Research and Development

Jul 19, 2012 | Opinions

How does DIY publishing pay for research and development?

This is the question posed by Porter Anderson over on Jane Friedman’s blog this week, and I find it fascinating on many levels. The general idea of the article – and I do recommend reading it all – can be summarized in Porter’s closing:

Do you see a natural investment opportunity and apparatus in place for supporting new talent and the new works of existing authors in a self-publishing setting? Aside from the individual trial-and-error that each self-publishing author funds for him- and herself, where’s the R&D in a DIY industry?

This leads on from another article that raised any number of hackles from Eugenia Williamson in the Boston Phoenix called The Dead End of DIY Publishing, whose main point was exactly this. New authors are (apparently) nurtured by the money that comes from bestsellers; indie publishing has no such process. So why is this so interesting? Well, to me at least, they’re asking the wrong questions.

What is R&D?

Alright, bear with me here. In theory, the majors use their bestseller money to take chances on, as Porter calls them, “the young and the feckless, the debutantes and the dodgy, the genre-challenged and the passion players”. Research and development of new authors, yes?

Except this isn’t R&D. In any other business, this would be called utter lunacy of the kind that might get people fired. Think for a minute about what this implies: the majors take money made on one product that’s sold well, and sink it into dozens of new, untested products on the off-chance that one of them will turn a huge profit to cover all the losses. What other business operates like this, on a wing and a prayer?

Research and development means exactly what it means. New products are researched, markets are tested, reactions are gauged. Its very purpose is to make sure that the company in question develops viable, marketable products, and an R&D department that consistently fails at that and has the company release duds is one that will swiftly be out of a job. So, unless the various heads of the major publishers are actually dumb as a box of rocks, this idea that they spend their bestseller money on a bunch of outside bets is ridiculous.

No, let’s assume that they know what they’re doing. They are owned by large corporations with shareholders, who generally don’t put up with people playing fast and loose with their money and are incredibly risk-adverse. I think it’s far more likely that they take their bestseller money and spend it on the books that are certain to sell, like the latest Stephen King or whatever Kim Kardashian is pretending to have written herself, and then bank the rest. They pick up the books that they think will turn a profit, and they mould those books according to their market perceptions. Artistic concerns, such as nurturing new and interesting talent? A very, very minor consideration, no matter how much the agents or editors love a particular work. Business is business, and profits come first.

So what about the indies?

There seems to be a somewhat worrying thread running through this whole thing: the notion that fewer big lump sums means less of a chance for new and interesting books to get into the limelight. I can only assume that this is the case, as there isn’t really anything more that the majors can offer except bigger initial exposure. This, of course, is blown out of the water by the fact that their job was never to bring those new and interesting books into the public eye; their job is to make profits, pure and simple. But the first part of the equation is equally flawed; who could think that new and interesting books won’t get into the limelight because of self-publishing?

Indies are a diverse bunch, but at least they understand this much: there are no more restrictions. There is no more reason for anyone to say no, your book is not worthy. There is only “Press here to publish’ and the response of the world at large, and every work stands or falls on its merits and the marketing efforts of the author. It means some of them will sell only a little. It means some of them will catch the imagination, and they will become superstars.

The question itself – where does R&D come from, in self-publishing – is meaningless. It’s asking the wrong question. R&D itself doesn’t make sense, in this world without borders. Research and development happens when someone takes something and builds upon it; each author does this for themselves, on their own work, or they borrow and remix ideas from other authors they know who write in the same genre. Release a book, get reviews, watch sales, watch traffic data, write something new. There is so little risked, with every title, that self-publishing can do what traditional publishing cannot: provide an avenue for the young and the feckless, the debutantes and the dodgy, the genre-challenged and the passion players to reach an audience that they never would have been able to before.

Of course, it’s debatable whether those strange and new projects will succeed in the market, but that is hardly different from the traditional paradigm. The point is that they don’t need to rely on the fickle nature of a gatekeeper any longer.

In Summary

Self-publishing is still maturing, but this idea of it needing some kind of mechanism for research and development like the traditional industry is simply ludicrous. The traditional mechanism is, frankly, a pretty terrible one for the purpose of nurturing new talent as its primary aim is all about the money.

The heart and soul of self-publishing is freedom. This alone makes it far more amenable to new ideas, new stories, new genres. The freedom to tell any story to the whole world, for better or worse, is worth more than any advance.