What a Difference 10 Years Makes: Publishing in 2007 vs 2017

I’ve been doing some cleaning up around the house and I recently came across some old journals. I’d gone to a sci-fi convention back in 2007 or so, and had attended all the writer’s panels they held. I scribbled down every bit of advice, every shared experience, every tale of woe shared by the authors on the panel. Believe me, it wasn’t a cheerful or encouraging discussion.

Let’s place this in perspective though: at the time of the convention in question, smartphones had yet to exist. Amazon had just launched its first Kindle (with a $400 price tag) and readers swore up and down it would never catch on. Instead, Amazon sold out of them before the day was out and they were on back-order for months afterward. Google Maps wasn’t yet a thing–and I don’t know about you but I can’t go anywhere without it today! There was also no such thing as ‘the cloud’, if you wanted to save important material, it went on an external hard drive. Heck, I used to back up all my stories to a thumb drive before there was such a thing as dropbox or Google drive!

Youtube was just becoming a thing. No one had heard of a Roomba, much less videotaped their cat riding it to upload it to Youtube. The guy that used the 3D printer to create an arm for his son? Yeah, didn’t happen yet. Virtual reality devices and space travel remained concepts for science fiction. Now my husband has a VR device and space travel is looking more and more possible.

Ten years ago, the main way for someone to get published was through the Big Six (or Big Five now, since the Penguin-Random House merger). Self-publishing back then meant ‘vanity publishing’, and was the mark of someone who couldn’t get published any other way. It’s taken a decade to diminish that stigma, and there are still people out there who refuse to read any self-published work.

One of the YA authors on the writer’s panel spoke of the difficulty in getting published, and why so many authors accepted terrible deals as a result. They wanted so badly to be published that any offer seemed like manna from heaven and was accepted without question. This author explained that she’d submitted a story and had been told by the publisher they loved it so much they wanted it spun out into a ten book series. What unpublished author wouldn’t jump at that kind of offer? But she didn’t really examine the contract details or what the press would require of her. Without fully comprehending what it would entail, she signed a contract agreeing to produce 70 K words every six weeks–and that later books in the series could be written by other people. She was responsible for creating a ‘Bible’ that could be used by other authors to follow the story arc. She told us that she had to write a minimum of 5 K words a day and never had a chance to look over what she’d written–she just submitted it and hoped the editors would catch anything wrong.

This young woman looked exhausted. And you could see in her eyes that the joy of writing had become a drudgery of pounding out words that she scarcely cared about any longer. Her take-home message was about reading contracts and standing up for what you believe in, but when asked if she would do it again, she said yes because she was published. Wow.

The guest of honor had even harsher words for the industry. He spoke of how publishing houses used to be run by people who loved books, and for every mega-seller like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and one moderate best-seller, the firm would carry eight mid-listers. In his opinion, that was all changing. When he began writing, the expectation was that once you had one hit seller, sales from that first book would help produce others in the series. Now, every book had to sell in the stratosphere, and each book you wrote had to outperform the one before. Publishers were getting greedy, and demanding greater production with no care as to the content. Authors could no longer get by on writing one book every year or so. The guest speaker, by the way, was George R. R. Martin.

Another writer agreed with him, saying that she’d known many authors unable to live up to the ‘outsell your last book’ production model who’d been dropped by their publishers and had re-invented themselves under a new pen name with a new press–which meant dividing their original audience even more and having to build from scratch again. And with the number of Big Publishing Houses getting fewer and more interconnected, finding a new publisher wasn’t as easy as it sounded.

I basically came away from the panel thinking I’d never be a published author.

And yet I am.

In 2013, I was one of the authors at a sci-fi convention on a writer’s panel, giving advice to eager wanna-bees in the audience.

What changed?

Remember that list of tech I mentioned? Yeah, the one that has had the biggest impact on publishing is the Kindle–or e-reader in any form–but face it, Amazon has been the largest driving factor here. Amazon put e-readers into the hands of thousands, and then has nearly singlehandedly created the self-publishing industry by making it so darn easy to do. Advances in tech have also made it possible for people to make cover art, format stories, promote newsletters and so on–and if you can’t do these things yourself, the Internet has made it possible for you to find the skilled services you need. (Another reason why we need Net Neutrality, damn it!).

Now I’m not saying Amazon is the Great Hero here. The rise of e-readers has made it possible for me to become published because the rise of small digital presses meant someone would take a chance on a no-name like me. But that same juggernaut has slowly crushed a number of these small presses over the years because many of them can’t compete with the behemoth that is Amazon. I’m just saying that as a company, it revolutionized the way we read–making books more accessible, making self-publishing an option many didn’t have before, and also freeing the industry from standards set by a select few as to ‘what will sell.’ But I also believe that Amazon will grind us all to dust if we let it. That’s why though I use Amazon and KU, I don’t rely on them alone for sales. I distribute to other outlets when that KU wave crests. I support my local B&N (sadly, B&N’s website TANKS compared to Amazon’s–ordering an e-book from them is a huge PIA in comparison) and independent bookstores too. Once Amazon has ALL the publishing market, we’ll discover Amazon isn’t really a publishing company. They sell e-readers. Authors aren’t their priority.

But they have made it possible for me to be a published author. Something that never even seemed remotely possible in 2007.

The Death of Net Neutrality: The Impact on You as an Author or Artist

With everything else that is going on these days in US, it may seem like the battle for Net Neutrality is not such a great priority. After all, the sitting President is facing impeachment and his entire administration, as well as the elite of the GOP, are looking at charges of knowingly working with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the last presidential election. Then there are the charges of money-laundering, as well as corruption and collusion on such a grand scale it is breathtaking.

