TL;DR version: go big or self-publish.
(The following was written to help me think through the possibilities for a couple of project I’m involved with. It may or may not be useful to others. Also, none of the following takes the need to diversify into consideration which could completely change the picture. As always, YMMV. And ‘book’ for the purposes of this blog post is any project, digital or print, that is primarily intended to be read.)
If you’ve written a book, there are basically five things you can do with it.
Rather than spreading resources evenly across product lines (which might seem to be the most effective approach when no one knows for sure which products will catch on) and vigorously trying to save costs in an effort to increase profits, betting heavily on likely blockbusters and spending considerably less on the “also rans” is the surest way to lasting success in show business.
With such high stakes and money tied up in a few big projects in the pipeline, the need to score big with a next project becomes more pressing, and the process repeats itself. The result is what I call a “blockbuster trap”: a spiral of ever-increasing bets on the most promising concepts.
Third, by extension, not bidding for sought-after projects makes it harder to get best efforts from sales and marketing representatives and other employees. After winning the hotly contested rights to a book like Dewey, Grand Central executives can forcefully make the case that this book will beat its competitors. (“It’s a sure bet to do as well as Marley & Me—why else would everyone be after it?”)
Fourth, critically, if entertainment businesses forgo making big bets on likely blockbusters, they will find their channel power waning over time. Retailer support is decisive in most media markets, In the film industry, the number of screens a movie receives from exhibitors in its first few weeks remains the best predictor of its revenues. Exhibitors want to see evidence that a movie is worthy of their scarce resources; they like nothing better than to know that a studio is making a significant push for a film and planning an extensive marketing campaign.
As this example again makes clear, the idea of smaller bets being “safer” is a myth. Blockbuster strategies reliably beat the alternative of more risk-averse strategies: the highest-performing companies in the entertainment and media sector thrive by investing a relatively large proportion of their resources in just a few titles and then turning those choices into successes by giving them a higher level of development and marketing support. It may be partly a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it works. And because the marginal cost of reproducing and distributing entertainment products is relatively low—especially compared to their up-front production expenses—and because of the economies of scale involved in advertising campaigns, the advantage of a bestseller, a box-office champion, or a ratings monster is huge.
The case the book makes is compelling and terrifying. It explains quite well the behaviour of most large media companies over the past few years. The implications for those of us who care about variety and diversity in our art and media are … disconcerting. Highly recommended for anybody who wants to be depressed about the state of art, media, and culture.
One of the major problems with yesterday’s blog post was my use of a derivative of the word ‘professional’ (or, ‘de-professionalised’ if you want my garbled, distorted, and modified to hell derivative).
That word, helpful and specific as it might seem at first glance, has a long history of being stretched, manipulated, and abused to suit people’s agendas. It has served very well those who have sought to be exclusionary and divisive.
It was quite possibly the worst term I could have used, except there aren’t that many alternatives with the meaning and history that fits.
So, instead, I’m going to describe very quickly the process that I’ve labeled as a ‘de-professionalisation’. That way, if you still disagree, you’ll at least know whether you disagree with my use of the term, my version of history, or my view of the present.
There will never be peace in the war between Amazon and traditional publishing because there is no war.
One of the defining qualities of the current dispute between Amazon and Hachette is just how softly softly it is. These kind of disputes between a mega-retailer and a major supplier happen every day in other industries and are notably brutal. The retailers promote the supplier's competitors heavily and with eye-bleeding discounts; they remove the supplier's goods from sale completely; they pressure other companies to stop dealing with the misbehaving supplier. Most large retailers have clout and wield it. Amazon just lost ten times more on the Fire phone alone than they were ever likely to lose from properly blacklisting Hachette. In turn, Hachette isn't playing hardball either. They aren't making sweetheart deals with Amazon's competitors. They aren't organising eye-watering sales or promotions with B&N. They don’t have a competent direct sales platform they can use to leverage the publicity the dispute has generated. Both parties are just continuing with business as usual, just with a little bit less effort. The predominant characteristic of the argument is its sheer lack of inspiration. It’s pedestrian and mundane.
On Twitter earlier I said this here thing:
There’s an implicit assumption in publishing commentary that the trajectory of media evolution (books, ebooks, websites, apps) is a known. That the long-term effects, drawbacks, & benefits of each medium will follow a predetermined path towards its manifest destiny. That ebook apps are as good as they'll ever be and will never integrate what research is discovering about learning and memory. That apps will always play the roles they play today. That websites will never reach beyond their current niche, except maybe into apps.
These assumptions are all unsafe. Ebook apps are a young and unformed species. The future of web and app dev is dynamic and changing.
What's more, the publishing industry isn't in charge of this evolution except insofar as it can sabotage ebooks with its misconceptions.
Breaking my blog silence for a thought
I remember two or three years ago at Frankfurt (I think it was three years ago, but not quite sure) trying to convince people that Amazon’s position wasn’t as strong as the industry thinks.
Clare Reddington has written this here post (based on a talk she did) on some of the things she has learned from leading the Pervasive Media Studio and working at the Watershed.
I could have quoted almost every paragraph but this particular one describes my personal experience with the publishing industry, in a nutshell:
Being an Author is a Shit Job
Even if you don’t believe any of the pessimistic reports and anecdotes about author income and even if you do believe all of the overly optimistic ones (hi Hugh ::waves::) being a book author is one of the shittiest jobs in the media industry. And that’s saying something, since sleaze and exploitation is the rule rather than the exception in media.
I shouldn’t have to say this before but it obviously needs saying.
Everybody speaks as if only one thing—the thing they want to be true—can be true at a time.
I wish it had gone differently. I don’t fault Readmill for selling at this point. They did excellent work.
I’ve previously gone on record about my enthusiasm for their platform. (Which reminds me, I need to do a followup to that post, Kindle for iOS has improved dramatically.) Unlike most other firms designing ebook readers, Readmill understood that all of the typographic variables are interconnected. Unlike others, their defaults were beautiful to read.