By Light Unseen Media
BLU~Media Blog

April 4, 2012

Is that sex in that book or are you just glad to see me?

Two recent spicy tales in the book world are giving me some thoughts about where readers’ attention and purchasing power is currently headed.

As all alert book professionals know, the “self-publishing” field is disproportionately occupied by so-called “erotica” (let’s not be prissy about it. That means soft- to hard-core pornography). This is especially obvious on Smashwords, where all you need to do is turn off the “Adult Filter” to see several new porn titles on the main page every time you visit. That’s one of the major reasons that I’ve retreated from Smashwords: the neighborhood has gotten pretty run-down, even for “self-publishing.” Sure, there are plenty of writers putting up books there about growing tomatoes or adjusting to new fatherhood, or ordinary genre fiction, or memoirs and poetry. But with that “Adult Filter” in place (it’s on by default, thankfully), I guarantee that you’re missing about a third of Smashwords’ most colorful offerings.

Being acutely aware of this, and also being aware of how virulently prudish, repressive and anti-sex America has become politically, I wasn’t at all surprised when Smashwords [finally] ran into some blowback.

In mid-February, Smashwords was informed that PayPal would stop serving their clients if Smashwords continued to sell books dealing with “rape, incest and bestiality.” PayPal claimed this actually came from the credit card companies they work with, and that seems to be true. Other vendors and “self-publishing” platforms were given similar ultimatums, by PayPal and by credit card companies.

Smashwords CEO Mark Coker sent an email out to Smashwords users, asking them to take down titles dealing with these themes: rape, incest and bestiality. All hell broke loose. Mark spent several weeks of what must have been agony placating angry writers and negotiating with PayPal, and finally, on March 13, PayPal caved in and moderated its policies. Smashwords clients were lucky. Other venues, such as Amazon, simply yanked the books, and one of them, Bookstrand, deleted all “indie” titles on any topic from its catalog, just to be on the safe side.

What interested me about this whole kerfluffle, however, was how many people were infuriated and threatened by the banning of these specific themes. There was no blanket purging of “erotica” per se. Only three admittedly fringe sub-themes were mentioned. Rape, especially if it’s presented as titillating or gratuitous, is almost universally condemned and rejected by editors, reviewers, agents, and most readers who say they won’t read or consider any fiction that includes it. Along with this taboo, you would think, if not hope, that incest and bestiality would be minority recreational tastes even among readers of erotic fiction.

But apparently not. Attempting to restrict fiction about “rape, incest and bestiality” seems to have rocked Smashwords to its foundations and, at least according to Mark Coker, sent most of its 30,000 writers into a foaming rage. It seems that stories about rape, bestiality and incest (chiefly non-blood-related incest such as stepfathers and daughters) must be very popular, and essential to the artistic expression of one heck of a lot of “self-published” writers.

I’m sorry, but that just strikes me as…weird. Mark Coker crows about championing “legal fiction.” But “legal” is merely a technicality and says absolutely nothing about merit, value, ethics or even the potential harm that something might do. Many proscribed things have no business being “illegal” at all, while many things are “legal” which are pernicious, toxic and downright evil. The porn industry has always waved the “legal” flag almost as a taunt, with descriptors like “barely legal” (which means, “kids who are technically over the age of consent but look young enough to indulge your pedophile fantasies”).

Of course, having won this very public battle for “legal fiction” and “free speech” (cue the Sousa marches and waving flags), Smashwords has now established itself as the number one porn-friendly “self-publishing” platform and is publishing even more “hot sex with stepdaddy” stories than ever. So if rape, incest and bestiality float your boat, you now know where to find them.

As the “self-publishing” world was dealing with this crisis, traditional publishing was dealt a similar thunderbolt by a trilogy snarkily labelled “Mommy porn” (and not in the sense of MILF, apparently). A British author using the name E L James wrote an extremely popular Twilight fan fiction story titled Master of the Universe, and adapted the story into an “original” trilogy of books (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed). Initially published by a small Australian press, the trilogy was picked up in a bidding war by Vintage Books, part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, for a 7-figure advance. The film rights immediately were sold to Universal for something over $5 million. The eager anticipation, pre-sales and general “buzz” around the first book’s release rival that for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As the New York Observer complained, everyone is talking about the newest blockbuster–and about its origin in fan fiction.

