I think I know what indie book publishing is going to look like

Over on the Writers Digest website, someone named Jane writes a series called There Are No Rules.

Her most recent post is “My Big Rant on Self-Publishing”. It starts out like this:

I can’t tell you how tired I am of hearing people bash self-publishing. The things I hear usually fall into two categories:

  • Most self-published books aren’t quality
  • Some self-publishing services are unethical

If you agree with one of the above statements, let me lay it out real clear for you: The landscape is changing, and if you haven’t noticed, you’re behind the times.

Now, before you dismiss this as yet-another rant from yet-another scheming self-publishing ne’er-do-well, I should point out that this particular “Jane” is Jane Friedman. Jane Friedman was the President and Chief Executive Officer of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, one of the world’s leading English-language publishers, for eleven years. She came to HarperCollins from Random House, where she was the Executive Vice President of Random House, Inc., Executive Vice President of the Knopf Publishing Group, Publisher of Vintage Books, and founder and President of Random House Audio Publishing.

It’s fair to say she knows a few things about the publishing industry as it exists today. When someone like that talks about what’s true about publishing today, I feel fairly safe believing them.

In her post, she writes:

  • Distribution models are changing. With advancements in technology, and the power now within an average writer’s hands, it’s not necessary to have physical bookstore distribution to achieve success.
  • Traditional publishers now rely on authors to do the marketing and promotion.
  • Communities will decide what books are worthwhile.

And I think “this sounds really familiar to me. Where have I seen this before?”

Oh yeah: the indie game industry.

Once upon a time, there were about a half-dozen major game companies who published their games, and about the only way you could ‘make it’ in the industry was by writing for those games and getting published by those companies. You might see the rare, rare bird out there — some guy who’d written his own game that got a little bit of play in his local cons and had some support, but that was damned uncommon, and the products that the guy turned out were obviously substandard to the quality of the products produced by the big boys.

Then came the internet. With it (and usenet) you had a flurry of homebrew games and creations that actually got farther than your home. Some of the early and long-time successes from that time were games like FUDGE (with a still-bustling community almost two decades after it showed up on usenet, and at least two major spinoff games that have themselves created spinoffs), RISUS, and Sorcerer (notable for not being in all-caps, I guess).

Still most of these internet-distributed games were just that – internet distributed. Nothing but bits and bytes. There was no final product; no book to hold in your hand.

Then the guy behind Sorcerer (who I believe had experience in publishing through his academic background) printed real live copies of the ‘final’ version of his game. High-quality copies. Copies that were easily as good as any other book you’d see in your local gaming store. That the game itself was good was more important, but the big deal was “holy crap, someone outside the Big Boys made a book, and sold it, and made it work, and has a big group of people playing it and reading it. HOW CAN WE DO THIS?

And the answer at the time was “well, you can’t – not easily – but it can be done, and until then, you can sell PDFs of your games for cheap.”

And then, very slowly (to the indie gaming industry, that is — where lifespans are measured in dog-years and evolution occurs at a rate not seen outside a mad scientist’s lab in the basement of a nuclear reactor), the self-publishing industry started to catch up to what the indie game designers wanted to do, and they could make their own games and print them and SELL THEM TO PEOPLE OH MY GOD.

There was a glut of publication, let me tell you.

Maybe one in every ten games that came out were good. The rest were crap and died a quick, possibly painful, and justified death. There was a lot of recrimination on the boards that supported the indie-game publishing effort (indie-rpgs.com and story-games.com), along the lines of “why did you release this when it wasn’t more than half-baked?” and “we need some quality control up in here, or we’re going to become a laughingstock”.

And that has happened, and the products you can get today are better and better – the crap-to-quality ratio moving into a favorable zone with every day.

Here’s what it looks like today:

  • Distribution models changed. Lulu.com and Indie Press Revolution has made publishing books financially and logistically possible for people who have Real Jobs, Real Lives, and Other Things to do.
  • Traditional publishers now rely on authors to do all the marketing and promotion. Pff. It’s not like there’s ever been much in the way of marketing in the gaming industry. RPGs only predate the internet by about a decade, so a huge amount of what the industry does in the way of ‘marketing’ is done via the internet — there is very little that the Big Boys can do in the way of marketing that *I* cannot likewise accomplish do. Google adsense is affordable, and reaches most people right where they live – their Inbox.
  • Communities will decide what books are worthwhile, and communities won’t have ego-filled judgments. I have seen this happen firsthand in the indie game design world. Story-games and Indie-rpgs.com are the crap-filter that Independent Fiction Publishing needs in order to thrive.Not a service. Not a business. A community of people who all want to accomplish pretty much the same thing, and are committed to making sure that the whole bloody thing doesn’t become a laughingstock.And they don’t do it for money. They do it for love of doing it — for love of reaching people and knowing they enjoyed their game.

