the year of the author 01.07.2008, 9:16 PM
posted by kim white
Natalie Merchant, one of my favorite artists, was featured in The New York Times today. She is back after a long hiatus, but if you want to hear her new songs you better stand in line for a ticket to one of her shows because she doesn't plan to release an album anytime soon. She appeared this weekend at the Hiro Ballroom in New York City. According to the Times, a voice in the crowd asked when Ms. Merchant would release a new album, she said with a smile that she was awaiting "a new paradigm for the recording industry."
hmm, well, the good news is that the paradigm is shifting, fast. But we don't yet know if this will be a good thing or a bad thing. It's certainly a bad thing for the major labels, who are losing market share faster then polar bears are losing their ice (sorry for the awful metaphor). But as they continue to shrink, so do the services and protections they offer to the artists. And the more content moves online the less customers are willing to pay for it. Radiohead's recent experiment proves that.
But artists are still embracing new media and using it to take matters into their own hands. In the music industry, a long-tail entrepreneurial system supported by online networks and e-commerce is beginning to emerge. Sites like nimbit empower artists to manage their own sales and promotion, bypassing itunes which takes a hefty 50% off the top and and, unlike record labels, does nothing to shape or nurture an artist's career.
Now, indulge me for a moment while I talk about the Kindle as though it were the ipod of ebooks. It's not, for lots of reasons. But it does have one thing in common with its music industry counterpart, it allows authors to upload their own content and sell it on amazon. That is huge. That alone might be enough to start a similar paradigm shift in publishing. In this week's issue of Publisher's Weekly, Mike Shatzkin predicts it will.
So why have I titled this, "the year of the author"? (I borrowed that phrase from Mike Shatzkin's prediction #3 btw). I'm not trying to say it will be a great year for authors. New media is going to squeeze them as it is squeezing musicians and striking writer's guild members. It is the year of the author, because they will be the ones who drive the paradigm shift. They may begin to use online publishing and distribution tools to bypass traditional publishers and put their work out there en masse. OR they will opt out of the internet's "give-up-your-work-for-free" model and create a new model altogether. Natalie Merchant is opting to (temporarily I hope) bring back the troubadour tradition in the music biz. It will be interesting to see what choices authors make as the publishing industry's ice begins to shift.
Kate Pullinger on January 8, 2008 7:43 AM:
This is fascinating. For a while I've been thinking about how we are poised at a point where writers could completely transform the publishing industry, if only we would sit up and notice. For nearly a century the royalty percentage for writers of fiction has been in the region of 10% on hardbacks, 7.5% on paper, with that second figure rising as overall sales rise. 7.5%!! Writers get 7.5% after we've earned back any advance. Surely the time is ripe for the whole industry to be shaken up, for the behemoths of the industry to slim-down, and for writers to find ways to stop supporting all the middlemen!!!!
Though the payment structure is entirely different, this might be happening for screenwriters in Hollywood as a result of the writers' strike: then again, it might not.
George Oliver on January 8, 2008 10:10 AM:
I'm afraid the only thing that Radiohead's experiment proves is that when you let people set their own price for something, they're going to pay somewhat less than they would otherwise. Actually in the case of Radiohead the conversion rate of free downloads to paid downloads is quite astonishing if you look at the album as shareware.
Barbara Fister on January 8, 2008 10:58 AM:
I agree there's a paradigm shift, but I doubt Amazon's Kindle will lead it. It's an expensive gadget for people who are already committed to books and don't mind buying them from one source. Amazon already sells tens of thousands of author-published books, but I doubt their being downloadable to a pricey proprietary gadget will give those authors more readers. The long tail suffers from an attention deficit disorder that digital availability won't fix.
Obviously, the traditional way of doing things doesn't work very well. I just read The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century. A few tidbits in there were telling: 79% of new ISBNs have sales of under 99 units in their first year. 22.2 books are published in the US every hour. 7 of 10 new frontlist books at major publishers don't generate enough money to pay off their costs. (I believe all of these are US figures from 2005.) These patterns tend to hold for film and music as well. It's simply hard to predict what will find an audience, and a lot of upfront investment will go to waste - whether the bets are held by large corporations or by artists.
