I re-Tweeted Michael Stackpole’s latest meditation on e-publishing, the one titled (IIRC) “Swimming Lessons for House Slaves.” As always, his observations on the matter are informative and helpful.
In regard to his take on the matter, the analogy of which I was thinking is that of so-called “troubled assets,” underwater mortgages and such, which have been in the economic news lately. In that sense, an established writer’s backlist, or a new writer’s projects, might seem like a “troubled asset” to a mainstream publishing house — that is, the value of the asset (the writer’s book) is less than what it would be worth to the publishing house to publish it, just as a house might have become worth less in the real estate market than the cash amount that is stated on the prior mortgage.
However, that “troubled” state doesn’t mean that either the book or the house have no value. In line with Mike’s analysis, the property (book or house) might still have considerable value, for somebody with a different financial set-up. In this case, that would be the self-publishing writer, who has a vastly lower cost of production than the mainstream, hard-copy publisher, and thus a vastly more favorable cost-to-benefit ratio in regard to doing something with the property. In other words, what is “troubled” for the mainstream publisher (i.e., not worth publishing) might be completely untroubled and profitable for the self-publishing writer.
The problem for the mainstream publishing houses is that the more properties that they choose to regard as “troubled” or unprofitable, the more properties they’re handing back over to the self-publishing writers, with their vastly more favorable cost-to-benefit ratios. This is important — at one time in the not-so-distant past, those “troubled” properties would have virtually disappeared; the opportunities for doing anything with them was slight. But with the increasing importance of ebook sales, now those books are still in competition with the production lines from the mainstream publishers. If the mainstream publishers are only putting out those titles that are still above their “troubled” cut-off line, and a reader wants a Michael Stackpole (or K. W. Jeter) title instead, they can online to Amazon and find it, just as easily as the titles that the mainstream publishers are putting out.
In other words, the mainstream publishers are like dinosaurs (I’m hardly the first one to make that observation) who are almost literally giving birth to the sleek, small, fast-moving little mammals that will eat their eggs and drive them to extinction, or as close to as possible.
To return to Mike’s much more elegant and dramatic analogy, in the new ocean into which the publishing world is transforming itself, a lightweight creature can swim, while a bulkier, heavier one drowns.