That’s where indie publishing is going. That’s where (and how) it will succeed.

Does such a community already exist? Maybe. Publetariat has a forum. I plan to check it out. Maybe it already is what it needs to be.

Maybe it can evolve.

Compiling notes from the Tools of Change conference

My Twitter page is drowning under a tweetstorm of posts from people at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference. It’s really amazing how, with so many people posting snippets from each talk, you can actually get a three-dimensional (if patchwork) image of what each talk covered, and the messages.
Let me tell you, it’s some fascinating stuff – makes me wish I was there. Here’s some of the best bits I’ve gleaned, either paraphrased or as direct quotes from twitter.
On publishing
So far, in the various sessions at the conference, two messages about publishing in the digital age are coming through loud and clear.

  1. Publishers need to reconsider exactly what it is they’re selling – not just to the reader, but what service they’re actually providing to the author.
  2. Going forward, the most successful books will be as much about community as about content. (I.e.: Creating a community around the thing that you have created — see the quote down below on Creating Your Work Today.)

While these concepts are new and difficult for mainstream publishers, indie or indie-ideal authors [Doctorow, Scalzi] and small imprints have embraced them from the start – often without even realizing they were doing something revolutionary. Big publishers now have something to learn from the independent, publishing writer.
“What can publishers do for writers who are better at the web than them?” (And don’t say “a listing in catalogs for chain stores”, because… upping the book price to cover the cost of getting a book listed with stores that represent less than a third of book sales, and whose share continues to dwindle? Not a selling point.)
“Media that doesn’t die can still dwindle — Opera relies on rich weirdos, not cultural relevance/commercial viability.”
Re: eBooks: “Paper is just a device.” That might bend some people’s minds, since it’s assumed as a publishing basis for so long. The horse was a “device” too.
“Best way to predict the future is to imagine that the thing you can’t live without will stop existing and prove to have been unimportant.” (Read that in terms of the current-and-perpetual publishing industry.)
“Free books enable the market for paid books.”
“The more you restrict the ability to transform an ebook (thanks to DRM – did you know that reading an ebook from your iPhone to your kid while walking through the grocery store is actually illegal?), the more it has to be valued on the same axes as a tree-book. E-books fail on those axes.”
People want to configure their personal culture. Making a priori assumptions about reading habits will cost you customers.
You know where 30% of reading occurs? In bed. [[Personal bitch: given that information, why doesn’t Kindle have a backlight?]]

On Creating your Work Today
Down economies are golden ages for bohemia as creatives are released from the rat race and make art instead.
“Don’t just blog, do something more sophisticated with all of your content.”
The value of a web-site is orthogonal to its value as commercially-prepared info. Its real worth is dependent on its social characteristics.
“To double your success, triple your failures.”
Publetariat: It’s time the word “indie” carry the same street cred for book authors as it does for indie musicians, [me: “gamers”], and filmmakers.

One of the most repeated tweets regarding TOC had to do with the representatives from Audible.com getting up and walking out on Cory Doctorow’s anti-DRM presentation. (Note: this didn’t actually happen. :)
The heart of the message from that presentation:

“‘Doctorow’s Law’: if somebody puts a lock on something you own and doesn’t give you the key, it’s not to your benefit.”

People will pay for content, provided you don’t make the case that buying content opens you up to having it taken away later by DRM.

There’s tons and tons more stuff coming out from ToC, but that’s what snagged my brain this morning.

Big Chain Bookstore Deathwatch (publetariat.com)

Publetariat points out the absence of the emperor’s clothes in this post:

Do you remember precisely when you stopped going to chain music stores like Musicland and Tower Records, and why? For me, a music fan with eclectic tastes, most often looking for artists not represented on Billboard’s charts, the birth of online retailer CDNow (later absorbed by Amazon) was the beginning of the end. No brick-and-mortar store could hope to match CDNow’s selection or prices, and if I wanted something really obscure, I knew I’d sooner find it at an indie/used record store than a chain store. For people seeking chart-toppers, the widening selection of music available at discount stores, big box stores and warehouse clubs like Target, Best Buy and CostCo sounded the music chains’ first death knell.

