So let’s take a look at the old model of publishing:
- Your novel/idea is yours, you own it, and can sue anybody who copies from it.
- You can only reach your public via a publishing house.
- It takes 16 months from acceptance of your novel to its hitting the bookshelves.
- Your publishing house is responsible for alerting the world as to how awesome your book is.
In effect, publishing houses guard the gates that lead to authorial success. If you want your novel to go bigtime, and you want lots of money, you need someone like Penguin to promote you and by doing so validate the quality of your novel. Each author jealously guards the contents of their book, afraid that others will steal their ideas, plagiarize his writing, and in effect remove the author’s control of their novel.
Now let’s look at the future of publishing, in say 10 year’s time:
- Your novel/idea belongs to the public realm once you release it digitally.
- Your novel/idea is democratically available to all via Google/Amazon/the iTunes equivalent for novels
- Your book can be made available to the masses as soon as you’re finished writing it.
- Your book’s quality and success will be determined by word of mouth and respected critics.
Look at what happened to bands. Since Napster/Limewire/Pirate Bay/Grooveshark made all music available for free to anybody who wanted to bother downloading it, bands have lost that basic control of their songs. Once they release that mp3, it’s gone. What has happened? Smart bands like NIN and Radiohead have embraced this, have offered to let you pay what you think it’s worth, or counted on your affection for their work to compel you to pay for it regardless. Other new bands without the reputation have also accepted this, and offer their songs free in hopes of parlaying popularity into tours, sales of merchandise, or voluntary donations.
This will happen to books as soon as a digital e-reader appears that makes it more convenient to read novels electronically than on paper. It’s already happening today: Kindle and the Nook are spearheading the revolution. Once your novel goes digital, you will lose control of it. Publishers as gate keepers will become increasingly irrelevant, and your value will be determined by how many donations you accrue from fans who want to support you.
So what will this mean for authors ten years from now? We will in effect become akin once more to medieval troubadours. This is a list of what factors governed a troubadour’s life 500 years ago:
- They had no ability to enforce copyright, and in fact were pleased if their creations went viral
- They made their living traveling/touring from town to town and performing readings in public, or by being sponsored by a wealthy patron
- Their songs and tales were immediately available as soon as they were conceived
- Their fame and popularity were determined by word of mouth and the opinions of wealthy patrons
Sounds awfully similar to what’s going to happen in 10 years to publishing, right?
The key difference is this: whereas troubadours could only reach a perhaps a hundred people at a time, authors 10 years from now will be able to (and already can) reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Whereas troubadours could only hope that others loved their work and immortalized them by singing their songs after they were dead, authors of tomorrow will be able to witness the creations of wiki’s, of fans writing fanfic, of fans editing their novels, rewriting their novels, all of this right in the moment. Authors, if they are smart, will not only encourage these mash-ups and editing, they’ll participate, crowd source, engage and respect the fans who love their material enough to care.