Digital Publishing has changed author’s lives more than any other innovation in publishing made during the course of my forty year career as a novelist and poet.
Some of these changes have been breath-takingly positive; some have been so negative they’ve made me fear for the future of literature.
To know how digital publishing has changed author’s lives, you have to know what those lives were like before digital publishing came into existence. My own story is fairly typical. My first novel, Immersion, was written on a typewriter and published in 1972 on a photo offset press housed in a garage in San Lorenzo which was attached to the home of Alta Gerrey, founder of Shameless Hussy Press. Publicity was done by duplicating fliers on a mimeograph machine, relying on word-of-mouth, persuading sympathetic bookstore owners like Fred Cody of Cody’s Books in Berkeley to stock our books, and doing readings from them at independent bookstores, which at the time were numerous and thriving. By 1974 Immersion was out of print. Over the years the first edition became so rare and so hard to find that I could rarely afford to buy a copy.
Over the next four decades, I had twelve more novels published by major publishers including Doubleday, Penguin, HarperSanFrancisco, Putnam and Simon & Schuster. They were translated into twelve foreign languages. Some made the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. One alone sold more than a million copies
In 2012, my agent Barbara Lowenstein, who had preserved the electronic rights to my novels, negotiated a package deal with amazon.com and vook.com. That summer Immersion came out as an e-book readable in all formats as did eight of the thirteen novels I had had published since 1972. At the same time, my most recent collection of poetry Sugar Zone, which had just won the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence, came out as an e-book. To top things off, most of these books also became available in Audible editions.
Since my two most recent novels, The Notorious Mrs. Winton and The Widow’s War already existed as e-books, this meant that for the first time since the early 70’s all my work, except for a few early small press poetry books, was back in print and accessible to anyone with a smart phone, pad, e-reader, or computer.
In Spring 2013, The Authors Guild put Immersion back in print in paperback in POD, which meant that thanks to scanning and digitizing, it, plus a number of my other novels including one of my bestsellers The Year The Horses Came, now existed in the physical world as well as in cyberspace.
This was great. It was amazing. It was like a resurrection of the dead. Novels used to go out of print within six months to a year even if they sold well. For example, Simon & Schuster very quickly allowed my New York Times bestseller A Grand Passion, which had sold well over a million copies, to go out of print.
When a book went out of print, you’d get this depressing letter from your publisher that said something like: “Dear Ms. Mackey, Your novel McCarthy’s List is about to be sent to New Jersey to be pulped? Care to buy a few copies before we throw it into the kettle?” You’d buy some copies to save your book from destruction and live with the boxes in your basement for decades because no one who wanted to read your books knew you had them or had a clue how to buy them from you.
But when my books were digitized all that changed. In theory my novels and poetry will never go out of print. People will always be able to buy them easily with just a click. My new audience of potential readers is vast. People all over the world are buying my books, and I’m actually making money on them these days in the form of regular royalties.
All of this changed my life as an author in profoundly positive ways, but there was also a downside. For most of my career my books had been publicized by what is now called event-based publicity. This meant that I spent two or three years writing a novel and about four to six months publicizing a work immediately after publication.
The methods of event-based publicity may seem primitive when viewed from 2013, but at the time they were highly effective. Your publisher did most of your publicity for you. You were assigned a publicist who sent your book out to reviewers, created advertising copy for it, scheduled readings for you in bookstores, sent you on books tours, booked TV and radio appearances for you, set up lectures for you at universities and conferences, bought your plane tickets, and assigned an “escort” to drive you around from appearance to appearance.
Some publicity campaigns cast a wider net, some book tours were more grand than others, some went on longer, but in any case an author was expected to do almost nothing but pack a suitcase, catch planes, show up on time, and do what the publicist had scheduled her to do. The best part of this model was that it left writers a lot of quiet, undisturbed time to write.
All that has changed profoundly. There is a new model. As I noted in an earlier post, in the past few years, we have rapidly moved from the era of event-based publicity to the era of perpetual publicity. This means that since no book ever goes out of print, there is never a time when an author who wants her books read can justify retreating into his or her study and severing contact with the outside world.
Publishers are doing do much less publicity for authors these days, and even when they assign a publicists, those publicists only work for a short time on the old event-based model even though the need is perpetual.
In effect, authors are now expected to be their own publicists 24/7, and that’s not a job many authors are good at. People who write books are often people who treasure long bouts of silence where imagination can flourish. At writer’s colonies this trait is so well known that some of the colonies have people tiptoe up and quietly leave a lunch basket outside a writer’s studio so he or she won’t be disturbed.
Authors are now expected to create attractive websites, blog, post frequently on Facebook, Tweet, keep up a lively email and online conversation with their readers, set up their own readings, interviews, and other public appearances, keep their cell phones on at all times, not to mention book their own airline tickets. Both established and first-time authors are required to demonstrate that they have a large on-line Platform of readers, fans, and followers.
Many authors I know, young and old, complain these days of being distracted constantly by the Internet and all the tasks they need to do to keep their perpetually in-print books perpetually in the public eye. They complain that writing on-line is keeping them from writing their books; they feel as if they have taken on another job at least as demanding as the job of writing. They mourn the lack of down time, the lack of peace and quiet, the lack of imaginative space that isn’t interrupted multiple times daily. Those old enough to remember, miss the many independent book stores that used to host readings and the staff reviewers who used to be employed by all major newspapers to review books. And everyone is getting nervous about book piracy.
In short, the lives of authors now contain many more wonderful possibilities and many more problems and distractions than anyone could have imagined back when books were printed on paper.
(In June 2013 at Litquake’s Digilit Conference I was on a panel entitled How Digital Publishing Has Changed Authors Lives moderated by journalist/author Denise Sullivan. Other members of the panel included Chris Colin, David Ewing Duncan, and Keth Devlin.)