Following on the heels of my blog regarding Louis CK’s experiment with producing and selling his own video, the question arises as to whether this is possible for the indie author. “Disintermediation” is the new buzz word, and success stories such as CK’s suggest the only thing standing between the author and their audience is a blog and PayPal. But is it really? The allure of indie publishing is that it provides us with a way past the gatekeepers. But all gatekeepers? Or just the obvious ones?
The only true intermediary between an author and publishing success has and always will be money. If you had tens of thousands to spare you could start your own publishing company, publish your own book, have it printed at your expense, contract with a distributor, run numerous ads and buy reviews, and hire sales people. Hell, you could even hire someone to ghostwrite the actual book.
But most of us don’t have tens of thousands to spare; we had to go the traditional route and try to find a publisher to finance our efforts. Some authors were successful, the majority were not.
With indie publishing, many of those impediments have been removed. We now have direct-to-retail options like Kindle and PubIt!. We can leverage social media to garner some interest. Print-on-demand makes producing a print book financially viable for most of us. Those who are artistically talented can design their own books. The technologically able can bypass the expense of conversion services. But there still remain two final impediments to disintermediation: distribution and marketing.
For the indie author to be truly independent of any corporate slavery, they need to sell their books off their own websites. But that’s expensive. CK spent $32,000 on his website so that he could sell his video without having to personally email it to buyers. Do you have that kind of money? I don’t. I also don’t have a ready-built audience like CK does to make the experiment financially less risky. Instead I must rely on accessing retail channels. I must rely on the good graces of Amazon/Barnes & Noble/Apple to let me sell on their sites, and I must contract with an aggregator to access the remaining retailers or to bypass any restrictions such as my residency (B&N) or my tax status (Apple). Each of these impediments costs me money, either in upfront fees, a share of my sales, or a share of my royalties.
Then there is marketing. I can Facebook and Twitter till I drop and that’s only going to go so far. I need access to major marketing sites like Goodreads or Shelfari, but I can’t put my book up there unless it has an ISBN or sells on a major retail site (Shelfari, in fact, is owned by Amazon). I need to gather reviews from indie reviewers or I need to pay for advertising. Again, all cost me money, either in free books or fees.
While indie publishing has opened doors for authors, it’s important that we don’t delude ourselves into thinking the old order has been vanquished. The current gatekeepers — publishers, editors, professional reviewers — have been replaced by new gatekeepers: retailers, aggregators, indie reviewers. And there will always be that one true intermediary: money. Money in the form of time to create content, money for software, money to pay the book designer, money to pay the convertor, money for aggregator fees, money for complimentary copies (if you produce a print version), money for advertising.
True disintermediation is still the luxury of the already successful. Louis CK was only able to bypass his former media partners because he had the means to do so. He had a fan base — built over three decades using the traditional media model — who paid for the tickets to the show that was recorded, which meant the $170,000 production paid for itself. He had the aforementioned $32K to build the website. The video was downloaded only so there were no costs to produce and deliver hard copies. Similarly, J.K. Rowling is said to be selling Harry Potter ebooks from her own website, Pottermore (currently in beta testing), and she admits she does so only because she can (and she can afford the digital watermarking technology to identify copyright infringers).
Disintermediation is still out of reach for indie authors. It is no surprise to me, then, that many of the most successful indie ebook authors have gone on to sign traditional publishing deals; Amanda Hocking is one example. Others have mixed models, self-publishing only those books their publishers won’t; think Stephen Leather. Or they have signed distribution deals for the more complex print distribution while keeping control over their ebooks; this was John Locke’s choice.
Like so many theories that are heralded as the next Utopia, “disintermediation” doesn’t really survive closer scrutiny when applied to the majority of us.