I was overjoyed yesterday to learn that the staff at the Nelson Literary Agency was referring to my agent, Kristin Nelson, as “‘Lil Kris” around the office. I often wonder if my rarely-read blog does any good in the world. Yesterday, it did some good. It resulted in affectionate mockery and belly laughs. I could die happy.
Alas, I’m not dead.* I’m here working on another blog post, all because a Tweet led me to this Issues on the Ether roundup, which led me to this essay by Ian Ellard, which everyone should go read right now before they waste another second with my drivel. Go on. It’s pure genius.
I especially love this bit:
When I write a novel, I own 100% of it.
That’s the gorgeous thing about it. It is unnibbled braincress. I take the seed of my experience of being alive, and water it with the artists’ arrogance that anyone will care, and this thing, this novel grows. And it’s all mine. 100%.
That’s not just a noble sentiment, but a wonderfully expressed sentiment. Ian goes on to suggest that selling all 100% of a novel for a lump sum might not be a great idea in 2022. It might not even be a great idea today. Instead, he sees collaborative publishing with cover artists, beta readers, and editors lending a hand for a cut of proceeds:
People like Bill came along, and John, and Sarah, and my darling Buckles, and they said, “Hey, you’re a writer, I’m an artist” or “Hey, you’re a writer, I can help you in this way or that way”.
And we said: “We can’t pay.” And they said: “That’s okay, give me 2%”; they said: “That’s okay, give me 10%.”
This is similar to the idea I espoused yesterday of agents-turned-producers. But I like Ian’s idea even better. Imagine a world of literary talent scouts. The sports world has them. The modeling world has them. Think of the amount of writing out there, ready to be analyzed for its worth. You have WattPad and scores of fan fiction sites. You have blogs and Facebook feeds. I can easily imagine someone like my editor, David Gatewood, spotting raw talent in the wild and offering to shore it up a bit in exchange for a percentage of future sales. David goes on to recommend Mike Tabor or Jason Gurley for cover art, and they provide artwork worth hundreds of dollars in exchange for some small percentage of ownership. After all, these people have contributed to the final product.
It’s an inversion of Kickstarter. Rather than beg readers for contributions with no idea of the quality of the final product, you have the financial backers begging to be included in something they see as worthy. ACX already offers this financial scheme, so it’s not as outlandish or impossible as you might think. Any self-published author can sign up for an account at Audible’s ACX site and submit their manuscript for auditions. Talented voice actors from all over the world can submit samples of their work. You get to hear people reading your novel. One of the options for financing audiobooks on ACX is a royalty split. This might be how books are produced in the future. One of many ways, at least.
There’s a need for this, because editing and cover art are expensive and writers are often dead-ass broke. It can cost $2,000 and up (way up) to create a polished, professional novel. But what’s expensive in monetary terms for the writer is far cheaper for the cover artist and editor, who might volunteer their time simply because they believe in a product. It’s what investors do. It’s what those voice actors on ACX do. This isn’t a gamble; it’s a calculated risk. For some, it’s the simple joy of collaborative creation. All we need now are the tools to handle the distribution of funds, and I could see Amazon working this into their KDP dashboard quite easily. Here’s what they would need to do:
- Provide passwords with limited dashboard access to each contributor. This way, each contributor could monitor the sales of the work in real-time and make sure the funds disbursed match the sales tallied.
- Require that financial changes have authorization from all contributors. In order to update banking information, all contributors would have to okay the change. So no contributor could siphon off funds from any of the others.
- Set up permissions for each account, so the cover artist can update cover art with an okay from the author, the editor can do the same for blurbs and descriptions, and the formatter can do the same for metadata.
- Here’s the biggie: Rather than have KDP accounts for individual authors, allow the creation of KDP accounts for individual works or series of works. Not only would this be great for anthologies with multiple authors, it would allow collaborators on single works to have a central dashboard just for that title. The current system of having author-centric dashboards wouldn’t go away, but this would provide a secondary type of account, and that’s one that revolves around the work itself.
A complete overhaul in how books are financed might seem extreme, but it’s already happening. There are panels at most writing conferences these days on crowdsourcing your next novel. But I think this inversion of crowdsourcing to talent-scouting is far more powerful. These aren’t gatekeepers; anyone can still publish whatever they want. It’s curators who know they have something they can contribute to a work of art they believe in.
In his essay on the future of book production, Ian goes on to imagine a world with far fewer outlets for books and what this will mean for midlisters and aspiring writers. Ian warns Porter Anderson on Issues on the Ether (emphasis mine):
We will not truly enter the era of the Centrifuge until all the bricks and mortar stores are gone. Until there really is only one route to market again. If that happens, there will be bestsellers and no-sellers, daily wheat and eternal chaff, and nothing in between. In that situation, the only thing that matters is access to capital; can my investor (my publishing house or my rich aunt and uncle) afford the up-front costs associated with making me a bestseller?
What publishing houses remain will be supermassive, fighting over the big blockbusters. There will be no middling advances.
And once that’s true, what does a non-blockbusting writer need a publishing house for? Editorial excellence? Cover design? A sales force? What’s the point?
I think Ian is spot-on. When publishers are paying more than $10,000,000 (that’s ten million!) for a 2-book series, the day of the blockbuster is well and truly here. That same sum could finance dozens of careers for new authors, resulting in an outpouring of voices and quality reads. Instead, readers are going to get two books. Two. The publisher will profit mightily by selling these two books to millions of readers and pouring all of their advertising might into a single basket. But are readers better served with this miniscule selection? Is the larger writing community? Welcome to the world of Hollywood sequels, spin-offs, remakes, and adaptations, where breaking in is nearly impossible, the rich get richer, and more people are left out in the cold.
Unless, that is, the reader remains in charge of curation. And some of those readers, with talents of their own, become patrons. And only if tools can be put into place that marry the various skills that go into great novels, tools that will allow the disbursement of funds to be seamless and perfectly automated, tools that help establish joint ownership of works of literature. When that day comes, stories will have found yet another path to production. And more of the people slaving away anonymously in large publishing houses will earn full-time careers at home in their pajamas, pounding chaff and making wheat, and readers will never go hungry again.
*Unless you’re reading this many years from now, and maybe you’re laughing, because you know that I am dead, to which I say: Laugh while you can, buddy. Your time is coming.**
**Unless you all have sorted that out in the future, in which case know that I’m sobbing right now, here in the past, while you’re out there in the future, laughing.***
***Hope you’re happy.