It’s not that unusual for fan fiction writers to transpose their plotlines into an original fictional universe for publication. You’d be surprised how many romance and erotica series, in particular, started out that way. Most of the writers go to greater lengths to disguise their stories’ roots and distinguish them from the source material than did James, who apparently changed very little except the characters’ names and the hero’s body temperature. It’s also not a bit surprising that a book with fan fiction origins is all about sex, because that’s pretty much what fan fiction is for. The vast majority of fan fiction has no other function than to imagine fervent relationships, torrid love affairs or just context-free erotic interludes among various characters, the more unlikely the better. (Sirius and Buckbeak? I know it’s out there somewhere. After all, bestiality is okay, Smashwords says so!)

But what I find somewhat disturbing is the phenomenal, mainstream enthusiasm for books dealing with a humble, submissive, youthful female being seduced and dominated by an older, extremely powerful and wealthy male. The Twilight Saga has been under attack for years about the “bad message it gives to teen girls,” the disparity of power and privilege in Bella’s relationship with Edward, and the fact that all of Bella’s self-worth and reason for existing depend on being accepted by a man. Now these same dynamics have been translated to a slightly more grown-up and very sexual relationship, and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone at all.

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times, “what is shameful about “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t the submissive sex, it’s the Cinderella story. One reason the books sold so well over the Internet is that that this kind of riches-and-rescue tale isn’t easy to find outside Harlequin novels…it’s harder to find story lines that reward helplessness outside the bedroom — or off the rack.” Of course, “rewarding helplessness,” and fantasies of winning the adoration of an all-powerful male who will take care of the heroine so she never has to worry about responsibilities is a core attraction of romance for its female readers, and always has been.

You hear a lot these days about “rape culture” and “triggers” (topics that can reactivate trauma for survivors of abuse), often from the same individuals who fiercely defend their own tastes in erotica, and their right to free speech. It seems, however, that many people forget just how ubiquitous the “rape fantasy” once was in literature–and not just romance books, which weren’t called “bodice rippers” for nothing.

As part of my research for The Longer the Fall, I read a number of popular 1950s novels, including Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place. I was mildly surprised to find that Peyton Place doesn’t live up to its reputation. It’s a dismal, bleak, unpleasant book without that much sex in it, and the sex it has is no more exciting or positive than the rest of the story. But the really off-putting thing for me is that the hero of Peyton Place is a flat-out rapist, and apparently both Metalious and her huge audience found that perfectly okay.

I’m not talking about the infamous subplot, based on an actual incident, in which a stepdad molests his daughter, who has an illegal abortion and finally kills him. I’m referring to the virile Greek school principal who “cures” the older heroine’s frigidity (the result of a tragic affair with a married man and an illegitimate child) by brutally forcing himself on her.

The whole scene made me cringe, even though it was identical to the scene in Gone With the Wind in which a drunken Rhett carries a struggling Scarlett upstairs and rapes her all night. Like Metalious’ heroine, Scarlett awakens the next morning neither outraged nor traumatized, but awash in post-coital bliss. We all know how successful Gone With the Wind was, so clearly this dynamic, at least in the recent past, had considerable appeal for women readers. A masterful male sweeps a timid or repressed female off her feet and fires up her forbidden passions–that formula has earned countless authors and filmmakers their fortunes, and with Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s doing it again.

Alma Katsu asks, on Huffington Post, whether the monster success of E L James’ trilogy heralds a new era for acceptance of fan fiction. It’s certainly going to raise awareness of the massive volume of free, fan-written derivative work being produced and read, but what I see is the possibility of mainstream acceptance of very explicitly erotic books. Unless Fifty Shades of Grey breaks out of the gate only to fall flat on its face, I suspect we’re seeing the new wave in fiction publishing as a whole: lots and lots and lots of sex with just enough plot to justify it: basically sex for its own sake rather than serving a larger story.

