Is piracy irrelevent to authors?

Looks like book piracy will be one of this week’s genre blog hot topics after io9 had a chat with successful media tie-in novelist Michael Stackpole, who seems to have come round to Tom O’Reilly’s aphorism that obscurity is a bigger threat than piracy:

Writers still trying to break into the publishing world have an unprecedented chance to start their own websites, build an audience and create a market for their work without relying on major publishers at all, said Stackpole. Posting short fiction or even a serialized novel on a website won’t cause problems if a writer tries to sign a publishing deal at a later date because mainstream publishers don’t see digital publishing as a serious threat.

[As many other commenters have already pointed out, that’s not really the case… and certainly won’t remain the case for much longer. Still:]

Rather than simply changing the method of delivering stories to readers, Stackpole believes digital formats will change the nature of the stories themselves. At the very least, authors should tailor their work to these new mediums. He cited what he referred to as “the commuter market,” people who read two chapters per day on their half hour train ride to work. It’s an ideal market for fiction broken into 2,500 word chapters, and could presage a resurgence of serial fiction. “It’s kind of like a return to the Penny Dreadfuls,” he said. “But the readers today are more sophisticated, so we as writers need to put more work into it.”

Insert your own joke about skiffy media tie-ins and the word ‘dreadful’ here… 😉

Still, the web’s ability to change the publishing game is a given (as we’ve discussed here many times before). What remains to be seen is how things will look when (or if) the dust settles. A commenter at BoingBoing has a summary that seems pretty plausible:

… I’ve been saying that in the future books will be either cheap and print-on-demand, electronic, or expensive beautifully designed and crafted art objects, and that publishers will soon become irrelevant but you will see the rise of superstar editors and designers.

Nobody has disagreed yet.

Anecdotal, sure, but it matches up with similar theories from a whole raft of people both within the publishing machine and without.

In related news, fiction isn’t the only printed medium that is finding a new (and more affordable) home online. The American Chemical Society plans to move its dozen-or-so scientific journals to being published online only, according to a leaked memo:

In it, the publisher lays out the basic facts: printing a hard-copy version of a journal is expensive, and researchers simply aren’t demanding one anymore. Advertisers are undoubtedly aware of the reduction in print readership, which means that the former calculus that made print valuable—more ads per journal than could possibly fit on a webpage—was reaching a point of diminishing returns. According to the Nature article, the journals publisher flatly stated, “Printing and distribution costs now exceed revenues from print journals.”

The person who finally cracks the online publishing business model is going to be a very rich man indeed. So let’s hope it isn’t Rupert Murdoch… he seems to be heading in the wrong direction, anyway.

3 thoughts on “Is piracy irrelevent to authors?”

  1. My thing with fiction publishing sites (some of which you have posted on here): They tend to take forever to review things, they don’t pay much (if anything), and they tend to be real picky about what they accept, in terms of formatting, genre, etc. so it can shut out talented writers that don’t want to just through hoops.

  2. Valid points, SS, but short fiction of any kind is a niche market, and in a niche market you survive by finding a niche in the niche, hence the restricted styles or genres accepted. Furthermore, bear in mind most fiction sites – all but the biggest – are predominantly run by volunteers, meaning there’s only so many hours a day they can spare. And you’d be amazed how long it takes to read and politely reject just ten of the most obviously terrible submissions; hundreds of them arrive every week. As for money, no one makes a living from short fiction any more, sad as that is. The market adjusts; the true miracle is that enough people care about the form enough to write it for peanuts, and write it well.

    If publication is the goal, then the hoops have to be jumped. I suspect the number and variety of available hoops will increase rapidly, which should help, but if there are talented writers refusing to submit to potential venues, they’re only harming themselves… and if they think webzines take a long time to reply and are fussy over their choices, they should try paper-subbing to one of the Dead Tree Big Three!

  3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: whilst some (a very few) authors will undoubtedly be able to go it alone and successfully build their niche audience via their sweat of their own brow, I think the vast majority of them will still need the support mechanism of a publisher.

    It’s not a simple case of question of one talented author, plus one superstar editor, plus one superstar designer maketh a bestseller. There are a whole series of additional roles and requirements that will either need to be covered – and covered both well and properly – by an author still trying to make time for the very time-consuming process of actually writing their books, or outsourced to appropriate service providers.

    So yes, there’s a question as to what form publishers of the future take. Will large corporate organisations (such as the one I work for) be able to offer the best value to the author shopping around for those aforementioned service providers? Or will authors be better off working with small / independent presses, niche publishing agencies, specialist freelancers, loose networks of talented fans, low-cost graphic design sweatshops..? Or will it be a combination of all of the above, depending on the nature of the work in question and the author’s pre-existing skills?

    The current system is in a state of very great flux and there’s a lot of re-shuffling and down-sizing affecting the industry, but also a whole raft of experimentation with those new forms and formats that Stackpole was talking about. But I don’t think anybody really knows what the eventual picture is going to look like. Only that it it’s probably going to be radically different to the one we’ve been staring at for decades.

    Which is why it’s such an interesting industry to be working in right now… 🙂

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