My grandfather was an engineer in the defense industry back in the day. Like most engineers, he had all kinds of corny jokes like pointing at water tanks and asking, “What are those?” When I’d answer, “Tanks,” he’d reply, “You’re welcome, but what are those.”
And so it went.
But his favorite joke still makes me chuckle every now and then. It seems the when Japanese auto industry was starting up, they wanted some expertise to help kick start their processes and designs, so they went to the source and hired a German guy. He worked tirelessly, creating their process flows and initial engineering designs of what would eventually become some of the most iconic cars on the road. After he finished and was about to go back to Germany, flush with the knowledge of a job well done, he met with the company owners in the boardroom.
“You have done an excellent job,” the CEO said, “but we have more request. It shouldn’t take much of your time. It would seem we need to change the name of the company and would like your input on what to call it.”
“Can I take a few days to think about things?” the German engineer asked.
“Unfortunately, no. We must have the required paperwork ready to go today, so we need a new name in the next ten minutes.”
If you get that joke, congrats, you’re a car geek. If you don’t, well, don’t worry about it. But here’s a hint:
Back in the 70s and 80s, the Japanese auto manufacturers were making great inroads into the American market. American cars of the time used a lot of gas and had all kinds of reliability issues, so the cheaper, more efficient, more reliable Japanese cars started to look attractive to American consumers. Sure, early Hondas and Toyotas lacked the luxury of some of the American brands, but they were almost maintenance-free and didn’t use much fuel. Those things, coupled with the low cost price points, put a huge amount of Japanese cars on American roads in short order.
American manufactures, stung by their dwindling markets, did the logical thing and slammed the Japanese manufacturers and anyone who drove one of their cars as un-American and referred to those early Japanese vehicles as rice-burners, Jap scrap, and a variety of other less-than-pleasant epithets. Not to mention pointing fingers at people buying Japanese cars and complaining about how they were giving their money to Japan. I’m sure those insults and slurs were small comfort to the people standing on the side of the road because their Chevy just spontaneously dumped all its oil or standing over the charred remains of the AMC that exploded after a minor rear-end accident. Especially as a Honda CVCC buzzed by with the windows down and the stock AM radio blaring.
Still, for the US auto industry, sales were dropping and every little dip took away more jobs and more money. Ultimately, it took years for the American auto manufacturers to get their collective shit back together and ask what the hell happened. Surprise! It turned out the people buying Japanese cars weren’t un-American assholes, they just wanted cheap, reliable, efficient cars, something the American companies seemed to have forgotten how to make.
The American auto manufacturers are getting back on track and have learned to make cheaper, more reliable, more efficient vehicles of their own, just like the Japanese companies figured out how to add amenities and make some truly luxurious vehicles. Entire lines of vehicles from both sides of the ocean have vanished to the dustbin of history because they weren’t profitable and what’s left over comes and goes as the sales ebb and flow. But, both Japanese and American auto industries are still running strong.
Oddly, now the US cars are often cheaper than the Japanese cars and the Koreans are about to do to the Japanese auto companies what the Japanese did to the American companies. A lot of Japanese cars are now made in American and a lot of American cars are made in Mexico. And Mexico has developed its own kick-ass supercar: the 1400bhp Inferno.
So, what does all this have to do with writing and whiners? Funny you should ask.
Late last week, a friend of mine posted a link on her Facebook page to a diatribe some traditionally-published author had written about how horrible the indie authors were. It was cleverly titled “We Live In A Literary World of Terrible Self-Published Authors”. Launching from that subtle point, Koz continued a nuanced discussion of how every indie author everywhere was just … terrible. From the covers to the writing it was all bad.
All bad. And he continued to whittle away at the indie author world with the tell-tale restraint you only get from traditionally published authors who are watching their sales plummet:
“Normally, traditionally published books have an expectation of quality. This includes great editing, cover art, formatting, and foreign translations. I am not saying all traditionally published books are good, but the average indie title is utter trash.”
