Sunday, August 14, 2011

Questioning Our Relevance: Fear, Change & the Digital Revolution

by Marilyn Brant

I totally wanted to blog about something light and fun and uncomplicated enough to have fairly clear-cut answers, like the best birthday cake you ever had or your favorite kind of appetizer (do I talk about food too much?!), but this topic kept needling me. I figured if I had it on my mind, a few other people here might be thinking about it, too... So, let me just state the obvious: This is a pretty unsettling time in the publishing industry.

No matter what your opinions are regarding what constitutes a book or who qualifies as an author, changes like the bankruptcy of Borders, the shrinking of print runs and the explosion of digital-only or digital-first releases (both self-published and through major NY houses, such as Bantam's revitalized "Loveswept" line or Avon's new "Impuslse" line) have been wreaking havoc on the professional lives of booksellers, publishers, editors, agents and writers alike.

There is some very real excitement out there, too, by the way. New opportunites are emerging almost hourly, and many entreprenurial souls have been quick to hop aboard the digital train in hopes of striking gold. Some have found it in the literary realm and are shouting their gratitude and their Amazon rankings from the rooftops. Others are still striving and hopeful and secretly trying to crack the logarithm for ebook bestsellerdom. And yet others are capitalizing on the author accessories needed for a successful digital experience -- the creation of book covers, the proofreading skills, the uploading and conversion know-how.

In my opinion, More Opportunties + More Choices = Something Good. I may not utilize every service available to me out there, but I love having options. Getting to self-publish a few of my light romantic comedies alongside my traditionally published women's fiction has been both an interesting venture and a fun one. But then, I'm a big fan of a good Asian buffet, too. You tell me I can have Thai satays and Chinese egg rolls and Japanese teriyaki chicken and Mongolian barbequed beef...all on my plate at once? What's not to love about that?!

Food fantasies aside, though, I'm also an observer by nature, and I've been watching and listening to everyone. Attentively. I've been reading their posts and their tweets and their messages. And for every public comment that unabashedly praises the Digital Revolution, there are at least five more -- ranging from whispered concerns to infuriated accusations -- that express in some way a powerful and pervasive sense of fear.

For me, trying to uncover the source of that fear has been occupying a lot of my mental energy this summer. Best I can figure, I think it comes down to a persistent questioning of our relevance and how well we think we'll fare in the publishing world of the future.

Whether our job is that of an author or an agent, an editor or a bookseller, we're united by worries about what these changes mean and who we are now if the original hierarchy and gatekeeping system we'd grown accustomed to is no longer in effect. Where is our industry going? Will readers abandon paper books in order to make the digital leap? Will the skills we've all worked so laboriously to acquire be relevant in this evolving publishing landscape? And, even if we fully embrace the lightning-like changes that have struck publishing hard in recent years, will we be able to roll with whatever comes next in an industry that has transformed so rapidly in such a short period of time?

Just about everyone I know is asking themselves some version of these questions. Publishers are wondering if they need to add a digital branch to their company or expand the one they already have. Literary agents are fielding a slew of queries from their clients about rights reversion or assistance in the self-publishing of backlists. Writers across the genres are wrestling with the decision of whether or not to dip their toes in the digital waters and, if they do it, then they're struggling to adjust to a different method of manuscript formatting and online marketing and the panic/elation of having daily updates on their sales numbers. Brick-and-mortar booksellers aren't sure where to go next or how to use their valuable skills.

To top it off, there's a social-media windstorm brewing around all of us, amplifying the collective fear and setting off an onslaught of comparisions between authors. (Whose downloads are higher?) Or between publishing professionals. (Whose services or distribution methods are better?)

It's been kind of exhausting.

So, I wanted to brush all the discord and confusion away for just a moment and say, à la Oprah, the one thing I know for sure... It's something I bet you know, too: Yes, change is hard (and frustrating and scary and, sometimes, exciting), but there will always be a need for stories. And what drives us to read those stories -- whether it's to feel that sense of connection with others, to be entertained, to escape, to learn something new -- that part is constant. That part will always be relevant.