I’m rather ambivalent about this. I like a well-written steamy bedroom scene, myself, but I prefer to see fictional sex play the same role it does in real life: dessert, not the whole meal. I also think that sex in fiction, like everything else, should serve the characters and story, not the other way around. But it’s starting to look like mine will be the real minority point of view when it comes to sex in books.

March 25, 2011

The REAL Quantum Shift in Publishing

There’s a huge change happening in the publishing world. It’s not very good for readers, and it’s going to be very, very tough on writers. It’s a fundamental shift in how publishers and those who support the publishing industry make a profit. This shift is occurring not merely in one area, but throughout the industry from top to bottom, and it’s happening rather quietly. The odd thing is, for all the attention focused on parts of this shift, no one seems to be stepping back and putting together the whole picture.

Among SF/Fantasy writers, there’s a maxim called Yog’s Law, that states, “money flows toward the writer.” That is, writers should never pay to be published, to have their manuscripts read by an agent, to be edited after they’ve signed with a publisher, and so on. This maxim was valid back in the days when charging the author almost always constituted a scam.  The writer’s job was to create, and having done so, his/her goal was to sell the creation to a publisher who then shaped it into a marketable form and distributed it to the public.

That’s all changed now. Say goodbye to Yog’s Law: it’s about to join the typed manuscript with two carbons and those skinny galley proofs in the dustbin of publishing history. Writers are becoming the publishing industry’s second most important paying customers. This is not a prediction. It’s already happening.

In the book-publishing model that was current from around 1900 to the 1990s, an author’s role in the process was “the talent.” He or she delivered a manuscript to the publisher and was paid a lump sum originally intended to support the author until the book was in the marketplace. This “advance” was paid against future royalties as stipulated by the contract–it was calculated on the assumption that the book would earn much more. Aside from writing the book, the author participated to some extent in promotion, but this was planned and paid for by the publisher.

By the end of the 1970s (the recession might partly explain this), publishers started angling for “blockbusters,” titles which would become huge best-sellers and generate vast profits. In order to attract and keep authors and/or books that seemed likely to generate that kind of audience excitement, publishers began competing with each other and offering larger and larger advances. Although publishers have always been very secretive about their financial details, it was generally understood that most books published never earned as much in royalties as the author had already been paid. They were a loss for the publisher. It was the very few best-sellers that effectively subsidized the rest of the catalog. In pursuit of these, advances rose to outrageous heights, and single book deals turned into huge make-or-break risks.

This was not a practical way of running a business, and publishing houses rapidly folded or were bought by large media conglomerates that could afford to run the book division at a loss–not that they wanted to do that indefinitely. The conglomerates devoted the bulk of their funding and energy to promoting the biggest sellers, while so-called “mid-list” books were tossed out onto bookstore shelves with very little fanfare or promotion, given a few weeks to prove themselves, and were quickly remaindered if they didn’t take off. Mid-list authors found themselves doing promotion on their own, without the publisher’s support or financial backing for things like book tours.

The wealth, high profiles and celebrity status of a few top-tier authors attracted many more aspiring writers to the field. Agents and publishers were swamped with queries and manuscripts, the so-called “slush pile.” This led to a sharp increase in the number of disappointed hopeful writers accumulating rejection slips and frustration. They were a booming demand just begging to be met.

The second half of the 1990s saw the appearance and rapid development of three new going concerns. The first was the Internet, which gave aspiring writers an entirely new way of networking with potential readers, promoting themselves and getting to be known outside their immediate social circles. Second, these years saw the founding of several “self-publishing companies.” Unlike the old style vanity press, or true, author-does-it-all self-publishing, these companies didn’t require authors to front thousands of dollars for a large press run. They exploited digital printing (“print on demand” or “POD”), allowing books to be produced, economically and almost instantly, in any quantity from one on up, as they were ordered. Trafford, Lightning Source, PublishAmerica, XLibris, iUniverse, Authorhouse, and other companies popped up during these years, and aggressively recruited aspiring authors in venues like Writer’s Digest magazine.

