No, print is not dead, but the pace of change has surprised almost everyone. People are moving over to ebooks and online news sites at a very fast clip.
“So what?” some people say. “It’s just a different delivery system. Content will always be king.”
I wonder if they’ve been paying attention to the music business: About 95 percent of music downloads in 2010 were unlicensed and illegal, with no money flowing back to artists, songwriters or record producers, according to a spokesman for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
But what about that guy who sold a million copies of his novels on Kindle? And that young woman who writes Twilight type novels, she’s made a small fortune, too. There’s gold in digital!
Yep, and they’ve done it by selling massive quantities at a very low price—99 cents to $1.99. Have you looked at the Kindle offerings lately? Almost everybody except the already well-known writers has jumped on that 99 cent price point.
How many of them do you think are going to sell a million copies and how many do you think are going to sell 100 copies and take home $100?
In the meantime, we’re training readers to expect new digital books to cost 99 cents.
At the news and feature story end of things, Arianna Huffington sold her huge site, The Huffington Post, to AOL for $315 million…and the contributing bloggers got…nothing.
One of the bloggers has initiated a class action lawsuit asking for $105 million to go to the bloggers, but Huffington says the internet has changed the way writers work and that “Free content — shared by people who want to connect, share their passions, and have their opinions heard — fuels much of what appears on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Yelp, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, Flickr and YouTube.”
Whether or not this suit has legal merit, the point is that everything is trending toward free. It’s not yet clear whether publications fighting that with a paywall will succeed.
It may sound like I’m complaining about all this, but I’m not.
It is what it is.
If you try to fight reality, you lose.
My point is that we writers had better be paying attention.
If we are happy writing for free, fine; but if we want to make a living from it, we’d better apply our creativity to figuring out how to get ahead of that wave instead of finding ourselves carried along behind it—with empty pockets. How can we ply our trade in a different way, one that people are happy to pay for?
I wish I had the answers; all I have are a few clues that might help us figure it out.
One is the Grateful Dead model. The band didn’t just allow people at their concerts to make bootleg recordings, they actually encouraged it and made their money from concerts and merchandise. Is there a way that writers can give away part of what they do but create a more exclusive experience for those willing to pay?
It’s also worth keeping an eye on the current music scene—which bands or artists are finding new ways to earn income and how are they doing it?
Actually, I've just run across an example: Unbound Books uses a crowdfunding model (where people pledge a certain amount of money toward the production of a book, with rewards that escalate as the size of the pledge increases). Typically a small pledge gets you a signed copy of the book, a bit more might get you some exclusive videos of the author talking about the book's background, and so on.
Rupert Isaacson (author of"The Horse Boy") is taking it a step further by offering one radomly selected person who has pledged at any level for his new book the chance to spend half a day trail riding with him through the countryside that's the setting for his Unbound historical novel.
Another interesting development is the growth of interactive and site-specific theater. It’s not that the audience determines the plot but in some cases they mingle with the actors at a location where the drama plays out. Is there an equivalent for writers?
Another is the Banksy phenomenon, of art appearing unpredictably and gaining value from a sense of mystery. Again, could there be a counterpart for authors?
Finally, I’ve noticed more situations in which musicians and writers, especially poets, collaborate to create interesting products and events. Who else could authors collaborate with and what could they create together that people would pay for?
Another example from Unbound is a live event they're having on Sept. 12 at which ten authors will pitch their new projects and there will be a trapeze act and a band as well as a special surprise guest. TV crews from Channel 4 News, the BBC and Sky Arts will be filming at the event. The organizers are charging £20, which includes a £10 voucher to pledge to any of the ten authors on the night.
If you have any ideas, please add them here in a comment, or email me directly at jurgenwolff(at)gmail.com and I’ll feature them in a future post.
(One thing for sure is that we also have to get smarter about marketing our work. You may find two of my books helpful for that: "Do Something Different," published by Virgin Books with a foreword by Sir Richard Branson, and "Marketing for Entrepreneurs," published by Pearson. Both are available from Amazon and other online and offline book sellers.)