Open publishing – Writing in an age of pirates

John Scalzi wrote a fantastic post in May 05 about the changing nature of a writer’s business model in an age where everything is easily copyable. A snippet to whet your appetite:

I won’t get into how much of my writing income over the last four years comes directly and indirectly as a result of writing on this site, except to say it’s six figures and the leftmost number is not a “1,” and not nearly all of it comes from book sales. This is not bragging (or not only bragging, shall I say); the point to made here is that an ambitious writer can use a non-commercial presence to generate a non-trivial amount of income. In my case, the content here, like the content on Penny Arcade, is un-pirateable; I don’t charge anything for it, and I don’t care if you send it along to whomever you like. But it brings in thousands of people every day, some of whom would probably spend money on Scalzi merchandise. Like, say, a novel, however it is published.

Or not a novel, actually — why not a novella? The market for novellas is very small right about now, because most publishers don’t like them; they don’t fit into the mass-market publishing paradigm very well at all. But if I don’t have to worry about my publisher’s production albegra, maybe I could sell one. Or not sell it at all — maybe I’ll post it up on the site with its run subsidized by an advertiser. I have eight to ten thousand visitors on a daily basis; think there’s an advertiser out there who might be willing to shell out for 100,000 ad impressions over the run of the novella?

Point is, in a pirate age, I think I still stand a good chance of continuing to make a very good income from writing. Since I don’t think we’ll get to a pirate age, this is even better news for me, because I have the advantage of generating writer income the old-fashioned way as well as in this new way. Multiple revenue streams are a writer’s friend. Now, get this: I’m not particularly clever, and I’m awfully lazy. If I can do this, pretty much any writer can. Yes, it does take time and effort to generate a readership (seven years, in the case of the Whatever). Tell me how this is different from publishing today.

Scalzi makes an excellent point: Just because business models are changing doesn’t mean either that the publishing industry will die, or that the writer will find it harder to make a living (bearing in mind that it’s already hard).

According to a report from The Publishers Association, in 2005, there were approx. 60,000 book publishers in the UK and Ireland, and about 1.6 million titles were available for sale, including 206,000 new or revised titles. The total value of sales was £2,768 million, and 788 million units were sold (giving an average price of £3.50). Consumer sales were £2,396 million for 2005, up 8% on 2004 (compared to a 3% increase in 2004 over 2003). Book exports were also up 3.7% to £1.41 billion, with the US the biggest market. Decide for yourself if those numbers indicate an industry in rapid decline, or one that’s healthy.

It seems pretty difficult to find up-to-date statistics on how much authors earn in the UK, but an old post from 2000 on the Dark Echo site says:

You think you should be able to make a living as a writer? A survey by the Society of Authors (U.K.) shows that dream may be even further from reality than we thought. An article published last Thursday by The Guardian/The Observer Web site BooksUnlimited (reported the survey — first of its kind in nearly 20 years — “shows that the universal creative dream of self-sufficiency through writing is receding farther than ever. . . Almost half British authors earn less than the £5,000 yearly minimum wage and three quarters make less than the national average of £20,000.” Only one writer in seven actually lives on earnings from writing. In other words, “You live better with toilet cleaner on your fingers than with ink.”

I can’t find the original article on the Observer site, nor an update version of this survey, but it’s still true to say that it’s bloody hard to make a living out of writing, whatever type of writing you do. But it is dramatically easier now to access to your prospective audience, to nurture a community of fans, and to benefit from a variety of income streams, such as advertising on your site or merchandise. Which means that if you get as much of your stuff as possible in front of as many people as possible by giving it all away, you have an opportunity to make money both directly and indirectly from your writing. For those who understand this, it could be said that it’s now easier to make a living as a writer, not harder – although it’s important to note that ‘easier’ is a relative term.

Again, though, we’re left with a lack of real hard data here. Do authors with blogs earn more than authors with out-of-date/static websites or authors with no web presence? Does an online presence only favour authors of specific genres? Do authors who give their works away online earn more than those who don’t, for authors at the same stage in their career and working in the same genre? (Although, jeeze, you’d have a hell of a job getting a meaningful statistical comparison out of that one.)

The problem, of course, is that authors and publishers generally don’t like giving away this sort of data, so ultimately we are left with only anecdote and experience to inform us.

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