately stratify the market space and become the latest version of the new world order. A decade from now there will be a new aristocracy and a new market dogma creating an all too familiar system of market domination and exclusivity that identifies and promotes some quality products, but also creates barriers to entry for everything else. This is natural evolution of an emerging market resulting in inevitable market domination. Of course, it is also the process by which old guards are slain by new technologies.

We are witnessing the literary version of the 1848 California Gold Rush. In the middle of the Nineteenth Century, thousands upon thousands of speculators and prospectors flocked to California to try to seize upon an unexploited opportunity. Very, very few reaped any benefit at all while many, in fact the majority, were ruined by it. Some of the most successful beneficiaries were not prospectors, but people who provided goods and services to the horde. 1848 was a great year to be in the covered wagon business or to own an iron forge that made pickaxes. Unlike the California Gold Rush, the global literary boom will not leave people frozen and starving to death in the Rocky Mountains. But it will waste millions and millions of man-hours of time that could have been redirected at more certain forms of prosperity.

Opportunities attract dreamers. Like the 1848 Gold Rush, the Oklahoma Land Boom and the Tech Boom of the 1990s, millions will be inspired to seek their fortune in independent literature only to become lost in the crowd. This market space is already filled to an absurd level of overcrowding and is only just getting started. At the ground floor of market organization are the providers of the essential tools required for entry into the market space. Amazon, Smashwords and others providing free publishing services for any and all literary prospectors rushing to stake claim are already the true success stories in the independent literature market.

On the heels of the primary suppliers of the essential tools of the industry, comes a wave of secondary services that help literary prospectors compete in the market space. There are blog theme designers, cover designers, editorial services and proof readers racing to the scene of the rush, not to write the next Moby Dick, but to make money off of the thousands of writers, most of whom who will never make it. These secondary industry service providers actually have a higher chance of business success than their customers in that they feed off of the hopeful much like saloon owners in the old West.

The third wave are the market organizers. Already there is a short list of very influential blogs that can boost readership by thousands of readers with a single post. While this submarket is still very ill-defined as of yet, but it will eventually contain only a handful of truly influential review sources that the market comes to trust. That credibility is being earned right now as these review blogs tear through the volume of material to identify the diamonds in the muck that have the potential to gather large audiences.

In time, larger media outlets will eventually become the gatekeepers acting as a quality filter for the market. It takes time to build a reputation for reliability in product evaluation. The New York Times Book Review is a branded service that had to be developed over decades of careful attention to quality of service and reliability of product. The heart of the matter is that the New York Times cannot afford to recommend books that will not appeal to a broad audience so it simply does not do high lob reviews for bad books regardless of financial backing or social influence.

The truth of emerging markets is that in the beginning getting there first, or getting there with some homemade advantage will benefit the first arrivals. The success of Amanda Hawkings and John Locke will become increasingly rare over time as competition forces quality to become an issue. Even successful indie writers are already protecting their turf by hiring professional editors and proof-readers as soon as they have the resources to afford it. They have already raised the bar for what will and will not be successful in the long term in the independent literature market.

As happened in the great eras of "Penny Dreadfuls" and pulp fiction, millions of dollars is already being spent ninety-nine cents at a time on trashy e-books. Few of these books wills sell in volume, but as a whole they have already become big business. The traditional genres of pulp fiction,like erotica romance novels, will reap the biggest rewards in this digital pulp market place. There will be trends like vampire and zombies stories that will only yield a very few success stories. If you are writing a vampire novel these days, you are in all likelihood wasting your time if you are writing to make money. That ship has sailed and there is already a market rebellion against vampire stories underway as many readers recoil from the over-saturation of the market by that particular theme. But new and similar themes will arise. They will bring forth greater and greater level of originality that what will be quickly inundated by a wave of cheap imitations.

