The More Things Change...
Friday, November 20, 2009
Things are changing fast in Book Land. Last month, the world’s largest Christian fiction publisher decided to convert one of its traditional imprints into a self-publishing division. This week, the world’s largest romance fiction publisher announced they have entered the self-publishing business, too. Never mind the troubling ethical questions and conflict of interest concerns that many have raised about established publishers choosing to blur the lines between traditional and self-publishing this way. That’s another blog. Today I’m interested in bigger trends.
Some people think we’re looking at a future filled with hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people putting out their own novels. Given this new thrust toward self-publishing, and the ease with which a manuscript can be uploaded to the Internet as an e-Book, why not? Any author who has ever done a book signing will tell you that everybody seems to think they are a writer. Now they can prove it without having to jump through all the traditional hoops of getting an agent, attracting an acquisitions editor and satisfying a publication board. Write it and post it. It’s just that simple!
Some people also think the Internet has changed everything when it comes to production and purchase in the arts. We used to be macro-consumers. Now that it is so easy to get “published,” we’re going to become micro-consumers. No more blockbuster novels. Everybody will be reading something different because there are so many different things to read.
The Internet, they say, has changed everything, and we published novelists had better get ready for hard times because there is a wave of words coming that will overwhelm us.
I don’t believe it for a second.
Take Hollywood for example. At the end of the day, after Johnny uploads his latest YouTube video creation, I think he still sits down to stream a blockbuster Hollywood production on Netflix, right along with a million other people every day. No matter how many Youtube videos get uploaded, I don’t think that’s going to change the fact that the blockbuster Hollywood production is much more fun. And if Johnny does watch someone else’s Youtube video, on what does he base that decision? On the fact that a whole lot of other people have already watched the same video, of course. Take away the view counter and Youtube would die of lack of interest. We don’t have millions of people watching millions of different videos. We have millions watching a few videos. All the other millions of videos are seen by the people who make them, their friends, and family. Sort of like home movies.
In exactly the same way, Johnny might upload his novel to some file sharing site, but for his own reading he’s still going to choose a Steven King title over some unknown person who wants $1.50 for a download from Scribd.
I’m thinking about general trends here, and of course there will always be a few people who swim upstream, but while the Internet allows us to produce stuff at a micro-level, but that doesn’t mean the vast majority of us want to consume stuff on that level. This is due to basic human nature. Human beings have a heard mentality, and no technology will ever can change that.
There’s so much proof. Anyone could start a “news” service like Matt Drudge’s. All the man does is post links to other people’s news stories. Countless bloggers have tried to do the same, and it’s safe to say many of them post the same news links, or more interesting links, but Drudge still gets 28,000,000 hits a day while all those others get maybe 50 to 5,000. Why do millions of people go to Drudge every day? Because millions of people go to Drudge.
People have a herd mentality. We always have. We always will.
We see a line; we get in it, whether we know why or not. It just seems easier, somehow. How many times have you seen this at a ticket booth? A couple of lines, one long, one short, both for the same thing? And what is your first instinct? If you are like most people your first instinct is obviously to get in the long line, because that’s why it’s longer in the first place. It takes extra thought to get in that short line, and it takes a little courage, because a little voice warns us that the longer line must be better. After all, everybody’s in it.
Since we’re wired to take the well trodden path our marketplace will always be driven by that instinct, which means sales will always pile up in a few places rather than being thinly spread all over the place. How many search engines are there? How many people use Google, versus all those others combined? We’ve even turned “google” into a verb. We might enjoy the fantasy that someone’s out there reading our blog or looking at our video, but when it comes time for us to do some reading and looking, the Internet hasn’t changed our herd mentality. On the contrary, the Internet enables it.
What will probably happen as traditional publishing slowly dies as some predict, is a corresponding period when it’s every author for himself, with a proliferation of websites like Scribd where you can market your wares. Then one site will rise to dominance, a la Google, Drudge, Amazon, Craig’s List, Youtube, and etc.. That dominant e-publishing site will include a download counter for each title. And just as we see on Youtube, the titles with the most downloads will attract the most downloads. Tipping point will remain a fundamental marketing dynamic. Buying patterns will continue to exist just as the do today. A few authors will rise to the top, and all the others will sink to the bottom. At the end of the day, fiction authors will be in much the same place as we were ten years ago, with a small pool of the luckiest or the most talented professionals selling 95% of the novels, and a few million others wannabes splitting the other 5%. There will always be a need for professional editing. PR and marketing will still be necessary. The dominant e-publishing website will eventually change their business model and start taking a percentage of sales, of course. And being very poor negotiators, I suspect we authors will still be lucky to retain our usual 5% to 15%. In the end, unless human nature changes, life as an author will remain essentially the same in spite of everything.
Piracy, on the other hand, could ruin everything for everyone, authors and readers alike, but that too is another blog.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:41 AM