(Or at least there can't be another Harry Potter within the current publishing infrastructure.)
Not too long ago, I had lunch with a gentleman who played a significant role in the commercial success of Harry Potter while serving as an informal advisor to Scholastic. His was and is a fascinating story. With the changes that have wracked the publishing industry since the success of Harry Potter, it begs the question, “Will there ever be such a success story again?”
Or has technology-fueled social change busted up the landscape to prevent such a landmark novel from occurring? If so, is that a good thing or bad? Some of you will point to Fifty Shades of Grey as a more recent example, and while you would have a point, I’m not sure erotica has, or ever will, play by the same set of rules.
When it comes to whether broad-reaching, landmark narratives such as Harry Potter are a good thing, I think there is a much more important underlying issue. Harry Potter was genuinely a great story. It was imaginative and inspiring. And it’s narrative quality is what drove it’s long-staying and broad-reaching cultural impact. Yes, industry machinery launched it into orbit, and that industry machinery has since been dismantled. I’m wondering if a more relevant question is, “Will great narratives ever again win the day?” Or must we settle in with the reality that commodification of storytelling is here to stay?
There are three hurdles that must be overcome for us Pirate Authors to revitalize a publishing industry built around great narratives, as opposed to cunning (and scurrilous) marketing stratagems.
Readers expectations and desires are shifting.
The first, and possibly most psychologically devastating, hurdle is the reader herself. I don't mean this to be a form of wrist-slapping or looking down on readers. I DO mean it as a wakeup call for both readers and writers.
The most insidious aspect of the Information Dealers and their impact on us is that most often we are unaware of their influence. In this case, ebooks, Kindles, and Kindle Unlimited have combined to change the way we read. The change has occurred much the same way as it has in television, video, and music. When consumers pay a relatively small monthly fee for access to "unlimited" content, we make decisions on which content to consume differently than when we are forced to sift through content to purchase a single book, movie, or album.
Our consumption of story becomes much more like an "all-you-can-eat" buffet. The single most important factor is to consume as much narrative as humanly possible. Sure, most of it isn't great, but we get a buttload of it for only $8.99 a month! You can't beat that deal with a stick!
While an all-you-can-eat buffet might be fun every now and then, our evolving addiction to it has lead to us being highly susceptible to the Information Dealers' predatory tactics. Stuff like page-stuffing and click farms have more influence on what we read next than the quality of the narrative.
Over time, we consumers become less discerning. Before we know it, our loyalty has shifted from a StoryVerse or a series or a narrative or a character...or even an author, to Kindle Unlimited itself. We don't really care what we read next as long as the supply doesn't run out. This is bad for the readers, bad for the writers, bad for society. It's good for the Information Dealers that feast on the lowest common denominator.
Narrative has been commodified and leveraged.
Some of you might be wondering if this is "insidious" or just inevitable, capitalist evolution. That's a legitimate train of thought that needs to be addressed. Where this tactic of the Information Dealers crosses into legitimately insidious territory is within the economics.
Amazon doesn't even make money on Kindle Unlimited. And Amazon doesn't need to.
Other "all-you-can-read" services such as Oyster and Scribd have attempted to compete with Kindle Unlimited unsuccessfully. Granted, Scribd is still around and still has a pretty good chunk of customers. But as a stand-alone business model, the health-club sales strategy is a losing one for reading. I've been shouting this from the mountaintops for years now. Health clubs rely on selling a bunch of annual memberships to people they hope never show up to use their services. If everyone DID show up, this would actually be bad for the gym.
This is how we want to sell books? Seriously? Can legit storytellers and publishers submit to a sales model like this and expect our industry to survive? We should not and cannot rely on a model that sells a bunch of subscriptions to readers and then hopes that most of those readers never actually do any reading.
The brilliance of Amazon, is that they don't care and they don't have to. KU doesn't have to make them money. Amazon Prime does. And any on-boarding ramp to Amazon Prime is worth Amazon maintaining. The Kindle devices, Kindle Unlimited...it's all about selling crap. And Amazon is king of selling crap. I buy crap from Amazon all the time. Who can resist?!
But as readers and writers, what we need to understand is Amazon sees books the same way it sees toilet paper and kitty litter. There is zero concern about the narrative quality of the toilet paper. Amazon isn't interested in the social impact of the kitty litter. Guess what? The people who read also buy toilet paper, and Amazon wants to sell as much of that toilet paper as possible.
The collateral impact of the massive success of Amazon is that it's original pony (books) has been ravaged and nearly put out to pasture. Ebooks only remains important to Amazon as the beginning of a content funnel that feeds the rest of their content desires that in turn drive people into Amazon Prime membership which ensures those people remain loyal to Amazon and thus buy all their stuff via Amazon.
So not only has storytelling been commodified by Amazon, it's being leveraged to sell toilet paper. And nearly all of us are participating.
Storytelling as Twisted Bloodsport
With Amazon's eyes on the bottom line elsewhere, the Kindle Direct Publishing arena has morphed into a post-apocalyptic thunder dome for content creators. I won't go so far as to say that KDP is an afterthought for Amazon executives, but...let's call it entertaining bloodsport.
Think about that. The most influential force in publishing today is a competitive battle-sphere loosely regulated by corporate execs fixed on the quarterly bottom line. It should not surprise us that Information Dealers are maximizing KDP to their own nefarious ends. The most influential platform in publishing could not care less about the quality of the narrative it puts forward. Amazon is not looking for loyalty to a StoryVerse or to an author brand name. They only care about loyalty to Amazon. Only the "all-you-can-read" nature of the content, the ad spend, and the retail sales matter.
Don't misunderstand me; I'm not trying to villainize Amazon. They've simply harnessed consumer energies and utilized capitalistic machinery better than anyone else. Bezos has played his cards extremely well. My problem with Amazon's success is I believe pure profit making, devoid of any kind of moral compass, is not the best guiding force for social good. (It certainly isn't the worst driving force either.)
This is where the importance of Pirate Authors comes into play. Our social and moral narrative must not be controlled by the Information Dealers who dominate a profit-driven, commoditized publishing industry.
What the BLEEP can any of us do about this?
Bottom line, the stuff we read as a society can't be dominated by "all-you-can-eat" garbage being proffered by shysters and hustlers in a way that maximizes eyeballs via the KDP battle-dome. The results of this type of publishing industry will be more name-calling, more "us and them" lifestyles void of empathy, more sheep to be scattered by the fear-mongering of the Information Dealers. More anger, more hatred, more violence. Less understanding, less perspective, less critical thinking.
I'm not exaggerating in the slightest. We need powerful, well-constructed, and entertaining narratives to reverse the shit show that has become our cultural norm. As Pirate Authors, we need to find a way to stop using ad spend as gladiatorial weapons against our fellow authors in the KDP battle-dome.
How exactly can we do this? First off, we need to not panic. Stop looking for instant payoffs at the expense of long-term success. Knowledge is half the battle, right? We need to be aware of how we are being manipulated, and we need to understand the psychology of the consumer. We need to use the system to feed the snake it's own tail. I'll get further into the details on how we do all this, on how we become Pirate Authors, in next week's post about collaborative asset building on the high seas. Spoiler: It boils down to 1) who owns our stories 2) recruiting a pirate crew 3) the machinery we have available to get the story to the reader 4) shifting reader loyalties away from the platform and to our author brands.