Only certain types of themes, like erotica, romance, mystery and action lend themselves to the digital pulp audience. The pulp fiction audience, by definition, consumes large quantities of cheap stories for the thrill of it and not the thoughtfulness of it. The pulp fiction industry, however, is not a trifling matter. It has been big business, historically speaking. It has also given birth to a wide variety of literature that has had substantial longevity. In the Nineteenth Century, for example, following the invention of cheap typesetting and high-pulp newsprint, a literary boom occurred as industrial printing houses published thousands and thousands of cheap stories for the mass market. Called "Penny Dreadfuls", these often poorly written and usually serialized stories cost little to buy and very little to produce. The ever-increasing literacy of Victorian England and the United States, especially among boys, created an enormous market for these often scandalous stories. This gave way to the "dime novel" in the United States that often sensationalized the news form the Western frontier. In the early Twentieth Century, dime novels evolved into comic books. As more and more women become socially independent, the romance novel became popular having been considered unladylike in previous generations.

The new era of digital pulp has arrived. The ninety-cent e-book is the new Penny Dreadful. It is interesting to note that, historically speaking, very few authors have ever prospered from pulp fiction. The same cannot be said for the publishers of that material. Because the e-book can be made and distributed for free, you can count on the big winner in the digital pulp fiction market will be companies like Amazon. This is simply history repeating itself.

But what is to become of the writers of serious literary fiction? The truth is that those aspiring to reach a large audience with a serious piece of literature must fight the fight that has always been fought. For serious writers that struggle is for recognition and acknowledgement of talent, artistry and message. This has always required the attention of a very few influential market makers. At the present time, hiring literary agents to get the attention of these market makers is still the quickest route to success. It is not, however, the only way.

In the near future, expect the emergence of a market organizing service, possibly something like Kirkus Reviews, that will be capable of reviewing massive volumes of literature with an objective grading system that informs the market of readers what is and is not worth buying. Amazon and Smashwords have attempted to develop this process by a system of reader reviews that it is available for any and all of its books. Readers, however, are becoming savvy to lack of reliability of consumer-driven evaluations. Everyone writer knows how to start out with a five-star review on Amazon. (Isn't that right, Mom?) This review process is particularly vulnerable to market mischief. Recently, an author that I know of who has written a controversial book fictionalizing Christian history, came under attack by fake reviewers assaulting her book on theological grounds. It is a very dangerous proposition to allow fanatics to trash a book because it offends their theology. This is the digital version of book burning.

Like all evaluations left in the hands of large masses of people, the intellectual merit will find its lowest common denominator. This explains why something like Jersey Shore is still on national television. When evaluated by a mass audience, it passes muster even though no one with a IQ over "completely retarded" would watch it.

At the risk of overexposing my erudition, I could care less about what the masses think about a book. I want to locate the books that my great grandchildren will consider classics. Because the market space is currently in a chaotic mess, I rely heavily on reviews and recommendations from people I trust. A review process that includes most, if not all books, and helps the reader accurately identify his or her own tastes and interests while giving some idea of the quality of writing and structure to be found in a book is the next great innovation waiting to be invented. Like every emerging market, eventually there will be market miners that can find the gems in the trash heap and bring them to the surface so that we all may benefit.

It remains to be seen as to whether or not big players like Amazon will eventually start throwing up barriers to market entry that force a select few books to the surface based on selection criteria that is d more market control than it is quality identification. This kind of development is usually the sign that a market has matured and is ready for a new democratic revolution. We will have to wait to see how this plays out. In the meantime, indie writers will have to keep tweeting in the darkness hoping to find a reader who is listening.

So is the new democracy of digital literature a good thing? It is only if it increases the possibility that true talent will be found regardless of the wealth and social connection of the author. The world is and has always been in need of the best ideas of the human race regardless of where they come from. The democratization of literature requires us to sift through the mass rabble of writing that will make no difference to humanity. We should rightfully remain indifferent to bad writing. But at the same time, we have great need of a system that offers the possibility that somewhere in this sea of seven billion shivering monkeys, writing unnoticed in darkest corners of our collective consciousness, we might find the one or two who have the next best ideas on how to survive, prosper and be happy. Such a system or process could only help us become a better species.

Source: EzineArticles
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