“By looking at how ebooks are produced and distributed to libraries, we can take clues from what the larger book industry has come to value…”
Back at the beginning of summer 2013, I wrote an article about ebooks as a guest for Sue Polanka’s Ebook Buzz column in Information Today‘s ONLINE Searcher. The article was published in September and has only been available to subscribers. It is probably the most important thing I’ve written. Re-reading it now, I am realizing I need to revisit and expand it significantly in 2014, as I have a lot more to say on the topic.
It’s taken me a long time to get to a point where I can say, with confidence, what bugs me about our industry as it migrates to digital. And that’s what this article is about.
Since launching my business in 2010, I have walked through the publishing and LIS field as an outsider, working on various projects simultaneously. I have built e-resources from scratch, launched book series and newsletters, ran Advisory Boards, published book-length reports, and taught classes on ebooks.
Some endeavors have been more successful than others. Some have been more lucrative than others. But at the end of each, the same questions persisted: Why is it that those with the most intimate relationship with the content–the creators–continue to get the shortest end of the stick regardless of the size of the organization, its corporate culture, financial stability, or even its reputation in libraries?
I’ll let the article take it from here [reprinted with permission and shared with ALA's Ebooks class in September 2013]:
For the Love of the Written Word
By Mirela Roncevic
I have noticed lately that, in a number of “call to action” articles, industry leaders point to the often unproductive nature of the dialog among vendors and librarians. Attend a panel discussion or participate in a webinar, and you are bound to encounter a debate about the pitfalls of ebook business models, limitations imposed by lending services, staggeringly high cost of subscriptions, and the libraries’ struggles to keep up with both supply and demand in the face of dwindling budgets.
Jamie LaRue correctly noted that there is a lot of “whining” going on in the industry. He expanded on this during an episode of American Libraries Live, “The Present and Future of E-Books” (April 18, 2013). His proposal that we all start walking in each other’s shoes in hopes of bringing us closer to “negotiations” was dead on. In that spirit of comradery and in the role of an advocate for those of us with the most intimate relationship with the content itself—authors and editors—I want to shed light here on the inconvenient truth behind what I believe has led to our dissatisfaction with ebooks. And it has to do with our cooperative devaluation of the most important skills the publishing industry has to offer—writing and editing.
Ebooks have failed us on many of their promises, and there are as many reasons why as there are professionals in this industry—and plenty of blame to go around, too. We keep asking: How did we end up with platforms housing hundreds of thousands of ebooks? Does it really make sense to let patrons “drive” library sales? Should we be impressed by sheer vastness of the ebook landscape? Looking back, it seems as if we had collectively decided in those early days of econtent that “bigger” and “complicated” would be better than “smaller” and “simple.”
But what does all this have to do with the devalued work of writers and editors? Everything. By devaluing the work of those who shape the content, we are undermining long-term sustainability of the products offered to libraries as well as librarians’ efforts to do their jobs properly. We devalue the work of writers and editors by removing or reducing laborious editorial practices from the picture, which helps products get bigger faster, and by performing editorial work under unfavorable-to-writers circumstances.
WHAT WE VALUE
By looking at how ebooks are produced and distributed to libraries, we can take clues from what the larger book industry has come to value, which doesn’t necessarily represent our individual views. We have all cooperated in making these values integral to what has taken center stage in epublishing today. And it is because of these values that the contribution of those without whom high-quality content wouldn’t exist is worth alarmingly little. These values have long been in the making—well before the advent of ebooks—but they seem more visible today:
- Quantity over Quality — Products housing large quantities of ebooks are generally considered superior, regardless of library market, and are often touted as “leading” and “top.” With the advent of self-publishing tools, smaller vendors play “catch-up” by agreeing to distribute large quantities of un-vetted or minimally vetted self-published literature to appear more competitive. Further, in an effort to help librarians promote “subject collections” (on the academic end) and “Reader’s Advisory” (on the public end), content that is only loosely connected is bundled and promoted as comparable.
