Wherein I say a pox on all your houses — it’s time for a revolution. (It’s a long one folks.)
Let me state my biases right off the top. I am a small press publisher which follows a traditional approach to books. I pay advances against royalties and work with authors — who I select — as an editor to bring their books to completion. I pay for design and cover art, print the books and convert them into e-book format, arrange distribution of both print and e-books, do some limited marketing (it isn’t much but it’s not nothing), undertake all the administration and bookkeeping. Authors get paid something upfront and all the financial risk is mine. If I sell enough copies, the author gets an annual payment of royalties and I make enough money to keep the process going.
I am also an author. My books were published by Bundoran Press before I acquired the business. I’m not sure who will publish my next novel since I’ve determined not to use Bundoran for my own writing (in any case, it’s an historical mystery and not science fiction — any takers?) Having done the work (and shelled out the money) to produce other people’s books, I’m not sure I relish the idea of self-publishing. To put it in perspective, assuming I have a fairly good manuscript, an editor is still going to cost me a minimum of $1500-2000 to create a final product; cover art and design roughly $800, e-book conversion another $100 or so. All of these can be done a little cheaper — many people do it much cheaper and, man, does it ever look like it. I have no interest in producing an ugly product. If I produced print books it would be using a POD service, considerable cheaper and easier to physically manage than a 1000 copy run.
This fundamentally is the difference between traditional publishing and indie or self-publishing.
In traditional publishing, the author must produce a product good enough for a publisher to let them through the gate. Once through, the writer receives a modest (or not so modest) guaranteed payment while the publisher does all the additional work (though increasingly authors are called on to at least help with marketing) and takes the financial risk. The writer gives up considerable control — final design, pricing, marketing choices — in exchange for this mitigation of risk. If the author has enough clout (i.e. sells enough books) he can claw back some of this control and even get better deals on what rights are included and what level of royalties are paid. Other writers have to suck it up and hope they sell enough books to sell another manuscript to their publisher. The sticking point for many people is the level of royalties paid, specifically for e-books.
Which leads many to advocate self-publishing, both as away to do away with the gate-keeper and to potentially increase the author’s income specifically from e-book sales. Indeed, unlike the vanity presses of old, where writers end up with basements full of unsaleable books, most self-publishing these days focus on e-books. Where print books are produced, it is often based on print-on-demand models. Certainly the royalty rates are higher — 70% versus a traditional 25% (or as much as 35% from some publishers) — and the author has much greater control over the final product. In exchange they take on all of the financial risk. More risk, more potential reward, but, as publishers know, no guarantee of reward.
Current arguments seem to pit traditional published authors against self-published ones — with most of the rhetoric being generated by writers on both sides for whom the respective systems have performed very well. That is to say, by writers whose incomes are in the top 10% or more likely 1% of all published writers. In a way this reminds me of the proxy wars of the Cold War — where the USA and USSR fought each other behind the facade of factions in Africa and Latin America. Some writers seem to be playing the foot soldiers in the struggles between the moguls of old media and those of new media. You might all want to read The People’s Platform to see how all that is likely to play out.
A few try to take a middle ground, suggesting that writers seize whatever opportunities there are to maximize their own revenues by pursuing both traditional and indie publishing avenues, depending on the nature of the project and the rights they happen to hold. While there is some limited evidence that these hybrid authors do better on average than those who exclusively pursue one or the other means. Still, it requires writers to have a lot of market savvy as well as sufficient energy and aptitude to be all-things-to-themselves. Making use of crowd-sourcing might play into this mix — mitigating risk while building a specific supportive audience. I’m one for two using crowd-sourcing as a way to support an individual project but some have tried it to support an entire publishing house. Not sure how I feel about that.
But what are the alternatives?
There are three main issues at play here, only two of which are addressed by the current arguments. The first is gate-keeping. People object to the idea that someone should decide whether their book is fit to print. Some assume there is a monstrous conspiracy to silence them, others a cynical plot to get rich off their work. Few people want to think that no-body wants to publish them because their book isn’t any good. The fact is, writing a book is hard work and requires at least mastering of a craft if not actual talent.
I personally think that many people, though not most, can become competent writers, but it takes natural aptitude to become good. I play the saxophone and with practice I could play a few tunes competently but even 10,000 hours of practice will not make me a musician. I can’t distinguish quarter notes and nothing will change that.
So maybe gate-keeping is not a bad thing, but if it is — go right ahead and self-publish. It’s a risk with a low likelihood of success but feel free to take it.
The second concern if money — who makes it and how. I suspect that when traditional publishers began to amalgamate, there was tremendous pressure from stockholders to increase profits. One way to do that was to sell more books; the other to reduce costs. As early as 2005, advances began to decline. With the recession of 2008, publishers called on writers — perhaps cynically — to do their bit to save the industry by taking substantially lower advances. Writers — perhaps foolishly — agreed (most felt they had no choice) and as a result, many now live below the poverty line. Writers — and Amazon — saw an opportunity and the surge of self-publishing began. For some it was a bonanza; for other’s an empty dream. Still, it has led us to where we are now.
