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Writers and publishers in the electronic ageBY: Tom Purdom 09.06.2009
In an age when people can read Proust and Zola on a portable handheld electronic device, is commercial publishing doomed? If so, how will writers make a living? Not to worry, says a veteran author. Publishers will find a strategy that works. They always have.
Fear of Kindle:
I now have two friends who own Amazon’s e-reader, the Kindle, and think it’s wonderful. Many of my friends know other people who are reading on Kindles. People who used to say they would never give up books are saying they’ll probably buy an e-reader when the price gets down to their level.
It’s a familiar pattern. I remember a time in the early ’80s when videocassette recorders cost several hundred dollars, and I kept encountering affluent people who raved about them. I told myself I would buy one when the price dropped to $200, and that’s exactly what millions of us did.
Word processors went through a similar phase around that time. E-mail and general Internet access passed through it around 1995.
As an arts writer, I’ve written for online publications for 13 years. As a science fiction writer, I’ve collected small royalty checks for electronic reprints of my stories since 2000, thanks to a publishing enterprise called Fictionwise, which has thrived despite all the experts who predicted it wouldn’t.
Are we finally approaching the moment when electronic publishing will become a major economic factor in the publishing industry?
Giveaways on the web
Writers have been arguing about e-publishing since the mid-’90s. The loudest contingent believes we should give our work away for free on the Web because the freebies increase print sales. For the moment, these writers can support their stance with convincing sales figures. But their giveaways won’t make much sense if electronic sales continue to rise and e-books become a major source of revenue.
Another vocal group believes all commercial publication is doomed. In the future, these writers prophesy, unpaid writers will give their work away on the Web and support themselves by thinking up clever ways to exploit their fame.
My own view is that the changes will be significant, but they won’t affect the basic nature of the writer’s relationship with the publishing industry. I have faith in the creative cupidity of the publishing class.
Two executives, experimenting
In July, at a Boston area conference called Readercon, I participated in a panel on the future of the science fiction magazines. The two gentlemen on my right were Gordon Van Gelder, the editor-publisher of a venerable institution called The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Warren Lapine, who publishes a group of magazines and books. Both men outlined the mix of print publishing, paid electronic publishing and free website attractions they were putting into effect.
In other words, they were telling us how they were adapting— as good executives must— to the latest upheaval in their business. And they’re not alone. According to a recent article in the Economist, newspaper publishers have finally noticed that many readers stop buying your newspaper when they discover they can read it for free on your website.
The right combination
Consequently, newspapers are now experimenting with a new approach: websites that combine free items with features readers have to pay for. If you demand payment for everything, readers stop visiting the website; if you give everything away, the print version loses paying customers. The trick is to find the right mix of freebies and paid copy. The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and the Economist itself have been applying the same strategy for some time.
The strategy may not succeed. The important point to me is that publishers are trying things out. Sooner or later, they’ll find a formula that works. They always have.
Publishers create markets. They buy words from writers because they’ve developed a way to make money by circulating those words to an audience. They’ve been pulling off that useful trick since sometime in the 18th Century, in the face of all the technological and social storms that publishing has weathered since Defoe and Voltaire wielded quill pens. Somehow, when the storm ends, a familiar picture always emerges from the mist: writers submit words to editors, editors make selections, and publishers make money.
Remember the Saturday Evening Post?
In the last three centuries, publishers have given us a catalogue of creative adaptations that includes monthly magazines; daily and weekly newspapers; three-volume novels circulated through rental libraries; books published in “numbers”; all-fiction pulps; paperback originals; mass circulation weekly magazines like the Saturday Evening Post; high-circulation special-interest publications like the computer and video game magazines; and advertiser-supported free-circulation weeklies. Some of those innovations have lasted. Some have been dropped and replaced with something new when their time was over.
Along the way, publishers have created the economic environments that sustained Thackeray, Zola, Emily Brontë, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur C. Clarke and every other writer you’ve ever read, studied or ignored.
The relationship between writers and publishers has its tensions. All writers know that publishers hog more of the proceeds than they should. All publishers know that writers are greedy, vainglorious and financially unrealistic. But the creators and the business brains are locked into a permanent symbiotic relationship: The writers produce words the public wants to read. The publishers turn the words into a saleable commodity and pass some of the cash to the writers.
This time the publishers may falter. Electronic publishing may finally present them with a challenge they can’t convert into profits for themselves and (reluctant) payouts to writers. But I’ll be very surprised if they fail. And I won’t be one bit surprised if they succeed.♦
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