Some of these problems are related to traditional distribution inefficiencies, and current business models, but certainly not all. We're shifting not just to digital distribution, but to a world in which telling stories is as important to people as hearing them. And we haven't figured out how to balance our time between producing new art and discovering art others produce.
bowerbird on January 8, 2008 2:10 PM:
amazon keeps 2/3 of the price, which is too much.
some authors might be willing to give that much,
in return for access to amazon's large user-base.
but it's not a rate we will settle for long-term,
especially once collaborative filtering starts to
deliver our exact niche to us, at zero charge...
your main point -- which is that amazon can now
cut out the middlemen -- is, of course, right on,
but since when is disintermediation "big news"?
kim white on January 8, 2008 11:04 PM:
Great comments. I feel like I should write a whole post exploring this concept of the "middleman." It comes up a lot on if:book and it's not quite accurate to discount all the work these nameless creatures do to bring a book into being. There is a lot involved, a huge ecosystem that supports and is supported by the book.
I am actually suggesting that cutting the middlemen out could have negetive repercussions for authors and artists. Authors could do it now if they wanted. Lots of authors do, but that means they have to find and hire their own editor, proofreader, and designer. They have to get an ISBN number, apply for copyright, get a library of congress number, and a tax ID number (if they plan on selling the book). Then they have to get bids from printers, prepare the manuscript, and pay out of their own pocket to have the book printed. Once it's printed they have to pay for shipping and storage. To sell enough to cover costs they will probably need help with their marketing strategy which might include a book tour (which they will also pay for out of their own pocket), book fairs, ads, articles, interviews, reviews, an author blog, etc... Oh, and if they want to sell to bookstores or even to Amazon, they have to contract with a distributor. If they are lucky enough to sell the books, they might need an accountant to sort out how much they owe Uncle Sam. And they will have to make sure to pay quarterly and in the midst of all this how will they find time to concentrate on writing the next book? Point is, without those "middlemen" the author is stuck doing all of this him or herself. It's difficult, it's a lot of work, and it's not something many authors are willing or able to take on.
The Kindle is the first platform to solve a handful of big problems for the self-publishing author. He/she does not have to pay out of pocket for printing, shipping, storage or distribution and Amazon offers some opportunity to get noticed. But Amazon's cut is even worse than itunes and they don't help authors edit, produce, or market their work. They offer a site with lots of traffic to post the work, but that is it. It's not a great alternative. But it could get something started. We have to be thoughtful about what kind of publishing culture we are creating and I'm hoping that authors will help drive that conversation.
bowerbird on January 9, 2008 5:27 AM:
if you'd stopped after "editor and proofreader",
you would've had a _much_ stronger argument...
that other stuff is old-world dead-tree crap.
including "selling enough to cover costs"...
because it indicates clearly you don't get it.
tomorrow's authors distribute _e-books_, freely.
they do _not_ troop to "book fairs", or buy "ads".
they put the book out, and an audience finds it.
and fans' money then floats back to the author...
and yes, it really will be that simple.
and if you don't _understand_ that it will be,
you're gonna miss every single thing about it.
so, it really has nothing to do with the kindle,
other than the phenomenon of instant download.
nope, it has everything to do with the love affair
between authors and the audience, which will be
rekindled (sorry, couldn't help myself) by their
return to a relationship of mutual gift-giving...
because, honestly, a cold hard exchange of cash
is crass. it can build a solid wall, that's true.
but when you want to build a bridge, use love...
the ability to make digital copies at zero cost
will free us from the clutches of capitalism and
allow humans to elevate to lives of happiness...
a love affair, between author and audience. dig?
kim white on January 9, 2008 11:59 AM:
Bowerbird, have you ever written a book and put it out there? It's not easy for book and reader to find each other. Try it and you will see.
Sara on January 17, 2008 12:21 PM:
Yeah, middlemen don't exist just because we thought it would be charitable to spread our money around to as many people as possible. An author could write and publish their own work now, but the advertising is a full time job in and of itself. At minimum, if you're looking at one of the authors who use their blog to promote their books, you still have the work of the near-daily blog posts, lining up book signings and readings, the actual events themselves, endless hours going to others blogs and trying to attract them to yours. And then you have to be efficient at it, which not all authors will be.
And that's not even taking into consideration the fact that some authors simply just want to write, not do the work of several other people.
bowerbird on January 17, 2008 4:43 PM:
> Bowerbird, have you ever written a book
> and put it out there?
i can understand that you probably haven't
read the numerous comments i've made here
(and elsewhere) addressing that problem...
the solution is _collaborative_filtering._
and i can also understand that some people,
like sara here, will completely and utterly
fail to comprehend it. fortunately, however,
their failure to grasp it has no consequence
bearing on the ultimate success of the tool.
it's not superstition. it will work even if
you don't "believe" in it...
tomorrow's authors won't waste one _minute_
of their time doing "marketing", because it
will be clearly understood as a kiss of death.