Please welcome Dale Cozort, the author of Exchange, published by Stairway Press. I met Dale during a contest on Gather.com before either of us was published, and we still hang out at The Writin’ Wombats, a writers’ discussion/support group on the site. Dale writes science fiction; time-blending, mind-bending, brain-teasing novels and essays. These mashups of alternate history, science fiction and mystery realistically reshape the past and create new worlds that never were. Dale is one of the smartest people I have ever encountered — a real thinker — and I am honored that he is a guest here on Bertram’s Blog today.
Three Things Television Tells Us About The Future of Writing
By: Dale Cozort
Book publishing is going through a transition with an uncertain endpoint. The trends of the last few years in television may give us insights on the future of books, in three areas. As in TV, the transition will involve flattening the pyramid, writers and audiences franticly searching for one another, and increased competition with the past.
I’m showing my age a little when I say this, but when I was very young we had three television networks, each with about three hours of prime-time programming per night. I watched cable television turn those three channels into ten channels and then fifty and then over five hundred. I looked forward to each expansion, thinking that it would free up huge amounts of latent creativity and give me the freedom to watch programs I really liked instead of generic programs intended for a wide audience. That sort of happened, but with some downsides that can help us predict how a similar but even bigger expansion in the number of ways to get a book to the public will play out.
Expanding the ways to market will flatten the pyramid. In the old days of three network channels, TV writers, actors, directors and other creative types formed a steep pyramid. At the top were the stars, directors and writers in hit shows. Below that were the less successful actors, writers and directors who were actually on television or had a show on TV. Below that were a mass of people aspiring to get there, combining bit parts and day jobs to keep up the dream. Aspiring actress often meant waitress. Aspiring screen writer often meant administrative assistant.
The opening up of television meant that while most of those aspiring television types still couldn’t quit their day jobs, more of them could, a lot more. More TV channels meant a flatter pyramid, with more people making a living or coming close to it at the bottom end. That also had a downside of sorts: the top of the pyramid wasn’t quite as high. As the major networks lost market share, few programs reached the kind of audiences that programs routinely reached in the heyday of the three networks. Smaller markets made it more difficult for the networks to justify the kinds of expenses and production values that they could routinely use earlier.
Until recently, the major New York publishers have played somewhat the same role as the three networks, though they’ve never had as complete a control of the market for books as the networks had over television. Funneling writing through the major publishers resulted in the same kind of income pyramid we saw in television, though with much lower incomes throughout the pyramid. In terms of income and exposure, there are a very few rich and successful writers at the top, a few more writers who earn a moderate to upper-middle class income, and a huge number of people who never come close to earning an income from writing.
Opening up the publishing process will probably flatten the pyramid for writing, just as it did for television. As in TV, the base should grow; should make it possible for more people to make money writing. At the same time, more publishing venues fighting over a static or declining audience will make it more difficult for people who aren’t already at the top of the pyramid to reach the kind of audience size and financial security that existing big name authors enjoy. In other words, it will get easier to earn a few hundred or a few thousand dollars a year writing, but it will be more difficult to be the next Steven King, or even the next moderately successful writer earning a living wage, simply because there will be more competition for reader attention.
Frantically searching for your audience: Television also gives us a preview of the challenge most writers will face in a world with more publishing channels: finding your audience. If I turn on my TV and flip through the channels, I find very little of interest. A lot of times I end up turning off the TV because there not only isn’t anything on I want to watch, but there isn’t even anything on that I can stand to watch, not even as background. At the same time, I come across quite a few shows that I would have loved, but they came and went before I found them. Finding new programs to watch among five hundred channels is a challenge. Finding new authors to read is already challenging. It will get more challenging as the publishing channels broaden. Finding the people who love would love to read what you write is going to be the biggest problem new writers face as they try to establish themselves.
Competing with the past: If you flip through the five hundred television channels on your cable, you’ll notice that an awful lot of them are reruns, with whole networks devoted to bringing you the best TV shows of past decades. E-books especially bring somewhat the same theme to book publishing. There are decades worth of out-of-copyright books out there that can easily go on a Nook or a Kindle. Readers can go directly to Gutenberg Project, or pay a dollar or two to get collections with better organization and extras. Old television competes with new shows for TV-watching audiences. Old books also compete with new ones for reader audiences, and the easy availability of those books on e-readers makes the competition more direct.
As writers who aren’t at the top of the pyramid, most of us want to get at least far enough up it to make a living writing. E-books and the ease of self-publishing give us new routes to that, but there are downsides, as we’ve seen. The new routes to publication mean more competition, readers having more difficulty finding compatible writers and vice versa. The changes aren’t all good or all bad, but they are inevitable and writers need to try to understand and adapt to them.
- Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (part 1) by Dale Cozort
- The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 2) by Dale Cozort
- The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 3) by Dale Cozort
Click here to read: Excerpt From “Exchange” by Dale Cozort
Click here for an interview with: Dale Cozort, Author of “Exchange
January 26, 2012 at 7:23 pm
Dale, I like your metaphor comparing the 3 networks to the big 6 publishers. Times are changing for the publishing industry and the way we discover new writers is also bound to evolve. And as current writers, we are competing with the back list, which is all the more reason to try to break new ground that isn’t merely a rehash.
January 26, 2012 at 10:03 pm
Nice article. I wonder if anyone has answers about how to connect readers with new writers. I wonder if the metaphor of an online dating service is appropriate. Would it work if we started “bookmatch.com” which would connect readers with a “book date” with a new author who’s compatible with their tastes?
January 27, 2012 at 4:01 am
After reading your comments, Dale, I’m left with the feeling we need an American Idol for writers. Ha!
January 27, 2012 at 8:48 am
Interesting analogy between big publishers and networks, Dale. Even with lowering the point of the pyramid making a living from writing becomes much more difficult because there are many competitors. I’m reminded of milking. It’s all milk, but even when you set milk in a high volume container, the cream always rises to the top. The quality of the milk determines how thick that layer of cream is.
Ken, we do have forms of American Idol for Writers.
Sia McKye OVER COFFEE
January 27, 2012 at 11:03 am
Cream rises to the top in milk because it’s a closed, predictable system, and it does not rise to the top if it’s manipulated by homogenization. Book sales are not a closed predictable system. It’s highly manipulatable, either because the best promoters are not the best writers or because Amazon decides arbitrarily to promote certain books or because of simple, unadulterated luck. Many wonderful books sink to the bottom while mediocre books rise to the top.
January 27, 2012 at 10:09 am
Excellent analysis, Dale. Scary, disheartening, but excellent. And yes, it’s all a matter of grabbing eyeballs and grabbing them in that split second before they change the channel.
January 28, 2012 at 4:52 pm
Interesting analogy. I hadn’t thought of it that way.