How’s that for a bombastic title? Not that self-publishing needs any more defending because it’s here to stay and detractors are gathering cobwebs, but not a lot has been written here about publishing as it relates to the music industry, or about the long-term future of publishing. One of the mysteries about self-publishing is that a playwright can put on his own play out of pocket, or a band can self-release a book, and this is not considered…pathetic. The difference between this and self-publishing, as far as I can see it, is that book writing and reading is far more intimate. In a play, you’ve got a cadre of actors, a director, lighting techs, and so on, who seem to suggest that the play has some merit or they wouldn’t bother. Same goes with a band and the other band members. Even if the band/play sucks terribly, it still has built in supporters. Add to this as well the fact that there’s an audience, who may be laughing, clapping, or otherwise responding, and it’s a far less alienating experience than being alone with a book that may not justify the read.
But so what? The process of viewing a play or listening to music is different, but it’s still a form of self-release. As publishing starts to mirror the state (and downfall) of the music industry, there will be no sense of difference between the two. There’s a very great piece about the music industry on Indieoma and the consensus applies equally to the publishing industry. In the piece, Simon Indelicate from the band The Indelicates says,
Let us be clear as to why the music industry was briefly profitable. A small number of companies were able to acquire, by wealth, a few scarce resources. Firstly, the expensive equipment required to record multiple tracks of high-quality audio and mix them together until they sounded nice. Secondly, the spending power to order at a bulk discount lots of plastic circles with data encoded on them as well as to print attractive packaging to house them in. And, lastly access to a large, physical network of shops and printed magazines with which to promote these items for sale.
Because these resources were scarce and expensive they acted as a bottleneck, throttling the amount of recorded music that could be transferred from the vast pool of people capable of making music to the even vaster pool of people wanting to listen to it in their houses. This limit on the quantity of produceable music created another scarce resource: recorded music itself.
This is the exact same argument to make about the agent/editor system. They held the tools so they had the power. Currently they have more power than music execs because street-level Barnes and Nobles are still a major place for book buying, whereas Tower Records has shut down. It may be hard to envision something that’s not here yet – but all things point towards the world of book buying being exactly synchronous with what’s happened in the music industry. As it happens, that’s both a good and a bad thing.
Right now, a home recorder can create high-quality recordings from his/her desktop and market it from a bedroom:
The facilities to make high quality multitrack recordings are vanishingly cheap now – the audio software available free on aviary.com is miles ahead of what they used to make Sgt. Pepper’s, the best multitracking suites you can buy cost no more than a guitar that stays in tune. Plastic circles are not needed to transport data, data requires no medium or manufacturing – this data I am typing now will travel to its consumers through the clear, clean air. I can build a better-stocked and prettier shop than HMV in two hours and open it immediately. I can send a thousand demos to a thousand writers with a hundred thousand readers in five minutes and I can do it all for almost nothing.
The same exact thing is true with the publishing industry – and once ebooks inevitably become as ubiquitous as mp3s, the same scenario is going to play out. You can claim that editors and agents add a filter from the truly unreadable books, but the flipside of this issue is that the agent/editor system is really a form of censorship. If self-publishing didn’t exist, interesting works might never find the light of day. As publishers lose money due to lost revenue from the lower price of ebooks and a dwindling number of readers, they’re going to be more desperate to find “big sellers” and so cramp the market even more with sure-fire success – i.e., books that will be successful because similar books have been successful in the past.
If history has taught anything, it’s that groundbreaking work (whether it’s art or science or something else) is often hated and reviled. If it’s reviled and never published, that’s a major loss to human progress. Yep, I’m putting self-publishing in those terms: it represents the capacity for progress in that all work has an outlet. Inevitably, crap is going to filter through – even a majority so. This matters not one iota. All that matters is that there is no gate and everything is available, including work that is the most challenging. If we take the current climate to its most extreme conclusion, work is going to get less and less challenging until all you have are remakes. Sounds a bit familiar.
Giving more power to artists is something to be celebrated. Problem here, however, is that new accessibility makes it harder to be profitable. If 1000 authors are charging nothing for an ebook and you’re charging $5, you’ve got some stiff competition. And so authors inevitably are going to lose money. DRM isn’t the solution, as information is meant to be shared. It’s terrifying to corporations, but again – just as it’s progress that every person has a voice, it’s also progress that the artist’s voice is easily accessible.
