Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Kindle Surprise

It is an unspoken taboo in publishing; that the only difference between the freelance writer and the freelance whore is that the former lacks the right to an advance.  My subject is how the new technology is covertly shifting the power play further than ever before from writer to publisher.
  The corporate publisher – from HarperCollins to everyone beneath – becomes ever more out of reach.  From the independents, the writer has long had to accept – more in resignation than gratitude – that they don’t earn enough profit to offer advances.  From the print-on-demand packager, it is the writer expected to pay the advance to access their publishing package.  The POD packager’s get-out clause is that, not being a publisher anyway, they owe the prospective writer nothing, who should be merely grateful for seeing their work in print.  This, presumably, based upon the fact they employ no subjective arbiter for editor.  (Then, neither did Virgin when they turned to book production in the 80s’; and I assume they’ve always considered themselves ‘publishers.’)  Whether you, as the writer, consider the POD company as legit a publishing house as the corporate publisher, rather depends on whether you consider the industries of glamour and soft-porn separate or interchangeable.
  The corporate publisher knows one thing; the writer has to write.  It is the one addiction he knows the writer cannot shake - if he is serious about his craft - so will do almost anything for the next fix – i.e. his next book in print.  Therefore, the publisher - his supplier - holding all the cards, has no need to initiate a trade-off.  He sits, waits, chooses a proposal he likes, then waits some more for the money (the level dependant upon the veracity of his choice) to roll in.
  If this publisher needed the new writer at least as much as the regular classic reissue, ‘lifestyle’ series or premature celebrity biog, the writer could – if not name his price – at least expect the basic advance.  If the writer then failed to deliver on either time or quality he would, rightly, be responsible for its return, plus a percentage for breaking his contract.  Today, it seems even this may be too much to ask of the poor publisher.  Never mind.  The Kindle has downloaded to their rescue.  Now, the publisher has an additional excuse - if one were needed – to disregard new talent.  The writer can upload his / her own material and provide his / her own electronic ‘gate’ to allow access under pay-per-view.  Thus, the publisher is circumvented completely.
  But, is this really a good thing?  Rather, hasn’t publisher-responsibility been negated for the writer to gain some vaguely democratic, audience accessibility?  Aren’t publishers now off-the-hook in having to deal with any new writers at all?   It is too early to offer definitive answers, particularly with issues all publishers are having to deal with, such as copyright theft and the wavering economy.  But should things settle down for an indeterminate period, there are two possible outcomes:
  1/ at some future date, with Kindle sales overtaking mainstream publishing, publishers will realise they are losing too much additional income from online writers they could have, earlier, taken on and thus more willing to offer advances to bring them back.  Or, 2/ the publishing houses of the world will close down, en masse, written-off as paper-dependant dinosaurs, and become employees of the biggest selling online authors who’ve become the new digital entrepreneurs.
  Which writers am I talking about?  Not all who call themselves such, of course.  .Were publishers to take on everyone who did they’d be out of business in months.  Neither the wannabes with more enthusiasm than talent (e.g. like the alleged ‘singers’ of ‘Britain’s Got Talent,’ ‘X Factor’ and ‘American Idol,’ etc.); or, the businessmen and women of the corporate world with more cash and connections than the writerly instinct.  Rather, those with genuine talent who – for various reasons - fall off the mainstream, middle-brow radar for failing either to be found in time for next year’s ever-shrinking release schedule, or – horror of horrors – cash-in on current ‘taste.’
  There is no greater get-out clause in the publishing world’s current shifting power play than the latest: the introduction of the Kindle itself.  So, the rookie writer now has something to turn to.  It is now possible to upload your own material and – if your networking skills prove exceptional – you can make money – directly - off your work, gate keeping the charges for access to your new chapter or short story.
  But what if they are not?  Should this be the one reason for a work’s failure, and yours as a writer?  Is this an acceptable alternative to the corporate publisher’s traditional package of high-flying PR, book-signings in the biggest chains and networking parties in London and New York?  Of course it isn’t if you are not of such an entrepreneurial bent that your business acumen isn’t as great as your talent to amuse.  While the hardback and paper-cover remain a large minority demand, the traditional publisher is presumably still compelled (through continued corporate need or mere habit – who can say?) to go on spending at least a little of their annual multi-million profits upon new names.
  Perhaps the most crucial question is this: just how much income for one writer’s literature can ever be generated online alone?  The writer worth his / her salt must be careful.  A scenario may arise where publishable writing – I mean serious publishable writing – is no longer considered a serious trade, but a diminished activity, reverting to a pastime only; no longer the vital means of communicating experience and considered thought we’ve long taken for granted.  Thus, to the traditional publisher, financially worthless.
   My own view of the Kindle?   No Luddite, me.  It is at least a powerful opportunity whose own story is just starting.  And, if you have an opportunity before you it is, of course, foolish not to use it.  But, clearly, being ‘democratic,’ the opportunity is accessible to both sides.  Like coming into possession of a key to a store of weapons that will finish off your opponent; until you realise your opponent also has a copy – as Libya is currently finding out.

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