Creating a work of art requires effort, time, energy, money. Different media have different costs associated with them, but in all cases the artist has to expend something–often quite a lot–to take something from concept to reality.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee of the value of the finished product. The perception of value of a work of art is intrinsically subjective. You can’t “comp” an 80,000 word novel in the same way you can valuate a three bedroom house. A proven track record in a given field only works so well as a predictor of future performance.
I am sure that you don’t need me to list examples of writers, filmmakers, and musicians who have produced failures after a long string of hits. It happens, and it happens to everyone.
So, there is an irreducible element of risk involved with any artistic undertaking. Sometimes the work that goes into the creation simply doesn’t translate into sales of the product.
Much of the shakeup in the traditional publishing field right now has to do with who assumes that risk. In the past publishers have done so–they pay out an advance to the author against royalties and hope that the royalties cover it. A large publisher could afford to play the percentages, some books would lose money, some books would break even, some books would make money. So long as they had enough in the third category to offset the first category, the doors could stay open.
Self-publishing transfers the risk to the artist. If a self-published book doesn’t sell, the author doesn’t get paid for that book. On the other hand, if a book becomes a runaway bestseller, the author keeps all the profits.
As of this moment, there are more bits of information on-line discussing this issue than existed in all of the worlds data storage in, say, 1985. Every aspect of the publisher/author relationship has been parsed in excruciating detail.
However, there is an aspect to the risk/reward equation that seems to be generally overlooked, and that is the assumption of risk on the part of the audience.
I can recall going out to dinner recently and listening to a server read aloud the children’s menu to a young boy, and hearing the boy’s parent tell the server, “Oh, he won’t eat that,” after every entry. After a long and fruitless attempt on the part of the server to interest the child in something that would satisfy him, the boy’s parent explained, “He doesn’t like anything except McDonalds.”
It occurs to me that many media outlets treat their customers as if they were that boy in the restaurant. They have their proven strategies for selling to a particular demographic, and that’s all they’ll do. Self-publishers aren’t much better, there are a million discussions out there about how to write “what readers want” which generally translates to “what readers bought last week”.
As a reader, I rather resent being treated like a spoiled child. Don’t tell me what I am going to like, let me try it and see for myself. Sure, this means that I have tried a lot of things that I didn’t like, but it also means that I have found a lot of things that I have loved that I would have missed if I hadn’t been willing to take the risk.
An overlooked aspect of e-book pricing is that it reduces the financial risk of readers. For less than the cost of a traditional hardback a reader can buy five self published e-books. If she or he doesn’t like three of them, that’s still a winning proposition.
As usual, the culture is lagging behind the technology. The buying public is used to being spoon-fed, and risk is frightening all out of proportion to the actual cost. However, people are used to risking ten dollars ordering an unfamiliar entree at a restaurant, risking three dollars buying a book that they may not like isn’t a great leap.
E-books offer the general reading public the opportunity to sample independent works that they would not ordinarily be exposed to. It’s going to take a shift in perception, though, from being a consumer to being a gourmand. It means accepting that being a consumer of fiction involves taking chances. Publishers have spent a lot of advertising dollars over a lot of years to train readers to be risk-adverse, to expect the same old thing every single time.
Now, when my own children were small, I was the polar opposite of the parent I’ve described above. I encouraged my children to try new things. I did my best to take the fear out of novelty. (To be honest, I usually ordered something very familiar, so that if one of my children flat out refused to eat what they had ordered, we could swap.)
Those of us who write, and who blog about writing, should, I feel, take a positive stand to encourage readers to take risks. Try it. See if you like it. It’s okay if you don’t, you’re only out a couple of bucks.
There is a lot of good stuff out there. I have read romances, and YA adventures, and literary fiction, and things that I still can’t exactly classify. Some of it I’ve dropped after a page. Some of it I have dearly loved. The stuff I like I review, in my blog and on Amazon. The stuff I don’t like, I never think about again.