The Best Things in Life…: Publication as a Service

First things first, I want to address this as my 200th post on this blog. Nice milestone, but I’m still close to 600 behind my old Washington Nationals baseball card site (one of my dirty little secrets), so I clearly still have some way to go.

Oh, and one other announcement – there will be no new content on Friday of this week, as we will be transitioning the website to a new server, which will allow me to offer a lot of fun new content, as well as a way to pre-order copies of books. Look for more information next Monday, when I’ll have an “official” launch and plan to open up pre-orders.

Now, on to the subject at hand. I’ve been wanting to talk about Amazon’s new lending library for quite some time, but I wanted to gather my thoughts before I just barfed something out onto the page. At first it seemed like indie authors would be put at an extreme disadvantage – how could we compete, or even expect to expand our efforts, with books becoming free? I was a bit angry and it seemed unfair.

Thank goodness I waited, though, because I wanted to research it first. When I heard that it was only one book a month, that eased things. I was also happy to know that the authors had to opt-in to the decision, which was cool. I’m still kind of fuzzy on what sort of a cut authors get for participating, but I don’t know…this feels like the future, and while I may still have some reservations, the model looks familiar, and it’s one that I’ve applauded in other arenas.

Clearly, art and entertainment have been moving toward a service model since the day Napster appeared. Hell, even farther back – from the first days of MP3 trading. At first the music industry and then the movie industry tried to brutally repress first the evolving nature of technology and then the consumer him or herself, but that backfired. The industries failed to understand that it wasn’t just about getting something for nothing. Sure, for a certain group it is, and they will always find a way around the system, but such people are not really new to the system. That core group were pirating back in the 80s just as much as they are now. The new generation of pirates were more about the convenience factor. Why run out to the store and pick up an overpriced CD when you can click a button and have the whole thing in one go? I know this has been said many times before, but the industry giants were dealing with the twin specters of overpricing and inconvenience, and it took them some time to catch up.

Things are still sketchy in music. We have services like Spotify that seem to be an attempt to close the gap, but you can look at the overpriced music on iTunes to see just how far the industry still has to go. Movies and television are going through similar problems; services like Netflix and Hulu are great, but the studios are determined to ruin the system while grabbing a bigger slice of the pie for themselves. It’s 2011; should I really have to still be bouncing from service to service to figure out who has the film I want streaming?

What I’m saying is that these streaming services all just point to what I said before: art and entertainment becoming a service. Publishing has been lucky in that, up until the last few years, while piracy existed (I’m guilty, I downloaded a few books back in 2002-2003 and have since purchased them), there was no real practical method of reading them in the same manner as books. Obviously, that’s changed, and publishing is facing the exact same sea change.

I’ve evangelized the need in publishing to face these changes head-on, so I’m not going to repeat that ad nauseum, but I hadn’t seriously considered publishing as a service model until this article by Virginia Postrel, in which she examines Amazon Prime‘s lending library as the future of a subscriber-based publishing service. She has a lot of smart things to say, including how the Big Six determine pricing – essentially the same method used for medicine in the dark ages (seriously – they go by the gut??), so I definitely recommend reading the whole thing.

The gist, though, is that bundling is likely the future of publishing. I can see that, too; if I want to read an entire series by an author and I come in late in the game, I like to just buy a discounted omnibus edition. Hell, I’m willing to put down 20-30 bucks for a decent-sized one, which is a fair chunk of change for something that, by that point, has very little to make up on the back end. What she proposes, and sees the Lending Library as something of a vanguard for, is the idea of bundling not just a series, but a group of works, authors, and publishers under a subscription service.

Author compensation is, however, the trickiest part. How do you determine each author’s payoff under these systems? If you go with straight meritocracy, paying only those authors whose books are lent out during that month, you risk alienating a lot of indie authors who might not loan at the same rate as, say, a Stephen King, plus those indie authors may have lost some revenue, as the loaning would come at a reduced rate compared to the royalties that they’ve enjoyed to this point. I mean, it would almost HAVE to, given how many more authors are vying for a piece of a limited pie (say, 12 bucks for a monthly subscription fee). Thus you would lose authors who would bolster selection and prestige on the service. What might work is a hybrid system, where everyone gets a flat fee and popular authors get more, while everyone retains their old sales system outside of the service. That has its own drawbacks, but I could see that working.

I think the publishing future is still akin to the cliche about blind men trying to describe an elephant, but we’re slowly figuring out that this, indeed, a trunk in our hands.

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