The Business Rusch: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
I had a lot of marvelous, thoughtful comments on last week’s blog. I didn’t respond, in part because I was extremely busy this past week, but mostly because I would have been expressing my opinion on the commenter’s life and career choices. I try not to do that, particularly in public.
We’re all different, and because of the new world of publishing, we all have choices like we’ve never had before. As writers, we choose what’s best for us and our circumstance, and that’s our business.
I was stating mine last week: I write this blog for writers who want to make a living at writing or what I called career writers.
Some of the comments, in combination with things I’ve seen in the mainstream press over the past few months, got me thinking. One commenter on another website said something along the lines of “Rusch doesn’t know how many writers are making a living these days.”
That commenter was right: I don’t. Neither does the commenter. We both know that the number of writers making a living at writing is tremendously higher than it was just five short years ago. I’m guessing, but I believe the number is also higher than it was ten or fifteen years ago.
But looking at the percentage of writers who have written something who are now making a living gives an added perspective, at least for me. I suspect—and again, I don’t have the numbers (I’m not sure anyone does)—that the percentage of writers who are now making a living out of the pool of existing writers is about the same as the percentage of writers who made a living at it in the previous two Golden Ages of fiction writing (at least in the US): the 1950s and (weirdly) the 1930s.
What happened in both of those time periods was an increase in venues for work, due to a change in forms. In the 1920s and 1930s, the rise of the pulp magazines increased the number of paying markets so quickly that writers (like Frederik Pohl, who died this week) sometimes wrote entire issues of the pulps all by themselves.
In the 1950s, the rise of the paperback gave a lot of writers the opportunity to publish and make a living, writers who hadn’t had that chance before. New markets, new publishing houses, new everything.
The 1950s boom ended in a severe distribution crisis. The 1930s ended with paper drives caused by the war. (I’m simplifying in both cases.)
In other words, serious change happened that had an impact on the ways that writers made a living at writing.
Now, we’re seeing the same thing. The rise in indie publishing—or rather, the return of indie publishing (it was really big a century ago as well: we wouldn’t be reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, Frank L. Baum, or Virginia Wolfe without self-publishing/indie publishing)—has given writers who never could or could no longer get traditional book deals the opportunity to publish their books. And not just publish them, but do so in a way that will get a wide audience as well as allow the writer a creative freedom she hasn’t had in the past.
This change—the rise of the internet and ecommerce—is hitting all of the arts, and doing so in a variety of ways. The music industry went through it first, and in some aspects, the television/movie industry is just starting into it. It’s so much easier to produce a film now than it ever was—I can do so from my computer in my tiny office if I want to. Distribution is easier too, thanks to places like iTunes and YouTube and a variety of other services I know nothing about.
The changes are happening so fast, especially in our publishing neck of the woods, that it’s head-spinning. Yesterday, Amazon announced its new bundling service, MatchBook, which I’m grateful for as a reader.
Just last week, I bought an ebook version of a book I already owned in hardcover because my old eyes didn’t want to look at the tiny print, and the damn hardcover would have made a better doorstop than reading material. I didn’t want to sit at a table to read it, heavy as it was, but I’m happy to own it. I like having this author’s books in hardcover. I just happened to read her last two in ebook. 🙂
I know I’m not alone in this, and I do hope that the bigger publishers sign onto this program. I’ll be urging my publishers to do so as well.
In the trades this week, there’s talk of subscription services like Spotify or Netflix for ebooks. We’ll see if readers go for that. I think pricing will be an issue.
But I can guarantee you this: When we look back on this blog post six months from now, we’ll all frown and mutter to ourselves: Really? Those two things were happening at the same time? Or we’ll say: That was only six months ago? It feels so five years ago.
I’m about to enter a business venture with a writer who is always on the cutting edge of any new publication and any new trend. He mentioned in e-mail that what we’re going to do will probably only last a year or two before becoming passé, so the time to jump on that bandwagon is now. I completely agree, and so we’re jumping, even though we’re both busy as hell.
We recognize the patterns: everything is moving quickly, and we’re going to try as much of it as we can before it changes. We don’t know what impact one change will have on the rest of the industry. We also don’t know what will stay and what will disappear after a few months.
No one does, in any of the entertainment industries.