I think we need to hang tight to this truth until the dust settles, even as we learn new skills and face the challenges that come with navigating our careers in this ever-shifting publishing environment and this not-exactly-stable global economy. How stories will be packaged, sold and delivered in five years or ten is still a point of some debate, and I suspect many of us are going to have to adjust far more than we may feel comfortable doing (sigh), but the craving for stories will live on. No revolution -- digital or otherwise -- will change that.

What's a story you've read this summer that you really loved? Did you read it in print or in ebook form? If you're a writer, have you self-published anything digitally -- reissued novels, new fiction or short stories? In honor of both print and digital books, I'll give away two novels today: a PDF copy of my first romantic comedy On Any Given Sundae (June 2011, ebook) to one commenter, and a bound advanced reading copy of my upcoming women's fiction book A Summer in Europe (December 2011, Kensington) to another commenter. Drawing Monday the 15th, just before midnight, Central Time! Will post the winners' names in the comment section.

Marilyn Brant lives and writes in Chicago suburbs. She compulsively checks her Amazon and B&N sales numbers (when she's not procrastinating on Twitter or Facebook) and is forever in search of the perfect dessert.


  1. I think all the changes are scary but at the same time I believe it is giving more writers a chance to break into a market that was dominated by the standard authors like Jayne Ann Krentz, etc. The writers that have been around a long time. I think publishers have been afraid to take risks on many new authors. This new, less expensive (to publishers), market has allowed new writers to emerge. I also love that you can buy shorts for less than $5, sometimes less than $2-3.

    I love my e-reader. I love the convenience of it, being able to shop and have books instantly at 3am. But my favorites - my keepers - will always be in paperback. I will never give up my paper books. There's just something about holding a solid book in your hand.

    I'm a writer myself. I hope to one day be published. And I would be happy with either format but I don't think any writer could ever say that the thrill of holding a paper/hardback book in your hand that YOU had written could be compared to a digital copy. ;)

    My favorite that I have read this summer is a new series by Alyssa Lyons called the Jordan Davis Mysteries series, the most recent being "Clubbed to Death". I just love her characters. Also Kay Springsteen's "Echoes" series.

    Excellent article. :)

  2. Laura,
    Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply ;). I think you expressed so well the dichotomy that's out there, especially for aspiring writers: the advantages digital can bring as far as providing a way to break in vs. that long-held dream many of us have had for years of holding a print copy of our novel in our hands... Thanks, also, for telling me about the 2 mystery series you've been reading -- I'm a fan of the genre! -- and I wish you all the best on your road to being published. Fingers crossed it will happen for you soon!

  3. Have just started reading The Help; have heard it's a great read. Publishing world's definitely going to be interesting watching how things unfold.
    Would love to win one of your books, & thanks for the great post :)

  4. Marilyn, what a fabulous post and not surprising that I feel the say way - guess we all do. Relevance - that is a key word, isn't it? Even for some of us who started pursuing this writing dream 5-10 years ago and still trying to get "there" - this throws our dreams into a tailspin. Like the little train who could, "I think I can, I think I can" - thinking that if we keep moving forward, we'll crest the hill, we feel that now the track has changed completely and we may not even been a train.

    On the bright side, there are a lot of options (in fact, I just blogged about that myself), and taking advantage of them is empowering.

    It seems my entire career (epublishing from way back when in the advertising/printing/technical world), I've had to take a leap forward to keep moving forward. It seems that every time I settled into what I thought was my new career, specializing in one area, the world caught up to me and that job became irrelevant. So I'd plunge forward onto a new track until it became irrelevant. You'd think I'd be used to it by now but during this time, it's always confusing about where that next step will take me or even what that next step is.

    Just trying to keep my options open and see where my work can fit - whether traditional, digital, or self-pub.

    Thanks for writing this! Loved it!

