The Nameless Horror

Books, audience, and fat sacks of cash

(With GLORIOUS UPDATES as of Jan 27th.)

This morning I read this Richard Lea piece in the Guardian discussing this survey by DBW. It’s not the only piece. This one was written by someone at the DBW conference itself, and tackles much more, and at considerable length.

Coincidentally, I also read this interview with game designer Jason Rohrer this morning too. (Much of it originating in blog postings here, specifically this one, which is also worth reading.)

Over the past couple of years, I’ve just been hearing all these stories from people. ‘Oh, yeah, the sales are where you’re going to make your money, man! I did a midweek madness, and that doubled my money right there!” [laughs] ‘I was deal of the day a few weeks later–and again! I doubled!’ And they just act like this is the way it is and this is amazing. If you stop and ask one of them, ‘you realize that most of those people who bought it, when it was midweek madness or whatever, don’t actually play it?’ And they just shrug. ‘Who cares, as long as I get their money, right?’

So says Rohrer (creator of batshit arty ideas - the single-use Minecraft save on a flash disk, a board game buried in a desert - and some genuinely great indie PC games). I’m sure, if you know anything about ebooks, Amazon, discounts and indie publishing, you can see the gigantic parallel I’m about to draw already sketched out in front of you.

But what of the DBW piece in the Guardian?

What’s the difference between making money out of books and writing books that people want to buy? Turns out it’s about 40% – if, that is, you believe this year’s Digital Book World (DBW) survey.

Only 20% of the 1,600 self-published authors surveyed, and just a quarter of the almost 800 writers with a traditional book deal, judged it “extremely important” to “make money writing books”. Shift the issue to publishing “a book that people will buy” and the figures leap to 56% and 60% respectively.

Lea assumes that respondents would equate “writing a book that people will buy” to “writing a book that people will read”, i.e. writing for love, not cold, hard cash as a prime motive. This was certainly the intention; I asked survey author Dana Weinberg for clarification and she confirmed that there was no third/alternative question along the lines of “it’s better to write books that people will read”. The distinction, she said, was to reflect the arguments between pricing books at $0.99 to attract more readers for less money (overall, not per book), or $2.99 to have fewer readers for more and send market signals about quality.

(There is, of course, an argument to be had there about total earnings assumptions. In the early days of the Kindle gold rush, dropping prices was usually seen as a way of raising total earnings through the disproportionate rise in sales this would create. It’s not, AFAIK, as true now, and there’s certainly now a market stigma towards $0.99 ebooks over their quality level (not, of course, against books discounted temporarily to that price, which is another argument). Let’s not go there now, though; just note it and move on.)

The full report clocks in at $300, but since I need to spend that money making sure the walls of my house stop allowing the rain in to pull up a chair and make itself at home I’m going to assume (which as we all know, makes an ass etc…) that many of its respondents followed the authors’ intentions and my understanding, and that this therefore explains the 40% difference between the two camps.

Lea, of course, shoots the argument that it’s all for love down:

Except, in the digital age this kind of logic just doesn’t wash. If all you’re interested in is finding an audience for your work, then electronic distribution allows you to find it without any connection to the marketplace at all. Write your masterpiece, stick it on your website, and sound the trumpets for the victory of Pallas Athene. Or, if what you’re really looking for is the grateful adulation of your adoring fans, stick it on Scribophile or WritersCafe and get ready to feel the love. These days the only reason for worrying about publishing “a book that people will buy” is to “make money writing books”.

Unless you’ve not been asked that question, of course. And if you have any actual experience of sticking stuff on your own website (which, from a quick bit of googling, I’m guessing Lea doesn’t), especially if you’ve no great public profile already, you know full well that you won’t find an audience at all doing that.

(This blog is, unless I’m calling someone notorious a cock, visited by approximately two people and one elderly mountain goat every six months.)

The slightly back-handed jab nature of the mention of Scribophile and WritersCafe (both of which are primarily critique forums rather than glad-handing sycophancy services) aside, that’s also no way of guaranteeing you’ll be read, and certainly not by random browsers.

(Is there a difference? I’ve known plenty of writers who talk about the joy of thinking that some random stranger might read their work, and none at all who talk about the joy of thinking that a random writer might.)

You might argue that it’s hard to make money without having a readership. But as Rohrer points out, and as anecdote and derived data (the ratio of reviews to downloads/purchases) suggests, it’s quite possible to do just that when people snap up impulse bargains (something Weinberg acknowledged in her email to me as well). Yes, a portion of those downloaders will actually make use of what they’ve got, but a great many won’t. While the two things may be related, they are not equivalent at all.

(Aside on sales pricing: I like Rohrer’s idea for pricing The Castle Doctrine (which also reminds me that I’ve been meaning to see if I can justify getting it for ages, and now time is ticking) and I’ve seen the same argument made by Al Guthrie somewhere in the depths of Criminal-E ages ago as a sensible structure for ebooks.)

There are writers drawn by the thought of making a bomb from digital publishing. And there are writers who, like Rohrer, don’t want to be bought but actually enjoyed and appreciated. And yes, if you do it for a living, that means someone pays for it. But that’s out of necessity, and the principal thing is the audience, not the payout. Let’s not go dismissing those people.

(Final aside:

Maybe we should abandon the idea of a class of people who are different, a class of people who are “writers”, and just get on with the glorious, messy business of reading and writing.

Yes, maybe we should. Anyone who genuinely believes people who write, for publication or otherwise, are somehow magical beings, a breed apart, wonderful and different, should be rounded up and locked in some kind of large pit for the terminally idiotic. If that notion is truly dying, good. Shoot the fucking thing and be done. Its innate smug superiority and bullshit classism has always driven me nuts.)