The Future of Publishing

This is a guest post by Mint Kang, the author of 6 Years of Parrot. It was first published on her blog.


I’ve been meaning to write on this topic for a while, and I happened to get some stimuli today – in the papers and in this month’s issue of the Silverfish Books newsletter, which carried a thought-provoking article on the situation of the publishing industry (read it here).  Essentially, people are not buying books as much as they used to – not in print form.  They are turning to e-books and digital libraries of the sort Google is creating.  And, according to an article reproduced in today’s Straits Times, piracy of e-books is shooting up, just as it did when music and video became digitised.

I’ve long believed that the present model of the publishing industry is becoming increasingly less sustainable.  Lessons can be drawn from the experiences of the video and music industries, especially the music industry.  Experts will say that prices are inflated and consumers are paying more for packaging than for actual content; they will also say that the drive to create the next big hit (note create, not find – read: more packaging), similar to the publishing industry’s current drive to find the next bestseller, has led to innovation and new content being stifled.

If we look away from blaming the big record companies, as tempting as many people find it, we can also single out the attitude of the Internet generation: the deep-rooted belief that everything on the Internet should be free, regardless of how much it cost to produce.  Newspapers in America are already foundering because their readership is migrating to free-access portals owned by content aggregators.  In fact, studies have shown that while the digital age has brought about a massive boom in content aggregation, it has not led to a corresponding increase in content generation.  Those who carry out research via the Internet will be familiar with the phenomenon.  It involves finding the self-same article repeated across a dozen different sites, sometimes without even being attributed to the original creator.  Why?  Because it is so much easier to collect and re-host content than to create it.

What does this mean for content generators – in the specific context I address daily, small-time content generators such as freelance writers, artists and designers, people with limited access to the market?

I see four key challenges here.  The first is the challenge of exposure.  As so many people have already pointed out and will continue to point out, the Internet is the great saviour of freelancers.  It’s the place where you can sell yourself for free, with just a little ingenuity and careful management.  In an earlier post, I advised aspiring teenage writers to clean up their online profiles, and here I’ll share a brief example of why this is so important.

I maintain a profile on WritersNet, brushed up and worded to look like an online CV.  A few months ago, someone from the ACCA AB Magazine was looking for writers based in Singapore and the region, with experience in producing business/finance/accounting articles.  He found my profile, decided it was suitable, and contacted me.  Sounds simple?  But think of how easily it might NOT have happened.  If I had kept my WritersNet profile to the level that most aspiring writers do – focusing on the “creativity for its own sake” aspect and not selling anything of commercial value – the AB Magazine person wouldn’t have given it a second look, and I would be out one opportunity.

The challenge of exposure is therefore to make use of it.  The powerful publicity machines of the big companies are no longer necessary for up-and-coming artists, no matter of what stripe.  Technology long ago made it possible to create your own work without needing access to the expensive equipment used by professionals; now technology has made it possible for you to promote your own work without needing an entire team of spin doctors and media experts.

Exposure is two-edged, however.  The other side of the challenge is not to drown in other people’s exposure.  You are not and will never be the only person selling yourself out there.  Every mouse click brings up an entire directory of other writers and artists, good and bad, prolific and one-hit wonders.  You have to find a way to stay ahead of the pack and not just be another grain of sand among many, waiting on the vagaries of a search engine to throw up your work.

In response to the challenge of exposure, I believe that the publishing industry will, in time, no longer be dominated by large print publishing houses.  Instead we will see Internet content aggregators who collect the works of small independent writers and artists, moderate and edit them to meet certain standards, and release them – for free.

This is the second challenge: revenue.  Traditionally, content generators in the publishing industry derive the bulk of their revenue from selling their work: either one-off payments, royalties over a period of time, or percentages of sales.  This model runs into difficulties in several places, however.  Firstly, there is the issue of quality control becoming overly tight.  When people have to pay you for your work, they will naturally want to make sure they are getting their money’s worth.  The immediate result is a high entry barrier for newcomers, because publishers, producers and everyone else who is going to invest in a new release are wary of trying out anything that might potentially make a loss.  (Those who are not wary and charge idealistically ahead usually do end up making a loss; but that’s another story.)  They prefer to stick with tried-and-tested writers and artists, people who have already succeeded, and often they stick with these big names to the point where the name becomes more important than the quality of the product; quite the reverse of what new entrants face.

The other difficulty is what I mentioned above: the growing reluctance of consumers to pay for content.  They want it free.  If the consumer isn’t going to pay, the content generator isn’t going to be able to get money from selling the content.

Does this mean that we, the small-time content generators and newcomers, should hop on the piracy-smashing bandwagon and restrict the release of our work to only those companies big enough and with enough legal clout to protect it from freeloaders?  I think not.  That is sheer counterproductiveness.  When we restrict the release of our work, we restrict our own market.  We end up creating a little bubble of inflation where a select group of readers and viewers are paying more for the packaging and delivery of the content than they are for the content itself – and not only that, the bubble is vulnerable to anyone creative enough or disgruntled enough to crack the protection.

The solution, as I see it, is to go along with the freeloaders.  We have to create a new Internet business model where content generators need no longer rely purely on selling their content.  In fact, content sales should make up only a small proportion of their revenue.  The rest ought to come from value-added services.  These can take the form of advertising – simple endorsements, covert support – or expertise in the content generator’s own area, as consultancies do.  They could even be spinoff products.  Take a random novelist who self-publishes independently, through their own free-access website, and has a small readership of a few thousand a month.  They could offer advertising space to related products – cosmetics for the chick-lit genre?  Computer accessories for science fiction?  Dating services for romance?  And not just any advertisement that comes past – a little moderation of the kind of advertising would be very useful, because people do know how to tune out web ads and they will tune them out if they once perceive that there is no value in them.