For example, Wednesday’s The Hollywood Reporter had an article about the changes in the network television pilot season, brought on by cable and Netflix. Apparently, the number of drama pilots offered to the television networks was way down this year, caused by the changes in the way that consumers are watching dramas.
One reason for this is that there are so many dramas already in production that the go-to people, (show runners, producers, and established writers) are already working and don’t have time for something new.
But there are other reasons, listed in my favorite part of the article:
Many writers who are available often are more interested in chasing their own passion projects a la Breaking Bad or House of Cards, say several top agents. Plus, a cable drama doesn’t have to compete against 50 to 70 other hourlong entries in development the way it would in broadcast — and once on the air, the likelihood of survival is considerably greater. Even the traditional advantage network executives have had in being able to promise financial rewards far greater than their cable cousins has slipped with what some are dubbing the “Netflix effect,” referring to the streaming service’s willingness to shell out big money, straight-to-series orders and limited creative interference — a combination against which ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC often can’t compete.
Sound familiar? Writers like the control. Hmmm…
Of course the big networks won’t go away, and they’ll find something else to fill the hole left by the drama pilots, or maybe they’ll go back to developing their own content like they did when I was a kid. But that’s in flux, due to the technology, just like everything else.
And since I’m looking at other forms of entertainment right now, there’s this:
Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times had a fascinating article about the entertainment company, Prospect Park, which had a dream of saving soap operas by continuing them online. Soap operas got their start in radio, and got their name because they “sold soap”—in other words, they sold a lot of advertising.
My mother, born in 1918, listened to soap operas on the radio starting when the soap operas did, and followed them to the new medium of television in the 1950s. If she were alive today, she’d probably be watching online.
But the fascinating thing to me, the writer trying to survive in the new world of publishing, isn’t the history of soap operas, it’s the struggle that Prospect Park is still having in finding the right way to sell the soap operas to the online market.
Going from radio to television meant learning how to have action in soap operas, not just a lot of dialogue and dramatic music. Going from television to online is causing some changes as well. As The LA Times reported:
The producers determined they had miscalculated audience willingness to follow the shows to the Web. They also decided shows had to be shorter, move faster and be available in multiple episodes for binge viewing. They had tried to be more like a TV network, but they realized they had to be more like video service Netflix. And instead of letting stories unfold slowly, over months or even years, they had to write crisp story lines with a distinct beginning, middle and end.
In all of the entertainment industries, it’s about experimentation, and a new learning curve, bringing an old model to a new format.
Commenters like the one I mentioned above say that I don’t know how many writers are now making a living at writing, and I don’t. I also don’t know how many writers will want to keep at the writing career over years and decades. I also don’t know how many of those writers will suffer when something—and I don’t know what—has some kind of impact on the way those writers are doing business.
One thing I do know is that big traditional publishers haven’t died. In fact, they’re reporting record profits even though their book sales are down. Why is this? Because of the terrible deals that publishers offered writers—and which writers took—when e-books became a force five years ago.
Instead of splitting the e-book revenue 50/50 as a subsidiary right (like other subsidiary rights), or paying for e-books based on the cover price the way that publishers do on print books, publishers offered—and writers agreed—to 25% of net (with net usually undefined). That means that publishers are getting a lot of profit on ebooks, even when the sales decline. You can see the effects of this in the Publisher’s Weekly article I linked to above, when you look at the comparison between sales and earnings in the digital sphere in almost all of these companies. You see the phrase “digital accounted for (%) of revenue” over and over again, and that percentage is generally higher than the year before even when digital sales went down.
Big publishers are still searching for the best way to make money. Most of them are confused by the new products coming in like the subscription services. In fact, one online publishing trade journal characterized the Wall Street Journal’s take on this as “The Folly of Netflix for books.”
Right now, traditional publishing has taken the position that everything new is threatening and/or wrong for books. And that attitude is familiar. The music industry had the same attitude years ago.
The real key for those of us in publishing is that we don’t know what we don’t know. And we won’t know it for a while. Seriously. We’re all expounding on what will work, what won’t work, what might work, what everything is going to be like fifteen years from now, and we don’t know.
