When Dinosaurs Ruled The Books

This is a really weird time to be a writer. Agents are becoming publishers; publishers have moved to “the agency model“; and some self-published authors are making millions—all because e-books are now outselling all other segments. Magazines and newspapers are dying, blogs and aggregators are thriving, and the line between them all is blurring. Last year Apple was their savior; now it’s damned as a destroyer.

So what’s a writer to do?

These days I’m mostly a developer, but I’ve had a clutch of novels (thrillers about globetrotting techies) published by traditional houses, and also experimented with just about every form of The New Publishing. My latest book (an epic urban fantasy about a squirrel) was Creative Commons-released and self-Kindle-published before I sold it to a publisher. I’ve scripted a Vertigo Comics graphic novel, and a free online comic for Engineering.com. Plus I write here, and for magazines. And the news I bring from all my literary peregrinations is this:

…in the immortal words of William Goldman, nobody knows anything.
And that is awesome.

Goldman was talking about Hollywood in the 1970s, before Steven Spielberg singlehandedly ushered in the blockbuster era. Now, 70s music, fashion, politics, economics, and culture may have been a waste of time, but it was the greatest cinematic decade in history—precisely because nobody knew anything; so they had to experiment. Until, alas, the studios figured out how to please audiences with cookie-cutter three-act pablum, and the raging bulls and easy riders were tamed.

We are about to enter just such an era with books. Got a well-written story with no easily defined genre or obvious target market? Experimental form or content? Not long ago, that would have been a big problem. Nowadays, though—nobody knows anything. I’ve been calling the major publishers dinosaurs for some years now, but they are slowly being forced into greater willingness to experiment… and even if they don’t, you can always pull a Hocking and e-publish your book yourself. Sure, most such books will be crap, and most of the rest will fail to catch fire; but a few will become cult classics, and a tiny handful may turn into modern-day The Godfathers.

What’s a writer to do? Glory in this febrile, fecund chaos, is my answer. There has arguably never been a better time to write.

But unfortunately this is also, simultaneously, a bad time to be a reader. Because the dinosaurs still don’t get it. Ten years of object lessons from the music industry, and they still don’t get it. We have learned, painfully, that media consumers—be they listeners, watchers, or readers—want one of two things:

  • DRM-free works for a reasonable price
  • or, unlimited single-payment subscription to streaming/DRMed works

Give them either of those things, and they’ll happily pay. Look at iTunes. Look at Netflix. But give them neither, and they’ll pirate. So what are publishers doing?

  • Refusing to sell DRM-free books. My debut novel will be re-e-published by the Friday Project imprint of HarperCollins UK later this year; both its editor and I would like it to be published without DRM; and yet I doubt we will be able to make that happen.
  • crippling library e-books
  • and not offering anything even remotely like a subscription service.

Book piracy isn’t a big problem yet—though it’s certainly happening; too cheap to buy my book Blood Price? Here’s an illegally pirated edition—but I hereby predict that it’s only a matter of time before it and its concomitant scare tactics, moral panics, and ethical dilemmas raise their ugly heads in a big way. Sorry, readers. Maybe you should try writing instead. These days, that’s a lot more fun.

[Image: Geek and Poke]