One of the first things people ask us when we tell them about Pandamian is: “So how are these writers going to make money?”
It’s an obvious question to ask, of course. One of Pandamian’s core features (which – I’ll admit, we’re currently building, and which is turning out to be a huge pain in the ass) is the ability for writers to sell books through their own ebook store, or – if they so choose – to do some sort of automated uploading to the Kindle/Smashwords/Feedbooks stores.
Our answer is unsatisfactory to most of these people: “We’re not sure that they can make enough money to support themselves. We can’t guarantee that.”
And we can’t. But the discussion does lead to an interesting question: can writers make good money if they choose to go down this path of digital/self publishing? Can writers expect to make money?
I think the short answer to that question is: yes, it’s not inconceivable that some writer, somewhere, would eventually make enough money selling books on the Internet that he or she would be able to quit his/her day job. And that writer should count himself very lucky indeed. The long answer, however, is that it really depends on the number of people who are attempting to do this.
Most writers I know that publish traditionally don’t make enough from their books to write full-time. They work day jobs instead. And they keep at it because publishing – as a field – is validated by the J. K. Rowlings and the Stephen Kings – authors who are able to command an audience large enough to do nothing but write, full-time.
Making enough to write for a living is the dream, and it is a good dream. It’s why so many people keep trying to get published. And aspiring authors know that it is possible – statistically unlikely, but possible – to live this dream through the mechanism of publishing, because there are all these success stories, the kinds you experience when you watch a Harry Potter movie, or when you buy a Twilight book. And while they don’t say this explicitly, they believe alternatives like digital publishing aren’t viable mechanisms for success because there is no proof of success.
But that doesn’t make sense, does it? Because there are so many writers jostling for publication, it becomes increasingly unlikely that none of them would ever become successful. And so when people look at self-publishing and say that it’s rubbish, what they don’t understand is that it doesn’t seem like a viable alternative – because there are comparatively few people doing it.
My contention is that the more writers move to digital publishing (that is – they publish and sell on the Internet before approaching a traditional publisher) the odds that some of them succeed increases proportionately.
All Kinds of Makers
I think recent history has shown us that this is true. Writers aren’t the only kinds of people who experience a distribution of success. Other kinds of makers do as well: musicians play at night for a reason (i.e. they have day jobs) and the stereotype of ‘the starving artist’ or ‘the delusional painter’ didn’t arise in a vacuum.
But musicians and comic artists have been using the Internet as an alternative medium of publication for years now. Far longer than writers, in fact. And proportionately, they have models of success: Johnathan Coulton has been making music on the web for seven years; Randall Munroe of XKCD for four – both do this full time.
The answer to this money/credibility problem isn’t to worry that much – if there are strong reasons for writers to move online, and if they keep doing so, then eventually the medium will create for itself examples of success.
And thankfully there are compelling reasons for writers to move online. The whole process of getting published today is cause enough – it’s painful to run the gamut of submission and rejection every time you finish writing a novel. And then there’s the fact that web fiction is in itself hugely compelling to a writer – see my talk at Books in Browsers for proof of this.
I used to think that an ability to make money was a key attraction for writers wanting to move online. I spent a year or so talking about ways we could perhaps increase the probability of economic success for writers publishing on the Internet. But I no longer believe that this is true (at least – not yet). Show writers that there are plenty of compelling reasons to do web fiction and the money problem would eventually become easier to solve.
That there are no J. K. Rowlings of web fiction does not imply that web fiction is impossible to monetize. It simply means that there aren’t enough writers doing it to have a distribution curve show up. Destroying the barriers to entry for book publishing is, I think, a good first step in solving the money problem. The next step would be to build good reading filters … but that’s a hard problem, and one I will leave for another day.