- Cherry-picking over Curation — Ebook platforms are commonly marketed as “selection tools,” allowing librarians to pick titles based on their need, but this is a superficial process that affords little or no time for actual curation, owing in part to the overwhelming number of ebooks within each product. Further, for many vendors—particularly those developing research products—editorial practices are not the backbone of their business, so their content-development processes don’t involve organic editorial curation.
- Technology over Human Creation — Stronger emphasis is placed on the products’ technological capabilities, particularly features and functionalities, than on ebook platforms’ creative components. Most companies behind such products—excluding traditional publishers—are “technology” companies with little or no background in the book business and, consequently, with very few (if any) professionally trained editors on staff familiar with the books’ contents, its authors, and subjects.
WALKING THE READER-WRITER PATH
Some librarians refer to publishers as mere “middlemen” between the creator and the consumer. Such claims are only partially valid and lead us to that place of misunderstanding again. Traditional publishing houses must be given proper credit for the role they’ve played in content creation. Referring to them as mere “middlemen” devalues the editorial practices—still the backbone of their business— that have ensured the titles sold to libraries are held to the highest standards. In an age when epublishing tools are luring us into believing that we can all publish anything we want, it is essential that librarians stay aware of this.
Distributors, wholesalers, aggregators, and ebook lending services are the “middlemen.” So are online retailers, software companies producing ereading devices, and various start-ups marketing self-publishing tools. Publishers, however, don’t merely stand in the “middle” between the writer and the reader. Unlike art galleries that simply display someone else’s work, publishers must “finish” the work before releasing it for mass consumption, a process involving the skills of more than one person.
When librarians have a clear understanding of what truly stands between the writer and reader—acknowledging along the way the undervalued input of editors—they will be better able to influence the quality of the products sold to them. It is their responsibility, I believe, to demand the highest editorial standards of every company entering this field.
WRITING IS HARD
Very few endeavors are as demanding as writing. It is a complex, chaotic, and volatile process, full of self-doubt and dissuasion. At its best, writing a book calls for an intimate relationship between the original creator (author) and the secondary creator (editor), whose “invisible art of editing” involves far more than grammatical input. “Reactive” editors sort through myriad manuscripts to discern what is publishable (trade publishing), while “proactive” ones relentlessly pursue qualified individuals to contribute (academic publishing). Then there is that far more subtle job of turning an ordinary sentence into an extraordinary one—that special skill, which takes years to master, to pick the right word and put it in the right place.
Editors also perform a numbing amount of reading and rereading on a daily basis. Their job is to make the writers sound more coherent, and this isn’t guaranteed by the writers’ educational background or expertise. In the world of self-publishing, this relationship disappears because self-publishing “services” lack the infrastructure designed to employ professional editors. And their cultures are also not designed to nurture the slow-burn type of relationship between the author and editor. Instead, they provide copyediting often masked as editorial services for which authors pay extra. Yet, without this delicate author/editor relationship, the end result is almost always inferior.
WHY WE WRITE
But forgoing editorial practices to save money and time isn’t the only reason why epublishing—in all its variations— keeps the wrong values alive. As mentioned already, the other has to do with us accepting to write and produce content without proper compensation. This is especially true in academic and professional publishing. It is mind-boggling how we have fed the “monster” for decades by writing for every reason but a decent paycheck.
We write for prestige, for recognition, exposure, influence, and, my favorite, we write for the love of the written word. I can’t count the times I heard this uttered by a fellow writer or editor—even librarians (who are no strangers to contributing to professional literature). We help build encyclopedias. We contribute to journals and book series. We write reviews. And we accept the idea that receiving a byline, a short biography, or an “honorarium” is sufficient compensation.
Consider this: If in the world of ebooks—where production processes have already been shortened due to technological advances and editorial practices are kept to a bare minimum (if at all present)—our willingness to “sell” our “written word” cheap continues, along with the willingness of self-published authors to bypass editorial input, what stands in the way of any vendor from growing another monster ebook platform housing far more content than anyone needs or wants?
