The Death of Books
I am so sick of hearing the debate over the death of print books. Let me sum up my thoughts for you so we can move on. Yes, everything will continue to go digital. No, print books will not become obsolete. Yes, it might mean things change, like you will receive things in a digital format and there are places you can go (bookstores, libraries) to print them on demand for those wanting paper copies. Yes it will be different and unknown. No books will not die.
They won’t die from digitization, at least.
However, books might die for another reason. Books might die because the publishing industry is SO broken, and authors, readers, and all those in between continue to do nothing about it. Currently the publishing industry is dominated by 6 giants (The Big 6: Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, The Penguin Group, and Hachette). People may feel they are avoiding the Big 6 by going through an independent publisher, but in fact all of them are owned by the Big 6 as well. To make a very complicated situation seem extremely simple I will say this: The Big 6 have created an unsustainable pricing model, they have dominated what the majority of us have access to and how much we pay for it, and they have robbed authors of the income they deserve. They kinda suck. Here is one of many articles about just a few of the ways that they suck.
So what do we do about it? As authors, as librarians, as readers, how do we save books?
Here are the two main solutions as I see them.
1) Give your content away for free.
The music industry is starting to understand this, thanks to visionary leaders like Amanda Palmer. Indie movie makers have been doing this for years as a way to get their product out to the public. Finally, thanks to authors like Cory Doctorow and Seth Godin, this same idea is starting to resonate with writers. The truth is in a digital world people can share information, including copyright protected content, easier than ever. Our old pricing models don’t work and we need to re-think how we ask for money and where the money goes. There are hundreds of ways you could give away your content. You could ask for a donation in return. You could give away the digital content and hope it increases print sales. You could utilize web tools to give away pieces of your content at a time and be rewarded by people wanting to buy your work in its entirety. Whatever your strategy, give stuff away. It makes your work seem that much more valuable if you trust people enough to make the decision to contribute monetarily for themselves. Stop thinking you are so holy that people have to pay money to see your work. Instead, love what you do so much that you want to give it away. People will want to invest to see that succeed.
Here is a beautiful, short video by Seth Godin and Tom Peters about giving your content away.
2) Self Publish
Pretend that in the future we live in a time where there is a monopoly in the publishing industry. After working relentlessly author’s earn about 7% of the selling price of their book. If it is still even their book. Because their publisher has probably changed the name, the ending, and the target audience. Not only are authors not paid fairly for what they do, many times they don’t even like what ends up being produced. They spend sleepless months or years nourishing, developing and analyzing a baby only to have to give it up for adoption. It is no longer theirs. This is not the future. This is the exact situation we are living in yet we keep contributing to a broken system.
Self publishing IS the indie industry of writing, however the cool alternative image associated with most indie industries has not emerged yet. Yes, self publishing means anyone can write a book in the same way that technology means anyone with a smart phone can shoot a video and upload it to youtube. Do we worry that is going to replace the motion picture industry? No. Talent speaks for itself and in an age of social media I’m pretty sure good content will end up curated and shared, regardless of the format.
Speaking of curation, it is one of the hardest aspects of self publishing. There is no overarching site to tell us what is quality self published material. What an opportunity for librarians! Much of our job is supposed to be book curation, however we actually rely on The Big 6 and a few reviews (of books published by The Big 6) to inform our purchases. Why not let the public decide instead?
The idea of letting people decide for themselves what they like is not a scary one. It is what most successful platforms are built upon in an information sharing age.
Giving away your content for free and becoming your own publisher really boils down to saying “I trust you’ to your audience. I trust you to appreciate the work I did and determine its monetary value. I trust you to make a decision for yourself about whether you like this or not. I trust you to be a part of the publishing solution instead of adding to the problem. I trust that we can make a difference.
If we want people to value this industry, if we want people to save books, if we want to ensure that books don’t die, we need to start trusting in the system we use to produce them.
If we don’t, that will be the real death of books.