Or, at least, they were.
It was Kobo that got me thinking along these lines.
Recently Kobo announced the impending launch of its own self-publishing ebook portal for writers. The announcement touted the enhancements Kobo’s platform would offer that other self-publishing sites did not – geographical sales data, greater price controls, and so forth. Reading the web articles and blog posts on the topic, I had a growing sense of unreality, and the reason for it finally struck me.
Kobo is actively competing to attract writers.
This might seem obvious, but it is a startling paradigm shift.
Most publishers have simply never exerted themselves to attract writers.
If you’ve been writing long enough, you know what I mean. Sooner or later you ran into submission guidelines like this:
Send first three chapters of manuscript. Expect nine to eighteen months for response. If you receive no response after two years, assume we have declined.
Or numerous agents had submission guidelines like this:
Query letter must be one page, double space. Include a single-spaced synopsis, detailed marketing plan, and demographic write-up. Our standard response time is nine to twelve months. If you do not receive a response after two years, assume we have declined. Do not write before two years have passed, or we will delete your query unread.
These are not the kind of submission guidelines written by people who want to do business with you – these are the sort of submission guidelines written by people who are actively trying to scare away submissions. The unwritten meaning of these submission guidelines is: go away and stop bothering us. It’s essentially the same attitude as the mechanic or the doctor who doesn’t really want to figure out your problem – he just wants you to stop talking and go away.
Publishing likes to call itself an industry, and it is – it produces physical objects called books (or magazines). The books are manufactured, warehoused, sold, and then shipped. Just like any other physical product, from tampons to iPods.
For publishing as an industry, the fact that all those books had to be filled with written words was a necessary economic evil, a chore to be dealt with as quickly, cheaply, and efficiently as possible. And that was why publishers did not need to attract writers – the writers would come to them because the publishers only had the physical (and financial) capacity to manufacture a certain number of books in a given year. Only so many words would fit into those books, after all, so publishers could pick and choose which writers they wanted (the ones whose words were most likely to attract people into buying the physical book object), and simply ignore all the others.
This worked excellently for the manufacture and sale of physical books, but then a new paradigm came along.
And that paradigm is the device.
Rather than buying many physical books or magazines, you instead buy one device that can, for all practical purposes, access and display a virtually unlimited number of books. It doesn’t matter whether this device is a PC, a Kindle, an iPad, or whatever. It can connect to the Internet and access unlimited quantities of content. Pretty cool, right?
But access to unlimited quantities of content means that someone has to write all that content.
If you read the blogs of any bloggers who make a profit using Google Adsense or BlogAds or Amazon Affiliates or whatever, you’ll notice they all same the same thing: content is king. To be a successful blogger, you need content, lots of content, and new content coming in all the time, whether you write it yourself or subcontract it out.
The same rules apply to device manufacturers. An iPad or Kindle without access to content is useless. Device manufacturers need, very badly, a constant stream of new content, otherwise their devices are useless.
And that is why Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple are competing to attract writers to their self-publishing platforms. (It’s also why tablet/smartphone manufacturers include the YouTube app on their devices, despite the occasional questionable legality of YouTube videos.) Dealing with publishers (or TV/movie studios) is expensive and a tremendous headache. Much easier and cheaper to let people self-publish stuff.
In fact, it’s something of a stroke of genius. If you’re a device manufacturer, and you let people work for themselves by self-publishing their content, they’ll work much harder than they would ever work for you. You just take a minor cut off the sale, they’ll fill your device’s ecosystem with content, and you’ll sell more devices – all without lifting a finger. They will literally build your ecosystem for you, and you can even take a cut of the money. Apple and Google figured this out a while ago for smartphones (hence the iTunes App Store and Google Play), and the same principles work for ebooks. Why do you think Apple lets third-party developers sell apps via the App Store? The generosity of its shiny aluminum and glass heart? If people can make money writing iOS apps, they will write iOS apps, and if people buy those iOS apps, they’ll come to like them and buy even more iPods, iPhones, and iPads, and Apple can add another billion or two to its cash reserves.
People will occasionally complain that self-publishing “floods” the market with crap, but so what? From the perspective of the device manufacturers, it’s a win. Let’s say Barnes & Noble has 1 million crappy Nook Books for sale, each for $2.99, and each one sells only five copies (as many self-published books do). Since B&N takes 35% of the sale, that means B&N just made over one million dollars by doing nothing more than maintaining some server space. (Given that Amazon, Apple, and B&N all deal with countless terabytes of data on a regular basis, hosting 1 million 500k ebook files – about 500 gigabytes of data – is positively trivial. You can buy desktop computers with 2,000 gigabytes of storage space for about $500 to $650.)
And the thing is, not all of those 1 million self-published books will be crappy, or even objectively crappy. One man’s “crap” is another man’s “OMG I MUST BUY THE SEQUEL RIGHT NOW!” So quite a few of those 1 million crappy self-published books will sell quite a few more than five copies. And some of the writers of those crappy books will continue to practice and improve, and write books that will sell more than five copies. Or a writer will write a really good new book that takes off, and the readers will go back and buy all of his previous book.
All of which generates money for the device manufacturer.
Some have also argued that self-published ebooks ruin the “browsing” experience that a good bookstore offers, that readers will lose the ability to find good books. This is a specious argument. Both books and ebooks cost money, and you are more likely to buy a book based on a recommendation from a friend, a good review, or previous experience with the writer’s work, than to simply wander through a bookstore buying books at random. And finding those books your friends recommended is infinitely easier via the Internet.
Therefore, this new “device” model needs writers, a lot of writers, in the way that old-style book publishing simply did not. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are all making a lot of money off their devices, and to keep this money-making engine going, they need content, a lot of content.
And that is why the device manufacturers want to attract writers. They need writers to supply content for their devices in a way that old-style publishing did not, and the economies of scale dictate that they need as many writers as possible to do it for them. Letting the writers self-publish is easier, cheaper, and less legally perilous than dealing with the international conglomerates that own most major book publishers.
There has never been a better time to be a writer. Granted, we live in an era of wrenching and tremendous technological and social change, and for all I know, the world economy could melt down or the US government could collapse tomorrow (hopefully this will not happen). But for now, it’s a splendid time to be a writer. Even if you don’t want to self-publishing, you could start a blog today and potentially gain a larger audience than 90% of the writers throughout human history.
How to attract that audience, of course, is another story. But that’s up to you.