Despite the utter scorn and contempt heaped on self-publishing by the professional writing community, despite lawsuits and scandals and complaints against some of the companies, despite the fact that these books rarely sold to anyone besides the author and his/her friends, the “self-publishing companies” became immensely successful. Although “self-published books” rarely if ever saw the inside of a bookstore, the third going concern to erupt in this period was Amazon.com. All the “self-published” titles appeared there, so authors could feel that their books were legitimately on sale, side-by-side with the biggest literary stars.

The companies operated at virtually zero risk, because all the expenses were paid by the author, with a very generous mark-up. Most of them sold “publishing packages” with various tiers. Those that did not charge the authors for services required them to purchase a certain number of books. The books weren’t even printed until they’d been ordered and paid for, and the “services” provided in the packages generally could have been obtained by the author independently for a fraction of the cost. The companies appealed to writers who wanted to publish their books without learning all the complexities of the publishing business. The companies also angled their marketing directly at the injured pride and stinging rejection felt by so many aspiring writers, and the bait was almost irresistible.

So the “self-publishing companies” grew and grew. Since 2000, scores of smaller firms have been founded–more than 100 of them at minimum–sometimes calling their programs by other euphemisms, such as “co-publishing” or “publishing partnerships.” Meanwhile, a number of the original companies have been collected together under the aegis of Author Solutions Inc., the world’s first self-publishing conglomerate.

But they all have one thing in common: they make their money from authors, not from selling books. The companies do make a small amount from book sales, and they certainly are happy to see a title take off and sell lots of copies, as, extremely rarely, one does. But with “publishing packages” generally starting at around $500 and going up to as high as $25,000 for a “package” that ostensibly includes pitching the book to the film industry, these companies are raking in the bucks.

By 2009, faced with closing bookstores and declining sales (and another recession), it was inevitable that traditional publishers would start to wonder how they could tap in to this lucrative phenomenon.

Christian publisher Thomas Nelson didn’t create much excitement when it launched its “self-publishing” arm, West Bow Press. Nor did Hay House when it opened Balboa Press, or LifeWay when Cross Books was announced. But when Harlequin, a major respected romance publisher, started up a “self-publishing” division named Harlequin Horizons, the professional writing community went crazy. Writers’ trade organizations RWA, MWA and SFWA delisted Harlequin as an “approved publisher” amid frantic accusations that Harlequin was cheapening the profession and sinking to the level of the much-reviled PublishAmerica. Consequently, Harlequin renamed its “self-publishing” imprint DellArte Press–but that’s the only thing it changed.

Publishers aren’t the only businesses aiming for a piece of the “author services” market. The venerable writer’s magazine, Writer’s Digest, has started a “self-publishing” imprint of its own, named Abbott Press. Like the publishing companies above, Writer’s Digest is collaborating with Author Solutions Inc., which provides the actual services to the writers, but other “author services” programs are handled independently. Bowker, which controls and sells ISBNs to publishers, is offering an “author services” package, which includes one ISBN number. Barnes & Noble now runs PubIt!, for “self-published” ebooks, and the indie music packaging service CDBaby has launched BookBaby.

Ebook self-publishing, so far from being the “revolution” it’s hyped to be, is simply the next level of the “self-publishing” wave. Like “self-published” print books, “self-published” ebooks are produced entirely by the author. The only difference between “self-published” ebooks and “self-published” print books is that the ebook enterprises–Smashwords, Fastpencil, PubIt!, Kindle and so on–don’t charge upfront for “publishing packages.” Instead, they operate as “author mills,” collecting pennies per unit sold, but signing authors and churning out titles in such vast numbers that their profits are enormous, because the financial investment for the ebook distributor is negligible. Whatever costs are involved in creating and marketing the book are paid by the “self-published” author.