Hmm… that sounds… familiar, somehow…

Compare the death of an entire [music store] industry to chain bookstores’ current situation. Greater selection of books can be had online, at lower prices? Check. Bestsellers, gift books and discount books can be bought more conveniently at other stores, for lower prices? Check. Obscure and out-of-print books can only be found online, or in indie/used bookstores? Check. Attempts are being made [in the chain bookseller stores] to diversify product mix by introducing DVDs, CDs, toys and other products, but none of these products are being offered at lower prices or in a wider selection than through other, pre-existing retail outlets? Check.

Yeah. When was the last time you were in a Borders or Barnes and Noble? I can’t remember either.

They stole my screed…

Advertisements for Yourself – The Big Money

People in the book business rarely agree on much, but no one disputes that the long-suffering industry is slogging through one of its worst periods ever. Editors are freezing their acquisition budgets; publishing houses are shrinking; booksellers are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The proliferation of digital media that is arguably the biggest threat to traditional publishing also offers authors more opportunities than ever to distribute and promote their work. The catch: In order to do that effectively, authors increasingly must transcend their words and become brands.

I disagree with some of the things that the article lays out in terms of what “branding” means — I think that’s at least partly because the author didn’t really seem to know, either — but I agree that a successful author today does better by creating a kind of community around themselves and their work — once that community hits a certain tipping point, it grows on its own, creating a bigger and bigger audience. There are authors who can transcend or ignore that, but they are few and far between.
The main point of that article — or the part that caught my attention — is the way in which New Media (to borrow a term from Obama’s presidential campaign) is both a threat to traditional publishing and a chance for authors to reap benefits and enjoyment from their own work far more directly and understandably than they can via the impenetrable system currently in place.
I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the change in the way people are reading, accessing, and acquiring books today is a death-knell for the publishing industry, but it is a beach, and today’s (really, yesterday’s) publishers are — all of them — sea-dwelling mammals; very large sea-dwelling mammals. Their future survival necessitates being able to get up out of the water, onto the beach, and into the trees; some of these fat, slow bastards will not survive that evolutionary imperative.

How the Publishing Industry works (or… you know… doesn’t)

Kate’s been posting some interesting stuff about the way the publishing industry is, and how it’s possibly changing in the future. Today’s post is a chunk of Google Talk conversation that she and I had on the subject, about which I am more than a little opinionated — said opinions grown partly from my dealings with the industry, but mostly from simply watching what Kate and her peers have to go through simply to keep the whole bloody, broken mess working.
The post is here, and links to yesterday’s post as well. By all means, check it out, post your thoughts, and tell me if I’m a Big Stupidhead.

Maybe I need to find a writing group.

lonely.jpgThere is a specific type of activity in role playing games (which are, by design, social gatherings) that is importantly and essentially NOT a social activity, and it goes back perhaps to the very start of roleplaying gaming as a hobby.
Speaking broadly, this category of activity encompasses a lot of solo activities that sort of surround the Actual Playing Of The Game, like space trash around the Earth — as a player, it includes things like writing diaries or journals from your characters point of view, drawing sketches of them or the people they know, painting up a miniature for them, devising complex back stories, or simply sitting around and ‘generating’ new character after new character … all of whom will probably never get played, et cetera — as the person running the game, it involves stuff like the above, as well as developing complex societies, environments, ecologies, history, and various bits of fiction… hell, whole worlds that provided the backdrop for the story of the game… most of which no one but the person running the game would EVER KNOW.
As I said, it’s a standard element of classic roleplaying games. Sometime in early 2006, a gamer on the Story-games forum coined a name for this kind of activity, referring to it as “lonely fun”.
Before that point in time (and, in fact, long before there were role-playing games), it had a different name: “writing”.
I’ve never been very good at Lonely Fun. Along the same vein, I’m having a hell of a time with my current W.I.P. because, unlike most of the stuff I’ve done before, I’m writing it alone. (My wife, who has been subjected to various excerpts from the ongoing story, might argue this point, but compared to my previous efforts, writing Humorless has been like working for a solid month inside a sensory deprivation tank.) No partner, no secret-blog that a couple dozen people can read as I go… nothing. My only reader is myself, and the only interaction I get with the story is my own.
I don’t care for it much. Frankly, I’ve created a lot more fiction as part of a group of creative people (read: gaming) than I have solo (read: writing), and that’s the activity that pushes all the good endorphin buttons in my brain. Maybe that’s because I’ve conditioned myself to work that way over the last twenty years, but there it is.
Going to take a long time to break that habit.