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Monday, October 08, 2007

Moving the Tollbooth

Just in case you haven’t heard yet, the British band Radiohead is taking online pre-orders for their new album. That’s nothing out of the ordinary, except that they are letting the purchasers determine the price they pay — from 46 pence (45 of which is a credit card transaction fee) on up. Daring? Maybe.

Radiohead parted ways with their record label (EMI) when their contract ran out in 2003, which gives them the freedom to market their new music online without RIAA interference (or the UK equivalent, whose name escapes me at the moment). Considering that a recording artist’s cut of a retail CD sale is maybe 10%, and assuming a new-release CD goes for $18 (which is typical in the US, not so sure about the UK), then you’d guess that an average sale price of $1.80 average will net them what they would have gotten in royalties. Actually, we should account for recording expenses and hosting/bandwidth fees as well — but they're getting free promotion from everyone (including me) and I’m pretty sure that a $5 average sale price is going to put them ahead of the curve.

Yesterday, The Register interviewed Gerd Leonhard, a media consultant who is putting up his newest book, The End of Control, as a set of PDFs. According the the El Reg article, he writes lovely sentiments on his blog like “Another 12 months for this Radiohead experiment to become the default approach” and “move the tollbooth further down.” To be sure, the labels that comprise the RIAA membership are trapped in an old business model that worked well (for the executives, at least) for a long time — they will not be able to adapt quickly, and it’s just as likely that they will drive away their last retail customers with “piracy” lawsuits. Naturally, they will blame everything and everyone but themselves as they sink into the pool of irrelevance where the buggy-whip manufacturers of the early 20th century are likely waiting to receive the first industrial casualty of the 21st.

The recording industry is quick to remind us that they provide valuable services: production, promotion, distribution — and indirectly, with top-shelf acts (like Radiohead) subsidizing the up-and-comers. But when production is a matter of copying files to a server, and distribution is iTunes or eMusic (or services that wish they were iTunes or eMusic), what’s left? Promotion? When is the last time you heard or saw an ad for a new CD coming out? (Actually, I suspect that promotion these days amounts to paying Clear Channel and other giants to play selected tracks on the air, a practice known as “payola” and once frowned upon.) But I’m sure I’m not the only person who rarely listens to commercial radio nowadays. The last CD we bought was an act Daughter Dearest heard on MySpace. The next two CDs I buy will be from groups I’ve heard on streaming stations.

Leonhard says, “The real money is not in the CDs. It's in the gigs, the merchandising, the sponsorships. To make that money, you have to let people further down the highway before they arrive at the tollbooth.” But how do you get the people to the tollbooth? Thus, I still see a role for traditional music publishers: as incubators for new acts. Not nearly as lucrative as it used to be, partly because promotion is all they really have left to offer and they’ll have to actually do some of that promotion — including getting tracks into the hands of streaming stations and giving away some free samples.

Aspiring writers, unfortunately, only enjoy part of the potential that the Internet brings to aspiring musicians. Non-fiction writers, like Leonhard (or my day job, for that matter) can self-publish non-fiction to promote consulting or similar businesses… the book becomes a loss leader, much like a free music track, in the hopes that people will like what they read and pay for related services. But fiction writers, especially novelists, have it more difficult: as I’ve said before, people won’t abandon paperbacks until e-book readers with hi-res screens sell for $10 in the grocery checkout line. In the meantime, it’s a lot harder to print and bind a book than it is to burn a CD — and writers don’t have 10,000 people lining up to buy tickets to a reading.

But the Internet does, however, open up possibilities for new kinds of fiction. I humbly submit that FAR Future is one example: by the time I finished the story, and it wound its way through the publishing system and onto the shelves, it would be perhaps two or three years to 2012 instead of five, the writing would be on the wall, and the parts I guess wrong would make the whole story less believable.

But here’s the bottom line: can authors make a living publishing fiction online? and if so, how? I have an idea along those lines — but like Radiohead and their new album, it would likely work best with an established fan base.


  1. Hi FAR.

    I had read about what radiohead was doing and wondered how it would work. I'm not sure how I would take a book I could only get on computer or ebook. There's just something about turning the page.

  2. Morning FAR, FM.

    Great post FAR. Yeah, I saw that too and will be interested to see how it works out (as many others :-).

    I know many authors today have personal blogs where they post snippets or prequels to favourite stories etc.

    Not sure how it works for new authors. Obviously the quality of the work will drive hits/fans/comments etc., but how do you get them to your site.

    Very interesting FAR.

  3. Hey guys!

    FM, I have to agree with you, at least for now. I haven't played with any of the current ebook readers; they might well do the job but the prices are still in the early-adopter range. Like I said, they'll have to be nearly disposable before they'll make a dent in paper.

