Monday, December 8, 2008

I have a dream

Well, I have lots of dreams, but we don't talk about that.

No, today I want to talk about my publishing dream. The latest iteration of it, anyway. That is, one I came up with while eating a neatly packaged breakfast (boiled egg, satsuma--surprisingly satisfying) this morning. In other words, this is spur-of-the-moment stuff, very likely impractical, but, hey, help me make it better.

As index.mark said to me recently in email

if this...

author --> editor --> sales/marketing --> distributor --> bookseller --> reader

can be successfully shortened to this...

author --> editor/sponsor --> reader

that will be a business.

I think he's right. But what does the editor/sponsor segment of the process look like?

The small presses I'm familiar with that are currently doing well include Aqueduct, Small Beer, Payseur & Schmidt, and Bold Strokes Books. They are all run by writers (and/or designers)--by the Creatives, not the Suits. The lunatics have taken over the asylum and are running it very well.

They are doing so well because each has a singular vision, a particular niche. They have articulated what they like, identified others who like it, too, and found a way to connect the producers with the consumers. They all have thriving websites providing direct purchase. They have shortened the chain.

I have published work (ANWAGTHAP and With Her Body) with two of them, Aqueduct and P&S: small projects dear to my heart that wouldn't fly commercially with any of the big trade publishers I've worked with before (Riverhead, Vintage, Nan A. Talese, Ballantine, Perennial etc.). I didn't make any real money--a few hundred dollars, but nothing that would pay the mortgage.

Writing is my only source of income. All my writing projects need to contribute to the mortgage. In other words, even for the small, personal projects (which take time away from the big, commercial projects) I need to find a way to shorten the chain even further, keep more money in the producing as opposed to editing/distributing hands. The only solution I can come up with is a Creative Co-Operative.

A co-op, to be taken seriously artistically and financially, would have to publish (print, electronic, audio, etc.) really good books, really good blogs, really good sound files. It would include writers, musicians, artists, designers, web devs, video producers, sound engineers, editorial writers--and so on. The creator (the writer or, say, in the case of And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, the writer and designer team) would get 50% of the profit, the rest of the co-op--the woman who made the vid, the geek who designed the webpage, the man who wrote the hellfire-hot op-ed for the hip journal mentioning the book--would get the other 50%. The creative people would work on everyone's project (the writer, say, would write blog posts about the awesomeness of the videographer's latest project).

I'm imagining cooperatives in every city--at least in every city with a great enough artist/consumer ratio: New York, Austin, Madison, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver--and once a year a huge jambouree where reps from each coop get together and have brilliant ideas. A combo of Burning Man and TED. (Burning Ted?)

The biggest point, though, would be no DRM. Zip. Zero. Zilch. The formats would be Word (or rtf), mp3, mp4, etc. Preciousness over immutability will kill our business if we let it. Every project would be published on the coop's website (as well as in books, DVDs, etc). Ownership would be clear and incontrovertible. Anyone who used it commercially without permission could be sued and/or shunned. But the products would be so very well priced (I'm not seeing any reason to ever charge more than $10 for a paper book, $4 for electronic) and so easily ported from Kindle to desktop to TV to handheld that there would be no point in pirating.*

An optimistic, impractical, rosy-coloured dream? Yes. A hopeless dream? No, I don't think so. Just not very well thought out, as yet--I'm making this up as I go along.

So what obvious pitfalls am I missing (apart from the usual human urge for organisations to tear themselves apart in 5 seconds flat **)? How could this work?

* Yes, I know some people are just ugly and will steal no matter what. So what? A lot of people won't.
** In my 20s I was in more collectives and cooperatives than I care to remember; I know the pitfalls of these things. I'm asking for publishing pitfalls--and, y'know, solutions.
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