Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You, Artist

I've been buried in deadlines, but several people pointed me to the current Harlequin controversy. Jackie Kessler sums it up nicely. So does John Scalzi. And Stacey Cochran has a different take on things.

In a nutshell, Harlequin is starting a vanity imprint, where authors can pay to have their books printed.

My feelings are mixed.

On one hand, Harlequin is a smart company, good at making money, and this seems to be a smart way to capitalize on a growing trend.

On the other hand, it could hurt their brand, and their many authors who get paid for (rather than pay for) their books.

The debate doesn't interest me much, though I do give Harlequin props for their forward-thinking, even if their implementation leaves something to be desired. After all, they're the first major publisher to recognize how much the average person yearns to create.

As a species, we're a productive bunch. I take daily walks, and force myself not to take my surroundings for granted. When you look around your world and realize how much is man-made, it's rather humbling. We build. We manufacture. We plant. We bend the landscape to suit our needs. And we create. A lot.

It's probably genetic. Our self-worth is very much wrapped up in things we're able to produce. Art is one of those things. And while it's less practical than a Chevy, or a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, it is more accessible.

YouTube is one of the most significant, and interesting, products of the modern world. Since the beginning of film and video, those with deep pockets decided what the masses would see.

But with the advent of cheap technology, and the inborn desire to create, regular people without deep pockets have been able to share their art (movies, rants, music, commentary, critiques, how-tos, etc) with the world.

At first glance, this could have been a self-indulgent disaster. And there certainly is a lot of crap on YouTube.

But there's also some really cool stuff. Stuff even cooler than the stuff being produced by the people with deep pockets.

The most amazing thing about YouTube isn't the ability to share your videos. The most amazing thing is that people are TUNING IN to watch these videos.

A whole lot of people.

If you go to Alexa.com and look at the top websites on the Internet, you'll notice many of them share a common denominator called user aggregated content.

In other words, regular people contribute to these websites, which makes them big.

If you look at Google, it is actually 100% user aggregated content. Wikipedia, Yahoo, Amazon, file-sharing lockers and sites, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook---the list goes on and on.

People dictate what people want to visit, and want to see.

Which brings us to reading.

The same genetic need that drives human being to write Amazon reviews, join Yahoo groups, share photos, upload videos, Tweet, and otherwise contribute to the overall output of humanity, also drives people to write books.

Amazon, and Smashwords, are catering to these writers by allowing them to upload their ebooks, for free. They understand the importance of user aggregated content.

My advice to Harlequin, and to all publishers, is to follow in the footsteps of Smashwords. But in a way that strengthens, rather than diminishes, their brand.

Here's what I'd do if I was in charge of Harlequin.

1. Create a community forum, where newbie authors can upload ebooks for free. These ebooks can also be downloaded for free.

2. Allow these free ebooks to be printed on demand for those who want to by them. Make a small profit on the printing, but keep the price reasonable, and the authors own the rights. This is a printing service, not a publishing service.

3. Let the community vet itself. Allow for discussions, reviews, ratings, author chats, and comments. Crap will be avoided. Cream will rise.

4. Hire editors to mine the ebooks, looking for gems. Then cherry pick those and traditionally publish the best of them.

To draw extra attention to the website, the publisher should also release their backlist as ebooks. But rather than give these away for free, they should be sold in a variety of ebook formats, for a low cost (say $1.99.)

So picture this:

You go to Harlequin's ebook website, which has thousands of inexpensive ebooks. It also has free ebooks, uploaded by newbie authors.

You can join the forums and discussions and rate and review ebooks. You can also order print-on-demand copies of any ebook there, newbie or backlist.

Editors can monitor the downloads and the comments, to discover new authors they can traditionally publish.

Harlequin exploits their extensive backlist, makes a lot of money (that they don't have to share with Amazon), and discovers talent by letting the users aggregate the content and vote on the best. They don't get into trouble by becoming a vanity press, and they also secure their spot in the upcoming digital revolution. At the same time, they become an ebook version of YouTube, drawing both writers and readers.

It all comes down to this: People want to write. In the past, unscrupulous folks have preyed on this desire, making big promises and charging big fees.

Publishers can capitalize on this basic human desire, make some money, and still be the good guys. You don't have to be a vanity press to nurture dreams.

Writers will eventually get their YouTube. It's just a question of who will create it first.