January 31, 2012

Digital self-publishing might be a bubble, but the hordes of would-be authors will never run out


Looks pretty easy! (From Smashwords "secrets to eBook publishing success")

“81% of Americans feel they have a book in them … And should write it,” wrote Joseph Epstein in a New York Times Op-Ed in 2002, citing a survey by the Jenkins Group. Yesterday at The Guardian Ewan Morrison mentions this fact while arguing that the recent excitement about digital self-publishing is nothing more than a classic investment bubble that preys on this widespread desire.

It’s a bubble, Morrison writes, spawned by the do-it-yourself get-rich-quick stories that fill newspapers—success stories like Karen McQuestion “the 49-year-old mother of three…[who] sold 36,000 e-books through Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle e-bookstore and has a film option with a Hollywood producer” (The Wall Street Journal) and Amanda Hocking ”the writer who made millions by self-publishing online” (The Guardian). “It’s a gold rush,” writes USA Today, quoting a self-published author, and Morrison makes a convincing case that, as in other gold rushes, it’s not the prospectors who stand to make a fortune. For every Hocking or McQuestion, millions more will find that their self-published works, without editing, marketing, publicity, and, in many cases, quality, fail to find audiences or make money. More profitable, Morrison writes, is the “boom industry in ‘How to get rich writing ebooks‘ manuals, as well as a multitude of blogs offering tips and services, and a new breed of specialists who’ll charge you anything from $37 to $149 to get your ebook into shape.” And finally, most profitable of all, are “Amazon and other epub platforms” who successfully wring a profit out of the long-tail of a few modest successes and a million mostly unread eBooks.

In the final stage of the bubble, the “Revulsion” stage, Morrison imagines that:

Disillusionment sets in as [self-published authors] realise that they were sold an idea of success which could, by definition, not possibly be extended to all who were willing to take part.

The now ex-self-epublished authors decide not to publish again (it was a strain anyway, and it was made harder by the fact that they weren’t paid for their work and had to work after hours while doing another job – and they realised that self-promoting online would have to be a full-time job.) They come to see self-epublishing as a kind of Ponzi scheme – one created by digital companies to prey on the desires of an expanding mass of consumers who also wanted to be believe they could be “creative”.

I agree with Morrison on many counts here. A few success stories does not a business model make. Beneath the breakout digital stars lies a great sea of mediocrity and untenable hope.

I disagree, however, with Morrison’s belief that the self-publishing boom will bring the publishing industry down with it. Instead, I see a more natural merging and changing of the two worlds. Already many self-published authors (most notably Hocking) have happily joined the traditional publishing world. Morrison reminds us that once blogs were considered a DIY way to make money, but a decade later nearly no one has turned a profit on a blog. Who did find success via blogging? Those who turned their blogs into books or TV shows and took their self-published products mainstream. Similarly, in the 1990s, as digital filmmaking became more affordable and indie filmmaking produced a few unexpected hits (like Robert Rodriguez‘s El Mariachi), people argued that cheaply made indie films could bring down Hollywood. Now the excitement over cheap filmmaking has mostly dissipated, and Rodriguez directs Spy Kids in 4D Aroma-Scope.

But my biggest disagreement with Morrison is this: I don’t believe the self-published authors will ever stop writing and publishing their books. These people didn’t start writing because they thought there was money in it. No, these hordes of would-be writers existed long before eBooks had been invented. If the 2002 survey holds true, some 250,000,000 people in The United States believe they could and should write a book. This belief goes much deeper than a desire for easy money. Which brings us back to Epstein’s Op-Ed:

”There lurks, perhaps, in every human heart,” wrote Samuel Johnson, ”a desire of distinction, which inclines every man to hope, and then to believe, that nature has given himself something peculiar to himself.” What better way to put that distinction on display than in a book?

His essay ends on a dissuasive note:

Misjudging one’s ability to knock out a book can only be a serious and time-consuming mistake. Save the typing, save the trees, save the high tax on your own vanity. Don’t write that book, my advice is, don’t even think about it. Keep it inside you, where it belongs.

Good advice, I think. But also futile. As if to prove it, below Epstein’s final line, my browser dumped the following heap of all-too-knowing ads: