Six months ago, when I first opened up shop here at Ditchwalk, there was a riot brewing in the publishing marketplace. For all the back-and-forth about self-publishing versus traditional publishing, however, the rhetorical clash that eventually broke out last fall was never really an us-against-them-whoever-they-are revolution. Or if it was, it was only that for a few short weeks, until the industry forces manning the status-quo battlements got their mind around the fact that the internet wasn’t going to go away no matter how many ruby-slippered heel clicks they threw at the damned thing.
What really drove the chaos last fall is what drives chaos in any business. Suddenly, with only a fleeting decade’s warning, the book business didn’t now how to make a stable profit. The internet was the obvious scapegoat, at least until the recession took hold, at which point big names in the publishing business reassured the rabble that everything would be fine as soon as the recession was over.
Now, when a pricing plague strikes your village and the experts fail to stop the spread, and Aunt Sadie’s home recipes don’t work, and your prayers don’t save the people you love, there’s a natural tendency to latch on to anyone who comes by with a possible solution. Fortunately, the one thing you can always count on in such situations is that someone will come by.
Off to See the Wizard
Stepping in to help calm (or at least leverage) the pricing uncertainty last fall were three notable writers not directly aligned with any of the main publishing firms. In alphabetical order, they were:
“…editor-in-chief of Wired, which has won a National Magazine Award under his tenure. He wrote an article in the magazine entitled The Long Tail , which he expanded upon in the book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (2006).
“His newest book, entitled Free, which examines the rise of pricing models which give products and services to customers for free, was released on July 7, 2009, by Hyperion.”
What I learned about Chris Anderson over the past six months, apart from that ugly plagiarism scandal, is that he believes you can make money by giving content away for free. Not surprisingly, various people question this radical premise. However, the idea that free content can be used to build a following is currently being tested in the marketplace, predominantly by unknown writers who may feel they have no recourse in terms of attracting attention to their work.
The free pricing model does not yet seem to have caught on at the corporate level.
“…a Canadian blogger, journalist, and science fiction author who serves as co-editor of the blog Boing Boing. He is an activist in favor of liberalizing copyright laws and a proponent of the Creative Commons organization, using some of their licenses for his books.”
What I learned about Cory Doctorow over the past six months is that he is a passionate, outspoken and intellectually dishonest critic of technological efforts to enforce Digital Rights Management (DRM) laws. Not surprisingly, he is also a pop-culture hero for people who believe that stealing copyrighted content is not stealing. Mr. Doctorow’s prescription for the publishing industry is simple: no matter what else is happening, no matter how rampant piracy may be, no matter how much data is collected on piracy and its negative effects, and no matter how viable any DRM solution may be in practice, nobody should actually try to prevent people from stealing copyrighted content.
While this view is not directly aligned with Mr. Anderson’s business model, in practice the effect on authors is the same. Like Mr. Anderson’s advice, it does not seem to have been adopted by the corporate publishing world.
“…an American author of business books.”
What I learned about Seth Godin over the past six months, apart from his ugly attempt at brand extortion, is that he is a marketing guru whose principle product is Seth Godin. Like all gurus, Mr. Godin is a master of countering the general with the specific, the specific with the general, and the practical inability of anyone to do everything well with the maddening theoretical assertion that everything could be done well if only you really cared. Because gurus are by nature always on the bleeding edge, Mr. Godin’s prescription for the publishing industry is a bit harder to pin down, but suffice to say it involves branding in a way that’s not so-yesterday.
Mr. Godin is also an advocate of free content, which, as noted above, has not yet been embraced by the larger industrial content producers.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that these three men all have the same general take on how individual writers can be successful in the new publishing environment. Give your content away and the world will beat a path to your door. To the extent that this idea doesn’t seem to appeal to full-blown publishing firms that’s simply taken as confirmation that traditional publishers are completely out of touch with the new reality.
The Yellow Brick Road
For individual writers the basic idea is that giving content away will build a loyal brand, tribe or cult following, which will, in turn — through some mechanism of generosity triggered by adoration — later provide compensation in the form of actual cash. Because these three men do not publicly document their revenue streams I can’t tell you why they are not all out in the street in their underwear, as most business owners would be if they gave their products away for free, but let’s assume for the moment that this radical new model really works.
Given that it seems to be working for all of them, and that they don’t seem to be affiliated in any way, it’s tempting to believe that these writers are really on to something. But that’s not what I believe. Rather, I believe they have simply inverted the process of selling content into a celebrity-first paradigm. In such a model the establishment of notoriety or pop-culture importance lays the groundwork for what you write, while the more traditional paradigm proposes exactly the opposite.
