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.


amberargyle said...

Yes, we will have our own YouTube. It's just a matter of which venue will 1. see it as an opportunity instead of a threat and 2. execute the transition the smartest.

Venus de Hilo said...

Brilliant as usual Joe! Try to negotiate for a consulting fee or for Harlequin to pay you a small commission on their ongoing profits from this when they implement your ideas. So much better than they way they're going now.

Thanks as always for providing the future-vision upside to things. I've stopped reading a lot of other writing blogs because they dump too much doom-and-gloom on my day. I would rather jump out there on the leading edge of change than sit around bitching and moaning about how awful the buggy-whip business is these days.

Mike Dennis said...

Great idea, Joe. It's sort of a marriage between a traditional publisher (eg, Harlequin) and a new-media phenomenon like Smashwords.

Smashwords itself was a great idea, bringing self-publishing online and, by creating an atmosphere for published authors (such as yourself) to operate without the inherent problems of self-publishing, they have automatically expanded their market potential to include literally everybody!

The kind of thinking that generated Smashwords will be the kind of thinking that incorporates their concept into traditional publishing, and you've just shown it.

Anonymous said...

Amazon could implement your model today.

They've built the review/rating system and reader communities. All they need is an "indie" store, where newbie authors can load up their free books (right now the lowest allowed price for indies is 99 cents on Kindle store).

The other possibility is Apple -- they already have a free podcast service where user-provided content is aggregated. Apple will also be (according to recent rumors) introducing a tablet/ereader/multi-function product early in 2010. Perhaps the iBookstore will be announced at the same time.

This is an exciting time for writers, as the roadblocks (agent system) is being obliterated, and playing field is being leveled.

Jamie D. said...

If only Harl. had consulted you first, they wouldn't be in this mess. Great suggestions - I'd love to see them do something like this.

Marie Simas said...

Mark Coker (the Smashwords founder) is a total P.I.M.P and also magically delicious.

That dude is going to be a millionaire soon (if he isn't already).

Jackie said...

Thanks for linking, Joe. What's your take on HarperCollin's authonomy -- with its CreateSpace POD option? I think that comes closest to what you're suggesting.

JA Konrath said...

@Jackie - I'd never heard of Authonomy. It looks like a really smart idea.

The Voice said...

See, this is why I follow you. You are my hero.
If only I could figure out smashwords. I'm studying though.

T. M. Hunter said...

1, 3, and 4 were all part of the iPublish experiment from Time-Warner back around 2001. Unfortunately, we'll never know whether they could have made a go of it, as they suffered (at least in my opinion) from poor timing and trigger-happy management not interested in change.

I think Harlequin may not have dug themselves such a huge hole if they hadn't decided to send a recommendation for their vanity press (and I thought I'd heard they were plugging an editing service) with every rejection. That just reeks of unethical behavior. From past observations, it doesn't take much to get a desperate author to sign up for a vanity press...even without leading them there by a leash around the neck.

Personally, I'm surprised they didn't just set out with a POD arm...instead of going full bore into the vanity.

Gordon Jerome said...

Book publishing is book publishing. People either self-publish and act as both the writer and publisher. Or, they sell the rights to someone else allowing them to publish their work. Or, they pay someone to publish them, which is really no different than any other way of publishing. All manner of publishing costs the author money.

Granted, if someone is lying about what they will do in a contracted arrangement, then that's wrong. If vanity press says, we'll sell your book for you, and then does nothing to sell it, or merely pretends to sell it in venues where no sales ever really take place, then that's a breech of contract. But I don't see Harlequin doing that.

And as a reader, I'll tell you, when I go to Kindle to buy a book, I immediately reject it based on how it's published, not who published it. I do this by looking at all the factors like cover art, product description, the presence of reviews (there should at least be one, if only the author himself using a psuedonym for god's sake!). And then, from the sample: interior formatting, are all the buttons working like table of contents, cover, beginning, etc.

In the Kindle world, the publishing quality is actually more important than the writing itself. Because most writers actually aren't very good at writing. Even the greats. And that's okay. I can live with that, especially if the story is strong. And by the time I get to that judgment, I will have already paid for the book, anyway.

But the publishing: if the book is high-quality published, then I know that the author and publisher both care enough about this book to do a good job with it.

Most authors will not be able to successfully self-publish. Publishing is a business and a trade, and if you're not interested in that sort of thing, especially in a digital world, then you'd only make a mess of it and hurt your books success. In that case, subsidy publishing may be the best route. You write a check and someone else does the publishing. Just be hardcore about the rights you sell in the process. If you're paying someone to publish you, and it's not ridiculously cheap, they don't deserve a share of the profits. But that's all negotiable depending on what they do for you.

Everyone has a right to write and a right to be published if they want to be.

Stacey Cochran said...

Thanks for directing folks to my blog, JA. I love a proposal argument like yours, as it suggests ways to improve.

The problem that I have with much of the rhetoric folks contrary to Harlequin's move take is that they're relying on a definition argument... namely defining HH's move as "vanity publishing," only to ultimately say that no change is needed. They do not offer solutions to capitalize on changes in consumer culture that would benefit and strengthen publishers.

Your argument (and mine as well) offers suggestions for improvement, rather than acceptance of status quo.

Your post points the direction to good change.

Stacey Cochran
Bestselling author of The Colorado Sequence

Stacey Cochran said...

I should mention, too, that I have put in requests for guests representing Harlequin Enterprises for upcoming episodes of Book Chatter.

Because I support Harlequin in their move, I would love to have a publicist or someone representing their public relations speak about their new program on the show.

If anyone has suggestions for who I should contact, please let me know.

asrai said...

I'm late on this but that's the basis of authonomy.com run by HarperCollins. People vote on what they like, editors mine for authors to offer contracts to. And the authors who do get a contract will get more publicity becuase they were "found" on the site.

No POD though.