My Publishing Values

From Hugh Howey:

Value listing is one of the more important thought exercises I’ve discovered over the years. I was introduced to this by a friend, and my first attempt was to list my top 10 overall values in the world. This sounds easy enough, but you have to do it in order. So what goes higher on that list, family or friends? Where do you rank truth and honesty, without which most of the other things we value can’t exist or be trusted?

Does science make the list of things we value, considering the lives it has saved and made more pleasant? Where do you rank education and democracy? One way to answer these questions is to look around the world at places that enjoy the benefits of one more than the other. Would you rather live among one of the remaining hunter/gatherer tribes with no science? Or in a country like China with no democracy?

The list you end up with is not nearly as important as the act of creation itself. It’s the wrestling with the thing that matters. As you imagine going without what’s dear to you, your appreciation of them can grow. And as you order the things you value, you can ask yourself if you are putting your energies into the things highest on the list. Quite often we find ourselves living by someone else’s values and not our own. Because we too rarely sit down and suss these questions out for ourselves.

All this came to mind recently when someone emailed me an old blog post of mine about what we should value in the publishing industry. When I used to travel to book conferences and give talks, a frequent theme of mine was that readers and writers should be the focus of this industry, not bookstores and publishers. That might sound quaint or obvious, but it’s not how the industry is covered. It’s mostly seen as a transaction between publishers (the producers of books) and bookstores (the retailers). How those entities are doing, what they need, where they can improve and grow, was pretty much every article in the trade press for many decades. People obsessed over what B&N was doing and then later Amazon. The rest was agony and gossip among and about the big 6 publishers (now the big 5).

That began to change when Amazon came along and decided to sell books online. And this change was not because of self-publishing or e-books. The Kindle was many years away. It was because of Amazon’s 1995 innovation, the customer review. Suddenly, readers mattered. We take this innovation for granted, but at the time people thought Amazon was making a mistake. Customers would rant and complain! They’d bash the very product the retailer was trying to sell! This happened, of course, but mostly people shared the pros and cons and helped other shoppers make better decisions. A lot of Amazon’s success comes from this early trust in its users.

When Amazon launched the Kindle and allowed anyone to upload a book to its website, an even louder contingent of pundits would decry the decision. This would end bookselling as we know it, they said. It would destroy the book discovery process, they lamented. Even authors got in the act by predicting a tsunami of crap that would make it impossible to find decent reads. First, Amazon was giving the reader way too much power and now they were doing the same for writers. For an industry that valued publishers and bookstores the most, Amazon’s every decision was anathema.

But was that really everyone’s value list? If you ask most people to rank their publishing values, publishers would probably end up near the very bottom, perhaps just higher than professional book critics. Bookstores would go near the very top of most snap lists, but where would they really rank if a proper value list was made? The only way to answer that is to wrestle with our own list and to ask others to do the same. In a very long-winded way, I’m going to do that right now. Come along with me if you like.

One of the joys of value listing are the chicken-and-egg problems that arise immediately. Can you have books and not authors? The answer is yes. Perhaps there’s a future where no new books are written, but we still have all the classics and what came before. Okay, can you have books and no readers? Of course. I wrote books for quite some time with no readers. They just sit there. So is it books we value the most? Or is it the act of them being read?

What about readers without books? It’s not technically reading, but we had a very long and rich oral tradition before writing and literacy became more common. Would I rather have stories being told and enjoyed over a world full of books that no one can read? Now we’re zeroing into the top of my list. Readers win out over books themselves, because if the physical things went away, we could still have Story with a capital s. Audiobooks and the oral tradition could survive. This would be a world without writers, so no new stories, which is a shame. But it’s better than a world full of writers if none of their stories are being heard.

My list thus far:

1: Readers

I’ve already decided that the shape story comes in is not as important as the act of them being told and enjoyed. So books and bookstores are not yet a priority. Right now I just have people enjoying previously concocted stories as they are spoken aloud or listened to from a recording. What we need are more stories, so to the list we add writers:

1: Readers
2: Writers

The audience and the artist. Getting these two down in this order makes almost every decision I’ve made as an author, bookseller, speaker, publisher, blogger jump right out at me. Lower prices and more reading options for readers. Better pay, better contracts, fewer barriers to entry for writers. This is why value listing is so important. If you rank books #1, you value a world of dusty or bare shelves. But with these two down, do books now come third? Or is an e-book only world better if it includes publishers or agents and the value they add? Or is a retailer for e-books more important than a world full of books but not a single bookstore? Where do I rank books, publishers, and bookstores?