In effect, as long as people know who you are and want to know more about you, or be more like you. or have what you have, or be what you want them to be, you can make a living off of that interest. And I guess that’s hard to argue against, in the same way that it would be hard to argue against O.J. Simpson’s promotional plans for If I Did It. (By argue against I mean deny the economic benefit of. Obviously, people with moral and ethical concerns could quibble endlessly.)
In a nutshell, if the celebrity model already works for murderers and serial killers, corrupt former politicians, morally bankrupt performers, washed-up comics, pop-culture icons, proudly-addicted musicians and sundry television personalities who have no actual craft, why shouldn’t it work for people who are full of bright ideas? You know, like Tony Robbins or Depaak Chopra or you?
Having never read anything these three writers have written, I can’t offer an opinion as to whether they’re good writers or not. Then again, I’ve never read anything Stephen King has written because horror is decidedly not my thing. To the extent that Stephen King is famous or even a celebrity, however, it seems to me that this status is a function of a very different paradigm, and one that is not at all predicated on making Stephen King the focus of Stephen King’s writing career. Rather, the focus of Stephen King’s writing career is the storytelling that he does, which entertains the people who read his books. (As far as I know Stephen King is not currently giving his content away.)
In the old days, if I heard that someone was an author, the thing I imagined them doing was writing, and the thing I imagined them creating was a book. That was the archetype whether the content was literary or mainstream fiction, or nonfiction. The internet has now rendered that archetype void, at least according to the people who are adopting (if not selling) the internet-based, celebrity-first model of marketing. In this new model — put forward, admittedly, by people who actually seem to be making the model work for them, albeit without documenting their income — Stephen King and authors like him are extinct dinosaurs who only thrived as a function of the pre-internet gatekeeping power and marketing muscle of the largest publishers.
I think there’s probably a grain of truth in that idea, but I think that grain of truth is being used to obscure sleight of hand on the part of celebrity-first proponents. The important point about the idea of an author as a writer, as against the author as a celebrity, was the implicit assumption that the author was creating something of inherent value. Whether a spell-bending story, a literary masterpiece, or a non-fiction work of historical importance, the premise of writing was that the words themselves had both meaning and worth in the marketplace. Not worth associated only with the author’s celebrity, but inherent value apart from the author’s name, likeness, public appearances, t-shirts, etc.
We used to call the place where this value was determined the marketplace of ideas. The current thinking, however — again, propounded primarily by internet-centric, celebrity-first writers — is that because the internet exists there is now an infinite supply of words and ideas, which means, by the very definition of supply and demand, that those words (ideas, stories, facts) are worth nothing. Add to the mix the reality that consumers have little or no time for locating content that is meaningful or valuable to them, and the idea of content itself producing a return on investment or attracting attention is deemed not simply quaint and naive but irrevocably dead.
It is this line of logic that is now leading many writers to the seemingly inevitable conclusion that the only way to leverage money from content is to give content away in order to build celebrity, at which point they will be more visible in the marketplace because people will be talking about them. But what’s the obvious problem with this approach?
Well, let’s pretend that the old way of doing things — whatever it was — was the equivalent of standing with every other author on the crowded and badly listing side of a boat. What the advocates of the new, web-savvy publishing paradigm are suggesting, no matter the details, is that everyone should stand on the other side because that’s where the opportunities are.
The current conventional wisdom is that nobody — meaning nobody except Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling — is going to be able to make a living selling content for content’s sake, so success for individual authors will necessarily be celebrity (platform) driven. Amazingly it’s not only internet-centric, celebrity-first proponents who are saying this, but traditional publishers as well. Between cutting back on marketing budgets and encouraging even established authors to commit to a web presence, publishers are effectively parroting the same anti-publisher rhetoric of Doctorow, Anderson and Godin. Which means everyone really is being encouraged to run to the other side of the boat.
The best that can be said about this paradigm shift and the transitional stage we currently seem to find ourselves in is that it’s a land grab where early adopters (like, for example, Doctorow, Anderson or Godin) might profit from staking out an early celebrity claim. Rather than locking up acres and river rights, early internet-centric, celebrity-first writers can attempt to grab mindshare and bandwidth before everyone else joins the fray — at least until the inherently valueless marketplace of ideas has been replaced by an equally crowded and valueless marketplace of personalities.
So what does it take to get in on the ground floor of this new revolution in publishing, by which I really mean a new revolution in marketing? Well, in order to build your platform, it helps to have — wait for it! — a platform! Chris Anderson is the editor-in-chief of Wired. Are you? Cory Doctorow is an anti-DRM culture hero and a fixture on BoingBoing. Are you? Seth Godin is his own market-tested product. Are you?