The example above is really the most basic kind.  People have already come up with even more sophisticated concepts and will continue to do so.  In short, the bulk of publishing revenue in the future is not going to come from charging people for content that can be easily duplicated and distributed for free.  It will come from value-added services that are complementary to the content itself, and which people are willing to pay for.

This comes to the third challenge: intellectual property, that perennial hot potato topic.  There has been an enormous amount of debate on the value of patents and copyrights.  There is the undeniable argument that it helps newcomers establish themselves free of competition that would otherwise stamp them out.  But there is also the argument that it equally helps anti-competitive actions by large and established parties that do not even need the monopoly.  In today’s newspaper, in fact – the same paper that ran a story on e-book piracy – a reader’s letter was published, mentioning that farmers who grow GM crops are prevented by patent laws from using the seed for more than one harvest.  If this is indeed true, it ranks up with the withholding of HIV treatment drugs as a self-defeating abuse of intellectual property laws – but that is an argument for another place.  The point I prefer to make is that intellectual property laws, for small-timers, can very often end up as a legal headache – whether you are seeking their protection or trying to evade it.

Simply put, when it comes to content that can be released on the Internet, you have only two choices.  You can follow the example of the music industry and cling onto your intellectual property with all your might and main, going to great costs and extreme lengths, alienating many of your own customers, and finally drawing a little Berlin Wall around your part of the Internet and spending the rest of your shelf life defending it against anyone who tries to come in without buying a parking ticket.

Or, you can let it go to whoever wants it – make it freely available, put minimal restrictions on it (consider, for instance, a file uploaded under a Creative Commons license, for anyone to access and redistribute as they like) and trust that people will enjoy your work enough to keep coming back for more.

Or – you can strike a compromise between the two, as many game developers are doing by releasing preview versions of their games, risking cracks and duplications but also increasing the number of people who download and try it, and thereby increasing the chance that people will actually find the game good enough to buy the full version.  But even this compromise will eventually drift one way or another.

I think that the final version of intellectual property, at some time very far off in the future, will be exactly what the freeloaders want – the majority of creative content freely available, but packaged with other necessary or value-added service that people will have the choice to pay for or not, as they wish. Bestsellers and chart-toppers will be decided not by how many copies are sold in stores, but by how many copies are floating around the Internet on various hosts and how many hits they total in a month.  The cost of putting them up and hosting them in the first place will be borne not by publishing entities, but by the individual content generator.

(Note that I am not mentioning professional content such as research and statistics data.  That is a completely different sector altogether.)

All of the above put together adds up to the fourth challenge: mindset.  I strongly believe that all this is going to happen whether we like it or not.  In fact, it is already happening to one extent or another, to the point that I could write an entire research paper on it and still not cover the entire phenomenon.  (I’ve barely scratched the surface here as it is.)  Resisting it will simply put us inside self-built wells, like the proverbial frog.

Writers and other content generators need to accept that we will have to take full responsibility for the publication and production of our own work.  Going through publishing houses is becoming less and less viable, and this is so exaggeratedly the case in Singapore that it almost seems redundant to mention it here.  And full responsibility means not only creating it, but editing, moderating and polishing it to meet standards that are acceptable not just to ourselves but to people who possess higher levels of skill and discernment than we do.  (Yes, go and find people like that.  Make them read your work and give you genuine, critical feedback.  How else do you expect to advance?)  In other words, we need to take ownership of our work from inception to infinity.  Just throwing it out there and basking in satisfaction at its completion is not enough.

We need to accept that we are not necessarily going to get paid for our work.  If it was commissioned by an external party, that is a different matter; but creative work that we do without commission has to be treated like a cold call for a job application.  We are not guaranteed payment.  We are not guaranteed a good reception.  We are not even guaranteed readership.  The dream of fame and riches is just that – a dream.  For that matter, it was always a dream.

And we need to accept that we cannot hold onto our work.  Once it is uploaded to the Internet, we no longer have any control over who sees it, who downloads it, who copies and redistributes it.  All we can do is ensure that we are properly recognized as the creator.  (For this, tools such as Copyscape and the Creative Commons licenses exist; how far you want to take them depends on you.)  We need to accept the old saw about imitation and even outright theft being the sincerest form of flattery; we need to stop thinking of it as theft, full stop.

This is not a freeloader’s point of view.  It is a content generator’s point of view.  The industry is going to change, because its current model is not viable.  We’d better change along with it.

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3 thoughts on “The Future of Publishing

  1. Nice article you’ve written here. I agree with the points you’ve laid out here for I am too, a consumer who wants books free (but I stalk libraries instead of illegal downloading).

    Times have changed, people don’t buy books anymore for many reasons and budding writers have to come accepting the fact that the old ways of publishing is not as efficient anymore.

    Besides, it’s not everyday a JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyers strikes a gold mine.

    Whether it’s publishing for revenue or publishing for readership, we need a different strategy to it. These examples can be found with within web comic artists too.

    Lastly, thanks for the useful links. Although I think it would be better if you had summarized them in a small section below instead of being scattered in the article.

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