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.