To modify a line from Jeff Bezos: “Your fear is my opportunity.” And I wish it weren’t so. I’d rather not have my opportunity than what results from your fear. I mean that. I’m really torn about this.
The things I advocate for: Reasonably priced e-books, for publishers to take risks and do exciting things, for us to embrace the future of storytelling and allow it to coexist with the past, to release all editions of a work at once, to get rid of DRM, to mix up genres and do something fresh and new . . . these are all things I’ve wanted as a reader for longer than I’ve been writing. These are things I complained about with fellow readers and bookstore workers long before I sat down and penned my first novel.
As a writer, I’m out of my mind to advocate for these things. My colleague Russell Blake, whom I greatly admire, thinks self-published authors should shut up and stop handing out free advice. And he’s right. Why should we fight for $9.99 and lower e-book prices—where we know publishers will sell more books, get more people reading, and make more money? Their fear of low prices is my opportunity.
Kindle Unlimited launched yesterday, and publishers are slow to sign on. None have, as far as I can tell. Even the Scholastic works might be available only because Amazon is treating every “borrow” as a full-price sale. Whether it’s fear of Amazon having more market share or fear of subscription services keeping them at bay, it’s all opportunity for me and other self-published authors.
But I’m annoyed. Because I am a reader first. And I want more readers. Selfishly, as a reader, I want more readers. I want to see airports full of people staring at books, e-readers, and tablets laced with text. Not people staring at cell phones, Candy Crush, Facebook, or authors’ blogs. I want book culture everywhere. I want interactions with strangers to be about what they’ve read lately. I want my social media feed to be all about books. I’m an addict, and I want to get other people hooked. Maybe that’s a bad thing. I don’t care.
There is so much room to innovate, to get wild and crazy, to try things that have never been tried before (or to bring back things that have been lost to time). Fan fiction used to be a thing. Shakespeare made a career out of fan fiction. Publishers could create their own Kindle Worlds programs, so why don’t they?
The Halo books and Star Wars novels have shown the potential for mega universes with frequent releases. I grew up gobbling down D&D and Forgotten Realms books. Publishers have developed their own IP in the past, so why aren’t we at least experimenting with that now? Create a universe for several genres; hire the writers you want to develop stories in that universe; and enjoy ownership of the IP for decades to come. When the games, films, and merchandise take off, you own it.
Look at what Netflix is doing with original content and how it is released. What if a 12-book universe dropped on the same day? Don’t stagger them at all, just put them out there at once. What would happen? Why don’t we find out?
When the potential of self-publishing became evident, publishers could have launched their own writing platforms. They could have created a website for manuscripts. Maybe Slush.com (or whatever is close and available). Crowdsource the selection process. How many albums did American Idol sell by crowdsourcing the talent pool and selection process? Yeah, we won’t be able to get millions of people to tune in and cheer on writers . . . except Wattpad does just that. Instead, publishers got into self-publishing by signing on with Authors Solutions, a vanity press that takes advantage of aspiring writers.
A lot of self-published authors have had great success with giving away the first book in a series or the first part of a serialized novel. One of my publishers, operating out of fear, haggled with an editor over how much we should get paid for including the first part of WOOL in the sequel to a bestselling anthology. I was willing to pay money out of my own pocket to get INTO this anthology. Fear of “free” is our opportunity as self-published authors. Fear of DRM, of subscription services, of affordable prices, of print-on-demand. Fear of backlist, of promos, of competition. Fear of openness, sharing, fan fiction, communal storytelling.
All of this fear is where I make my living, and all it does is sadden me. I’d give up the former to live in a world with less of the latter.
There are countless things we could try in order to make reading hip and to grow book culture, but what we have instead is a lot of fear and the same-old. You want bookstores on every corner? Make reading as addictive as caffeine. You want to watch bookstores disappear? Keep playing it safe.
Let’s get crazy. Let’s celebrate short fiction and get big-name authors to participate. At least two short pieces a year in addition to that novel. Think of them as singles from musicians. Adele does a track for a Bond movie, and there’s extra revenue, exposure, excitement. What if JK Rowling wrote a 5,000 word short in the Harry Potter universe, but you could only get that story in the back of the new hardback by a debut author who is writing about an epic battle between fairies and dragons? So what if people copy and pirate Rowling’s story? Do it anyway.
Every debut author should be paired with a veteran who writes similar works. And their books should hit on the same day. Staggering releases away from each other is how you create boredom. The film industry makes summers all about blockbusters; the video game industry makes the Holiday break all about marathon gaming session. Where is that entire epic fantasy series that drops around graduation and becomes the must-read binge event of the summer?
Where are the writing groups and reading clubs sponsored by publishers? Where is the partnership with schools to make reading as enjoyable as possible rather than drudgery and something to avoid later in life? Where is my waterproof e-reader? Why can’t I buy John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books for something less than $10 each?
Publishers fear Google for scanning out of print books, and they fear Amazon for changing the way we read, and that fear is so disappointing. I’m a reader first. Selfishly, I want to meet readers everywhere I go. I want to laugh about bookstores on three out of four corners at a major metropolitan intersection. I want fan fiction, new worlds to explore, zero wait between books, short works that I can read over lunch, and some reliable way of discovering great new voices that will lodge in my head for life.
Technology companies are well on their way to owning book culture. The literary world is now on the west coast, not in New York. It’s not too late to compete and innovate, but it requires letting go of fear and taking big risks. It means stop watching other publishers to see what they are doing, and do what they fear doing. Be the first to leap. Take their market share. Stop worrying about a friend, colleague, and fellow CEO calling you up to ask what in the world you are thinking. Tell them, “Your fear is my opportunity.” Tell them to try and keep up. Tell them you want to see readers everywhere you look, and you aren’t going to stop trying new things until that happens.
Fortune favors the bold. Wow me. Impress me. Put me out of business. I’ll happily find a day job where I can sneak some reading in when no one’s looking.