“A Small Industry Sitting Atop a Huge Hobby”

Here’s a heretical thought: suppose we never find a way for making money from online fiction?

I was walking back from campus the other day with Yipeng (who’s the technical lead for Pandamian, by the way, and is generally sharp about such things) and he asked me: “Is there any way to make money from … this web fiction thing?”

I paused for a bit, thinking about where to begin. “Well, yes and no.” I said, “There are some ideas floating around. One of them is to release the book for free, in web form, and sell the ebook and dead-tree versions.” – a pause as I think – “And perhaps another one is to sell merchandise around the book. Or sell signings and book tours.” – another pause – “The truth is that we don’t know.”

And we still don’t. Digital content is a chaotic, uncomfortable business to be in. Most working business models in this space have yet to be discovered, and the ones that do work are these odd, vertical stacks that few companies may tap into (e.g.: the iTunes store, and now maybe the Kindle/iBookstore – both with their own devices). Newspapers are feeling the worse of it, but books and music aren’t that far behind.

But I wonder now: suppose the majority of digital, for-entertainment writing is impossible to monetize? Or that – if it were monetizable, the money would go to a small circle of skilled/lucky authors, sitting atop a food chain of other less-profitable, digital writers?

I’m kidding myself, of course – such a future is likely to be inevitable. In all areas of human effort there will be a small number of successful/lucky people, a small number of very unlucky people, and a vast majority of what I shall call – for want of a better term – middleness. Digital publishing seems unlikely to escape the bell-curve that governs everything else.

What interests me is this idea that the bell-curve in publishing, so far, has existed because of the shape of the traditional publishing industry. In other words, the authors that get promoted to the top depend on which authors the publishing houses like the best. This is not true for all cases, and there are market forces to think about, but it is certainly true for many. In digital publishing there are fewer barriers-to-entry for the prospective author. In this version of a bookfuture – what factors determine the kinds of authors that get to the top?

I can hazard only a few guesses. The most successful authors are likely to be the ones who can best create and manage large communities. How they’ll do that is unclear to me, but it’s likely that the author will have some way of gathering his or her audience. It’s also likely that this way would be tied to or enabled by a publishing company.

I’ll also take a stab at it and say that the publishing houses of the future would endorse certain digital writers over others. The good news is that it’s easier to pick the winners in a flat market like the Internet. The bad news is that publisher-support would probably remain the defining factor for whether an author makes it to the big-time. And without such leverage, the rest of the writers would still be left without any way to make significant money from their work.

This isn’t a bad thing, really. Writer V. J. Chambers left a comment in an earlier Novelr post that struck me as true:

… I want to scream at people, “Getting paid for making art is not a right. It is a privilege.”

I’m beginning to think that this is the right way of looking at things. If you’re a writer, and you publish good stuff online, and you get paid huge sums of money for it, you’re a lucky (nay, privileged) person indeed. And if you’re not – so what? You’re still doing what you love. Maybe the money’s just enough to cover your server costs. Maybe it’s enough to buy you an occasional t-shirt. It shouldn’t matter, because that isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Richard Nash argued that publishing is a ‘small industry sitting atop a huge hobby’. If we take that hobby to be writing, then what you have in the Internet is a tool that enables you to find people who love your writing, and who would love to talk about it with you. Never before in the history of publishing has this level of interaction been so attainable. And as a writer, I find this idea to be incredibly fulfilling.

If not being able to make money means I can talk to more readers … well maybe that’s not such a bad trade-off after all.

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Category: Making Money · Publishing