Monday, November 8, 2010

The Death of Publishing

As a fiction writer - particularly as a science fiction writer, which is definitely one of my preferred genres - predicting the future is often part of the job. We don't always get it right, but we think about it and try to figure out where things are going so we can turn those possible futures into interesting stories.

I'm going to predict, right now, that ultimately the "death of publishing" will be a good thing for writers, just the way that the "death of the label" is looking like a good thing for musicians. Here's my thought:

Musicians didn't get to a happy place right away. It takes time for customers to adjust and it takes time for technology to catch up. Also, the "value-added" services of the labels had to be replaced. But technology made this all possible. Let's compare the "old days" to the new, through my inexpert lens as a music-industry outsider.

Back in "the day," prior to the mid-90s or even the early 2000s, the labels had to make a huge up-front investment in order to get music into the hands of customers. They were the ones who put together high-tech recording studios with the big sound boards, the stereo microphones, and the high-end, high-fidelity recorders. It took expertise to create that studio, then more expertise to use it properly to mix the tracks. They had the machines to press the vinyl, make the cassettes, burn the CDs, and to generate the packaging that went along with them. Then they had the distribution machine to get them into stores, and the marketing machine to publicize the music, generate buzz, set up tours, and get the music sold. They then took the lion's share of the revenue generated, but they were the only game in town so if you didn't like it, tough.

Now fast-forward to today. You still need to be a decent musician to start with, and one of the problems is that without the label's involvement, the initial "quality filter" is gone. Customers have to wade through an increasing amount of crap from "wannabe" musicians to find quality stuff. That's the trade-off, and the mechanisms to address it are growing and will continue to evolve. But everything's in the hands of the musician, now. The professional recording studio is still best, and they can be rented if you've got the money, but you can also create a home-studio for a few grand with a computer and some $150 microphones. They won't necessarily be ultra-high fidelity (there's a reason the studios are sound-proofed the way they are), but they don't necessarily have to be. Remember - MP3s are a compressed file-format. They'll never sound as good as a CD or even vinyl, but nobody seems to care.

The mechanisms are all there - you've got the ability to record music on the cheap, distribute it globally (also on the cheap) and consumers can buy it (for the same price or less than the old ways) and play it on their new-fangled music-players. The result? Well, this (sorta - see below):

Image from Buzzfeed.

So let's look at what that graphic does and doesn't mean. In the big picture, what it means is that the gross profit for each song sold is split in a way that's MUCH more favorable to the musicians when it's sold online through a service like iTunes or Amazon. What it also shows, though it seems to try to ignore it, is that being a successful musician CAN be an expensive proposition. Assuming the musician wants to be of the "[blank] star" variety - that is to say, the Rock Star, Pop Star, Country Music Star, etc. - then they're still going to need managers, producers, business people, and so forth. They're also going to need to do publicity, arrange tours and concerts, and so forth. It's not as if that full 70% goes straight into one guy's pocket. Another way in which this graphic is unclear is that it shows the pies as the same size, and I doubt very much that they are. By which I mean that, sure, each $.99 song may be split as portrayed, but how many $.99 songs do you sell if you're just Joe Do-It-Yourself-Musician as apposed to being, for example, major recording artist backed by a major label. If you're getting 70% of $1,000 a month, you'd probably trade that for .024% of 100,000 a month. The question then becomes, will you sell 40x as much music with a label backing you as you will if you're on your own?

Well, not necessarily, no. The labels like to play little games. They'll cook the books in such a way as to show that they've never actually made any money off the sale of your work. You'll sell a few thousand songs, and they'll tell you they never quite broke even on them, so, sorry, no royalties for you. I've heard lots of complaints about movie and TV studios doing the same sort of thing. And that's where the do-it-yourself approach starts to look really good. You'll have to fight to get your name recognized and generate enough of a sales volume to live off of, but you'll do it honestly without any of the crap from the labels.

And I think it's likely that publishing is heading in a similar direction. Yes, you'll probably be better off for quite a while with a publisher backing you, because they do an awful lot that you don't have to do. They edit your work, they design the cover, they get it proofed and printed and distributed, and they help with marketing, book tours, etc. - just like the labels do for musicians. What's changing is that it's never been easier to produce a book yourself if you're so-inclined, and with the rise of e-book readers, you no longer even have to worry about getting it printed if you don't want to.

What I see happening is a rise in "a-la-carte" publishing services, who will do the stuff you don't want to do or aren't good at doing - the stuff publishers have traditionally done - for you, and they'll take a cut of your proceeds. Or perhaps you'll pay them up front as with a vanity publisher - it's hard to say for sure, my crystal ball must be smudged. Anyway, the result will be LOTS and LOTS of crap distributed electronically for potential customers to wade through. But for the writer, if they're good (good enough to have been published under the old model, for instance), they'll make a name for themselves online because people will rate them and talk about them and suggest them to friends and so forth. and Apple would love to do for book distribution what they've done for music - make a ton of stuff widely-accessible to a broad spectrum of customers from a broad spectrum of artists. Writers will be able to produce their books, get them edited through various channels, and then get them out there for people to buy. People will buy them (or not) and read them on their e-book readers (or not), and if they do, the writer will reap the lion's share of the reward.

Sure, you may not make it onto the Times Bestseller list this way, but then your chances weren't very good the old way, either. You'll likely sell less quantity, but you'll make a lot more of the raw profit from each book you sell. And the great thing for writers is that musicians are paving the way for us. We can let them figure out the details and then take advantage of it, because the technology we need to do it is finally here. This publishing revolution won't completely occur overnight, and honestly I'm not in any hurry to see the traditional, quality publishing houses go away (not least of which because, personally, I like printed books and don't have any plans to buy an e-book reader. Hell, I only bought my first MP3 player a couple of months ago, and I literally only use it when I mow the lawn). I like Del Ray, Tor, Baen and all the other high-quality publishers who've brought me my fiction over the last thirty years. I want them to publish my books. But times change, products change, and the means of production changes. It's going to be an interesting decade for writers, and you can bet that by the end key aspects of the industry are going to look very different.

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