Q & A with JP Paul - Part VI
What is most important to you: financial, popular or critical (literary) success?
I think every author dreams of having their work praised by everyone, from academia and literary critics to family, friends and the general readership. Very few writers produce novels to become wealthy and even fewer achieve it. Critical success to me would be touching a nerve, compelling people to read and think, making them want to read something else I’ve completed. For instance, do reviewers and readers enjoy my approach to telling a story as much or more than another approach? Success for me is having people appreciate my effort and come away convinced that their time reading my work was well spent. If that leads to new sales and allows me the time to concentrate on future works, I'm humbled by the appreciation.
What I'm not concerned with are the opinions of the amateur criterati who insist on comparing every new 21st century book to 19th century rubrics. Or the grammar gurus who miss the intricasies of a solid story due to their preoccupation with word choice and punctuation. I believe this whole Web 2.0 schtick has gotten out of hand with everyone pretending to have an expert opinion about everything. Books are nuanced creations. No book is perfect for everyone. I always try to look at the positives in books I read rather than set forth to trash novels just to prove that I'm a more astute reader than the next person. Not that it matters much since the literary/academic field and the mainstream/commercial readership inhabit two different planets anyway. I enjoy what I do. Any form of achievement or appreciation is welcome... if and only if I've earned it.
To date, have you had fond experiences in the world of book publishing?
Hot and cold. Subjective taste and market trends seem to carry far more weight than I expected. The truth is, publishing is a buyer's market where supply far surpasses demand. How many football players play in the NFL? How many movie scripts make it to the big screen? How many excellent buskers never catch a break or a paid musical gig? It's tough to reach the pinnacle of any industry. I firmly believe that quality will eventually find its share of the market, but good work continues to fall through the cracks in all fields, not just writing.
In visual arts, one can look at paintings or photos in a few seconds and get a very clear idea of the artist's talent. Musicians can become famous overnight for a three minute song. Conversely, it can take days to read and analyze the potential of one book. There are no shortcuts in publishing. This also explains some of the herd mentality. Find a formula that works and everyone jumps on board. Same with readers. Most don't have time to research what book they want to buy so they tend to stay close to the best seller lists, the book club recomendations or suggestions that their profs and favored reviewers advise them to read. There's nothing wrong with this. It simply illuminates the mountain which aspiring authors must climb.
I've spoken to authors who say they've spent almost as much time on their two-paragraph query pitch and one page synopsis to literary agents or publishers as they did on the novel. That to me is a sad waste of human creativity, as is the importance of a catchy cover image even though we've all been drilled for years not to judge a book by that cover. It's the reality of the industry. Initial impression is critical, especially in online bookstores where your work sits alongside millions of others. I don't see an alternative. If an author can't succinctly express the essence and value of her writing in a few words or sentences, how can anyone else?
Fifteen minutes of fame? Hardly. In the book biz, new authors are lucky to get fifteen seconds.
The problem I see going forward -- not only for me but for all writers -- is the lack of breadth made available to readers. It's a chain reaction. If we assume that certain genres and formulae sell much better, writing becomes too generic as authors chase those markets rather than maintain personal integrity for their own work. Editors and proofers will modify to acceptable reading standards rather than offer alternative styles. Agents will pick titles that appeal to the broadest possible readership or the hottest markets. Publishers will choose from a narrowing window of look-alike work rather than gamble on outliers. That, coupled with the almighty thirty second hook, makes certain types of story and character development much less attractive to publishers who can't afford to make many mistakes with the books they choose to publish. The irony is that many publishers dream of finding that unique voice or story. However, the farther authors stray from the norm, the less likely they are to pass the broad appeal test! And good luck to any author who doesn't fit nicely into one of the staple genre cubicles ... I say to myself while peering into the mirror. They are no enemies in the publishing field, but it sure as hell isn't an easy business.
How do you think the Internet and technology will affect book publishing going forward?
I think it will be similar to visual arts. More people will be involved since it's much easier to publish and initiate an online presence, but the overall quality won't necessarily improve. Nor will more people be able to make a decent living on their writing. The total pie may grow, but the slices will be smaller for all but the top few percent. Just as there will always be museums and a gallery tier-class structure for visual art, there will always be publishing tiers. Gatekeepers aren't going away for the simple fact that many readers rely on them to make selections easier. I think we'll see many more small indies and boutique presses come and go, and Amazon will continue to flourish since they have both the best economy of scale and excellent customer-first services.
As for digital reading, I believe we've only seen the tip of the iceberg. The time I have for pleasure reading each day has already risen exponentially after I bought a tablet ereader and a smartphone with a decent size screen. 15 minutes here and there during pauses, breaks and lengthy waiting lines adds up really fast. Since I live on a continent that is 99% non-English speaking, selection of printed books in my native tongue is scarce. Being able to purchase ebooks online from all over the world is a godsend for me and most northern ex-pats.
Printed books will probably exist at least for another couple of decades. After that, all bets are off for all but collector or specialty items.
Serialized publishing and the proliferation of short works has returned. Shortening attention spans and fragmented lifestyles will most likely affect the length of novels, if they haven't already.
Ebooks will explode now that the pricing models make sense. I understand that much of the cost of publishing a book is in editing, prep and marketing. That's fine. Everyone needs to make a profit. I don't expect ebooks from major publishers to be significantly cheaper than printed versions, but definitely they should be lowered by the non-incurred costs of printing, shipping, storage and returns. Let's say on average about five dollars cheaper than paperback versions. When I go to Amazon or B&N and see an ebook listed at a higher price than the equivalent printed version, I cringe. There is nothing, absolutely unequivocally nothing, that can justify this. I have no problem paying 15 dollars for a paperback or 10 for the same work as an ebook. I think these pricepoints can work for everyone involved.
November 2017: Questions were culled from conversations and correspondence with author JP Paul.