Competing for Readers

The Experimental Agenda: Readers and writers collaborate in designing, building, and testing prototypes for an alternative postcapitalist fictional reality.

That’s been the guiding premise of this site, but so far the experimental agenda hasn’t been advanced. I’ve focused mostly on the writers; it’s time to shift to the readers.

There are good reasons why fiction writers would want to organize themselves into publishing collectives, assuming control over and responsibility for the means of production and the finished product. Self-publishers already do this, hundreds of thousands of them, but operating as solo practitioners they lack the creative synergy and support, the quality control, and the reach that a larger organization can offer. Control shifts from publishing companies and bookstores not to the writers but to the online platforms, which serve as centralized aggregators of products and distribution hubs. While each self-published book brings in next to nothing in sales revenue for its author, the platform makes it up in volume. Even if self-published writers were to cut out the middleman and build their own platform, there’s no reason to believe that sales of individual books would increase. A few would arise from the slush, but the vast majority would still be mired in obscurity.

As things stand, only the traditional publishing industry offers any hope, however meager, for a fiction writer to achieve fairly widespread readership and sustainable income. Sure, the middlemen take the lion’s share of the take, but a little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing. Writers could aggregate themselves together into a publishing syndicate, but where are the readers going to come from?

Where do the readers of traditionally published books come from? If other readers are like me, they find books by scanning the bookstore and library shelves. You’re drawn to the package — the title, the backcover blurbs, the author bio and the book summary. If it offers some promise you take it home with you. And how do the books wind up on the shelves where they can draw your attention? Sales reps, distributors and wholesalers shop their wares to the stores and libraries. It takes upfront money, money paid out to packagers and marketers even before the books hit the shelves.

Other books I find via recommendations: reviews, bestseller lists, online discussions, social media, word of mouth. This sort of interpersonal dissemination happens post-release. Only those books that have made it into the wholesale catalogs or positioned on the bookstores’ shelves are going to be featured in reviews; only those books likely to earn significant revenues for the publishers are going to merit prominently positioned reviews. Interpersonal recommendations probably tend likewise to converge on books already well received by critics and readers, where the tipster’s potential gain in social capital outweighs the early adopter’s risk of championing an unheralded and unknown book that may well turn out to be a loser.  Even the online platform algos — “people who bought this book also bought…;” “if you like this you might also like…” — converge on the big sellers. Imagine a host of newly launched mystical adventure novels, be they midlisters from trad publishers or self-published offerings. “If you liked Da Vinci Code, you’ll like…,” reads the backcover blurb. So you buy the book online. “People who bought this book also bought…” — what? One of the other new mystical adventures? No: they bought Da Vinci Code. The popularity-based algos drive sales toward the bestsellers; the rich get richer, the already-read get more readers.

A writer-owned publishing syndicate could attempt to replicate the packaging, marketing, and dissemination apparatus of traditional publishers, competing with them on their own turf, using the tools of the master against them and so on. But why? The publisher can earn back its upfront investment on a book with relatively modest sales of $100K or so. But that profit is earned on the back of the writer, who makes maybe $11K in royalties. If writers run the publishing house they’ll want to earn more money as authors, not as packagers and marketers and distributors. But if the writers’ syndicate wants to compete it still has to hire and pay those same sorts of packagers and marketers and distributors, requiring the writer-owners of the syndicate to ante up some investment money in order to get their portfolio of books out the door and in front of the readership Not only do the writer-owners want to recoup their investment; they want to be paid more as authors than the measly share offered them by the traditional publishers. The break-even point for a book published by the writers’ syndicate would therefore be substantially higher than that required by the traditional publisher. The syndicate would take fewer risks, launch fewer new books, generate less revenues than the traditional publisher. Pretty soon the writer-owners of the syndicate are going to start squeezing costs to generate more sales and profits so as to recoup their investment. Do they cut their own pay as authors, emulating the traditional industry? Do they shortchange the backroom staffers and contractors, hoping they don’t set sail for greener pastures?

A more radical reorg is required if the authors are going to own and control their own work.

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