Simon Indelicate goes on:
The price valuation that emerged from the balance of scarce supply and plentiful demand – that lovely, £8-12 per 45 minutes of music – is not sustainable. iTunes revalued it at £5-8 but that isn’t low enough. As the world catches on, some people will download illegally, others will use last.fm or pandora or surf myspace or install spotify or listen to free demos or music podcasts or CC license albums or free promos. They’ll want about the same amount of music as they always did – demand won’t change too much – but they will further diversify their taste. instead of listening to 450 minutes of music a hundred times, they might listen to 45,000 minutes with little or no repetition.They will value that 45,000 minutes as much as they had before, but now that the resource is abundant their £100 will have to go further and pay for a hundred times as much music. Consequently, the value of the resource will drop. It will drop to the point where a traditional record company will not be able to make money by trading in the scarce data created by a small pool of appointed ‘talent’.
The trouble is that he doesn’t really have an answer. Music, and eventually books, are going to be abundant and cheap, leaving less money for the artist. There are alternatives, like asking for donations for free content, but this isn’t yet a reliable business model, as it’s not yet fully familiar to people. Futurismic has a great post about this issue which posits,
A small but die-hard clade of fans is enough to keep an artist in business nowadays (provided their tastes don’t run to Hollywood mansions and Gaultier bling.)
As with self-publishing, it’s an easier proposition if you’ve already got a built-in fan base, but that base doesn’t have to be gigantic. Would this work if every musician or writer were crowdsourcing under the same model? Possibly, but it’s also likely that being an artist will be even less viable as a career choice.
It’s no surprise, then, that publishers are trying to jack up ebook prices, because they know cheap ebooks=their doom. If books are cheap and plentiful it will be harder for publishers and authors both to make a living. But while an author only needs money to maintain one life, a major publisher needs a hefty millions of dollars to keep the business afloat. And if a publisher is not offering a decent advance, in addition to taking a higher cut of royalties, what’s to stop many authors from jumping ship entirely? This includes highly-profitable writers like Anne Rice who sees the value into taking things into her own hands. If an author’s platform is digitized and a great majority of books are bought via ebooks or online, famous authors could start becoming self-publishers. No one cares about the first time novelist self-publishing, it’s when Stephen King self-publishes because he can make the same – or more – releasing it himself, that publishers are going to start collapsing like newspapers. They just won’t be nearly as necessary.
So what’s the answer? Short of changing the entire monetary system so that it’s much cheaper to live, and so smaller profits have a lesser impact, there really isn’t an alternative. This is the future: there will be more books being produced, which will be more accessible, thereby diminishing their value. An argument could be made, then, that advances should go up if writers are not making a profit otherwise. Yeah, but if publishers are not making money via book sales, why should they be giving money to authors upfront? They’re just not going to have the same pool to take those sorts of gambles.
In short, it’s a mess – both enormously exciting in the field of self-publishing, as it’s going to be very similar to how many authors will be releasing books in the future. If authors aren’t strictly self-releasing books, then they will be using self-publishing tech to release books: print on demand and ebooks. Very good authors will still be able to make a living because they’ll be worth the attention. And, really, that’s as it should be. In a sense, you could say that if everyone’s releasing music or books under the same model then you can a true sense of a work’s value, given how many people are downloading, donating, sharing, and buying.
Perhaps people will adapt to the new model and some sense of financial altruism will take over. I’ve been highly gratified myself seeing people pay anything for my novel at Smashwords when I’ve set it at “You set the price.” A response to the Indelicates piece says,
Part of the cultural shift has removed the incentive for – and assumption of – payment. Oh shit. But I think that is largely as temporary as downloading itself, since once we are all re-converted to streaming and effectively ‘renting’ our music from the grand library of everything (especially on mobile devices instead of big old computers) we will tacitly re-accept the concept of payment.
That’s possible, and perhaps cloudsourcing will save publishing, and all artistic mediums. All told, while digitization may be turning publishing on its head, it really seems as it should be: artists will have more control over what is and isn’t released, and consumers will have access to anything they want. It improves the flow of information, even as it decreases the ability to profit. That sounds a lot like progress, because the purpose of writing isn’t just to make a lot of money, but to spread ideas.