Why A Publishing Industry Slump Is Good For Us

Money In The EyeGavin Williams writes No Man An Island and The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin. In this guest post he talks about how a traditional publishing industry slump presents a unique opportunity for the growth of online fiction.

The illustrious Alexandra Erin, one of the successful online novelists (and by “successful” I mean it’s her day job) recently wrote that the publishing industry is currently tightening its belt in the face of a possible recession. That means there will likely be less sales, less new books, and less new writers. Because in the face of falling sales, the big companies will be unwilling to take risks on new authors until the crisis is past. And, readers will have less money to spend on unknown writers. They’ll want something they’re sure to find entertaining and worth the money, since we’ll all have less of it.

Now, this is where some news anchor would say “This is a good time to PANIC!”

Now, it kind of is. If the rising price of oil destroys our economy and causes a depressed period, that will pretty much suck. I’m not going to sugarcoat that sad fact. So, what chance does the new art form of Online Novels have against a powerhouse industry like Traditional Publishing? Especially in the face of a crisis of global proportions?

Well, because we have an opportunity here. The Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as the one for opportunity: Crisertunity! (Thank you Homer Simpson) If the common reader is going to have trouble finding disposable income to spend on paper books, we can present a great alternative: free online text. It’s environmentally friendly, takes zero manufacturing time, saves trees, and entertains daily.

The Old Way: Traditional Publishing

You know how it goes. A plucky young writer goes into his or her private sanctuary with a typewriter/laptop and punches out the next great American Novel. (I’m Canadian, but we’re talking myths here) It’s a work of genius, with rich drama and realistic characters. The earnest would-be novelist sends it to agents and publishers, writing query letters, hoping for the best.

Form letters come back, saying the manuscript isn’t “right” for their publishing house or agency. Or that the writing is excellent, but that marketing it would be difficult. Perhaps a rewrite? The writer goes back into seclusion, writing like a madman, until it’s finished. Frank Herbert’s “Dune” was rejected 13 times by publishers. James Joyce’s “Dubliners” was rejected 22 times, and then the first run was bought by one person and burned. They had to try again.

Finally, the young writer (probably no longer young) gets an agent and gets published. And then waits for a year while the manuscript is edited and printed, cover art finalized, marketing planned… Until finally, one day there is their book, on a shelf in a store, for the world to find and love.

Readers will spend fifteen, twenty, twenty-five dollars for a paperback. And from there to the neighbourhood of fifty bucks for a hardcover. And that plucky young writer? Well, after the publisher pays the corporate owners, the editors, the publicists, the artists, the printer and the agent, not much is left.

And if a recession closes the publishing world’s doors to everyone but the big names, the bestsellers? You get zero.

The Alternative: Faster, Leaner, Cooler

A new economic model is emerging thanks to the Internet. The Music Industry has already proven it works, and that the culture needs to adapt. Downloads. Why buy a CD with two good songs and ten bad ones, when you can download the two songs you like? Ipods and MP3 players make digital music more convenient than CDs. Some bands are taking this to heart: Radiohead offered some of its music online for free, and fans could leave donations. The whole industry is trying to recreate itself.

Bands are getting fans to help them publish music, instead of turning to big studios. Fans get to feel like part of a community, vote on favourites, comment on albums, and decide who’s worthy of funding. These are exciting times.

Online novelists can benefit from these experiences. Web design gets easier all the time, especially with free alternatives like WordPress and Blogger. Instead of getting an agent and a publisher, writers can publish their stories themselves, electronically. Instead of waiting a year to see it in print, it can go up right after you finish typing it. Instead of waiting a year for a whole book, readers can have a new chapter every day. They also help edit the book and improve the writing, through comments.

Online novels can go beyond the confines of regular print. Interesting layouts, uploads for artwork, videos and music, links to past chapters or related stories, character profiles, the websites can be designed for interactivity and creativity. Online stories can be a wholly different and engaging experience from the paperback you’re used to.

We don’t have to chop down trees to make paper: we’re environmentally friendly. We don’t have to pay a printer, a publicist, an editor or an agent. We certainly don’t have to pay a fancy publisher in a suit, who makes money for putting their name on the cover and little else. Through reader donations and web advertisements, the only person being paid is the writer themselves.

And fans don’t have to drive to the mall to find a bookstore. They get new chapters in the comfort of their own home. We’re cheap on gas, too!

While the Publishing Industry is busy twiddling its thumbs waiting for Dan Brown to write a lame sequel, or for someone to create the next Harry Potter, we can get out there and experiment. Try new styles, thrill readers, shock audiences, fly without a net. Most online writers do it as a hobby, a sideline. There’s little financial risk. We enjoy writing, it’s an inexpensive hobby. All it takes is pen, paper, and imagination. And, if we’re online, it takes the computer and keyboard we already own. We don’t need employees, manufacturers, stores, overhead, publicists. We just need to type.

For Alexandra Erin, there’s a little more risk involved. It’s her full-time job. But, think of the alternative. You (as a reader) can wait a year for your favourite novelist to publish a book, and then read it in a day, and spend twenty to fifty dollars on it. Or, you could send your favourite online writer a dollar a month. Or five. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but the Internet is huge. If we get lots of online fiction out there, cast a big net, we’ll draw in more audience, and slowly but surely that dollar from one person is one thousand people, or ten thousand… It’s not impossible.

It just takes trying.

Novelr is trying to forge links in the online community to make finding online fiction easier. Alexandra Erin is doing the same with Pages Unbound. Writers like me usually have links on our sites to our friends and favourite stories, so audiences can find new material and expand their horizon.

As I pointed out in my previous article, you get back a lot in return. A new chapter every day or every week, or somewhere in between. The chance to communicate with other fans and the writers themselves. The chance to build communities, and explore new worlds of imagination. There’s a lot to be excited about in online fiction.

The traditional model can sit there, waiting for trouble to pass it by. Meanwhile, we can take the art of writing to a new audience and a whole new level, by being faster, leaner, more creative, and interactive.

Now is not the time to panic. Now is the time to jump in and make the future.

Here’s a list of why Online Novels have an advantage over Traditional Publishing in these leaner, meaner times:

  1. The publishing world is making it harder to get published.
  2. The online world is constantly growing in audience, and is easy to use.
  3. The publishing world compensates agents, editors, publicists, typists, printers and owners, and then the author. It costs a lot of money to prepare and print a book, and it costs readers a fair amount to buy one.
  4. The online world compensates the author. And, it’s inexpensive for readers.
  5. Traditional publishing is slow. It might be a year after a contract before a book is in print.
  6. Online publishing is instantaneous. I wrote this article today.
  7. Traditional publishers and agents send you form letters if they don’t like you.
  8. Online readers comment directly on your chapters, telling you what they love and hate in equal measure, teaching you to take criticism and how to improve.
  9. The publishing world is shrinking down to its favourite best-selling authors and genres. Which means, not you.
    The online world is craving innovation, experimentation, entertainment and fun. Which could be you.

Need I say more?

Gavin Williams writes No Man An Island and The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin. If you like his work feel free to drop by Pages Unbound and leave a review for him there.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Publishing · Writing Web Fiction