What's the role of money in the book business?
March 27, 2012
I’m going at this backwards, so stick with me.
Two blogs I read today got me to thinking about the role of money in the book business.
The first blog was Christina Carson’s eloquent piece, The View from Here. The other was Jeff Bennington’s edgy What is Your Author Talent Class? I commend both blogs for your review and consideration.
Christina focuses on the vast creative pool of writers that populate the indie publishing world. She looks at the democratic process that has developed and asks us to quit worrying about how to make it happen as writers and rather to give ourselves over to the writing and let it take us where it will. This is an art for art’s sake approach to writing that needs to be repeated amidst the din of blogs about how to succeed as a writer in the current market.
Jeff, a young lion in the indie ranks, takes a different tack and asks that writers evaluate their writing IQs and rank themselves in one of three categories: upper class, middle class or poverty class.
So, we can see the tension inherent between the blogs. An author may love to write, but do a lousy job of it, or she may be a true “upper class” writer that no one has ever heard of.
What does this have to do with the role of money in the book business? A lot.
I can’t imagine any serious author who doesn’t have an innate desire to put words on paper. The extent such writers allow their inner desire to motivate them to take the time and effort necessary to master the craft of writing will be the decider of which class of writer they become.
But all of this presumes that the “class” a writer finds himself in is somehow an indication of how successful he will be as an author, successful in the sense of how much money he will make.
This is very much a chicken and the egg thing.
One common characteristic of indie writers is that they do things on a shoe string. Yes, they have access to the digital world, but few of them have a lot of money to spend on their writing projects. This reality, the lack of money, explains in part why indie writers are so eager to help one another. An informal barter system has developed hand in glove with digital publishing. One author will edit your book, if you will edit his. People share free ways of marketing that have worked for them. Authors review books for free for each other, allow other writers to guest blog on their sites, send out Tweets about other’s books.
But John Grisham, and now Suzanne Collins don’t have to tweet. Why? Not necessarily because they became “upper class” writers, although both of them may well deserve that ranking. Rather, it is because they have made their publishers tons of money and those publishers keep bankrolling their books in hopes of making even more money.
More power to John Grisham and Suzanne Collins. I applaud their successes.
But herein lies a fundamental issue for indies. Let’s suppose an indie author has a new book that is pure dynamite, beautifully written with a fantastic plot. It is edited, has great cover art. It is just a great book. The author goes to the bank to see his loan officer, his business plan in hand. He asks for $10,000.
“What publisher has the book?” the banker asks.
“Oh, I sent it out to some agents, but they couldn’t find a publisher that wanted it.”
The banker winces.
“What’s your collateral?” the banker says.
The author hands him a flash drive with a MOBI file of his book on it.
“No, I mean what do you have of value that will support your request for that kind of money?” The banker scratches his head.
The author opens up a laptop and shows the banker his blog page that has ten comments for the day.
The banker looks at the loan application again.
“I see you have ten thousand dollars in your account. Why don’t you use that money on this project?” The banker asks.
“That’s my life’s savings,” the author says. “I can’t afford to lose it.”
“If it’s too big a risk for you, it’s too big a risk for the bank,” the loan officer says as he closes the file.
The issue of risk is crucial for the future of indie publishing. Let’s assume that traditional publishers, i.e., the big New York houses, will become more and more inaccessible to indie writers. They may cherry pick one every now and then, but by and large never the twain shall meet.
To create a world where money will come to indie publishing, indie authors will have to hang in there for a few years. They will have to continue to operate on a shoe string, or put their own money into their deals.
At least until the indie world of publishing settles into its vibe and begins to generate the sort of money that makes it attractive to investors. That day is coming. It’s just around the bend.
So, write because you love it, write because you want to sell it, write because you want to be an upper class writer. Just write.
And, oh, you may have to be willing to get out your checkbook.
(Please visit Stephen Woodfin’s Amazon author page.)