"Binge culture" is here to stay. Don't fight the reader. Fight the power.
I want to follow up last week's post on rooting against buffet-style reading with a post to caution creators against venting frustration in the form of resenting consumers. Cracks are appearing in the reader-facing facade of the independent author. Frustration is setting in. There are multiple reasons for this, including the loss of organic traction and Amazon's increasing pressure on creatives to be nothing more than suppliers.
But there is more. Indie authors are now showing frustration with reader consumption habits. For several years, we indies have courted and wooed readers away from traditional publishers by providing lower prices, direct access to our process, and more recently we've killed ourselves for the sake of rapid release--the process of creating a continuous stream of content to satisfy the increasing consumption pattern we now call "binge culture."
This author frustration has reached the forefront of indie publishing news over the last few weeks. Starting on twitter, the discussion was continued by Jane Friedman's Hotsheet and picked up by the Sell More Book Show. More and more authors are burning out from intense publishing schedules and the ever present pressure to keep the reader's constant attention...or else lose them for good.
Payback is a bitch.
We've been short-sited and opportunistic. Now it's coming back to bite us in the ass. Hey, it happens to the best of us. Think back to just eight years ago. Traditional Publishers were displaying frustration, and in some cases disdain, for readers who were undervaluing the written word by flocking to cheep ebooks put out by none other than us indie authors.
The argument had and still has merit. The value of a book should be the words rather than the paper. The blood, sweat, and tears that an author invests into a sixty thousand word story should be worth at least as much as a one-hundred-minute movie, right? But entrepreneurial-minded authors and dreamers tore down the gates and stormed the castle. For us, this was our opportunity to fulfill our dreams and to make a sustainable living while doing it. The old vanguard had gone flabby.
We would do whatever it took to build an audience and a following. We gave books away for free for as long as it made financial sense. We found the optimal price points in the continually fluctuating new frontier of digital publishing.
The thing is, we were reactionaries, not revolutionaries.
We weren't calling the shots. Amazon was. We've been playing the roles of minions rather than makers.
Don't get me wrong, a happy little life can be carved out as a minion, as long as that's your intent and you go into it with eyes wide open. For most of us indie authors, being a minion was not our hope. Instead we woke up one morning and were startled when we saw a minion reflected back at us from our KDP dashboard. Or perhaps this very blog post is startling you now.
As is often the case, frustration can lead to reflection. Just as traditional publishing threw up its hands early in the last decade, we are throwing up our hands early in this new decade. The first thing we need to come to grips with is that we are partially responsible for our current frustration with the "churn and burn" reading behavior that is spreading throughout our "binge culture" like gangrene.
We stoked that fire for a decade. And oh how fun it was to watch traditional publishers squirm and fidget and fuss. We chortled when they determinedly stuck to their $14.99 ebook pricing model. We rolled our eyes at their efforts to launch direct-to-consumer digital retail platforms like Bookish. So out of touch, we thought. They don't have the balls to compete with Amazon. Now Amazon is what we've got left.
Okay, we're sailing a seascape partially of our own creation. So now what? We have to understand the forces of nature impacting the seascape if we are to own it like a pirate author.
Don't assume the consumer and the information broker want the same things.
Two major forces are shaping today's "binge culture." One is the consumer. The other consists of platforms such as Amazon, Netflix, Disney, Apple, etc. A common misconception I'm seeing is that binging entertainment is being driven entirely by the consumer and that the information brokers are merely responding to consumer wants.
Let's step back a moment to make sure we're all on the same page with what I mean by "binge culture." This pattern of content consumption began to really take hold with the emergence of exclusive content on Netflix such as House of Cards. Instead of being produces over a long span of time and then released one episode a week, Netflix started batch producing content and then dumping entire seasons all at once.
While it has long been possible to buy several seasons of a show on DVD and binge watch them, binge culture didn't blossom until production studios began to create content specifically based around the binge model.
So which came first? The consumer's desire to binge content, or the information broker's desire to release bingable content? This is a chicken or the egg argument. All that matters now is that we differentiate the consumer's desires from the information broker's goals. The broker wants to commodify storytelling and use it to leverage loyalty in the name of subscription revenue.
Nothing about my last sentence is appealing to the consumer or the content creator.
It turns out, the reader and the writer have very little commonality with Amazon when it comes to our ultimate desires. But Amazon knows what consumers want and is able to employ strategies that effectively leverage what consumers want into what Amazon wants. And Amazon very successfully used indie authors to do this. For a time, everyone was a winner.
This is a critical turning point for the writer/reader relationship.
Indie authors must avoid the pitfall of blaming readers. You can't fight the consumer. You'll lose every time. If a reader tells you they want such and such, and your response is, "That's ridiculous. Of course you don't want such and such. You want this," you will fail commercially. If you are trying to build a business as a writer, please, don't fight your readers. Other writers will swoop in and give them what they want, and your dream will die.
What does the reader want? Can we separate reader desires from Kindle Unlimited enough to determine which reading trends are being artificially bolstered and driven by Amazon rather than by readers themselves? If we can do this, we can find a sustainable means of delivering a satisfying experience to our readers.
Readers and writers both share a love of story. (Hell, all writers are readers, and lots of readers want to be writers.) Readers and writers have much more in common with each other than either of us have in common with Amazon. Can we build a distribution model on that commonality that supplants the appeal of Amazon for both readers and writers? Absolutely we can. What is it that readers really want?
- Readers want content to be discoverable.
- Readers want access.
- Readers want value.
- Readers want gratification.
- Readers want story over commodity.
- Readers want connectivity.
On the flip side of all this, what aspects of Kindle Unlimited are we safe to say consumers tolerate rather than desire?
- Readers tolerate subscriptions.
- Readers tolerate targeted advertising.
- Readers tolerate reviews.
- Readers tolerate the endless buffet of content.
- Readers tolerate .epub and .mobi formats.
- Readers tolerate email marketing.
Another tectonic shift is coming.
"Binge culture" is not going away anytime soon. But readers and writers can join together to create a healthier and more sustainable storytelling cycle if we find a way to return the focus to the story itself.
When, not if, pure storytelling merges with a distribution platform capable of providing access, discoverability, value, connectivity and gratification, the result will so powerfully contrast the current model of commodifying original content for the purpose of leveraging subscription revenues that a tectonic shift will happen with such force to shock the publishing industry at a level equal to or greater than Kindle Direct Publishing.
The shift is coming. It's only a matter of when...and who will have the combination of vision and chutzpah to get it done.