The fact that we don’t know and can’t predict what the landscape will look like after all this disruptive technological change became really clear to me a few weeks ago, when I read an article in Entertainment Weekly. Titled, “How The Music Industry Saved Itself,” the article looks at the assumptions the industry made way back when, and the reality that has hit since. (Right now, EW expects you to buy the issue, which is the August 2, 2013 edition, so I can’t link to the article.)
We all know that the music industry got nailed by the digital revolution. This article claims that album sales went from 785 million in 2000 to 326 million in 2010. But now, in 2013, “stability is resting comfortably on the horizon” because of the growth in market share for digital music and “the explosion of streaming.” More than 50 billion songs were streamed this year in part because of event albums.
The advent of stability seems so…well… stable that the article’s author Kyle Anderson feels comfortable in giving rules for the new music industry.
1. Give Away A Little, Get Back A Lot
2. Offer Options
3. Embrace Even Older Technology
4. Work Outside The System
5. Don’t Be Like Kanye
Anderson compares what the industry believed ten years ago to what it now knows. For example, he takes on the “free” controversy this way:
When the MP3 became public enemy No. 1, the assumption was that if you offered any music for free, the buying public would never again pony up for an album. But music fans respond to getting an advance taste for free. A number of high-profile artists…made their new albums available as free streams a week before the release dates, and they all enjoyed a significant first-week sales bump over their previous releases.
Notice that this was a free stream. Only the most dedicated could actually figure out a way to keep the album. If you liked it, you had to buy it.
Which brings us to his second point—options—which I fight new indie writers about all the time.
For years, industry executives assumed that people only wanted their music one way, but actually they’re happy to diversify their intake—a streaming subscription here, a handful of iTunes downloads there, and yes, even good old-fashioned CDs.
Not only that, but his third point—embrace older technology—goes to the heart of book publishing. He’s talking about vinyl, which has seen a nearly 4 million piece growth in the past five years, but he could easily be talking about hardcovers or maybe even collectible books. And, you’ll note, that the labels are offering vinyl and a free download of the music as a single package. Sounds like MatchBook, doesn’t it?
Working outside the system is about innovative ways of marketing the music, through apps, through mixtapes, and so on. All creative, all different. And that’s what we’re facing in the publishing industry. All kinds of different choices—some of which will work, some won’t, and some which will work for a while.
The last point—don’t be like Kanye—was about how Kanye West refused to adopt the industry’s new model. For his latest album, he did almost no appearances (very important in music), and had no advance streaming or preorders. As a result, his first-week sales were at a career low for West, and went down 80% in the second week.
Essentially, Kyle Anderson’s point is that the internet, digital downloads, and the availability of all kinds of music broke the music industry and then remade it. The music industry is far enough ahead of publishing that the music industry actually has some long-term data on what works and what doesn’t. The rate of change has slowed. The music industry now believes it’s in the new normal.
The publishing industry isn’t stable yet. We’re still in the disruption part of the cycle. We won’t stabilize for a few years at best.
Until then, I think the only pronouncements we as writers in the industry can make is that we don’t know what we don’t know. And what we do know is that things will change.
We have to pay attention. We can’t assume that what we’re doing today will work tomorrow.
I think the biggest takeaway from the articles about other media that I’ve mentioned here is that consumers want choices. And, like the artists themselves, the consumers want control over those choices. They want TV dramas on demand so that they can binge-watch and they want once-per-week appointment television. They want streaming music and vinyl albums. They want hardcover books and ebooks.
They might even want never-ending print stories that mimic the soap operas of old. Serials, as the pulps called them.
We don’t know.
Someday, someone will be able to say that stability is on the horizon for the publishing industry, just like Anderson did this summer for the music industry. But that day is still years off. If we follow music’s trajectory, we won’t see stability on the horizon until 2022, thirteen years from the start of the disruption.
Until then, to misquote Margo Channing from All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
This blog came into being in part because you guys asked me to continue The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, only focused on the publishing industry. Since things were changing so quickly, I figured a weekly blog was a good way to figure out what was happening.
I don’t know if I’ve figured anything out except that the most unexpected things work in the most unexpected ways. I do know that this blog takes time from my novel writing (about 2 books per year’s worth!), so I want the blog to fund itself.
So, if you learned anything or got anything out of a past blog, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.