This whole sea change in publishing and the advent of crowdsourcing to finance publishing projects (amongst other things) totally reminds me of—pre-industrial revolution America (also Europe, I assume).
No big publishing organizations back then, and the whole factory-made idea was just getting started, so folks with newspapers or books (or maybe even those new-fangled “magazines”) to sell would canvass their friends and beyond for subscriptions (Ben Franklin successfully, Edgar Allan Poe not so successfully). Just like making your own clothing and growing your own food, self-publishing was the way things were done back then. Every writer was their own publisher, and venture capital was harder to find.
Over the span of the 19th century and into the 20th, serial publications continued with the subscription model and then added advertising (for a perspective on how that evolved, you can check out this Wikipedia article—it needs some editing, though), and book publishing moved over into something really odd, basically venture capital investment in writers. That’s it! Why did book publishing leave the subscription model? I would assume this was part of the move toward our industrial and capital-accumulation economy. Here’s an information product that’s pretty expensive to produce (much better paper than newspapers and magazines, sturdy casings, made to last), where the main value is in the intangible information inside and the creation of reader desire around that. Also, you can’t put this sort of thing on an assembly line, although some have tried. Except for the printing press itself, the whole process is very anti-industrial, very cottage craftsmanship really.
The traditional publisher is taking a huge risk with each writer (always dealing with new material never “mined” before), so they weighted the economics in their favor and only offer the new material fifteen percent of sales until they’ve proven themselves to have an audience (then they get “advances”). So, aspiring authors, remember this model and understand that your storytelling resources are often an untested quantity for your publisher/investor.
I assume that’s why traditional publishers have taken advantage of the opportunity these days to reduce their risk by choosing writers who have built their own “tribe” of potential “subscribers” already using social media and email lists. So, here we are, back to the book subscription game. Only this time, in our era of instant communication, the potential reach of any individual writer is much, much greater than for, say, Edgar Allan Poe. He was pretty restricted to a small population locally available (I’ll bet he’d be surprised at how many “subscribers” he’s got now!). With all this potential for reach to readers, why is it still so difficult to build an audience?
Writers have lots of potential readers, but also that many and more writers to compete with. Hey, if Poe had had the reach every writer has now, but was still the first guy to build a mystery story, he’d be a total billionaire à la J. K. Rowling. But in today’s market filled with mystery writers, he might not make a visible impression. So, don’t feel too bad. It’s a pretty saturated market nowadays, so the added advantage of broad and instant communication doesn’t have quite the same impact.
The post-industrial way of making things and providing services means that writers will be able to pursue their craft in a niche market and use the subscription model (as in email “tribe”) to their advantage if they are wiling to do the promotional work themselves (or profit share with someone who can do it for them).
Almost all successful writers in whatever genre of fiction or category of non-fiction, will have to write much more than one book to make a good living at their creative art. This was true even during the height of the traditional publishing model. (Ever wonder why your favorite science fiction, mystery, romance, or fantasy author has written hundreds of stories? Yes, hopefully because it’s a cool and fun thing to do, but also to make a living as a writer.) I do hope you have more than one book in you if you count yourself as a writer, although if you don’t, that’s cool, as long as you don’t expect your work to fund your retirement. 😉
I really do believe that everyone who has at least a certain level of storytelling skill (fiction or non-fiction, quality of writing does count), can be “successful” as an author in whatever niche they choose. Just be realistic and take advantage of both the models from the past (creating a fan base through subscription and crowd funding ahead of publication) and the tools of the present and future (social media and other aspects of expanded instant communication) to share your stories.
We’re out here. Write for yourself, and for us, and tell us what you’re up to. You’ll have to communicate regularly for us to hear you, but if you do, we will, and we’ll celebrate and support your art. 🙂