Ebooks hit the headlines in a bad way this week, when high street retailer W.H. Smith shut down its online website after discovering that self-published ‘erotic’ titles themed around sexual abuse were discovered turning up in searches for children’s books. If you’re outside the UK, Smiths is a massive family high street retailer. It’s suffered a decline in fortune over the last decade (in line with the rest of the bricks and mortar retail world), but it’s still an omnipresent high street presence known by all. That it shut down its whole website, not just the books bit, gives a good idea of how seriously it took the matter.
Quite right too.
Smiths partners with Kobo for the purpose of selling ebooks, and if you’re not aware the Canadian based Kobo is one of the major competitors to Amazon’s Kindle worldwide. In response to concerns at Smiths, it has removed all self-published titles from sale in the UK until such time as it can resolve the situation. The move highlights the only truly thorny issue self-publishing has – in the absence of publishers acting as ‘gatekeepers’, what’s to stop illegal material being published and disseminated, or inappropriate material being missold. Kobo and Amazon have rules about content of course, but they don’t read each and every title to check for compliance. They rely on reader complaints to guide them, but that relies on customers first reading the titles in question. By then, a certain amount of damage is already be done.
There are already numerous articles online about this being the death knell of the self-publishing revolution, but they’re mostly knee-jerk blatherings by either the ill-informed or the large scale traditional publishing sector (which has proclaimed the death knell of self-publishing with tiresome regularity over the last five years in the vain hope that somebody will put them in charge of all books again).
Still, the whole blow-up is a useful reminder to authors everywhere.
That’s now the defining principle if you’re either an author or a publisher. Anybody who believes that the current state of affairs is the ‘new publishing model’ is wrong. There will not be another period of stability, with fixed methods and tools that you can learn once and base a writing career on. Traditional publishing in the second half of the 20th Century was the last time that things were more or less the same for more or less all authors. Write books. Find an agent. Use agent to sell to publisher. Repeat.
Books and publishing (and importantly, distribution), whether authors like it or not, are tied to rapidly evolving technologies now. There is no stepping off that rollercoaster. It’s impossible to predict, and means that the landscape is going to be very different in just two years from how it looks now (it’s already massively different from how it was when I published Cuckoo in 2011, and significantly changed from how it looked when I published Thy Fearful Symmetry last year). Big changes happen overnight. My novels aren’t currently available to Kobo readers in the UK at all, while they sort things out. Not a big deal to me right now, as my books have yet to take off on the Kobo with vigour as to meaningfully affect my income. However, if Amazon (where the bulk of my ebook sales come from) did the same thing, I’d lose money. Potentially, quite a lot.
There’s not a lot I can do about all this except to be aware, and be nimble. I suspect that anybody marrying themselves to one thing – a particular publisher, Amazon or any other single retailer, whatever – is putting themselves in a very vulnerable position indeed. I’ll go the other route, though it’s the more time consuming one. Instead of locking my books in somewhere, I’ll set them loose wherever I possibly can, at the earliest opportunity offered. It’s the only way to develop any sort of resilience to the speed of change.
That old adage about not having all your eggs in one basket? That.