What if we started valuing what we wrote and how we wrote it to the point at which everyone out there “packaging” our knowledge had to slow down because
- they would suddenly need a lot more funds to pay the content creators
- they would need more time to publish the content that undergoes extensive revisions and
- they would be held accountable by librarians purchasing the content, who would not be impressed by the size of each new collection but by its relevance and quality
What if librarians showed little interest in wholesale approach to knowledge management and instead only wanted to “play” with the vendors who brought them awesome books again?
In an American Libraries’ E-Content Supplement (June 2013), La Rue proposed that libraries consider their potential as future publishers of locally-grown content. After all, if everyone else can now call themselves publishers—including online retail stores and book distributors—why can’t libraries take advantage of epublishing tools? I see libraries as fertile ground for cultivating authors, both commercial and academic. I can’t think of better compatriots to editors and writers than librarians. But are libraries willing to compensate properly those brought on board to cultivate the content? Will they have the resources to “protect” the quality of content by hiring qualified editors to make it publishable in the first place? Or will they only be able to accept the efforts of those willing to pitch in on a voluntary basis?
I am not naive about the financial difficulties libraries face to stay afloat—particularly in the public sector—and I am fully aware of the pressure they are under. Having worked with librarians through my entire editorial career, I have walked in their shoes for more than a mile. But I will challenge any suggestion that puts professional writers and editors in an even more vulnerable position than they already find themselves in. Instead, I propose we develop ways in which we all can join forces—publishers, vendors and librarians—to ensure that content creation rather than content management takes center stage again. I propose we strive to reach a point at which the pursuit of quality is the value every ebook product reflects, whoever is behind it.
Let’s start by considering these new rules:
For public libraries:
- Retail stores should give readers what they want; libraries should give them what is good.
- Reader’s Advisory and collection development are about deep knowledge of literature, not recommendations based on loosely-related topics generated by algorithms.
- Ebook lending services are valued not by the enormity of their collections but by the quality of the materials.
- Publishing houses that nurture authors and support extensive editorial practices are considered the only trusted sources of highest-quality content.
- The work of editors and writers is compensated fairly.
For academic libraries:
- Ebook platforms are valued not by the enormity of their collections but by the quality of the materials and their relevance to scholars and students.
- Up-to-the minute scholarship, now available via epublishing tools allowing scholars to share their work “faster,” is only acceptable if it undergoes proper editorial scrutiny.
- Peer-reviewing does not replace editorial contribution and necessary revisions.
- Subject specialists are not always qualified to act as editors; publishers that promote them as sole editors of essay collections are not real publishers.
- The work of editors and writers is compensated fairly.
Recently, I came across a quote from Max Frisch’s novel Homo Faber (Abelard-Schuman,1957), describing the views of the main characters, Walter Faber and Hanna Landsberg, that struck a chord: “Technology, for the protagonist, is the knack of so arranging the world that one does not have to experience it. Life, she says, is not matter and cannot be mastered by technology.”
Technology has helped us manage content in ways we couldn’t imagine possible only a decade ago. But technology cannot help us create content or arrange it so that we (and future generations of readers) can experience it. Mastering what the technology cannot is a daunting task—with a whole lot of reading, revising, and rethinking involved—but I assure you: the editors and writers among us are up for the challenge.
Mirela Roncevic (email@example.com) is an independent content developer and editorial consultant who has spearheaded a range of initiatives in the LIS field. She is co-editor of ALA’s new journal, eContent Quarterly, author of Ebook Platforms for Libraries (ALA Editions, 2013), and managing editor of a forthcoming LIS book series. Prior to this, she was Senior Editor at Library Journal, where she oversaw coverage of electronic resources and assigned books for review in the humanities. Follow her on Twitter at @MirelaRoncevic.