The third issue is the sustainability of culture — which neither traditional publishers or the companies who support digital alternatives give one single shit about. All they care about is making more money. Everything else is empty rhetoric. There is a reason why the majority of top twenty box office moves are re-makes (something that wasn’t true 20 years ago — do your own research here); why pop music sounds more and more the same as algorithms seek out the catchiest riffs and insert them in new songs. Copy-cat books are all the rage and even the ‘new’ breakout novels seem to follow tried and true patterns. Maybe the reason the challenging book is an endangered species as Will Self argues, is that fewer and fewer people are exposed to them.
Culture won’t go away — it will simply become narrower and flatter. It won’t become more diverse as a wider range of people participate in it; it will be smushed into an enervating blandness as more and more people chase smaller and smaller rewards and both traditional media owners and digital billionaires get richer and richer.
The market, no matter who is benefiting from it will not support a range of artistic expression, will not reward a diversity of voice and vision. The production of art and culture costs something in time and money. If writers are no longer able to make a living from art they will make a living from something else (writing Google ads for example) and their art will become a hobby. If you think that’s fine, tell me this: do you want to go to a hobbyist doctor or have your house built by a hobbyist contractor?
So what is to be done? (as our old friend, V.I. Lenin liked to ask). Come on, you all think I’m a commie anyway so why not a reference to Vlad?
One option is to re-invigorate state support for the arts.
This may seem crazy in North America but lots of other democracies are doing exactly this, providing tax dollars to support public broadcasting, increase support for both individual artists and the institutions they work in. They do it because they recognize that culture is a public good and we cannot rely on private interests to sustain it.
Public money may keep arts and culture on something other than life support. Public governments may also institute laws to make sure that private corporations do not damage cultural institutions (and perhaps pay their taxes — but that’s another issue). The recent fight between Amazon and France suggests that Amazon thinks it is bigger and better than democracy.
Most democracies (including the USA where there is popular support for the National Endowment for the Arts) see the value, both material and immaterial, in a strong and diverse cultural sector, where artist are paid for the hard work they do rather than the popularity of the products they make. In a digital world, where copying is unrestricted, the most popular art has the least value. (Simple economics, infinite supply, no matter what the demand pushes prices to zero.) Given that, it is little wonder that the owners of the most popular products, such as Disney, fight so hard to extend and tighten copyright.
While a start, enhanced government support seems to me insufficient. At the very least, innovative artists need a way to support their work before it becomes sufficiently understood to be funded — even when those decisions are made by fellow artists.
Artists, and notably writers, need to take more control of their own destinies. One way might be to become the superstar hybrid author who understands everything and does it all.
Another might be to form writers’ unions, as Hugh Howie has explored. Unions can be potent instruments and have done a lot to provide all kinds of workers with improved pay and benefits while also contributing to broader social goods (8-hour day and workplace health and safety laws, for example) even for non-members. Of course, it takes two to negotiate and the negotiating environment could be a bit harried whether one is dealing with the big five publishing oligarchy or the near-monopoly of Amazon. The possibility of willing scabs threatens to raise the stakes in the current conflict even higher.
Writer co-operatives provide yet another model. A number have sprung up, initially to lend marketing support and advice to members. Others have gone a step farther, creating true co-operatives when writers assist each other in all aspects of both print and e-book production. Working as unpaid volunteers, as a general rule, each writer contributes skills they may have — web-site or e-book design, cover design, editing, proofing, administration or marketing — in expectation of receiving the same services when their book goes through the process. Some, like Ottawa’s Deux Voiliers is quite small, operating as a micro-publisher with limited but not negligible distribution while others such as Book View Café publishes 10 titles a month and has such well known writers as Ursula LeGuin and Vonda MacIntyre among its members. In both cases, authors pay the direct costs such as POD printing but have the indirect costs largely reduced by the contributions of fellow members. It mitigates risk and provides many of the best qualities of both traditional and indie publishing.
The third way forward for writers could incorporate any or all of these models or it could bring back a very old idea, repackaged for an open and democratic society: patronage.
Historically, most artists survived because individuals provided them with patronage in the form of a place to live and work or by guaranteeing to buy their work or even paying them a living wage. The nobility and churches were early patrons but, later, wealthy industrialists or merchants got in on the act — either directly or indirectly through foundations founded in their names. Carnegie, for example, used his considerable wealth to build libraries all over the USA and Canada. In exchange, the patrons received the prestige, social reputation, a heritage, and, yes, even pleasure from the art itself. It was elitist and, undoubtedly, in some cases, censored the art being produced (though maybe not as much as poverty does). Still, it could be made more democratic. The Internet promised to do that but has mostly impoverished the vast majority of creators while enriching a few folks in Silicon Valley — perhaps beyond sustaining.
Modern day patronage might take a slightly different form. Crowd source funding can be one avenue, with at least some people contributing, not for some perk or product but because they actually want to see the art being made. It is possible that other platforms will be developed where altruism and social engagement will be the driving force rather than consumer products and self-aggrandizement. These could even develop into self-sustaining artistic circles, where artists primarily produce for those who are particular fans of his or her work — whether books, art, music or other performance, a kind of democratic elitism. By itself, it would not lead to a sustainable culture and, if it became too inward focused could even harm it, leading to artists only talking to their closed circles and not larger society. But if the circles overlapped and were made porous enough it could solve the conundrum of matching free distribution of art with the hard reality that it costs money to make good things.
It is not a sufficient condition to sustainability but it may be a necessary one. Patronage could form one pillar among many to build and maintain a broad inclusive culture in a diverse society. It certainly couldn’t do any worse.