Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Future of Publishing (Why Buy The Cow?)

I haven't gotten a lot done on the writing front this week due to a pair of orphaned 5-day-old rats having shown up on my doorstep.  Yes, you read that right.  I do rat rescue, so it's not unheard of for strange rodent emergencies to follow me around.  Since this particular emergency requires feeding every 4 hours, and I still have to work and sleep (in theory, anyway), sadly writing has had to go out the window for a bit.  Still, I think the rat novel will forgive a few days of abandonment in favor of, um, rats.

I have had the chance to think a lot about the future of publishing, though, inspired by something I read on Lori Perkins' blog.  The advice, while a little harsh, is sound -- no writer, no matter how novice, can get by with being ignorant of the publishing industry.  I also have been having an on-going dialogue on the topic with my friend Kodilynn Calhoun, regarding print vs electronic and traditional vs indie.  At the time the conversation first came up,  my instinct was to focus on getting a media-savvy agent and leaving the hard choices in their hands.  And I'm not wholly convinced that isn't still the way to go.  Agents, after all, serve the primary purpose of knowing the market better than you. 

Still, agent or not, it pays to know exactly what you're getting into.  I'll admit I am woefully ignorant on the topic of ebooks.  For someone who grew up on the internet, I'm otherwise surrounded by antiquated media.  I still own CDs.  Hell, I still own cassette tapes.  I've never bought an MP3 player.  And I've never really had much chance to play with a Kindle or Nook.  So clearly I need to do some research.

E-publishing has gained some legitimacy over the years.  Although there's still the stigma that being published on the web "doesn't really count" (a feeling I've struggled with repeatedly with my own publishing credits), that's diminishing now that more and more online publications are garnering readership and publishing good stuff.  Ultimately, a publishing house (as I see it) is responsible for two things: 1.) controlling the quality of the product so that only the very best is published, thereby raising the value of the product itself; 2.) distributing the product to as many consumers as possible. 

Self-publishing can do the latter if you're a savvy marketer, but I do think that allowing anyone to publish and letting the free market decide on quality is a risky proposition. 

Years ago, when trying to warn me against moving in with my boyfriend, my mother gave me very stern advice that, and I quite, "nobody wants to buy a cow who's already been milked."  This inflammatory bit of advice left me fuming for hours until my brother gently explained that what she meant (my mother is a master at mixing metaphors - an art form unto itself) was the old saying, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?"  And that is the thing I'm most concerned about in the digital age of media.

The thing that concerns me about writing is that writers, as a group, are very eager to share.  We finish something and (once the initial sense of woe and revulsion and nagging inferiority subsides) we rush out to show our friends, our neighbors.  Ten years ago when I finished a story I would meekly print it and lay it on my father's bedside table and then scamper away (I have an almost-phobic anxiety about being in the same room as someone when they read something I write).  Now, when I write a passage I'm particularly proud of, I'll catch myself posting it on Facebook.  And then I stop to think - wait?  Is this a good idea? Yes, I do want every person in the world to read this.  But I also want to make a living at it and if I'm giving away the product...what's going to make anyone buy it?

But at the same time, this fear may be somewhat specious.  Thinking of myself as a consumer, there are plenty of opportunities where I have bought something I could have gotten for free.  I own a very nice hardbound volume of Leaves of Grass despite the fact that 98% of the time when I want to read a passage I look it up online.  So why have the hard copy?  Well...to have it, really.  There's something powerful about the notion of ownership.  I'm not sure if you can even get that satisfaction with an ebook downloaded onto a reader. 

I also, as previously noted, buy CDs.  Now, I don't pay full price for them of course, I buy bargain or used.  but I do buy them.  What generally happens is I'll hear a song I particularly like on the radio.  I'll look up the band on Youtube.  And when I browse their songs and decide I like them quite a lot, I'll buy the CD.  Because there might be unreleased tracks on it that I'll like.  And more importantly, because then I can have it whenever I want, can listen to it whenever I please - because I own it. 