    Olivia, I figure there has to be a way. There's probably a lot of self-promotion legwork involved, just like in traditional publishing, and that's the part I've never been good at.

    And of course, there's bound to be some push-back from the traditional publishing industry: see James Patrick Kelly's pixel-stained technopeasants essay at Asimov's. JPK also points out that even Stephen King is less than thrilled with his own e-publishing experiment. One would think if he can't make it work, nobody could — but perhaps he has certain expectations that the rest of us wouldn't.

    Personally, I think someone will break through on their own, over the Internet, eventually. Whether it's an exception or a harbinger remains to be seen…

  4. ... can authors make a living publishing fiction online? and if so, how?

    Wow. What a damn good question.

    Remember Stephen King's attempt to publish a full novel on-line by offering pay as go installments? It didn't work for him, but his model may have simply needed a tweak here or there.

    I'm sure the first washing machine got the floor wet or something.

    Some writers are performers and the internet works well for them. The sell of their books is secondary to their performance / appearances. There is a closer kinship here with musicians and singers.

    Think, though, if you had written the lyrics for Radiohead's songs and were NOT a member of the band -- with no understanding that they would record or perform any of your lyrics in the future. This is where the writer lives.

    I guess I better learn to play an instrument after all.

    Far, it's also interesting to note the HUGE SUMS of money that movie production companies must pay to have a popular song in their score or as background ambiance. This seems so counter to the trend.

  5. ... can authors make a living publishing fiction online? and if so, how?

    But this is the real question.

    When it comes to on-line publichsing, I am only beginning to undestand the box. I am not in a position creatively to think out of the box. What are your ideas, Far?

    I would think books on tape have a better shot right now than e-books. For fiction anyway. Peeople who like books-on-tape seem more likely to pay to have a book on their i-pod (or dingleberry) than have a text-copy.

    It's hard for an unknown fiction author to do this, though. It would be damn fun, I think, to get with the local community theatre and put some fiction together and have them do a voice over of the work. Probably could get it done for free?

    But what's the next step? A little on-line animation for youtube? The media meld on the net is so rich that it looks to be difficult to compete in the market with mere words. :-)

    A few writers make a living by handselling their books. Successful poets are usually working from day-jobs in academia (that's their living). But they sell their books by hitting the reading circuit.

    Many non-fiction authors do much the same thing. I have appeared at functions where I sell a couple hundred dollars worth of books. My publisher lets me buy my own books at about 40% cover and I'll bring along some books.

    Generally, though, the honorarium or "apperance" fee I receive for being there far outweighs the $$ I get from booksells. Many times, I don't sell books at all. A local bookstore "supplies" the event.

    And, of course, I do the ghost show at bookstores for free and at local libraries and etc.

    When the publisher sells one of my books, through a distributor and then a retail outlet, I get 5% of cover price. I think. Eventually.

    But, in short, I have to put on a dog and pony show to sell the books. And maybe this is what fiction authors will need to do to make a living on-line.

  6. Hi Ghost. Great thoughts and info there. I remembered King's abortive attempt, but couldn't remember the title & couldn't find a link… so I kind of glossed over it. But he's still trying to make it work.

    The idea I'm sort of fixated on at the moment is an "ad-supported" model. Blogger actually makes this kind of easy: put up a blog, turn on AdSense, post material, ask people to smack a few ad links if they like the content. I figure this would work better than a PayPal tip jar — people are more apt to toss other people's money into an offstage tip jar. ;-)

    The promotion end is a conundrum: it's obviously necessary to establish yourself (i.e. get people interested in your work), but time you spend doing publicity work (and wouldn't that include appearances?) is time you're not writing. For people writing non-fiction, that's not a problem — the book becomes a sideline or an accessory, like buying a T-shirt or a CD at a concert; the appearances are the primary thing (think Covey or Chopra).

    I like your audiobook idea — but if you're selling them, it would be the Right Thing to give the community theater a cut too. :-) Video, though? That's a whole different animal — my wife does video editing, so I've seen some of what goes into video production. It's extremely time-consuming, and requires a small army of specialized talent to really do right.

    That 5% figure is interesting… I'd been told 5-10% was pretty typical. The Radiohead numbers truly apply, then: if you can pull down 10% of what your work would make going the traditional route, you break even or better. You don't have bookstores helping you out though.

    I suppose a successful online venture would involve being in the right place at the right time, with a good dash of self-promotion to get it kick-started.

  7. This is fascinating. I've got nothing of value to add. Just that I LOVE this entire conversation.

  8. Very interesting. Kudos to Radiohead for actually doing something on their own rather than the tired old story of the artist bashing the RIAA but going with the program anyway. Radiohead is also a big enough band that I'm sure they could afford to have this flop and still have made a worthwhile statement.


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