  5. As someone who birthed a debut novel in 2010, I found myself in post-publishing depression for a few months. Marketing is a beast, and even though I'd achieved my dream of a novel in my hands, I still fought the "what if" I'm a one book wonder? Or not even a wonder?

    So, I agree with what Kathy Holmes shared about the options being empowering. It calms my soul to know that if there's a manuscript I truly believe in, I can pitch it to myself and choose my own path.

    What I found intriguing, though, is when my publisher offered a free Kindle/Nook download of my first title, my paperback sales shot up the same week.

    I've enjoyed nonfiction titles in digital versions primarily because of the search feature. A random observation, I suppose, but it just occurred to me as occurred to me as I wrote this!

    This summer I read The Language of Flowers in paperback. Because I was reading it to write a review, I received an ARC. When given the choice between a digital version and a paperback, I still ask for the paperback.

  6. Since I did dive into self-publishing, I feel that I'm empowered. The publishing system hasn't been good for authors in so many ways. But at least now we have some sort of control over our books.

    And those books that didn't quite fit, and we wrote or wanted to write but were they wouldn't sell... Now we can write them and we can find readers for them. The gatekeepers are still there, but now I can fly right by them. I love it.

  7. Hmmm...I've read a lot of books this summer that I have loved. Most have been in print form. I have bought a whole bunch of e-books, but have not had the time to sit down and read them. I have read one of them, "Fever Cure" by Phillipa Ashley and have loved it to bits. But I will be buying it in print when it is released here in the US! So I like both forms, but print versions are dearer to my heart.

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  9. Marilyn, thank you for your thoughtful words. My daughter has illustrated and written a children's story and I just this week helped her get started through CreateSpace. They've sent her the proof copy of her book. It's been an education for her about reviewing, editing, and what hi-res means. One of my novels was a finalist in the Amazon Break-through Novel Competition this year and being entries go through CreateSpace I had to educate myself on the entire self-publishing process. learn about formatting, cover design and such. Since that novel placed in the top 1000, CreateSpace offered me a proof copy of my book for free. Who wouldn't take them up on that? (They may offer that to every entry, don't know.) In one week I was holding a book in my hands with my name on it. Elation. Then as I'm looking through it I saw a couple of typos and awkward sentences ant I (and my readers) had missed. How embarrassing if this had been an agent-editor generated publishing experience. I've put the project on hold until I re-work that entire story. That is the downfall of self-publishing, that the writer is in control of the completed product. But that's also the upside of this process ... that I am in control. I have become a better writer. Holding that book in my hands was a weighty experience, and I am taking myself more and more seriously as a writer. I do not read digital versions of anything, so I'm not pushing that media. I still want to lie in bed and hold that book and place that bookmark where I pause. But as I get older, the day may come that I find that medium more convenient and I can make anything large print. The future is a mystery, but self-publishing is the way I will go, for now.

  10. *Waving to everyone*
    Thank you all so much for your wonderful comments today -- I loved reading them so far! I've got a morning appointment but will be back in a few hours to respond to everybody personally ;).

  11. A book I read this summer that I really enjoyed was Barefoot in November by Benjamin J Carey. It's a memoir type and was honest, funny (I literally laughed out loud)and inspirational. It was in print form. Thanks for this giveaway Marilyn! I have your books on my wishlist! I'll keep my fingers and toes crossed!


  12. Marilyn, I'm optimistic, too! Borders' downfall had less to do with e-books and more to do with bad business decisions (to paraphrase S. at my local Borders, "If they'd only talked to the booksellers on the floor before they'd made changes"). I think more formats is a good thing and will only encourage more folks to read (and read often!). Just saw this on Huff Post by an editor who calls today's publishing frontier the "wild, wild West":

    Having more choices is never a bad thing (unless you have trouble making up your mind). ;-)


  13. Jennifer, I really enjoyed The Help and had the pleasure of hearing Kathryn Stockett give a talk in Chicago about the book and her writing. It was so interesting to hear about her long road to publication and the many rejections she got along the way...

    Kathy, thank you!! And I know JUST what you mean about how all the changes can throw our dreams into a tailspin ;). Yeah... It's so easy for me to get attached to one way of approaching something -- I plan, I plot, I work out my strategy -- and then some new techno thingy gets introduced and I have to rethink it all. I try to remember that *change* is the only constant, but it's not always easy to feel that way when in the midst of all the changing.

    Christa, I've heard wonderful things about The Language of Flowers! It's on my TBR list. And congrats to you on getting your debut novel out there!! So exciting and (I know, I know) SO, SO much work, especially in those first couple of post-release months. For me, too, I found it incredibly stressful and frequently depressing because there just weren't enough hours in the day to do *everything* I felt needed to be done. The promo for the first book, the writing and revising of the second one, the website stuff and day-to-day emails and social networking -- not to mention "real" life -- so much is expected out of authors. It's nice when anything at all makes our job easier!

    Edie, you've been one of my self-publishing inspirations (and I know you know that!!) because I've seen how empowering it is for authors when we have a story that doesn't fit a certain print line but -- like your novel Dragon Blues, for instance -- it has a real appeal to readers and it can find a very devoted audience if given the chance. But I also know from watching the work you and other conscientious self-pubbed authors put into it and, also, going through the process myself, it's not LESS work than releasing a traditionally published novel. It is just as much work in some areas and even more in others, if it's to be done well.

  14. Chanpreet, my favorite book of all time is Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, and I have copies of it in just about every format imaginable -- 2 digital copies, countless paper copies, one very early edition (from 1894) -- if only I could have one of her handwritten drafts, my collection would be complete, LOL. So, I'm glad to have the e-version when I want to check out something quick but I'll always love holding the bound print copy in my hands.

    Emma, congrats on having been an Amazon Breakthrough Finalist! I know others who have taken part in that contest and the entries I've read were outstanding. Well done!! And, yes, that feeling of control is double-edged sword, isn't it? On the plus side, we're responsible for everything, so nothing important gets missed. On the other side, we're responsible for everything (!!), so we're the only ones to blame if we do miss something...

    Margaret, thanks for telling me about Barefoot in November. I love those type of funny memoirs! Have you ever read Anne Lamott's books? Operating Instructions was one of my favorite parenting memoirs -- also very humorous and honest ;).

    Susan, thank you so much for the Huff Post article!! I'll read that right now. So funny to think of this new age as the "Wild West" but, yet, that really rings true for me, too. It does feel very pioneer-like right now with the rules/laws being made and revised as we're moving farther into the frontier and living the adventure ;).

  15. The best book I've read this summer was Christa Allan's The Edge of Grace. Book form. I find that authors who I know I would re-read given the chance, I want in print. I don't own an ereader as yet, but I use the pc apps for Kindle and Nook. I think ereaders are perfect for books I intend to read only once, which is probably 95% of what I read. But this may be twisted logic, as it may make more sense to have digital versions of books I'd still like to have years from now. I don't know.

  16. This is something I have thought about a lot over the years. It is so sad to see all these book stores closing down, and since I’m avid reader it breaks my heart every time I see one closing down. And my thoughts on ebooks have always been on the negative side. I have always been a believer of touch and feel. I've always felt you can only truly enjoy and appreciate a book when you have it in your hands, so for a very very very long time I ignored ebooks and stuck with only print books, until I came across a synopsis of a really great sounding book that I just had to read it was called The Mating by Nicky Charles it is a great story about a secret werewolf society that mixs with the real word while having to deal with the presure of the pack.
    This book changed my mind about ebooks. the story was so great that I had to go out and buy a ereader of my own, and I started to buy ebooks from all my fav authors and a lot of ebooks from authors I haven’t heard about (I like discovering new stories. as of today I own over 100 ebooks on top of the 200+ printed books I already own and I love them all =-)

  17. Patricia, I'm so glad Christa is a part of the GBC now and love hearing how much you enjoyed her latest book ;). As for e-readers, I have the Kindle and Nook PC apps, too, and look forward to eventually getting an actual device to carry around with me. What's hard for me is simply having so much screen time -- whether it's small and portable or large and sitting on my desk. Reading print gives my eyes a break from the electronics. I think it's also human nature to want something tangible -- the book you can hold, for instance -- when it's a favorite read because it somehow seems more permanent that way.

