I’m having trouble figuring out where I fit in these days. In years past I’d get a modest contract from a book publisher and more or less live off that money. I’d pay for things, like CDs, cable tv, hotel rooms, and cabs. But today decent book advances are hard to come by, and like many people I find myself searching for more economical alternatives to the things I used to buy routinely. When I travel, I rent apartments from individuals through Airbnb. I’ve “cut the cable” and get all my televised entertainment via the Internet through my Roku box and Chromecast connection. I occasionally buy music online from iTunes, but more often than not I just stream it for free via Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes Radio. I think all these alternative services are great–they cost less, are sometimes free, and offer a lot of variety.
Books have undergone a similar transformation. Ebooks are generally cheaper and often free. The ease of self-publishing and the rise of do-it-yourself marketing has made $2.99 the new line in the sand. Many readers won’t spend any more and would prefer to pay less or nothing at all. Everyone can publish a book, and it seems like almost everyone does. There’s an ocean of content to choose from, and much of it is cheaper than what I’m offering. And herein lies my dilemma. While I want to buy my goodies cheap, I really wish readers would buy my books, which aren’t always the cheapest ones out there.
It seems that we writers, as both producers and consumers, are caught in a downward spiral. We earn less, so we seek out ways to pay less for what we want. Peer-to-peer commerce, the Internet, and social media have made this all possible. But where will it all lead? Will Uber drive traditional cab companies out of business? Will the hotel chains take a major hit from Airbnb, laying off thousands of employees? With so much free music online, will anyone ever discover a new band and actually pay for their songs? How long can a band without paying fans stay together?
Same deal with writers. Why pay $25 for a hardcover or $9.99 for a new ebook when you can get other books for free or for 99 cents? Sure, some will argue that it’s a matter of quality. A book that goes through the traditional publishing process–groomed by an agent, selected by a discerning editor, edited by a good copyeditor, packaged attractively–is a higher quality product. But as we all know that isn’t always the case. The Big Five publishers all put out stinkers and not just once in a while. These books are marketed to look like winners, but ultimately they disappoint and often infuriate.
So the way I see it, here’s where we are: Big Publishing maintains the 1%–those authors who have become household names (or have been anointed by household names–yes, I’m talking to you, Mr. Colbert). (And just to be clear, I’m not saying that the 1% are lighting Cohibas with hundred dollar bills–traditional publishing contracts have a way of keeping profits out of the hands of the writer. But that’s a topic for another time.) The 99% consists of mid-list authors (often writers sidelined because they have disappointed their publishers in the past), writers trying to break into the business, wannabes who might not have the chops yet and aren’t getting the kind of direction they need to get any better, and frankly people who have no business putting their dubious content on the market in the first place. The long tail has gotten so long it’s strangling all of us.
So what’s a writer to do? Write the best book you can possibly write. Yes, of course. That’s always been the best advice, but is that enough? Self-promotion is essential, and if you can’t afford to pay a publicist thousands of dollars a month to do it for you, you have to do it yourself, and that means establishing your brand on social media. Post frequently on Facebook, tweet like George Takei, post pics of your favorite everything on Pinterest, make clever little Vine videos, maintain a website, tell the world every day where you’ll be, share you opinions in your blog posts (as I’m doing right now). But this is all very time consuming. When are you supposed to have time to write that wonderful book?
Now I know there are writers who do all this and do it successfully. They expand their fan base and presumably sell more books. But having followed several mystery and true-crime writers online, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re mainly talking to each other. Just because someone has liked your page or skimmed through a post, does that make that persona a dedicated fan who will reliably shell out for your latest book? I doubt it. I’ve “liked” many Facebook pages on a whim or because I was in a good mood and then never returned to those pages, let alone considered buying what those people are offering, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
So what’s the solution? I have no answer. Maybe a real economist/social scientist could enlighten me. (Paul Krugman? Nate Silver? Freakonomics guys? Anyone?) Perhaps what the 99% writers are experiencing is a wrenching transitional phase. Big Publishing will continue to create and promote a 1% just as the music biz does with the dependable familiars, like Springsteen, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift. The rest have to persevere, keep creating, keep pushing, seize opportunities when they show up, and hope for a little luck to strike. That’s the optimist in me talking. The pessimist says the game has changed drastically, and legions of amateurs are lumbering over the scorched landscape like zombies. Maybe it’s time to rent out the couch and start offering rides in my car.