Will ebooks vindicate vanity publishing?

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2010

Still plenty of flux in the publishing industry, and I doubt it’s going to settle any time soon. Here’s the latest development: Amazon has raised the percentage of cover price it pays to self-published authors using the Kindle store [via PD_Smith]:

This month, Amazon is upping the ante, increasing the amount it pays authors to 70% of revenue, from 35%, for e-books priced from $2.99 to $9.99. A self-published author whose e-book lists for $9.99 on Amazon’s Kindle e-bookstore will receive about $6.99 for each book sold. The author would net $1.75 on a similar new e-book sale by most major publishers.

The new formula makes digital self-publishing more lucrative for authors. “Some people will be tempted by the 70% royalty at Amazon,” Mr. Nash says. “If they already have a loyal fan base, will they want 70% of $100,000 or 15% of $200,000 for a hardcover?

That’s a pretty enticing slice of the profits… at a first glance. Consider, though, that any author with sense will still need to hire an editor, get the script copyedited and proofread, converted to the correct file format and so on. They’ll also need to eat up the publicity and promotional costs themselves as well, except in those rare cases (Stephen King, say) where news of a new book will spread itself with little help… so it’s far from a universal panacea, especially not for a new author.

And as P D Smith remarks:

But if all the big names self-publish e-books via Amazon, publishers will have less money to take a gamble on less well-known authors. Hmm.

Indeed – there’s a good argument to say new authors should be worried by this development in equal measure to being excited about it. Change cuts both ways, and easy fixes are rarely what they seem. The initial financial outlay for self-publishing may be much smaller these days, but that doesn’t guarantee you a ticket to the big leagues any more than vanity publishing ever has. Indeed, now it’s so easy and cheap to step onto the playing field, your competition is that much bigger (at least in numerical terms).

Question is, will that change? If the gatekeeper authority of publishing houses is undermined sufficiently, will new crowd-sourced curatorial systems emerge in response, alongside independent gatekeepers who carve out a reputation for themselves? (I’m sure Amazon would very much like to become that curatorial system, and I expect that’s one of the many reasons they’re cutting deals like the above.)

A lot of the stigma against vanity published works comes from the fact that a great deal of them are self-published because they’re simply not very good (e.g. Mister Riley and his cash prizes for readers). But is the desire for quality literature (a deliberately nebulous concept) something that we’ve been trained up to by the perfectionism and foibles of commissioning editors and publicists over the years, or is there something measurably objective about it? Will ubiquitous self-publishing produce a “race to the bottom” in writing quality?

I certainly don’t see that happening in the music world, which is probably as close to a test-bed of the situation as we’re going to get. As a music reviewer, I certainly see a lot more self-released albums from bands who simply aren’t up to the job than I used to just a year ago… but the playing field has widened enough that amongst the blatantly amateur, there’s a lot of very talented people releasing work that would have been considered too marginal for a record deal a decade ago. I guess I’m still fairly sold on certain aspects of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory – not necessarily the hard numbers side of it, but the notion that the age of the hit and the megastar is over, and that the lowering of economic barriers to entry at the niche end of the graph is letting a lot of marginal creators find their audiences, no matter how small that audience might be. Might the same happen with novels, short stories? Perhaps the rapid colonisation of web publishing by genre fiction (itself an inherently niche industry) is a sign that things will move that way for subcultural literature…

… unless you want to be a real pessimist, in which case you might say that genre webzines are just rats leaving the sinking ship and clinging to whatever flotsam they can find. I don’t believe that, obviously – I wouldn’t be running this site otherwise. But what do you think?

Building new communities in burst bubbles

Paul Raven @ 19-03-2009

foreclosed property sale signYesterday Cory at BoingBoing pointed out a story about a small artist’s community springing up in the now-notorious $100-housing districts of Detroit:

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

All of a sudden, you’ve got a little nucleus of people turning the current economic crisis to their advantage; they’re even building their own miniature power grid based on renewable energies, and looking at ways to get by as cheaply as possible. [image by The Truth About…]

Much hay has already been made by commentators far more erudite than myself about the sea-change in public attitudes toward frugality and conspicuous consumption in the wake of the economic collapse, but the story above highlights the fact that it’s a lot easier and cheaper to avail yourself of the basics of modern convenience than it ever has been before… provided you’re willing to forgo your status symbols and think hard about what you need rather than what you want.

Artist communities, communes and cooperatives have cropped up again and again in recent (and not-so-recent) history, but I’d argue that never before has there been such viable potential for them to survive and thrive with a minimum of dependence on the state, nor a situation where the state would be willing to let it happen as a matter of expedience. Now, if Rushkoff is even partly right about the corporatist economy dying off for good, can we consider this Detroit community (and others like it elsewhere, like the squats of Berlin or Brighton here in Europe) to be the first signs of nation-statehood eroding from within?

Obviously the Detroit option is only available to those with enough capital to buy a foreclosed and deeply discounted property, but think about all those abandoned towns and towerblocks sat empty all over the world – how long before people stop waiting for their governments to find them somewhere to live, and start doing it for themselves? And how much in the way of resources will their governments be willing to expend on preventing them from doing so, considering all the other things they have to worry about?

Seasteading startup plans to treat micronations as a viable business

Paul Raven @ 29-01-2009

This Wired piece on the Seasteading Institute doesn’t even attempt to conceal its withering contempt for the possibility of success, and pulls out a big list of previous failed experiments in ocean-borne libertarian havens to support its position. You can’t blame them, really – a lot of people have had a lot of crazy ideas about micronations in the past, and they’ve rarely worked out well.

Technologically, there’s no problem with the Seasteading Institute‘s plan; indeed, what sets them aside from the previous attempts is the input of engineers as well as political visionaries, and the current design [see image below, credit Kate Francis, borrowed from linked article] looks eminently practical.

platform plan from Seasteading Institute

The stumbling block, as the article points out, is political. No nation-state worth its reputation is going to let a cluster of platforms assemble in its offshore waters for the purpose of circumventing legal restrictions, after all.

But then the nation-state is a much shakier concept than it was, and the corporation a much stronger one. And there are a number of countries which don’t have the resources or (in some cases) the will to deal with something like this. Hell, some countries might even actively encourage it; GDP is GDP, after all.

Now factor in projected sea level rises producing a population retraction from many low-lying coastal areas, climate change wrecking land-based agriculture, and the resulting political instability weakening nation-states further still… and maybe the Seasteaders aren’t so much crazy as a little ahead of their time.

Rock Port – wind town

Paul Raven @ 07-05-2008

Wind turbineCongratulations are in order for Rock Port, Missouri – it just became the first town to have its complete energy supply needs met by wind power. [via Slashdot]

Granted, Missouri is a windy region, and wind power wouldn’t suit every town. Plus Rock Port has a population of just 1,300 … but it’s encouraging to see ordinary people waking up to the economic realities of alternative energy sources. [image by Michael Tyas]