    Mofo8727, I loved hearing your story about reading The Mating and having it change your mind about ebooks! I had something similar happen to me as well. It wasn't a single book that did it but, rather, a collection of novels that were released around the same time by authors whose prior novels or blog posts I'd always loved. Since I really wanted to read their work and ebooks were the only way to get ahold of those stories, I had to start downloading them! It truly opened my eyes to the wonderful world of literature available digitally. But, you're absolutely right, none of that changes how much I still adore all of my print book. I have so, so many of them, too. All four walls of my office have bookshelves, and then there's my closet...LOL.

  18. I have an iPad, so I can read ebooks in either Nook or Kindle or iBooks, but truthfully, I still prefer print. I've downloaded several ebooks since I bought my iPad in March, but I've only managed to finish one of them while I read probably 5 or 6 print books during the same time. I love the convenience of ebooks, but when it comes to really reading for pleasure, I'm going to go with print. That said, I think it's wonderful that there are so many more opportunities for writers these days. Sure, many books that shouldn't get published now will, but the cream will rise to the top.

  19. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Marilyn. The subject has been on my mind a lot (Kathy Holmes nailed it: wondering if I'm even a train!)and I appreciate the time you spent addressing it for us today.

  20. a wonderful posting...i loved the novel 'a mountain between us' by charles martin. have you read it?

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  21. Lucie, those iPads look wonderful! A friend has one and there are so many cool apps ;). I wholeheartedly agree with you on how wonderful it is for authors to have all of these opportunities now and hope that great writing will get noticed no matter what format the novel is in. I don't think there's anything a writer wants more than for his/her work to find its ideal audience...

    Cindy, you're welcome and thank you ;). It does seem to be a subject that's been on a lot of writers' minds. We're not alone! I don't think I've been on any author loop in the past 6 months that hasn't spent a fair bit of time trying to get a handle on it.

    Karen, thanks for visiting and, also, for the novel recommendation! I haven't read it, but I'll look it up in a moment. Great book title!

  22. I love this post! I have a kindle and a nook, but my preference will always remain with physcial copies. I can't get the same expierence with an e-reader. I LOVE my books. I am glad it is giving aspiring authors a chance, but I don't think print will ever go out of style. I would be soooo sad! I just hope that quailty doesn't change. I have seen many ebooks that are self published and horrible. Editors have a job for a reason, Auto correct is not an editor. ( : Thanks for the fun read and chance to win!

  23. Tiffany, thank YOU for commenting! I'm so with you -- I LOVE my books -- ALL of them. The print, the electronic, even the handwritten. (Once, at an antique shop, I found a diary of a girl from the mid-1800s and got to read an entire year of her life in her careful, pencil-scripted hand. ;) I don't want to part with any of these!

  24. Thank you all so much for stopping by today and sharing your thoughts -- I truly appreciated them. I was delighted by everyone's genuine love of books, whether print or digital...and you were such a thoughtful and kind group that I decided to double up on the prizes tonight ;).

    So, with the help of, the PDF winners of ON ANY GIVEN SUNDAE are: Jennifer Reid and Laura! (Please email me with the best email address to send you the document. I'm at MarilynBrant AT Gmail DOT Com)

    And the two winners of the ARCs for A SUMMER IN EUROPE are: Tiffany and Lucie Simone! (Please email me as well with your mailing address)

    Best wishes to you all for a great week!

  25. I also read Barefoot in November by Benjamin J. Carey. Great book!