Normally when I have blog with this title, I’m discussing the choices writers make in this new world of publishing. But this blog is different. This blog is about consumer choice.
I’m still reading Ripped by Greg Kot. This book, published in 2009, focuses on the changes in the music industry in the last fifteen years, changes that mirror the changes in the publishing industry. I’m reading slowly, taking notes, because I suspect I’ll be exploring many of the ideas he’s examined, only from a publishing perspective.
However, if you want to see where we’re headed, and what the thinking is behind some of the decisions that have already been made, take a look at Ripped. Sometimes the similarities are so self-explanatory that they’re breathtaking.
The penultimate chapter in the book focuses on Radiohead’s 2007 experiment with the In Rainbowsalbum. For those of you who don’t remember or really don’t pay attention to music, here’s what happened.
Radiohead announced on September 30, 2007 that it would release the digital version of its In Rainbowsalbum on its website. Fans could preorder, starting October 1, and pay any price they wanted.
The way Radiohead implemented this was simple: fans would use a checkout system that had a question mark where the price would normally be. When the fan clicked on the question mark, they got this message:
It’s Up To You
When the fan clicked again, the screen refreshed with this message:
No, Really, It’s Up To You.
Then fans could enter how much they wanted to pay—anything from 0 to $99 (because, apparently, the system wasn’t set up to accept any 3-figure numbers). The band also let their fans know that the music would be released in two other formats: as an $81 premium boxed set, and as a regular CD at, apparently, regular CD prices. (I have no idea, and am not looking that all up.)
Of course, this caused major consternation in the press and all kinds of gloom and doom about the future of music, the future of artists, and the future of the music industry.
From the perspective of 2016, it’s all pretty tame stuff. Bands have done this and more in the meantime. There have been all kinds of other promotions. Writers are now using similar methods on some of their projects.
. . . .
Writers do all kinds of promotions. The consumers are getting used to these things now, and are reveling in their choices. Traditional publishers, initially resistant, are starting to experiment with these sorts of things as well, but with a twist—they modify their contracts and their royalty reporting so not a penny of earnings from the discount-priced merchandise make it the writer’s pocket. (Not kidding and yes, future blog post.)
But here’s the thing that we all forget, the thing never mentioned in all the price arguments, the experimental deals, the weird promotions, the thing that Greg Kot’s initial chapter on Radiohead reminded me:
You have always gotten to decide.
Consumers have been in the driver’s seat from day one. Before the internet, before indie publishing, before all the various changes, the consumer’s decisions were sometimes very easy:
Do I buy the $20 hardcover? Do I wait for the $7 paperback? Do I buy the book used? Do I get the book (essentially free) from the library? Or do I not get that book at all?
The difference for consumers came before the product ever hit the market. The gatekeepers strangled everything except the books/movies/music that appealed to a mass audience—as that mass audience was perceived by the gatekeepers.
It has become clearer and clearer that the gatekeepers didn’t base their assumptions on anything except their own prejudices. I use the word prejudices on purpose. The controversy surrounding the Academy Awards this year is just one example of the failure of the gatekeepers to recognize anything outside of their narrow worldview.
. . . .
Traditional publishing—traditional anything in the arts—has always been about limitation. Traditional publishers make a book available in hardcover until the paperback gets released. Then the paperback supplants the hardcover. Shelf space is at a premium, so a hardcover book only stays on the rack for a month, maybe two or three if the book actually has legs.
Music—even music lucky enough to get radio airtime—only plays in rotation for weeks or maybe months (or, in the case of the Eagles’ Hotel California, for-freakin’-ever. Or maybe that was just my perception).
I’ve often blogged about the scarcity model in traditional publishing, and how traditional publishing used scarcity to get readers to buy a book immediately. (Buy it now! You might never see it again!)
. . . .
As I mentioned in a piece earlier this year, it’s not just about the number of eyeballs any more, it’s about the fan base. When an artist makes 70% of the income off a project instead of 1% or 2% or even 10%, the artist can take risks. The artist has to sell fewer copies of something to make an actual living. And that allows the artist to experiment.
Fans can choose to follow the experimentation or they can choose to only buy certain items, or not buy anything at all, but still enjoy an artist’s work for free. I’m sure there are a lot of readers who come to this blog who have never donated any money or paid cash for any of my books. Yet these readers have read my short fiction and my nonfiction, and, I hope, have enjoyed it. Then there are the folks who donate a great deal to the blog or buy every book I write.
I don’t quiz my readers. I have no idea if the people who are reading for free are doing so because they can’t afford to buy books or because they don’t want to invest their hard-earned money into one of my books. And honestly, why they only read for free is none of my business. I make the works available so that they can.
I also don’t quiz the folks who buy everything. I don’t know if purchasing my work limits their purchases of other writers’ works or if these readers have money to burn. I also don’t ask if they read everything they buy. Again, that’s none of my business. I just try to make sure that I have the work in a format that will appeal to as many readers as possible.
The freedom of format, the increased choice, is what makes this modern world so good for artists of all stripes—if only the artists take advantage of their own choice.