We live in exciting times.
And that's both a curse and a blessing.
I just spent three hours writing a blog post -- trying to capture what I see in the state of publishing right now -- which I then decided to pitch, because my perception had changed in the space of writing it. This is the fourth or fifth post I've written on this subject in the past week. Things seem to be changing really fast again in the industry.
And every single pundit I read -- every prediction for the coming year or analysis of the past year -- has a different take on it. And, I hate to say it, but I think they are all missing something.
This really isn't a transitional year. It's just that the last year or so was a burp.
Last Year the Indies Got Less Indie (but now they're free again)
One of the things that changed is that for the past 6-18 months, the indie publishing world had become almost synchronized.
And now suddenly it isn't.
That's not a bad thing.
Unfortunately it has, as a side effect, done some bad things. In particular, the crash of a number of successful careers.
There are some in traditional publishing (who should know better, as they have the longer term experience to know that success tends to rise and fall on a 5-7 year cycle -- which is about how long many of these indies have been around) who are crowing about it. They are declaring the end of indie publishing -- or at least the end of that snotty, successful side of indie publishing.
And many indies agree with them. They fear that now traditional publishers will retake the market, and that indie publishing will be pushed back to the margins.
Which is a mistake on both their parts.
Oh, sure, I expect traditional publishing will see some recovery from the nervous days of this past year or so. They have got used to the new world, and have had time to adjust their own strategies. And yes, the gold rush is over, and some people will quit self-publishing, but most who decide to ride out the negative wave will build an even stronger career.
The thing that all the pundits on both sides seem to be missing is that there's another group of indies out there. Oh, sure, you hear lots of oblique mentions of the vast, unwashed mass of writers who will supposedly drown those indie success stories in a mass of illiterate poorly formatted manuscripts and no indie shall be heard from again.
And in some sense, they are kind of right about that. But what they miss is that this has already happened.
That vast number of unwashed writers out there is already here.
They've actually always been here, and they always will be here.
And yeah, in this disintermediated age, where anybody has equal footing with everybody, and everybody really is a special snowflake, it's hard for anyone to become a star and stay one. It is kinda scary, that these masses of people out there are our competition. There's bazillions of them.
They are the Amateurs, and they are the Next Wave
But they were also the last wave.
And, actually, the wave before that.
And they are as persistent as heck -- because they don't care about your bottom line OR their own. Sure, they think it would be cool to make a million dollars and have best sellers and their name in lights and win an Oscar. But it doesn't ruin their day when they don't.
And the thing about amateurs is they they just keep rolling. They just keep on doing their thing, and nothing can stop them. Nothing.
Now.... before you start running in fear, I have one more thing to tell you about who they are:
They are OUR AUDIENCE.
And... they are also us. We are them.
(We are they. Whatever.)
The internet did not just remove gatekeepers, it removed gates. It removed walls. It removed all kinds of barriers. Including the barrier between amateur and pro, reader and writer.
And Amazon seems like the only one in publishing to realize that. The KDP is just a more extreme from of self-service, where the customers supply the content to each other.
Which is what the internet is. It's what the new paradigm is all about. Open source. Creative commons. Information wants to be free, and all that. (Also, Information wants to have a small fee taken by the enabler of its freedom.)
This world is no longer about pushing a product from producer to consumer. It's about connections. It's about engagement.
And three or four years ago the whole indie community knew this.
We knew that this was a great new world, empty of boundaries, and full of popcorn kittens. ("Popcorn kittens" is a concept spawned by this video -- which is a metaphor for the fact that we had so many opportunities, our minds were like these kittens, bouncing and tumbling with ideas. Heck, WE were like those kittens. Bouncing, slipping, tumbling and trying out new things all the time.)
At that time, while few of us were getting rich, most of us were actually making money. Not a lot, but we all could see it. We all made more money than we had made in traditional publishing: If you had made no money at all, you now made pocket change. If you had made pocket change, you now made folding money, etc.
And that was great.
But then something changed.
There was so much opportunity, that people started chasing success. Speculative fever chased away the popcorn kittens. And thus began what some people call a "gold rush." (It was never a "bubble" btw, because it was never a scheme driven by false or inflated value. The value was always real.)
And since excitement always draws in those looking for a short cut or a quick buck, some of the gold rush was accelerated by an influx of the get-rich-quick crowd. But it also happened naturally, because entrepreneurship is HARD, and the glitter of success, just out of reach, can be very distracting. In any case, success begat glitter, and glitter begat more chasing of success, and the kittens ran for cover.
We stopped being creative, and started following formulas. We started playing the odds, and applied the Pareto Principle, not realizing that, even though all of your success comes from 20 percent of your effort, you actually need to go through that other 80 percent of effort before the 20 percent can pay off.
We narrowed our focus. And narrowed it more.
And suddenly too many people were doing exactly the same thing at the same time. Which is exactly what causes the end of every gold rush.
It's called the Tragedy of the Commons, and what it basically means is that we stressed the system. It's something that happens constantly in small ways. But when it happens in big ways -- when a very large number of people are all doing the same (apparently harmless) thing -- it can be an utter disaster that destroys the whole system. Dancers cause the collapse of a building. The gold is panned out of the river, the field is irretrievably over-grazed. The fish population collapses. The tree of life dies because of everyone pulling down branches.
Luckily for us, that is not at all what happened here. We did not come anywhere near bringing and end to the system.
In our case, the system just adjusted itself -- partly in reaction to what everybody was doing, but also in reaction to things completely outside our little world. Customers changed their habits. Amazon changed algorithms. Tried new things to please the customers.
Nothing actually broke. Except the synchronicity. That broke.
But the system is going as strong as ever. Readership is growing, and they are finding the material they want to read.
But it's not always in books.
The Return of the Popcorn Kittens
The indie community is already diversifying again. As a group, we are more flexible than any other player in the system. People are recalling their previous creativity, finding new lines to color outside of. We still have the "success-driven" folks -- we always did -- but they are jumping out of lock-step and off to find the next gold strike. Because, just like the amateurs do, they will always keep doing their thing. Bless them.
And the amateurs themselves are still chugging along, just as they always have.
They are on the rise, as they have been since the internet went wide. And they are nothing to be afraid of, because they are the ones who enabled this. They are the ones who drive the social media, which spreads the word on our books. They're not afraid of unlucrative markets. They break new ground. They develop new audiences. They bring the joy of reading and story to those who were never interested in books before.
They are fan-writers, and poets, and volunteers at Project Gutenberg and Librivox. They are web comix artists. They are bookbloggers and podcasters, and collectors of rare books.
And they are also the pros, when they're not at work: they are indies, and traditional writers, the editors and librarians.
They are lovers of story.
And for the first time in publishing, they actually do rule the universe.
Don't be afraid of the rising tide. The tide is us.
See you in the funny papers.