Behind editors, that’s where.

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors

Whoa. Really? Yes, dear reader. I wouldn’t have published a single book without the input and courage I received from my editors. That includes my mother, sister, cousin, online friends, and my writing club members. Editors go back to the oral tradition mentioned above. They were the people honing and refining story to make them better, offering suggestions and input, often becoming storytellers themselves. They are the super-reader. The beta-reader. The book-perfecter.

Would you prefer a bookstore full of unedited manuscripts over an oral tradition of finely honed masterpieces? I doubt many sober lovers of story would come to this conclusion if forced to decide. Perhaps those who have never seen a rough draft and don’t realize how far that last level of polish takes a work.

Editors are key. They are more important than physical books. and I have to rank them accordingly. Within this group are the agents who act as editors but do so much more. Again, this is why these listing exercises are so useful. Editors add tons of value but are rarely discussed when we talk about our love of books. Speaking of which, can we finally add books to the list?

Not so fast. We are back at the dreaded retailer/book/publisher question from earlier. What does a world without a book retailer look like? This means no sidewalk shops or bazaars. No online retail. No used bookstores. No place that transacts for the sale of a book at all. We have eager readers, talented authors, capable editors… do we want them producing book-shaped things but nobody can earn a living from their efforts? What about having a retailer like Audible, which would allow easy access to all these books, a steady income for many authors and editors, but no physical books?

It’s the earnings side that has me putting bookstores next on my list, before we even have books! So e-books and audiobooks only. For many, I know books would have shown up by now, and that’s a fair call. But then authors and editors are working for free forever. And that’s something I can’t value over the physical shape a story takes.

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors
4: Retailers (digital only)

Painful, I know. It’s not supposed to be easy. Surely we get books now, please?! I’m writing this as a kid who was obsessed with books and who has remained surrounded by them ever since. I can’t walk past a bookstore without popping inside. When I visit friends, I often end up standing in front of their shelves reading spines, comparing tastes. Any antique rummaging begins and ends with the boxes of books. And yet … they aren’t going to make my top 5. Because now that writers can earn a living in my value list, I have to add the institutions that make sure everyone has access to books. Next on my list is libraries.

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors
4: Retailers (digital only)
5: Libraries

Libraries without books? I’m as aghast as you are. But if you are going to give stories the shape of a book and not allow libraries in this world, I beg you to reconsider. Libraries are so critical that I very nearly rank them #4 on my list, except that this makes the career of a writer impossible. Libraries do more than provide a place for people to enjoy stories for free. They provide expertise in finding those stories and in cataloging them. As stories have become more and more digital, libraries have added even more value. Yes, I rank them higher than books. But thank goodness the physical object can finally go on the list.

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors
4: Retailers (digital only)
5: Libraries
6: Books

Whew. Man, that hurt to wait so long, but I can’t reason through it any other way. Now that we have books, we can reclassify retailers as bookstores. Of course our old world could have had e-book kiosks and digital-only brick and mortar stores. All that’s changed is the container our stories go inside.

Once you get past the really hard decisions, it’s tempting to slap the rest of the list together. Resist this temptation. Weigh the rest with the same level of care. Make sure you aren’t leaving anything out. We still need cover artists, audiobook narrators, publishers, professional book reviewers. These will round out my top ten (I consider large scale printers covered by the category of “books” itself).

It’s difficult to choose between cover artists and narrators to be honest. Both deserve much more recognition than they get. Good cover art can make or break a story’s success. But as audiobooks have grown, and to pay homage to the critical importance of how this industry got its start with oral storytelling, I have to give narrators the nod. I know audiobookphiles who choose their next purchase over the voice more than the writer, and for good reason.

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors
4: Bookstores
5: Libraries
6: Books
7: Narrators
8: Cover artists

That leaves publishers and reviewers, who should not feel completely diminished. Making the list at all is something. There are entities that add tons of value to the storytelling enterprise who aren’t even mentioned here, like formatters and typesetters, booksellers and bloggers. But the final list goes:

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors
4: Bookstores
5: Libraries
6: Books
7: Narrators
8: Cover artists
9: Publishers
10: Critics

Link to the rest at Hugh Howey

PG will note that he’s read several of Hugh’s books and has enjoyed them all.

3 thoughts on “My Publishing Values”

  1. I value highly critics, whether professional or something someone writes at Amazon. There are just too many books published so credible opinions of a book’s contents and qualitative aspects are very important factors in my decision to choose a book.

Comments are closed.