Over the last few months I’ve poked around the edge of the e-book market, talking to authors and publishers who release entire books for free online. So I’ve been thinking a lot about market implications of limitless, no-cost distribution for fiction particularly (bonus points because sf authors are out front here) and book sales in general.
It’s hard to game out — people need to be paid for writing books, and there’s no super-sure way to make money on digital freebies — which, at a minimum, makes it rather brave of the authors who test the strategy. Can we do the Internet equivalent of serializing Dickens in the penny papers? The ad-supported novel doesn’t feel all that likely either, from where we sit now — yet there was a not-so-distant time when serialization was lucrative, in some sense. And the status quo doesn’t seem very likely to remain very stable for very long, so something in the model is bound to change big.
Based on talking to free e-bookish people, however, if I had to predict the future of the book it might sound something like what sf author Michael Moorcock posits on the online magazine (appropriately) Heliotrope. After going over how the economics of books have changed since the ’60s, and by his account almost entirely to the advantage of big chain retailers, he asks:
How do we break the power of Waterstones or Barnes and Noble, who take the lion’s share of profits and take the fewest risks? In 1970 the normal discount to publishers was 33%, considered pretty hefty at the time, and sometimes a little less (say 25%). In 2007 publishers frequently demand and get 55%. This means, as Allan Massie pointed out in a recent piece…that the bookseller gets the lion’s share of the profit while taking the lowest risk and putting in the least work. The writer, of course, gets the smallest share.
Given that this situation is antithetical to the publishing of good, risk-taking books, how are we to break that power and reverse the situation, paying the writer a fairer share for his investment and the bookseller a smaller (though equally fair) share. The answer, of course, is clear to those of us who have worked for online publishers for some years, especially those who have paid authors for their work or been paid.
With retail outlets for POD [print-on-demand] publishers, where a reader can physically browse and order books if they are not yet ready to visit virtual bookstores, we should be able to offer a wider selection of books and magazines than ever before and, by cutting out middlemen, sell them at a cheaper price which will nonetheless ensure that the one who makes the largest investment in time and energy will receive the highest reward. The more aggressively and enthusiastically electronic publishing promotes its wares, the more it challenges the conglomerates and offers the public a greater number of genuinely experimental titles. All this makes for a far healthier literary life.
It seems to me that authors as well as publishers will have to take the same risks Dickens took when he published his books as cheap part-works, the same risks authors took when they let their books be published at six shillings, instead of ₤1.10.6d, the same risks some of us took when we ignored the posher literary magazines of our day and preferred to see our work appear in vulgar newstand magazines with exotic and brightly coloured covers. At present POD and other electronic publishing are considered by literary journalists and others to be an inferior form of delivering fiction to readers, on a par with vanity publishing. This can only change rapidly if we make it change.
Read the rest to catch Moorcock’s take on the evolution of the book business in the 20th century, as well as a veritable reading list of Moorcock’s favorite books. And remember that his quasi-apocalyptic, death-of-the-record-labels projection isn’t merely the ranting of a jaundiced author. Moorcock has living-legend status in British sf and must surely consider himself successful in the existing publishing paradigm (which is not to say that I’ve read any of his books, only August’s Interzone. If there’s a consensus pick for best first Moorcock book, I’d love to know which one it is.)