But authors aren’t only paying to publish their books–they’re paying, willingly or otherwise, for the marketing and promotion afterward. As I describe here, “self-published” authors are now being charged fees to submit their books for reviews. Even traditionally published writers have been paying for marketing and promotional services for a long time, as publishers stopped bothering to promote mid-list titles. Companies providing those services have been well-established for a decade or more.

This is the REAL “publishing revolution.” It’s not epubbing. The notion that epubbing per se is some kind of “revolution” is absurd. It’s a logistical challenge for the nimble and a nightmare for the big companies locked into the status quo, but a change in publishing format is not a “revolution.” Nor is “self-publishing” a “revolution.” Authors could always self-publish. No one ever stopped them. Given what most of the “self-publishing companies” charge for their “packages,” it hasn’t even gotten much cheaper.

No, the “revolution” is that authors are now paying to be published, by the tens of thousands. The burden of reaching readers, building an audience, and making a profit is wholly on their shoulders. This is happening at breakneck speed in spite of the fact that “self-publishing” is no more “acceptable” than it ever was. In this broader context, the fine distinctions between true self-publishing, POD subsidy presses, vanity presses and self-published ebooks is meaningless. “Self-published” books of any kind are shunned by retailers, reviewers and book bloggers and dismissed by traditionally published authors. That hasn’t changed one particle–in fact, the prejudice has gotten even stronger as “self-published” books flood the market. “Self-published” writers are barred from every professional writers’ trade group, guild and union, and denied eligibility for their awards. Readers avoid them, saying they “don’t want to pay to read somebody’s slush pile.” Yet hordes of authors, both new and experienced, are embracing “self-publishing” anyway.

But they’re not challenging traditional large publishers. They’re doing them a favor.

I’m no more omniscient than any other pundit, but this is where I see things going. The media conglomerates will sign far fewer book deals, and they’ll be looking for “properties” that can adapt readily to other platforms, such as movies or TV series, as well as being blockbuster books. The publishing houses will have “self-publishing” branches and authors that don’t get a big contract will be referred to these programs. Any “self-published” book or author that rises above the churning mass of 99-cent ebooks and POD paperback novels to earn significant attention and profit will be approached by a big publishing company and offered a deal. The publishers won’t be subsidizing a loss-leader mid-list with their best-sellers anymore, and they won’t be shuffling through slush piles trying to guess what might pay off. They’ll let the writers and the free market take on all the risk and expense, and sift out the chaff for them.

With all those authors fighting to be noticed, the pay-for-review and pay-for-promotion industries will be booming, along with other “author services” like editing and cover design. There will always be a few James Pattersons, J.K. Rowlings, and Stephenie Meyers (and independent successes like J.A. Konrath), but everyone else will be digging deeper and deeper into their own pockets, and paying out far more money than their books ever earn in sales.

I find this scenario plausible for three reasons: first, it makes perfect business sense for the big publishing companies. They’ll never run short of writers; collectively, agents and publishers now reject hundreds of manuscripts every day. Offering writers a paid platform to prove they’d be a worthwhile investment, and making a profit off the writer either way, is a win-win deal for the publisher. Second, this forecast aligns with the general trends of corporate business practices and economic disparities in the United States, which appear in no danger of changing anytime soon. Third, it’s already happening.

This will be a very grim situation for writers. But what can they do? For every writer who holds out, twenty star-struck would-be celebrities will rush to sign up in their place. Just ask James Frey! It’s not going to be a lot of fun for readers, either. But after all, who cares about them? Not the publishers: they’re making their money off the “self-published” writers.

I don’t know what will happen to small publishers in this game, but chances are, they’ll continue pretty much as is–and a lot of them will eventually concede and start offering “author services” just to survive. The “self-publishing” rage is hurting small presses a lot more, because many writers are choosing that route instead of querying a small press, thinking that they’ll make more money on their own. The way things are going, small publishers might want to buy stock in Author Solutions Inc. and Amazon.com.

Powered by WordPress