Friday, 13 May 2011

Remember it's the future; no, really, it is.

I'm rounding up a few thoughts which have been nagging at me for a while regarding the ebook revolution.

For one thing, the 'ebook revolution' is a slight misnomer. What we're really dealing with is the digital revolution as it applies to books. We've seen it happen to music, and it's happening to film, TV, the news and general information, and there are similarities which a lot of people have picked up on. I want to highlight a couple I've noticed which I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere.

'That analog feel'

I think I'm probably the only person alive who doesn't like analog hi-fi equipment. I love the crisp, clear sound of a digital amp and the clarity of CDs and high-quality digital audio. My parents and most of the western world seem to prefer the muddy, indistinct sound of old-fashioned analog (you can substitute terms like 'warm' and 'rich-middle' for 'muddy' and 'indistinct' if you really must...).

I think there's something of a parallel here with the 'but I love 'real' books' argument that a lot of book-buyers and trad-published authors are making about ebooks and ebook readers. I have some sympathy with the argument, if I'm honest, in that I grew up in a house whose walls were covered in bookcases and I love having books on shelves where I can just reach up and grab them. I certainly intend to make my books available through POD as soon as I can so I can have my own hard copies.

To get back to music for a moment, a few years back, my parents' venerable analog hifi amp broke. It was replaced with a digital amp because that's what they could afford at the time. As far as I'm concerned, this silver monolith is great - wonderful clarity of sound and great precise control of the setup. They have never been happy with it; it's too shrill, they say. Too harsh. Too much treble, thin in the mid-range.

Well, guess what? Recently, they bought a little black box which fits into the system between the amp and the speakers and fiddles with the signal to emulate that old muddy analog sound. I can't remember what the thing's called, but I have to admit it does a good job of the emulation, with the added benefit that despite having a richer mid-range it maintains a lot more clarity than an actual analog amp.

A similar anecdote; the frontman of my band, Nick, loves the sound of 60s valve amps. So, when he needed a proper gigging amp, he bought an amp that actually has valves in the circuit. As I understand it (and I don't pretend I do, really), it's still a solid-state amp, but it uses valves to replicate the muddy sound (I'm going to keep calling it 'muddy' until the rest of the world comes to their senses and agrees with me).

The point I'm getting at is that wherever there are real benefits to analog tech, people will invent ways to recreate them in harmony with the digital. I'm not sure how you replicate this effect with the tangible benefits (such as there are) of dead-tree books with e-readers - if I was, I'd be patenting it and flogging the idea to Amazon just as fast as I could - but I'm sure someone will think of it. Or it will turn out that people don't care about it as much as they think they do and so won't spend money on it. Either way, the argument's not terribly convincing.

Free Content and Reader Gatekeeping

For almost seven years now, I've been a keen reader of webcomics, which are the collision between the digital revolution and Superman. I've seen lots of people drawing analogies between what's happening in ebooks and itunes, but I've not seen anyone pointing at webcomics at all.

So I'm going to. For those of you who don't know, almost all webcomics are free to readers. A few operate subscription services, and a few more have subscription services for premium content, but the vast majority are free. They make their money from advertising, selling merchandise and (in some cases) dead-tree versions with bonus material, and occasionally from donations from generous fans. And, of course, most make no or very little money at all.

I'm willing to bet that once the ebook gold-rush settles down, the graph of ebook author incomes will look more or less like the graph of webcomic creator incomes (albeit with larger sums of money involved due to audience size) - a few people making lots of money, with a long tail dragging out down to the people making nothing.

Me? I've made £5 in the five and a half years I've been publishing my webcomics (which I'm finally giving up later this month to focus on prose writing), primarily because I never really tried to monetise them properly - or promote them, or make them funny.

Authors have it slightly better than webcomic creators at the moment - our paradigmatic distributor, Amazon (for the time being), insists that we charge a price so that they can take a cut on distribution. With webcomics, there's no such consumer entry barrier, and consequently no guaranteed per-unit revenue and no sales/performance tracking.

By the same token, it means the entry barriers to publishing a webcomic are even lower - if that's possible. There are free sites (Drunk Duck, ComicGenesis, SmackJeeves) where you can start publishing with a few mouse-clicks and a free signup. All you have to do is create the content.

This means there are a lot of webcomics. I don't know how fast the number of webcomics is growing at the moment, but five years ago, I did a rough guesstimate that there were tens of thousands (I forget how) and the number was still growing fairly rapidly. None of that has stopped the best webcomics rising to the top. None of that has stopped the best webcomic creators (specifically, Howard Tayler and the Foglios - DO NOT ARGUE WITH ME ON THIS ;D) making a living off their work.

Sidebar: yes, I know both Tayler and the Foglios have been around forever. For more recent examples, XKCD tops the charts, and I really should plug Gunnerkrigg Court as well.

Ability rises to the top in situations where consumers are free to decide what they want (I realise I'm coming over a little bit free-market, but in this case it's a good theory). You can advertise a comic as much as you want - and people do - but if I click your ad and am transported to sub-standard work, I'm clicking straight away again.

There's no question that there are differences between webcomics and ebooks as business fields, and I'm not about to start recommending all authors start giving their stuff away for free (though you should definitely be thinking about merchandising if you like money), but there are lessons to be learned from the way webcomics work. In particular, I think giving a certain amount of stuff away for free is a great idea to get people interested in your writing. I haven't figured out how best to apply this model to my own career yet, but I will.

The ultimate point is that, in worrying about whether our market will be swamped with crap, we're failing to give our readers a trust they deserve. The market will be - possibly already is - swamped with crap, but that doesn't mean people are going to read it. When you can buy a book for less than a bus fare, what matters is not an individual sale, but getting the customer to buy -all- your books. What matters is getting them to buy a second book from you, and a third; and readers might buy one book that's crap, but you can bet they won't buy from that author again.

The market may be flooded, but we have no right to treat our readers as if they can't swim.

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