Publishing is changing. And I am not afraid.
I’ll be the first to admit I can be myopic at times. I am often unable to see the ripple effects of something until the effect is fully cemented in place. So my lack of fear could simply be the cheerful blatherings of a fool. But I don’t care. I’m still not afraid.
As someone whose career is still in its larva stage, I’m watching with interest as publishing frets about the massive changes in the industry going on right now. Ebook pricing. Ebook piracy. Hardcover pricing. The death of the book. The death of publishing. The sneaking fear that maybe this Internet thing isn’t just a fad, and it will SPELL OUR DOOM.
I understand much of the worry. I’m sure someone else understands the rest of it. And still, I’m not afraid.
I don’t think books will go the way of the horse and carriage, as I’ve heard comparisons used. I also don’t think that treating the business the way “things have always been” is the wisest way to go. Things don’t have to die. Sure, some things die or become quaint, such as papyrus and horse-drawn carriages. Other things evolve–they get mighty and morphin’ and change with the times.
What really surprises me is when you hear publishing people say that they don’t know what to do, or that they refuse listen to Internet professionals. They seem to believe if they do what has worked in the past, eventually the storm will pass and the anchor of tradition will have kept them steady and safe. They look at the people who are succeeding by merging their digital plans with their traditional print plans and call them anomalies at best, or insane at worst. What they need to be doing is learning from them.
My career started when I began podcasting fiction, releasing in serialized audio format in 2006. Giving my work away has resulted in one small press deal, signing with an agent, and invitations to speak at several SF and new media events. At least three authors have gone from the unwashed unpublished masses directly to the elite authors with major book deals by giving away their work via audio serialization, building audiences first and then finding publishers. Many others have found publishing deals through small press houses.
A growing trend, started by Cory Doctorow, is to release a free PDF of a book when you launch the print version. Some, like Doctorow, release the whole book; others release a number of chapters. Still, it’s the concept of the free sample or teaser that works–check it out for free, if you like it, then buy. Sometimes recipients won’t like it. Sometimes they will like it, but just smile and move on. (I do this all the time in the grocery store.) Sometimes they will buy. Everyone I know who has given away free contents has said it increased sales. I’ve gotten more than one email from a consumer of my free content saying that they appreciated the free book and were buying several print copies to give away. It’s difficult to quantify, of course; you can’t say x people downloaded, and y of those people purchased, but there’s no arguing that getting your work in front of people reduces obscurity. People may or may not buy your book if they have heard of you. They will not buy your book if they don’t know it exists.
What’s to stop them from downloading the book, reading it, and never giving you a cent? Nothing. What’s to stop them from going to the library or borrowing it from a friend, reading it, and never giving you a cent? Nothing. Doctorow offers a “think like a dandelion” concept for growth of audience. Instead of nurturing your book in private and hoping it gets into the hands of a reader who will pet it and love it and call it George, you send it out in EVERY direction. Like dandelion seeds, your work will fall on some hard pavement or languish in an unread RSS feed. But some of it will get into the cracks in the sidewalk and find readers (who may become fans and paying customers) you never would have found otherwise.
The good thing is some agents and editors are getting wind of the power of online popularity, and thus they have developed the term “platform.” We all need this now–we need to come to publishing already proven that we can entertain an audience. The way you entertain an audience online is to give away content. When we bring along our audience, who loves us because we give them shiny trinkets, will publishers then refuse to let us give away anything else?
I’m quite aware it’s easy for me to talk about this — my career is still developing. I can afford to take chances and experiment. I have nothing to lose. More experienced people may be looking to be safe, to view giving things away as anathema. Experienced businesspeople think they can still herd the sheep where they want them to go. But the truth is, with the Internet, the sheep are running the show. They’re used to free content, and if made to pay, they will look elsewhere for the freebies.
I believe a successful merging of digital and print content is the way to keep publishing alive. I don’t believe in a kumbaya lifestyle that claims art is meant to be given away always; I want to make a living by writing. I am of the opinion that enticing people to consume my content for free will sell more copies. So I release stuff via audio, blog, PDF, and soon iPhone app, desktop widget, and any other way I can come up with. The more people I touch, the more people will buy my books.
So I’m not afraid. Publishing is changing. I’m ready to see what it turns into and change my expectations with it.