Comments on a Garrison Keillor Column

The master storyteller, Garrison Keillor, wrote a column that appeared in yesterday’s Kansas City Star entitled The End of an Era  Looms for Book Publishing: Going the Way of the Typewriter. He begins by mentioning many popular authors he met at a BEA  party. These were accompanied by agents, editors, and elegant young ladies dressed in black and sipping white wine. He went  on to say how much he admired elites such as these and that there was a ground swell of anti-elitism throughout the country. He lamented that traditional publishing with all its gates and barriers seemed to be slipping into the ocean. It was going the way of the typewriter, overcome by technology and total writing freedom.

His description of the self-publishing movement boiled down to: “And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75″ He then goes on to describe the outmoded painful process of getting accepted in the traditional way, spoken like a true English major.  

Finally he explains how self-publishing is a two-edged sword. “The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.” This hooks back into a comment he makes about today’s readers: “…and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a humming bird in an endless meadow of flowers.” That is a very apt illustration, and that is really the launching point for the rest of the story. I realize he sees this as a bad thing. Whether it is or not, it is a “real” thing.
The era of publishing as it always has been done is dying. Some say slowly and some say quickly, but its time is over. The rapid rise of technology coupled to the interconnectivity of the internet provides that endless meadow of flowers. Yes, a lot of free sampling is taking place, but there still are many passionate readers out there who know what they like. Writers who commit the most heinous sin of all are quickly ignored and even informally blacklisted. What is that sin? “Thou shalt not waste my time and attention!”
The endless meadow of flowers is a way of describing the phenomenon of long tail marketing. Here is an example of a chart signifying this:
The large curve is for the bestsellers desired by the masses. The long tail is to the right. This represents related areas of interest desired by small groups of readers. In other words, small niches. This is where small presses and self-publishers rule. The small presses can’t hope to compete for the best-selling territory, which requires massive marketing budgets and expensive overhead. Why even bother? There’s gold in that thar long tail.
Once you identify a niche, it becomes far more efficient and less expensive to focus on that market. Since the big publishers don’t feel it’s worthwhile to go after these small niche markets, the field is white and ready to harvest with very little if any competition. As long as your quality is good and you don’t commit the great sin, you’ll do fine.
This is what Garrison is missing. He sees literature devolving into chaos and anarchy, and in some ways, he’s right; however, the marketplace is one of the most efficient arbiters of what is considered good or bad, needful or unnecessary. All is not humming birds in an endless meadow. The interconnectivity of social media quickly spreads the word of mouth that creates trends and tipping points.The order that emerges out of modern chaos is viral. That moves way too quickly for the traditional publishing model to be able to take advantage of it. This is why the rules had to change and new, smaller publishing entities have emerged to satisfy the long tail niches.
Keillor is a wonderful storyteller and his comments were right on as far as they went; however, he has not yet caught on to what is really happening and where it’s going. The new publishing model is still being defined; however, its major components are quick reactions, speed, small is better, detecting and filling niches that are too small for large publishing houses but are quite lucrative for individuals and small presses who have the ability to respond to the realities of today’s market place. Quality is determined by the marketplace and not by the literati elite in their ivory towers. 

This is a cross-posting from Bob Spear‘s Book Trends blog.

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