Monday, October 6, 2008

Writing and publishing in a digital future

As a writer, I'm always fascinated by what other people "in the trade" are saying and doing; I keep an eye on what's being published, what reviewers are saying ... and what readers are saying. In fact, I'm a hell of a lot more interested in what readers say than anything reviewers might say ... and I don't intend this as any slur upon, or criticism of, reviewers! Like any performer, I must keep my "audience" happy, lest I find myself doing an actual job rather than striving to build a full-time writing career. And I never forget the line from that old song, "You can charm the critics and have nothing to eat, but slip on a banana peel -- the world's at your feet!" (From Make 'em Laugh, in Singing in the Rain.)

Writing fiction for a well-defined niche is an form of expression with mixed blessings. You'll always get sales, because a niche is created by its own aficionados ... but, being a niche, its members can be scattered far and wide -- so wide, in fact, that finding readers was a major problem in years gone by.

I've said it before, and I have no doubt I'll say it again many times: thank gods for the Internet! Apparently, 75,000 new people every single day are connecting. Think about it. A writer's and/or publisher's potential marketplace is increasing by 75,000 people ever 24 hours. If the law of averages can be trusted, 10% of them will be interested in gay themes and issues. 7,500 potential new Keegan readers every day. Maybe only 10% of them are readers ... it's still 750 potential new readers. Daily.

Now, the same one writer won't be able to connect with them all: this is the "greed mechanism" of hype, relentless advertising -- gods forbid I should get dragged into it -- through which bestsellers are created. But let's say there are 250 writers just like Keegan, working professionally, today, in the niche labeled GAY FICTION. (In fact, it's a hulluva lot less, but let's be generous and say there are 10 people trying to get in, for every one who's already in and selling). That's still three NEW potential readers for every one of us ... daily. And it won't take long to build a loyal readership, if the books on offer are well written, expertly edited, and beautifully packaged.

Oddly enough, one of the most gratifying things I've seen was the parameters on a Google search which found my website. Someone, somewhere, had searched on "mel keegan torrent." In other words, they were looking for a site which would stream Keegan novels alongside the rock'n'roll favorites and the big movies. Woah.

When you think about it, it's like a vote to put the Keegan books right up there alongside the major works of the last decade. I think I wore a silly grin for an hour after I saw that. (We check to see where visitors come from, and how they found us; Statcounter tells us which searches we "won" on the engines -- knowing this helps DreamCraft to structure pages to make us more easily found in future... sort of an on-going process of vigilance and self-correction.)

The Internet is not only changing everything, but it's doing it at lightspeed. Here's a quote from The 'Culture Wars', yes … but whose culture?, -- in ONLINE Opinion ...

    ... in Australia over the past two decades [there] has been an enormous and sustained increase in the production and availability of music, literature, art, film, video and other forms of creative expression. In classical music alone, there has been an unprecedented profusion of concerts ... The same goes for books. In Australia, there are more retail outlets than ever before. But even more significant in this supply and availability is the Internet and providers such as More than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its own top-selling 130,000 titles. In other words, the market for books that don’t ever get to appear in even the biggest Australian stores is far larger than the whole market for those that are in those retail outlets.

And a little later in the same feature, this point is elegantly made:

    In an intriguing analysis by Chris Anderson in Wired Magazine, “The Long Tail” explores specifically just how the new digital revolution is really revolutionising culture. Internet delivery has made a good business out of what is unprofitable fare in movie theatres and video rental shops because it can aggregate dispersed audiences. In a world of what appeared to be scarcity, we now have a world of almost unlimited abundance.

Let me just engrave this statement onto a six-foot gong, put on my ear-protectors, and stand here whacking the gong with a massive mallet for a few minutes:

the market for books that don’t ever get to appear in even the biggest Australian stores is far larger than the whole market for those that are in those retail outlets.

