Seven Aspects of the Novelist’s Dilemma (1)

Blog: What's the Big Idea?

Seven Aspects of the Novelist’s Dilemma (1)

I just completed another novel, my third in three years, and now I have to figure out how to publish it.

Not long ago, all a novelist had to worry about was pleasing his reader. Getting published was a part of reaching that reader, of course, but presumably those who occupied the middle — agents, editors, bookstore buyers — were only super readers, people who stood in for the eventual customer.

Pleasing the reader meant facing up to certain dilemmas inherent in storytelling, matters of characterization, pacing, voice, etc. None of these is easy to master, but they’re the kinds of issues that authors enjoy resolving. Having to reinvent the book publishing industry, on the other hand, is a chore we’d rather avoid.

That’s why, with a few notable exceptions, authors fall silent on the matter of Amazon vs the Big Six or on the terms under which publishers ought to sell ebooks to libraries or on what’s the proper price for any book, etc.

But, watching media coverage on the massive disruption happening to the book business, I am struck by two things. First, I’m amazed by how little of that discussion in the mainstream media deals with the impact upon authors of all this disruption. After all, without publishers or bookstores or agents, books still exist. But without authors they never can.

And, second, it surprises me that evaluations of this disruption too often fail to distinguish between book categories. For example, it’s not very helpful to state that ebooks are still “only” twenty percent of revenue in some broad categories (adult fiction, say), when in fact their market share is single digits in some subcategories but perhaps approaching the halfway point in popular genres such as Romance and Horror.
Anyway, in an effort to frame my thinking about all of this, over the next seven weeks (and seven blog posts) I’m sharing aspects of the current novelist’s publishing dilemma.

1. Intellectual property is different.

We’ve known for a long time that there’s a big difference between the invention of something (say, a machine) and the effort required to produce it in an economically viable way. That’s why we make a distinction between inventors and manufacturers. Inventors invest time and expend intellectual capital. Manufacturers expend time and invest financial capital.

These distinctions can bleed into one another in the widget world, but until recently there hasn’t been much overlap in the creative world. In the vast majority of cases, authors and other artists are more like inventors and publishers are more like manufacturers.

When the book business was mostly about printing up thousands of copies and shipping them to far-flung markets, publishers took big capital risks and required massive infrastructure. Editing — i.e. quality control — was one of the smallest pieces of this investment. Money spent on people and infrastructure (i.e. overhead) was the biggest piece.

But when intellectual property can be delivered digitally and thus stands on its own, much of the capital risk disappears. Nobody has to invest in a printing press to produce an incremental copy of a digital book. That doesn’t change everything, but it changes a lot of things.
Dilemma: If a book is the product of intellectual property brought to fruition by manufacturing, but now producing a book requires less manufacturing, why shouldn’t creators be collecting a bigger piece of the revenue?
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