If content is free, what will creatives eat? In the first of our series looking at how technology has changed the game of creative production and consumption, we examine the impact of the e-book revolution on the economics of words.
It’s the sort of offer every aspiring writer dreams of: a seven-figure deal, laid on the table by not one, but several, major publishing houses. But speculative fiction author Hugh Howey turned them all down. It was the right decision: he’d already sold more than 500,000 copies of his novels – the post-apocalyptic Silo Trilogy of Wool, Shift and Dust – and made more than a million dollars in royalties, self-publishing his books via e-reader platforms from Amazon (Kindle), Apple (iBookstore) and Barnes & Noble (Nook).
Howey believes that the advent of self-publishing platforms – not only literary, but across multiple media – is a decisive shift in the balance of power between big corporate players and independent creatives. “We’re seeing the same trends in programming, video games, music, and even film,” he says. “Crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, lower costs of production and practically no costs for distribution are changing the way art is made and consumed.”
Barriers to direct entry to the market have tumbled, or been pulled down. The traditional gatekeepers of the creative industries – the TV commissioners, literary agents and music executives – are increasingly finding control wrested from their hands by those who once paid them court – the aspiring creatives. “Who is the gatekeeper,” asks Dr Allègre Hadida of Cambridge Judge Business School, a specialist in management and entrepreneurship in the creative industries and contributor to Cambridge Judge’s recent Entertainment Master Class, “when you can download a program from Amazon and format a script or a novel and put it out there?”
And it is in publishing that the effects of this direct-to-audience revolution have arguably been most powerfully felt. In December 2013, Amazon announced that books from “indie” publishers (which includes self-published titles) made up 25 per cent of the top 100 bestselling Kindle e-books. Articles with headlines such as “Author turns down £1m book deal” are the contemporary equivalent of those time-honoured pieces trumpeting “Author lands £1m book deal”.
Incredible though it may seem, for many, the monetary rewards of self-publishing now outweigh offers from conventional publishing houses. This February, Howey stunned the book world when he data-crunched a market report – in-between writing those bestselling novels – that revealed how, as a result of cutting out the publisher:
Self-published authors as a group are making 50 per cent more profit than their traditionally published counterparts, even though their books have only half the gross sales revenue.
Howey’s final conclusion, that “self-published authors are, on average, earning more money on fewer books [original emphasis]” than those traditionally published, sparked a debate within the industry that still rages.
Profit is a powerful inducement for creatives and maximising it may lead to some unprecedented arrangements. Howey himself accepted a six-figure deal with publisher Simon & Schuster for print-only rights to his work – rather lower than the seven-figure offers he received for comprehensive rights. Retaining e-book responsibility has enabled him to set an accessible price threshold that achieves the largest possible audience and sales. “If I can partner with a publisher to bring a print book to a wider audience while maintaining control of the digital edition,” he says, “it allows me to keep DRM [digital rights management, which controls the use of digital content after sale] off my works and keep the price down.”
But maximising income from his work is not his principal consideration he says. “I believe in experimentation. For me, the question that guides every decision is: ‘What’s best for the reader?’ It all comes back to the reader.”
These multiple motivations mean that traditional industry players seeking to bring high-achieving indies into their fold are having to rethink the rules of the relationship. It is no longer enough to assume that their established name and deeper pockets make the case sufficiently. Increasingly, in order to cherry-pick the best talent, it is those accustomed to being control who must now make the running.