Same for DVDs, and video games.  It doesn't matter if I can watch a movie any time on Netflix; if I like it enough, I'll want to get it on DVD.  I played through the entirety of Dragon Age: Origins on Gamefly, but I intend to buy that game, the expansion, and DA2 all for myself, because I loved the game so much that I want it. 

What I'm driving at here is that I, as a consumer, will consume in the cheapest, easiest way possible.  But when I love something, I want to own it.  I strongly suspect I would be the type to find an author online, read enough of their ebook or sample chapters or whatever to decide I liked it, then buy the POD.  This is purely speculation, I might get that same pleasure of ownership from having it downloaded onto an e-reader, but I won't know that until I buy one (or have one given to me for my birthday, hint hint, nudge nudge). 

So in answer to that concern -- perhaps you buy the cow because you like that cow.  You're a sentimental milk-hungry bastard who just really likes cows, not just the milk.  It's a thought. 

As far as making money in the digital age, I have always wondered if we might return to the patronage system of old.  Long ago, authors (I should say, poets) made their living by writing under the patronage of a particularly rich consumer -- a noble, an aristocrat, a king, whatever.  The poet wrote poems the patron would like, and got paid for the service.  John Donne is one of my favorite poets from that time period.  You can see some "fan service" in his poetry, places where he takes a moment to extoll the virtues of his patron...and then goes on to say whatever he wanted to say.  Even though he was ostensibly writing for a very particular audience, clearly his work has survived to this day. 

I do wonder though if that's what we're looking at.  To be fair, the traditional print publication system is...clunky.  I won't call it a monolithic dinosaur, but....ehm.  It takes a long time for a book to get from acceptance to print.  Publishers often lose money printing books that don't sell (and authors' careers subsequently tank when their advance doesn't earn out).  If you cut that out, if you deliver directly from author to consumer, the process is faster and I would assume more economic.  You also know exactly what your readership wants because they're telling you, in real time, what they want.  (that's a phenomenon not entirely new or unique to e-pubbing, of course; I often wonder if Harry Potter would not have been dramatically different if it weren't for Rowlings' ease of communication with fans and the hundreds of fan sites out there).  Also, online books ostensibly don't go out of print.  I've been trying to get hold of a copy of Duncton Wood for weeks but it's so obscure that the library doesn't have it and I don't want to spend a lot of money in shipping to order it off Amazon not knowing whether I'll like it.  If I could find it online somewhere, even to just read a snippet and then purchase a POD copy, I would be a very happy consumer indeed.

But what about distribution?  I can post insightful content in this blog, but only a handful of people read it.  My most-viewed Squidoo lens only has 101 hits.  The internet is worldwide and you have the potential to reach thousands -- millions -- of fans (which is a bazillion more than you could hope for with self-published print media or even mass-published print media)...but that doesn't mean you will reach all those people.  You have to be a savvy marketer and you have to know how to attract and keep your fans. 

...But then, is that any different than what you'd be doing being published traditionally?  probably not.  After all, publishers don't waste money marketing first-time authors for the most part.  You're on your own to promote your book anyway.  So if so, the argument may go, wouldn't you still be better off taking advantage of the higher royalties and publish direct with Amazon, or one of the other options for direct-to-consumer publication? From what I've read so far, some self-published online writers are making substantially more than they would be in traditional media.  It's definitely worth considering.

Here's a business model to consider, one near and dear to my heart: online social gaming.  The vast majority of virtual pet sites, MMOs, etc. are free to play.  You log on, you make an account, you play the game.  But in every case, in order to be successful, you have to pay real money for digital content.  You have to donate to the site in order to get premium items or to have access to certain places on the map, etc. I wonder if maybe this isn't a similar model to how a savvy web-writer would make money off of their book?  There must be a way to translate the model...

It's all very interesting to think about and I would be remiss not to do more considering on the topic.  And now, I must be off to find something to put in the crockpot for dinner.  Apologies for the long-winded and exploratory rant today...I may read this and realize that my orphan-rat-feeding-induced-exhaustion has made this totally nonsensical.  Regardless, I'm interested to see what others have to say on the topic, so if you want to weigh in....I'm all ears.

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