Saturday, January 30, 2016

THE REVOLUTION THAT WASN’T, Steve Hutson


Over the past 20 years, the book industry has evolved more quickly and more drastically than it did in the previous 2,000. New technology has changed our lives in ways that we never imagined, even a generation ago.

Or has it?

For about a century of American history, the most high-tech apparatus in a publisher’s toolbox was an offset press that used 19th-century technology. Today, we can read a paperless book on a handheld computer. A bookstore can print a single copy of a book for you in just a few minutes. But perhaps the most fantastic development of all is that anyone can produce their own book -- without an agent or publisher -- with only a few keystrokes, and without leaving home.

How cool is that?

I came into this business from a different direction than most: I began as a freelance editor, then managed a writers’ conference. And for the past five years, I’ve worked full-time as a literary agent. These experiences have caused me to adopt a perspective that’s very different from most people I meet: The business hasn’t changed as much as you think.

First, offset printing is superior to any POD process. (I have some experience here.) The print is sharper, the ink doesn’t smudge, and the whole process is quicker and cheaper. I have a few POD books here on my desk, and they’re falling apart faster than my 80 year-old Bible. Consumers will eventually figure this out, and demand better.

Second, the stats you’ve seen about the popularity of ebooks are largely misleading. Millions of readers are simply replacing their old copies of Steinbeck and Hemingway; they’re not necessarily looking for anything new from you or me. Recent reports from all over, show that many consumers had a fling with e-readers, and are now returning to the old familiar.

As for the Espresso Book Machine? Nine years after the first one was installed at the New York Public Library, only 28 exist. Clearly, this technology hasn’t brought the revolution we expected.
Now, what about the explosion in self-publishing?

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is the largest book fair in the country. For two days every spring, it takes over the entire campus of the University of Southern California. I attend every year, in hopes of meeting a few new authors.

Year after year, some of the largest self-pub companies set up huge booths to show off their wares. I browse the selections, and open each book to a random page. And let’s just say, they’re not impressive. They need editing, research, formatting, and decent art. This is doubly tragic with the spiritual titles, where the authors dedicate their works to the service of God.

Technology is good, but it only gets us so far. Self-pub works well for some, but often it gives false hope to writers and crowds out the good stuff.

After all is said and done, the fundamentals of the business remain unchanged. This industry will continue to be a buyer’s market, a Darwinian construct where only the fittest thrive. Good writing will always matter. Platform and marketing will only become more and more important for new authors who desire to make their mark.

So, you want to be a writer? You want to get published? Good. Start now. Find a group. Find a mentor. Up your game. Make the cut. Pay attention. Pay your dues. Pay it forward. Leverage every rejection into an opportunity for education, not an excuse for bitterness. (In other words, do it the old-fashioned way.) Then when you succeed, you won’t just be a published author.

You’ll be a better person.


Steven Hutson
Literary Agent, Consultant, Non-Conformist 

Twitter @wordwiselit

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