The message to aspiring writers is loud -- yet far from clear. Writing for traditional publishers is a minefield where many years and many thousands of dollars can be invested in a handful of air, the contract that never happened, or (worse) the real, solid contract that paid out about two thousand dollars in total, after seventeen years' worth of working and hoping! It happens. Too often, to far too many talented writers.

On the other side of the argument you have the prospect of dealing direct with readers. You write, edit, proof, package and publish; you use, and/or, and/or; you work your tail off to market your work and find your readers.

It can certainly be done; writers everywhere (myself included) are doing it. How much money are they making? It varies. You can log on one day and discover you made $500 overnight. You could also log on and discover you made only $50. It averages -- and it can average to a rather nice sum. Better than this:

    An Australia Council report in 2003, Don’t give up your day job, found that the number of professional writers had tripled in 20 years and that one in four earned below the poverty line. The average income was $35,000 a year, but less than $5,000 came from writing. Doesn’t this suggest that they should change careers or get a serious job, like everyone else? (from the same article as above).

Here's the brutal truth: you can be a paid writer, find a "proper" publisher, have your books shelved in "proper" stores, and earn $100 a week. Or you can write, publish and sell online and earn a lot more.

It comes down a very personal decision. Do you, the writer, want to enjoy the limelight -- do the book signings, have your physical books reviewed in the newspaper -- while you continue to work for a living? Or would you prefer to earn a lot more money, write (and edit, and proof, and market, and ship, and...!) full-time, although you're not going to be given the limelight?

You won't enjoy the limelight because there's still a stigma about online publishing (POD, vanity, self-publishing, whatever). There's some idea in the public mind, that a book published online is junk. And it's true, many of them are. Most of them are. And you have never seen anything like a really bad one!

But as I said a while ago in these pages, when professional writers, editors, artists and publishers get onto the new playing field of digital publishing, watch out.

It's happening right now, and the traditional publishers are running scared. I wrote a whole series of features on this topic not long ago; rather than reiterate, let me just give a link back to the post which indexed the whole suite:

For traditional publishers, the future is starting to look like a dark and scary place.

But many writers (Keegan among them) are starting to see glimmerings of a new Golden Age. It's a digital age, in which the reader can have paperbacks and hardcovers if s/he wants them (some people do -- and can afford them, which is a critical point utterly missed by many industry analysts), and you can also get the instant gratification solution of ebooks, in a day when the hardware to read those ebooks is getting more affordable:

The bottom line is that more writers than ever before will be able to earn a decent living ... if they can handle the realities of the new game. And this Reality Check is going to smart, for some: to make the cut as a writer in this digital future, you'll have to be very, very good. Your writing will have to be technically excellent, your plots must give readers what they want (not what reviewers want -- there's a difference). Your editing must be superb. Your covers should be irresistible. Your asking price has to be attractive ... your marketing, inexhaustible, your drive to succeed at this game bordering on mania. Like the budding athlete, whom everyone thinks is nuts, until s/he comes home with the gold medal or the trophy, and signs the Nike sponsorship agreement.

For readers the future is looking even brighter. They'll have a hundred times more choice, at better prices than we've seen in thirty years; and they'll just need to be savvy enough to buy good books, from good writers. Reader are not dumb. Credit them with the taste, and the sense, to know what they like ... and how much they're prepared to pay for it. The market in a digital future will be much wider and more varied; readers will quickly adapt. In fact, they're adapting already, and enjoying the process...

Like me. I'm a reader as well as a writer ... and as I said the other day, I'm actually starting to give serious thought to getting (gasp!) a pocket pc. At $300, they're a whole lot more affordable than are the $25 paperbacks we're getting served up by bookstores in this country!

Customer satisfaction is what it's all about, and the reader is the ultimate bottom line. Please him and/or her, and they'll be back for your next book, and your next.

Now, this is the way to build a lifelong career. And if you'll excuse me -- I'll get right back to it. THE LORDS OF HARBENDANE is coming along just fine!

Ciao for now,

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