But it gets worse. If you haven’t pre-positioned yourself as a celebrity prior to writing and marketing your own book, you may already be too late. Here’s Mr. Godin on the applicable time frame:
“If you have people’s attention, you can make money,” Godin declared. You start promoting your new book well before it is written by using the internet through blogging, hosting content-driven sites, and social networking to accumulate a tribal following. When to start promoting? “Five years ahead of time,” he suggested, underscoring the point.
So there you go. Five years before you hope to put your content in play, get out there and establish yourself as a celebrity of some kind. That’s your new publishing paradigm.
But what if you don’t want to be in the attention-getting business? What if your goal is not to become a celebrity in order to “make money”, but rather to write something that you care about that will “make money”? Unfortunately, the new publishing paradigm says you’re both an idiot and a certain failure, so you have no choice but to get with the celebrity-first program.
And again, there’s a grain of truth in this. If you’re a writer I think you’re a fool not to have a web presence. But that’s not the same thing as building a celebrity-based persona, any more than putting your dental practice on the web makes you an oral-hygiene guru. It may raise your visibility, or make you easier to find, or help potential clients learn something about the focus of your practice, but that’s all normal marketing stuff. In the old days you used to hand out a brochure, or place ads on TV: now you get the word out on the web. There’s no difference.
The difference between what celebrity-first writers are talking about and what content-first writers are talking about is that celebrity-first writers are talking about themselves as a product, and content-first writers are talking about content as their product. I don’t have either the desire or the tools to be a celebrity. I have no interest in impressing people, getting up on a stage and performing for people, or, to paraphrase Mr. Godin, in “attracting people in order to make money.” I know that as a writer I will have to market my work, but that’s no different than any other business. What’s different is that I think the work comes first. Or that the quality of that work is at least as important as any potential celebrity I might have.
In fact, I’ll go one step further. If I knew I could land a bunch of book sales simply because I was famous, regardless of the content of the book, I wouldn’t be interested in that money, career or life. I know this opinion brands me a heretic, if not an actual traitor to the current definition of patriotism in America, but it’s how I feel. I want what I write to matter, even if only to just one person. I don’t want someone buying my content or making choices in their life because they saw me give a talk in which I glossed over life’s harsh realities while selling the sunny side of victimization.
There are enough people doing that, and there are more headed to that side of the boat as I write this. But it’s just not for me. Yes, maybe that means I have no chance in the marketplace. On the other hand I’m at least being contrarian, if not also true to my convictions and my heart. I want to believe that content matters, not only because I write content, but because all those poor, deluded, swamped readers still seem to think so, too.
I want people to talk about what I write, not talk about me. My objective is not to get you to know me or to become famous or to be able to get into any restaurant in town. It’s to tell the truth. Or at least to try.
No Place Like Home
So for me the question is pretty simple. How much platform/celebrity is enough? The answer, of course, is that you can never do enough. However much you’re already doing to sell your book or yourself there is always someone out there who will (often for a fee) arm you with more advice, tips, tricks, secrets, paradigms and attitude adjustments. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that while these people will tell you right to your face that they’ll make you rich if you’ll only have the courage to believe in them, they’re the ones who end up making money off your faith. If you just want it bad enough, if you’ll just let your guard down and believe for five minutes…then they can stick their hands in your pocket and take your cash, and your little dog, too.
Today I think it’s worth taking at look at where we are after last fall’s price collapse, and after all this give-free-or-die advice to individual writers. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but it seems to me that while the price collapse temporarily appeared to validate the free/freemium/celebrity-first model of content pricing, the people who profited the most were celebrity-first writers like Doctorow, Anderson and Godin, who took opportunistic advantage of the apparent causality in order to further increase their own celebrity. Too, publishers profited by encouraging writers to do more and more of their own marketing, thereby taking costs off publisher’s book.
Yet just as questions about the validity and viability of self-publishing seem to have faded since that time, so too have questions about the utility of free content. While I have no hard numbers to point to, my sense of the market is that a floor was reached over the past ninety days, and that floor is somewhere north of $0. Last fall’s price-depressing news about blowout hardcover sales at big box retailers and Amazon’s loss-leading sale of bestsellers has been replaced by Macmillan’s insistence that it gets to call the shots on the price of its products, the agency model (about which I’ll mumble more later), and more substantive discussions about the difference between pricing pure content (meaning e-files of various types) and physical books.
It’s also worth noting in passing that no constituency was more well-served by the idea of giving content away for free than the piracy delegation. If content is not simply easy to attain but actually priced at nothing, then piracy as a crime disappears. Because of this obvious synergy, it seems to me that much of the pricing rhetoric over the past six months (and longer) had an inherent price-discounting bias.
For all of these reasons I’ve decided that free is not for me.
— Mark Barrett