As indies, we’re apparently cutting into sales and, gasp, probably won’t join any respectable writing organizations because we’re not professionals. He even statistics to prove his case and used big words to back it up.
“This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.”
But the funny thing is, once you strip away the bullshit, you’ll see Koz isn’t ranting from the window ledge for the good of all mankind. He may be advocating better quality control in the indie world (which, admittedly, it can use), but the reason why he’s so hopped up comes down to the one thing that’s repeated over and over in the article: sales of traditionally published books are down.
In other words, money.
So, here’s something to ponder: If sales of traditionally published books are down and people are buying up what Koz calls “utter trash”, why would that be? It seems to me to be counter-intuitive. Why buy crap when you can get the best books out there with great editing, cover art, formatting, and foreign translations?
If you ever want to find out why something is happening, follow the money. From car manufacturers, to politicians, to publishing houses, and beyond, money will always tell you the truth about reasons, because almost all reasons come down to money. You can chuckle all you want, you can say it’s not true, you can even stick your fingers in your ears and yell, “La la la, I’m not listening to you! Fake news! Fake news!”, but the truth is money is the root of most decisions.
I think I’ve pointed out on this blog multiple times that publishers are in the business of doing exactly one thing: making money. The fact that they publish books is just the means to the end of making money. Sure, in order to make the most money, they have to produce a good product or they’re gonna go the way of the AMC Pacer in short order, but there’s a bit more to it than that.
Part of marketing your product is finding the appropriate audience. Or creating one. In any given group you’re likely to find a large percentage of people who will buy product X, but you’re never going to get everyone to buy it. Certainly, that’s part of the reason there are so many genres and sub-genres – to cover as much ground as possible. But, if we accept it as an axiom that publishers want to make money, we have to accept they’re going to publish the titles that will give them the best bang for their buck. Publishing traditional paper books is hugely expensive and there’s probably an algorithm the publishers use to determine whether or not a book will be profitable.
In case you’re wondering, yes, that could well be part of the reason you got that rejection letter. It’s not that your book sucked, it’s that might not make enough money to be profitable. If that’s the case, try self-publishing it. If it’s good enough, it’ll sell. If it’s not, go back to the drawing board and figure out how to make it better. Or write another one and another one and another one.
So, money isn’t flowing to the big publishers in the same quantities anymore and people like Koz are screaming at all of us for buying and writing indie books. I get it, they’re losing money and that’s no fun, but just like the American auto manufacturers in the 70s and 80s, Koz and crew are asking the wrong questions and pointing fingers in the wrong directions.
The problem, obviously, isn’t the quality of the work out there. If all Indie works were truly trash, no one would be buying them. Covers and editing are probably holding some people back, but those people are still selling books. So, then, what’s causing readers to flock to Indie books?
Remember, in any large group of people, you’re going to find a subset that will not accept the mainstream ideals and will seek out their own interests. That subset may not be large enough for a traditional publisher to cater to, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a tappable market. Witness the huge amount of money Christie Sims made of dinosaur erotica. If there’s a niche market out there, it’s got to be fans of dinosaur erotica. Note to those fans: I’m not dissing you, I’m just saying you’re an, uh, elite group. Carry on and read whatever makes you happy. But I wouldn’t expect any of the major publishing houses to read a manuscript based on dinosaur erotica and decide to publish it.
And that right there might have more to do with declining sales in traditional publishing than anything Koz can come up with. Some people are still amazed at his great editing, covers, and foreign translations, but a lot of people are just bored with his shit and want to read something else.
So, all you traditionally published authors out there might want to take a step back just like the American auto manufacturers had to all those decades ago and find out just what’s really going on. Pointing fingers and flinging shit is all fun, but it’s not solving your problem. Rather than writing hit pieces, why don’t you take a gander at what your problem really is.
As for the rest of you, keep writing. Remember, a pro is an amateur that didn’t quit. Keep moving forward and getting better at what you do.
Even though I’m loath to give Koz and crew more clicks, I believe in fairness. If you want to read the article I’ve been referring to, check it out here.