Wednesday, December 29, 2010

We did this e-book era, so now what?

If you've been at all interested in indie publishing, you read JA Konrath's blog, and he's made his latest compelling case for controlling your own content in the digital era. While I agree wholeheartedly with the underlying principal, I am not so convinced there will be eternal expansion in the e-book market. The digital book business has changed so much in a year that Joe's and Lee Goldberg's joke of "Who wants to be a Kindle millionaire?" is no longer a joke, it's just a question of who will get there first.

Barely 20 years ago, the average mass-market paperback sold 100,000 copies. Writers who planned their retirements on that expectation are probably in some low-level government job right now (like the other 40 percent of the country) or are lucky enough to be drawing unemployment like the other 10 percent. A writer who expects to continue to earn $2 per ebook for the life of copyright may meet the same fate. Though I suppose for most writers, any job pays better than writing.

I'm on record as predicting the flat-text e-book era has an outside range of five years, at least for fiction--specialized non-fiction and manuals will continue to be valuable for their content alone. I believe e-book sales will continue, but certainly not with expanding profits for all involved. Somewhere along the way, readers have to keep paying to support all this, and there won't always be a fresh army of new advocates every Christmas, and the current readers will have several lifetimes' worth of content hoarded away. That brings us to the question of "What next?"

I see two splits, with some overlap. Bestsellers at 99 cents, and ad-supported books. At first blush, you'd think NY has an advantage, since Madison Avenue is right there. But can corporations, with their large structures, be able to compete when indie or smaller entities can react more quickly to present conditions instead of protecting some imagined status quo?

When someone like Seth Godin breaks from a publisher, it's news. But Seth Godin could snap his fingers right now and line up way more advertisers on his own (or, at least, earn a far greater share of the proceeds) than he could with a shareholder monkey on his back. If you look at what he's doing, he's basically created his own media empire. James Patterson has done the same thing but under a corporate imprint--I wouldn't be surprised if he takes his own road soon, but he may be at the age where he'd rather just ride out his momentum.

This points out the new era of the branded writer. And not just "writer," but "content creator" and even mere "idea marketer." A personality is more suited to building brand identification and audience than a publisher is. I say "James Patterson" and you get an image. I say "Random House" and what do you get? Randomness. We've seen it here locally: "Ray's Weather" is where you check the weather and "Todd's Calendar" is where you click to find what's happening in the region--and both are ad supported. You can get the free content elsewhere but you don't get the human personality attached.

I'm already experimenting with the ad model as my website undergoes redesign. I am counting on Idea Marketing being one of my foundational pillars. I am not quite sure what it all looks like right now, but I look at it this way--you don't need NY in order to give away tons of free e-books or to spread an idea or to build a social platform. I'm still honing my core beliefs, but they center around compassionate self-reliance and the exchange of ideas.

My indie experience was cited on a post by Jim C. Hines where he talks about his "failed experiment" of putting out an indie and mentions Laura Gilman's expressed fear of piracy (for a story collection, of all things--most people would be lucky to have those stolen, though mine do sell unexpectedly well). I don't blame people for sticking with what worked in the past. It all goes to how invested you are in a certain system and how the alternative looks. Publishing-industry talk on e-books uses phrases like "managing risk" and "cautious adaptation." I have nothing to lose so I can afford to go balls to the wall.

I had a talk with an Amazon DTP tech a few weeks back, and Amazon is continually exploring ways to build on the interactive experience inside the e-book. Google clearly is planning an ad-based model. And it's not going to be as clumsy as an image of a refreshing Bud Lite popping up when the main character enters a bar (though it's not unthinkable at some point.)

"I'll quit reading before I put up with that." Yes, I've heard that. I also remember saying I'd never carry a cell phone, or be on Facebook, or give up my vinyl albums, or start thinking that maybe nuclear energy is the best short-range answer to our energy addiction.

I'm not a pessimist, because I'm extremely grateful to be free enough to act as I see fit, but when "How to get free Kindle books" are the bestselling Kindle books, I feel which way the wind blows. Now, as soon as I can figure out how to give away a million sponsored ebooks, I might be in the running.

All you corporations out there that I am studiously avoiding mentioning for free, you know where to find me.



Charlie Pulsipher said...

Feels like many authors are riding a tidal wave of change and those who stay up will carve out a place. I'm hoping I am not too far behind, caught in the doldrums that follow in the wake. Got to finish that book! I also am beginning to come around to ads in books. I have learned to ignore those I do not like in the corner of my video and I hope it pushes advertisers to learn that we need clever, funny, and thought provoking ads instead of bouncing drivel. Thank you again for sharing.

Funny Stuff I write

author Scott Nicholson said...

Charlie, it could be "content ads" are the future, or ONE future, where the storyline revolves around the idea, product, or service subsidizing the creative effort. It will be interesting, for sure. Don't worry about missing any era, there will always be another! Just keep writing.


JaxPop said...

Scott - Just sent my files to be formatted for ebooks. Using your recommended source for that (DD). Gotta say, I'm a bit jumpy 'cause I'll probably screw up the upload part when Ted sends me my "stuff". Crazy times.

S.G.Royle said...

I hear you. Not believing yet, but I stuck a post it note to my forehead.

author Scott Nicholson said...

Good luck, JaxPop, it's not so hard!

Simon, a year ago, I'll bet you were saying you didn't "believe" in indie ebooks.


Rabid Fox said...

When I hear "ads in books," I cringe at the idea that literature might go the same road as cinema, with umpteen ads before even getting to the trailers.

If it's the relevant and provocative kind of advertising, instead of infuriating, I could get with that.

author Scott Nicholson said...

Gef, at the point you STOP going to the theater because of it, that's when it will have had an effect on the practice (unless enough other people kept doing it). The very fact you are aware of its existence means you are willing to tolerate it. I only go to one or two movies a year so the changes are dramatic to me. And all product placement looks obvious. Yet, I went.


A.P. Fuchs said...

I just wrote this massive reply and got an error.

In short, Scott, drop me a line and let's set up a phone call.

I've been self-pubbing for six years and know how to do it right.

JaxPop said...

Well, managed to screw up the link thing pretty good. Thought you added the link & provided a description. And I'm going to upload stuff myself to Kindle, etc? Yeah, that'll be a breeze. Sheesh.... Embarrassing.

Layton Green said...

Great post. Great stories and storytellers will always be in demand, but knowing how to capitalize on the story/brand/idea is key, and all too often left to a third party. It's the Wild West right now, and I love how Scott is thinking, and I am furiously thinking myself as to what to do. I look forward to open idea exchange with all of you. A.P., I'd love to hear what you have to say. My email is (website is Happy New Year to all--