Publishing is Done. Seek Alternatives to Thrive in the Declining Market
Getting Bigger Didn't Save the Music Biz
The music industry is mostly on life support. A few large conglomerates churn out same-sounding pop noise at regular intervals, but most successful artists don't find their success inside that system. In fact, most musicians don't find success at all. The ones that do certainly don't make very much money at it. The handful of artists that manage to climb to the top of the heap are more lucky models than they are musicians. From this world, books are taking their cues. Random House and Penguin are merging to try and get on top of the disasters to come. Amazon and digital distribution are shredding the business of books. Book publishers are smart enough to see the writing on the wall. They know what's coming. There are only two ways to survive in this market. They either merge up, get bigger, and try to stand up against the giants of the digital era, or they shrink down and get nimble and become cost-effective with a narrow market. Basically, the end is beginning. Even music hasn't finished it's spiraling descent. Even if music sales are up, for now, they are tied to distribution models that are easy to pirate.
What's left, then? For us mad scribblers, there is little hope of a corporate system to save us from our poverty. The best-selling dream will elude us. Honestly, here's something to think about. When a writer makes a million dollars (which isn't that much money) it's news. People report on it. It's part of the story of the writer and their book. When an accountant makes a million dollars, it isn't even a blip. When a business manager earns a seven-figure salary, no one cares. It is so common as to be non-newsworthy. When a book is worth a million dollars, it is news. When a widget of some sort is worth a million dollars, it is not news in the slightest, and no one really cares because it is very common for products to make a million dollars. It is not common in books.
As publishing as we knew it declines and dies, those success stories are getting rarer, and they are coming at least some of the time from indie success stories. It is not a majority, yet. But, it might as well be considered as such because it is a strong trend in that direction that looks to be continuing and even though the most successful authors (like the most successful musicians) will be part of the "studio" system, there will be more success on average outside that system than in it.
As well, the traditional midlist of writers seem to be moving to the eBook and flat-fee publishing models espoused by Kathryn Kristen Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. It's a trend that looks to continue when publishing houses consolidate into one or two behemoths surrounded by dozens and hundreds of small and micro presses, and even more indie authors that are basically their own small press.
Three Successful Musicians and What Their Career Model Means to You
So, there is still a living to be made in publishing, but that living needs better business models. There's more to the world wide web than Jonathan Coulton! His secret to success was a novelty, not a reproducible business model or career plan. You can't just write a song every week and expect to achieve the same level of success that the first person who came up with that strategy could accomplish, any more than you can expect to make a fortune writing erotica fan-fiction once that novelty has happened once. Let's look at three examples of successful musicians and see what their career has to show for the professional writer, beginning with Justin Beiber.
Let's call this the "classic" artist success model. A talented performer is discovered by the industry and together they both work very hard to capitalize on the talent, through a combination of media avenues, and the creation of a "celebrity" out of the talented person.
This career path reminds me a great deal of Jonathan Safran Foer. He's a very talented author who was discovered very young in his career as a writer. He has impeccably worked hard and produced quality work and achieved worldwide success. His books are made into successful films, and it is no surprise to find him on NPR, Oprah, or the Today Show talking about art and literature and the life of a successful artist.
This career path is the way things used to be all the time, particularly in the last few years. The industry picks up a hot young talent, develops that talent, and over a long career they work together to make the most of the books.
This career path will still exist in the future of publishing. It's just that it will exist on a much smaller scale, and I suspect that the ability to network and get introduced will matter even more as publishing narrows. For authors determined to go this route, I suggest that they need to begin by being brilliant. Did you go to Harvard, Yale, etc? Did you have your choice of jobs out of college because of your impeccable academic career? Are you genuinely and recognizably talented with publications in major, respected literary magazines? If you answer "no" to any of these questions, this path will be difficult, to say the least. Take heart in that genre books, at least, will continue to thrive even in the one or two publishing houses that survive the coming mergers. There will be fewer opportunities for success, of course, but if this is the career path you desire, be brilliant, and keep after it. There may not be a million young men out there with the potential of a Justin Bieber, but there are a thousand, at least, and one-in-a-thousand odds isn't the worst thing, compared to other careers in the arts.
Of note: For every Justin Bieber and Jonathan Safran Foer, there are a hundred Haddaways, and two hundred more wannabe Haddaways who never even got that first hit, and were rolled out of their contracts, off into some obscure, normal place where talented people who could get a record contract end up as carpenters and accountants and everything else they become except musicians.
#2 Gillian Welch
Jonathan Coulton's business model, as I said already, is a fad and therefore it cannot be reproduced. Gillian Welch is a genius musician, with brilliant songwriting chops, and a wide, loyal, devoted following. She never signed with a major label. When her original indie label was bought out by Warner Bros., she formed her own label, Acony Records. She has resisted the urging of the experts around her to form or join a band of some sort, and she has never lost that spare, powerful, unforgettable sound that throws everything Nashville's done for twenty years out the window like it was never even worthy of being there. She's willing to work with record labels, if her work on the Oh, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack is any clue, but it seems she prefers to keep control, and revenue, in her own label.
This reminds me a lot of Kelly Link. Long before it was considered cool, Kelly Link started her own publishing company with her husband, and produced her own short story collections. They went on to sign major authors and books, and create a real independent eBook alternative store and all sorts of other exciting things. Ultimately, though, Kelly Link created her own company, and worked hard to make her success on her own terms. She never sold out. She never stopped. And, she never seemed interested in the experts of publishing who would tell Ursula K. LeGuin how to change her novels to make them more marketable, as if they knew better than Ursula K. LeGuin.
Don't just throw some eBooks at Smashwords, here. Produce a small press. Start your own record label. It's the same thing, right? What are your books per year, what is your marketing plan, and does your plan include a budget for advertising, retail placement, etc.? Run it like a real business and make it real. Sign other authors. That's what Jay-Z did, and he's a fantastically wealthy individual, and no smarter than you or I in most things.
Transitioning with The Decemberists (or Amanda F. Palmer)
Another classic model involves building success one way and transitioning over to another. The Decemberists were indie darlings for years, walking up to larger and larger music labels until they signed with a major label. Amanda F. Palmer was a successful recording artist until she wanted out of her contract, and went indie, never to look back.
In this model, you ride indie success into better contracts and a stronger position with a major publishing house, or you ride the wide audience and review coverage from major publishers into an indie career. This is a model I think we will be seeing a lot more over the years to come. Examples of this model are rampant, honestly. Dean Wesley Smith and Kathryn Rusch have worked many times with major publishers but they are moving away towards their own independent imprints. Amanda Hocking made a huge splash with her indie titles, and an even bigger splash when she signed with St. Marten's press.
In this model, each step in the career is not seen as a final destination. Each step is viewed with the larger goals of the career in mind. That career looks, at each step, at what is needed to achieve "growth" that can expand the audience, and expand the marketplace. Sometimes that means building an audience as an indie producer, one reader at a time, until stepping up to big success. Sometimes that means leveraging the past success to an indie model that will allow the artist more control of their career and IP to build an audience beyond the mainstream system.