Opening the Books

This is part #4; you might want to see part #1, part #2, and part #3.

I’m not sure what the complete answer is. Maybe there has been wage inflation and stagnation in the publishing industry. [1] Maybe that model has to completely collapse – but then what about the positive externalities (those well written but unprofitable books that publishing houses effectively subsidize that I mentioned back in part one)?

Perhaps there should be more “samples”. Sampling – whether through serial fiction like the type Mike Stackpole is doing or releasing back catalog items like Baen has done – makes intuitive sense. But what about, say, Escape Artists? They’ve been around for years now, giving away CC-licensed content, and are (AFAIK) running in the black, primarily through donations. What makes their model different and workable?

Maybe it’s not workable – but until more creators (and publishers, whether they be big NYC companies, quasi-DIY outfits like Escape Artists, or totally DIY folks like Brave Men Run’s author Matt Selznick) put all the cards on the table, we won’t know. We’re all guessing in the dark – and a lot of people are going to be undeservingly hurt if they guess incorrectly.

So the only thing I can think of is for all of them – from the DIY podcast novelists to the big NYC companies – is to open their financial books.

Because I really do believe in a free market. And the market of fiction is already a differentiated one. One book is not a substitute for another, one magazine is not a substitute for another, one author is not a substitute for another. In a free 21st century entertainment market, the price should not be set by artificial constraints like DRM or device lockdown, nor should it be set by opaque deals and obscured supply chains. There’s no need for any of that. Not anymore.

It’s in their own best interests, as well. Maybe Escape Artists really is onto something. How could McMillan emulate their model? Maybe Tor or Baen could show (explicitly) how social media and free product is actually reinforcing sales.

I remember reading in (that dates me, huh?) that less than 1% of banner ads were clicked – let alone turned into a sale. Yet while people bemoaned that horrible rate, they never stopped to think what the conversion rate might be from a billboard or newspaper ad. At least with the banner ads, they knew, and could focus on the things that brought in the most money. Because remember, the more we can make our writing profitable, the more we can afford to write.

And if we – as authors, publishers, and retailers – can focus our efforts on those things that bring us all money, then maybe we could spend more time writing and getting those written words to readers. Because while we want to follow our passions, we also need to eat.

[1] I think there’s wage stagnation and wage inflation in most of the “developed world”, and think that we’re fighting a holding action against a massive market correction downward as the rest of the world comes into more direct competition.

[Note: Edited to fix the link to Mr. Selznick’s work. Whoops!]

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  1. February 19, 2010

    Thanks for mentioning me and my works in your post! Just a note — your link to me is broken… my personal website is

    I've always been pretty open about my income as a creator who utilizes neo-patronage, among other models.

    I haven't done the big overview for 2009 yet, but you can check out how I've fared in 2008. I can tell you without doing the tally that, like 2008, I didn't make even a fraction of a living wage from my creative endeavors alone, despite the fact that I released far more original content in the last year than in the previous.

    Based on some conversations with some of my peers, we're coming to recognize that depending entirely upon our audience to compensate us for the works they enjoy is not viable. People still do not connect the positive experience of enjoying a story (in any form) with the months or years of effort that went into making that experience possible… which is a shame.

    So the answer? It's counter-intuitive, but one answer may be to charge for more stuff.

    For my own part, everything I create has several for-pay options and at least one free option… and I will always maintain that free option in the future. And I'll try to be louder when I preach the necessity of compensating creative endeavors.


    Matthew Wayne Selznick

  2. February 20, 2010

    Thanks for pointing out the broken link, Matt. And thanks for commenting and being open about things.

    Two things that Mr. Stackpole emphasizes – and I think they're both important regardless of model – is that all readers are patrons of the arts in a very real way, and that consumers of any type of media are paying for entertainment. For example, millions of people plunked down $10 (or more) for less than 4 hours of entertainment for Avatar – but one can get far more hours of entertainment from your podcast of Brave Men Run.

    Rethinking the pricing equation in that manner – which is really about value, not distribution costs – dovetails nicely with your idea of charging more.

    Hm. I think I'm going to pop this up to a followup post.

  3. February 20, 2010

    What creators decide to charge is less the issue than is what the audience is willing to pay. And there's the rub.

    Also, I think looking at things on the basis of "pay x for y amount of time" is flawed. It's not just the length of time a piece entertains… it's the quality of the entertainment, the expectation and anticipation of the audience, the track record of the creator and, yes, the medium of the entertainment. For most people, if the medium is the Internet, the acceptable price they're willing to pay goes down.

    What to do about that? I don't know yet.

  4. February 20, 2010

    Oh, you're right that quality, etc. are important as well. I'm not sure that medium should be, though. For example (and I'm not just flattering you here), I found Brave Men Run far more engrossing and entertaining than the last Raiders of the Lost Ark movie. (Your examples may vary, but I bet most people can find something similar.)

    But even if we're taking quality and track record into account, that still equates to paying for entertainment value, not production costs.

    Regarding people expecting lower prices over the internet … yeah. That's a problem that I don't have an easy solution to.

    (Factored the former into the followup post, by the way.)

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