This week I was quite chuffed to see crime fiction author Sara Paretsky posing some intelligent thoughts and questions about how the book business can move forward in this web 2.0 world. In response to a Wall Street Journal article that noted the dangers of clinging to the past Paretsky, acknowledging her own preference for some aspects of the existing book business, asked for some creative suggestions as to how books and readers might come together in our brave new world and, no less importantly, how anyone will make money out of it all.
Alas, several of the commentors on Paretsky’s post talked about the changes facing the industry only in terms of the problems posed and there was a fair amount of ‘look at all the things we’ve lost’ nostalgia. I, as a passionate reader, can see more silver lining than clouds and I have some real world examples to account for my optimism.
Back in 2005 an independent musician by the name of Jonathan Coulton started something he called the Thing a Week project. Every week for the next year he released a song on the Internet using Creative Commons licensing which, essentially, meant he gave his music away. Being a former computer programmer Coulton was clearly at home in the tech world and promoted his songs heavily on the Net especially to the geek community who were the early producers of and listeners to podcasts. In a February 2008 interview on technology podcast This Week in Tech Coulton talked at length about the success he had made out of creating a niche for himself and interacting directly with the people he wanted to be his audience. He also reported that, despite the fact he continues to give virtually all of his music away, about 40% of his income is derived from the sales of digital downloads of his music (the rest comes from touring, merchandising and using his talent in unexpected ways like writing music for computer games).
Just like the geek community embraced Jonathan Coulton they have also taken several authors into their hearts including horror/sci-fi writer Scott Siegler whose books have all been released on free podcasts. In 2007 his printed book Ancestor, published by an independent publishing house, reached #7 on the Amazon.com best-seller list despite having been available for free in both audio and e-book format prior to its release.
Of course some of the changes we face are scary. And we may lose some things that we’ve loved. But is no one else prepared to admit that the traditional publishing business has its problems too? In the same blog post I mentioned earlier Paretsky stated that she didn’t become a national best seller until she had written her sixth book yet to hear authors talk you’d swear it’s only the new ways that will engender this kind of problem. At least now if you can’t get publishers interested in your work you have options that don’t rely on them. You too could podcast your writing like Scott Siegler and build up your fan base to the point where the publishers are coming to you or you don’t need one at all. Was something like that possible 10 years ago? Maybe there won’t be as many big name authors whose works are everywhere in the future, but maybe there will be more authors who provide to niche, international audiences and they’ll still be able to put food on their tables as Siegler and others are doing.
And from a reader’s perspective, especially one who doesn’t live in the USA, the opportunities offered by the Net are pretty sweet. Now, instead of relying on what the big publishing houses choose to flog in the two bookstore chains in my small city at the bottom of Australia I, literally, have the world at my feet. Since discovering the wide variety of online outlets for discussing books and reading a wide variety of reviews and opinions from genuine, knowledgeable fans my reading habits have changed dramatically. I’ve gone from reading multiple works by the same few American and English authors that seem to churn out product factory-style to devouring authors from places as diverse as Sweden, France, South Africa, Canada, Italy and, most shockingly of all, Australia. If it weren’t for the Internet, and the capacity it has to bring people with similar interests together, I wouldn’t have heard of (let alone read) two thirds of the books I read last year. I’ve used reading groups like 4 Mystery Addicts and blog aggregators like the Crime and Mystery Room on Friend Feed to get information about books and authors, including debut authors, that’s never been available to me via traditional mechanisms. I know there are some badly written blogs and others online with opinions for sale but the traditional book business hasn’t been free of that stuff in my lifetime and it doesn’t take any longer to spot the geniune from the fake online.
Another of the ways the Internet wins out is that it can offer an immediate and direct connection between artist and consumer. The geeks didn’t embrace Coulton or Siegler solely because their product is good (although in both cases it is) but also because both engage with their community. They blog and podcast and host forums and interact in a dozen other ways with their audience who are scattered across the globe. That audience repays that engagement by becoming ardent promoters, fans and collectors of the artists’ work and I see the same thing in the crime fiction universe. On the Cozy Armchair reading group, which is devoted to the sub-genre known as ‘cosy mysteries’, many of the participants are authors and the other members obviously enjoy interacting directly with the people who provide the books they love to read and so support and promote those works in a way they would never do if they simply stumbled across the books in a store. Oz Mystery Readers is yet another online discussion group, this time focusing on readers or authors from Australia, and there too I’ve found many authors hanging out and discussing their craft and their love of books. I know I’m not alone in having that kind of thing make a direct impact on my decision making when I go to a bookstore (which these days is usually online too).
I’m not naive enough to think the future is all bright but I am heartily sick of hearing the book business’ future discussed only as a problem. I see loads of opportunities for readers and authors alike and am genuinely excited by what the next few years will bring to my reading experience.
Great post, Bernadette! Every new generation, every new technology, brings with it challenges, opportunities and threats. Some are predictable, some are not. The Internet enables communication, interaction, filtering, and “freeness” (see Chris Anderson of The Long Tail blog/book and Wired magazine). Publishing technologies allow print-on-demand cheap publishing. Digital technologies are allowing books to be read in a variety of formats – audio, mobile, video, games platform, etc. Of course there are downsides and of course it is both hard to get your voice heard and to make money so doing. I definitely agree with your conclusion that readers never had it so good – since late 2005 when I started blogging, I’ve discovered more excellent books than at any other time in my life. Great post.
This is just terrific. I get so frustrated by frightened writers (usually not anywhere near Paretsky’s fame) being scared of and/or resentful about readers wanting to share their love of books. They shake their fingers at swap sites and purchasing used books – and get all upset about Kindle having a text-to-audio feature. They don’t think about how good some of the digital opportunities are for growing a stronger book culture.
Well done, Bernadette!
Thanks Maxine and Barbara – dealing with fear of the changes being brought by technology is something I deal with so much in my working life that it just bugs me no end it also pops up in the arena I use to ‘escape’ work 🙂
Good books will always be found. And with all of the tools of the new web, good books should be easier to find than ever.
It is scary. Change is always scary. But we must get past our fear and jump in.
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I agree about terrific online publishing opportunities, and in fact it’s probably the podcasts of my first novel which have proved more popular than any of its e-book formats. The problem really is to find a model (or models) which will enable at least some writers to earn a living by writing. And of course the other big problem is one of filtering and gatekeeping. I’m not convinced that all the good stuff simply floats to the top, and if you’re not particularly interested in online communities, and interacting with your readers (which I’m not), then it’s even more difficult.
Terrific post, Bernadette. This kind of thinking helps generate h conversations about how to support authors we enjoy and, like Lee says, help enable them to earn a living by writing.
@Lee – I agree it’s going to be harder for people who aren’t as “into” the online networking but I suspect most people have a friend or family member who’s a bit geek-y and will happily do some Twittering or other promotion on behalf of their favourite author.
And let’s face it the good stuff doesn’t always rise to the top now so will we be worse off?
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