But before I look at that, here's today's Home Truth:
There is not now, and never has been before now, a mechanism whereby an author who deserves to be read can be sure of being read by the readers who deserve to read him.
Because books require a medium, regardless of what it is, some additional work that has little or nothing to do with the process of creating literature is always required and someone has to do it. The availability and competence of those people (whether the author himself or a third party) can all to easily have an effect on distribution and sales that is not in proportion with the quality of the art.
The same is not true of storytelling. If what you want is to be a pure storyteller, you can, you really can, make a living from telling stories, live, to real people. All you need is a place to do it and a hat to pass around. Why is nobody doing it? Some people are. You probably ought to.
I'm going to start by summing up the state of trad publishing in a single word: flummoxed.
They aren't panicking. They aren't keeping calm and carrying on, either. What they are doing, as any business in a changing marketplace does, is using up some of their capital to try out new things: new types of contract, new distribution models, new technologies. Some of the ideas are a little silly, but many of the people in trad pub are experienced businesspeople. They know that markets change. They know that you adapt or you fade away (or someone bigger swallows you).
What they don't have is any kind of meaningful view of where the market is going, less still of where it will be in a few years from now.
Initially, the reasons for this flux, these changes, was just the advent of electronic publishing. For the last couple of years, however, indie publishing has started to have an effect on the market. You don't need me to give you examples, I'm sure. The major effect of indie is not to dent the profits of the "Big Six"; it is to increase the total amount of books sold. This has an effect on trad pub, but mostly that effect is the industry starts looking for ways to take a slice of those new sales ("Other people are selling books when it should be us!").
I've been comparing the indie market to varies models used to describe and predict the behaviour of new marketplaces, however, because I think it is a new marketplace, not an evolution of an existing one. Indie isn't competing with trad. It's not just a new marketplace, it's a different product.
I was going to do a convoluted comparison with the arrival of tobacco in Europe, but I'm going to try to keep it concise. A new market, from the seller's point of view, has the following stages:
- The early bird: a seller's market with big demand for any novelty. Almost any sales/promotion strategy you try will work. People being people, will assume that they got lots of sales because of their clever strategy, so they repeat it and it keeps working.
- The bandwagon (or if it is fast and furious, the scrum): others notice the new market and either want to sell the same product or have a similar product to sell. The number of sellers increases very very fast. In some cases, however (this was true for Tea and Tobacco), the supply never quite matches the demand, and some features of the early bird market remain. In other cases, supply is flooded with product of doubtful or clearly inferior quality, or even flooded with product of identical or better quality. As supply begins to catch up with demand, sales and promotion strategies that worked in the past start to fail. This isn't because they don't work any more, but because they never worked in the first place, or, like many strategies, were only capable of working once. This is a hard lesson, but you have to let go of what seemed to work in the past.
- The slog: if supply matches or exceeds demand, a gradual evolution takes place from the scrum (where the number of new sellers arriving each year increases) to a state where the number of new sellers arriving each year becomes constant. At this point the market is already near saturation, and sellers will start to drop out. This is initially slow, and the sellers' reasons for leaving can be very varied, though usually they just aren't making any money. I imagine that in our marketplace there are other complicating factors since not all of us (!) are in it for the money. Eventually, the dropout rate begins to increase. Those who have stuck it out and concentrated on increasing the value and quality of their product will start to gain more market share. There are a few reasons why this happens, but the most important one is that the buyers become more knowledgeable and the market and product becomes more familiar.
- The settle: eventually, the dropout rate levels off. When this happens, the base profitability of the product is finally established. Right now we have no idea what that will be.
There are some curious parallels with Tea and Tobacco. Initially, the market was one of many small producers and a few very large distributors. (Including the most powerful corporation that has ever existed, the British East India Company.) In publishing, up to now, the model has been the same. But the Amazon model is something new. It's roughly equivalent to the plantation owner paying a small proportion of his profits to the EIC to transport his product to market, where he then has to promote and sell it. Notice that he is still dependent on someone to transport it for him.
Maybe "indie" is the wrong word. It certainly seems to be misleading. We are dependent. We are absolutely dependent on the e-book sales platforms; without them, this market and this product would not exist.
What we are actually doing is non-corporate, intermediaryless or individual publishing. I find the term "independent" guilty of creating a false expectation. True, our artistic freedom is absolute. But for distribution we are shackled to Amazon.