While nearly every day the Trump administration commits yet another unthinkable act, at the same time, alarming legislation is being forced through Congress: bills that strip Americans of their health insurance, or defund women’s organizations and public schools. Bills that suppress the right of some people to vote because they might not vote for the GOP, bills that set back civil rights fifty, sixty, seventy years. Bills that protect our environment and public safety are being overturned. Regulations put in place to protect us as investors or when buying a home are being overturned. Irreplaceable national parks and natural resources are being targeted for development. Unpopular bills are being called to a vote in the middle of the night in order to avoid full participation by members of Congress and in the hopes of eluding the attention of the press.

When it comes to all the things wrong with the current administration, as well as everything we need to be fighting to protect each and every day, I’m barely scratching the surface. The problem is there’s a fresh scandal relating to the Trump administration popping up almost every day, and nearly every day there are fresh calls to contact your members of Congress and share with them how angry and upset you are about their policy-making of the moment. It’s enough to make one give up out of sheer fatigue.

Believe me, they’re counting on that. So stay salty, my friends.

We all have to pick our battles. I only have so much time, money, and energy to devote to an outraged resistance. There are some bills and regulations I care more about than others, and I’m sure your list doesn’t look the same as mine. That’s perfect. This way we cover all the bases. But there are some things that we shouldn’t let slip by us out of outrage fatigue or because we don’t think it’s that big a deal.

This is one of those times.

So why is Net Neutrality a priority for me? What is it, and why should you care about it?

Okay, I’m no expert here. There are better sites, posts, and videos that can explain this issue with greater depth, clarity, and precision than I can. The way I understand it is that companies like Verizon and Comcast are carrier services that provide us with Internet access, much like the water company provides us with water for a fee through a system of pipelines they own. As it stands now, the pipes are all the same ‘size’. Information flows freely across the board. It doesn’t matter if I want to look at a small blog or the Huffington Post, because I’ve paid my fee to the company, everything comes down the pipe at the same speed.

Verizon lobbied hard to have this changed back in 2013, to be able to establish big and little pipes, to have the right to slow down or speed up information based on how much the owner of the information was willing to pay. Think about that for a moment. Now the owner of the pipeline wants to decide who gets the water first, as well as how much and how fast. In 2013, Verizon sued the FCC, saying the organization didn’t have the legal authority to insist on Net Neutrality. The FCC blocked this move by re-designating ISPs so they were subject to tighter regulations.

But now Trump, the GOP, and the current people in charge at the FCC want to change this regulation. The newly appointed head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, used to work for Verizon. See where this is going? Do me a favor: from now on, when you read the word ‘regulation’, replace it mentally with the word ‘protection.’ Because that’s what it is. Laws put into place to keep companies from establishing practices that might be unfair or harmful to us, the consumer.

If we lose Net Neutrality, Comcast, which owns Yahoo, could say to you, “If you use our internet carrier, you have to use Yahoo as your search engine and email service. You can use Google if you want to, but you have to pay additional for it.”

Big companies such as Netflix and Hulu would certainly be able to afford to purchase more bandwidth, but what if Verizon started its own entertainment service? They could conceivably slow down the streaming of any competitors unless you paid an additional fee to get it at the same download rate as their preferred site.

Not only that, but without Net Neutrality, your internet provider could determine, much like a television company, what sites and information it would make more readily available. Suppose your child is researching climate change for a class project–but only the sites that deny climate change are loaded first. Anyone with a vested interest in getting out their information ahead of someone else’s (and the money to do it) will influence the reporting. We could see the Internet turn into FOX News.

It could also greatly impact freedom of speech if a provider decides to block unpopular points of view or someone with a lot of money pays to have their views take top tier. Right now, marginalized voices have a platform and the ability to be heard by anyone interested in what they have to say, same as any major outlet. Yes, this has allowed certain right wing organizations to foment and organize their followers, but it has also allowed for hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world to gather and march in support of women’s rights, immigration, and science, among other things.

What does this have to do with you as a writer, artist, photographer, or anyone who creates original content? How does this affect you as the small business-owner? Well, it’s simple. Remember when you had dial-up? Remember how long it took to load a site? How do you think the loss of Net Neutrality will affect you when your website takes over five minutes to load because you aren’t a major publisher with a big budget to pay for more bandwidth?

When I first began publishing my stories, Facebook was a great place to meet other people and share content. If you were an author or artist of any kind, a Facebook presence was (and still is) considered mandatory. After the stocks went public in 2012, Facebook gradually began implementing policies that altered its usefulness as a platform for small artists and publishers. It used to be Facebook was like my old LiveJournal account–I saw everything my friends posted in the order they were written. Now, half the time I don’t see the posts of friends and colleagues unless they’ve paid to promote them or enough of my other friends have commented so that Facebook deems it worthy to show me. If I post something with a link in it now, Facebook hides that post more often than not. At one point, I had an author page with over two thousand followers, yet whenever I posted something to that page, maybe fifteen or twenty people tops saw the post. I could pay to promote the post or buy ads, but the people with the most money who already have recognition get priority when it comes to the visibility of their posts.

And that’s exactly what will happen to our websites if we lose Net Neutrality.

I’m linking to John Oliver’s video on the subject here, not only because he does a great job of explaining the ramifications of losing Net Neutrality while also making the subject funny, but he tells you what you can do about it too. As of May 18, 2017, the FFC has already ruled in favor of doing away with the earlier regulations. As you will see from John Oliver’s video, you can go to the FCC website to register your complaint, but the process is deliberately cumbersome and frustrating. Fortunately, he created a more convenient process! It’s a long video, but it’s definitely worth watching.

 

Here’s an update on the response of Internet to John Oliver’s request. This was filmed prior to May 18, 2017, but the site that takes you to the FFC page in question is back in service again. Now we only have until mid-August to voice our dismay and how this will impact our businesses.