Two data points about the brave new world of publishing that caught my eye this morning:
Data Point One. The #1 bestselling book on Amazon right now is not yet in print. Titled Go the F**k to Sleep, it's billed as a children's book for adults. From its title, I'm guessing it's a twist on kids' bedtime books like Goodnight Moon but meant for parents who just want their little monsters to shut up and lie down. Sounds clever. Wish I'd thought of it.
What got my attention is that, as explained in this article, the book topped the bestseller list and has already been optioned for a movie due entirely to a PDF preview that got away from its publisher. Critics, buyers for bookstore chains, marketing people and others need to make decisions about books before they're physically printed, so publishers send them a PDF. Usually, they're held close to the vest. This one escaped into the wild. That's piracy, but it's also grassroots marketing--way better marketing than the publisher could have ever dreamed of doing on its own.
In the article, I enjoyed editor Ibrahim Ahmad wrestling with his dilemma: you don't want a million illegal free copies of your forthcoming book floating around the Internet, but at the same time those illegal free copies actually translated into pre-sales that will make both publisher and author barge-loads more money than they ever dreamed. Ahmad says he's fighting the piracy, but I don't think his heart's really in it. Understandably.
I'm not celebrating this story. In fact, it's pretty much the antithesis of how I think business, and the author-reader relationship, ought to go. "Give it away free to get exposure" is the opposite of how I'd choose to run my creative life--and yet this time, accidentally, it worked. I don't quite know what to make of it, but it got me thinking. Like I said, it's a data point.
Data Point Two. This article (originally by the Washington Post but since they currently appear to have a glitch on their website I linked to it elsewhere) features Nyree Belleville, a "thin, pretty brunette" who wrote 12 romance novels for a traditional publisher which then dropped her. Since her books had never earned her much anyway and she had nothing to lose, she reissued her first two novels as e-books.
(BTW, the article says that "her writing career was so flat line that one of her old publishers had even given her the rights to her first two novels." I bet that's not quite right. More likely, the books had gone out of print and the rights automatically reverted to Belleville under the terms of her contract. Nobody "gave" her anything.)
Those e-books made a few bucks. Then a few more. Belleville got the rights to two more of her books, wrote a new original one, dug up a few stories she'd written earlier in her career, and offered them all as e-books. In the first quarter of 2011, she sold 58,008 copies and made $116,264. Quite a comeback for a writer who a few months earlier thought her career was over.
The article also points out that such success is rare. Belleville had a big advantage being a known name with an established reputation and fan base in the print world. Far more common are the e-books that sell six copies to family and friends. Still, the economics are compelling. Notes the article, "it is possible for writers marketing a $4.99 self-published e-book to make more per copy than authors with a $24.95 hardcover." As an author with a $24.95 hardcover, that sounded about right and got my undivided attention.
Of course the most important question to me is: How does this affect me? I dunno. These are interesting times. Writers have exponentially more strategies and outlets available than ever, but consequently a greater challenge being heard above the din than ever. If there are no gatekeepers and everybody's a writer, how do you stand out from the crowd? Tell good from bad? Can a writer still lounge moodily in his garret and scritch away with a quill pen (as I am wont to do), or does the 21st Century author have to be a promoter, accountant, and computer guru, too?