Lessons in Digital Publishing (guest post)

Lessons in Digital Publishing: The American Video Game Crash

June was a huge month for self-publishing and the E-Book’s supposed coming of age. Amazon.com announced that independent author John Locke had joined the select group of authors who had shipped 1 million Kindle e-books. At the opposite end of the scale, traditionally published mega-author J.K. Rowling is finally bringing out Harry Potter e-books and she’s doing them through her own website, free from publishers, literary agents and even digital rights management.
If self-publishing is big enough for J.K. Rowling and it can make million sellers of John Locke, Amanda Hocking and other previous unknowns, are we entering a golden age of electronic literature? Well, no. And I’m starting to wonder whether the ease of self-publishing and growing furore around it may be enough to cause a loss of footing in the near future.
A lesson from history: the first digital crash
As a massive video game fan, my examples tend to come from that industry anyway. But they do so here with reference specifically to the business failings of that industry. I refer mainly to the North American video game crash of 1983, scarcely years after video-game consoles had matured into cartridge based systems. That was at the root of the eventual crash: games machines now allowed you to have collections, rather than forcing you to buy a new machine every time you wanted a new game.
So what did people want? Massive games collections with affordable games. Consumers and businesses alike gorged on gaming, causing the situation to spiral out of control. There were too many consoles (twelve at the time of the crash and at least two more in the pipeline) and far too many games coming out for them: games that were actually worth playing rarely rose to the top of the sludge that was out there.
In short, everyone had recognized that games were going to be big, and everyone wanted a piece of the pie. Modern games consoles have strict controls on licensing and development, meaning that third party titles have to be officially sanctioned by the console’s manufacturer (Nintendo’s NES enforced licensing by requiring a specific chip on its cartridges). The consoles involved in the crash were open to titles from virtually anyone. Kool Aid, Johnson and Johnson, Quaker Oats and Chuck Wagon dog food all created their own games for the home consoles of the early 80s.
Well, perhaps that’s a little generous. Clones of successful titles like Pac-Man effectively constituted entire genres in those days, and the legions of minor developers were the worst offenders. Worse still, film tie-ins and other licensed video games were hastily rushed to market, exploiting consumer’s desires and eroding their trust in the process. By the time of the infamous E.T. video game (up to 3.5 million cartridges went to landfill), consumers had become wiser.
In money terms, sales were about $3 billion annually in 1982. By 1985, they’d plummeted to $100 million. Publishers and manufacturers quit the business in droves, if they weren’t already bankrupted. Confidence in computer games, and an American-lead industry was almost permanently lost.
Parallels in Publishing
So why bring this up in reference to self-publishing? It’s simple: the kindle store and its like are just as oversaturated as the video game market of the early to mid eighties. There may not be the problem of too many machines crowding the e-book and print-on-demand markets, but there sure is a lot of rubbish out there clogging the arteries of the system. The discovery of A Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure on Amazon late last year bought to everyone’s attention the fact that Amazon doesn’t care nearly enough about the quality of the titles it sells.
Amazon’s unwillingness to remove the guide until significant public pressure forced them to is as troubling for consumers as it is for public morality. They simply do not care about the quality of the titles on their website. In fact, their long operational relationships with VDM Publishing – who are essentially printing wikipedia articles on demand – rather suggest that they’re complicit in outright theft.
Self publishing is a somewhat utopian ideal, and one that isn’t without merit. Worthy authors using print on demand and e-book venues have made great amounts of money, and will continue to do so. But how can consumer confidence flourish on a service that is trying to make them pay for freely available articles and making them sift through a million other unknowns creating works of fact and fiction that may or may not be complete rubbish? The fact is, it can’t.
The two scenarios are far from analogous. The material differences between cartridge manufacture and print on demand or e-book distribution (or rather the lack of materials) are significant. It is unlikely that a ecrash, in the sense of bankruptcies and industry wide restructuring will happen. After all, self-publishing and e-books ARE the restructuring process that traditional publishing is having to face up to.
But it is time to sound a note of caution: self-publishing as it stands is not the meritocracy we all want it to be. Great books are indistinguishable from the terrible and those that are barely books at all. Million selling author Amanda Hocking doesn’t understand why some books sell and others don’t. And if Amazon wants to ensure the future of its E-Book business, it should start doing more to champion great content and hide the poor and objectionable from sight.

Steph Wood is a recent graduate currently blogging and generating content for Solopress a printer of Business cards and other promotional bits and pieces.