“I Must Hurry, For I Am Their Leader”

Posted: April 10, 2010 in Publishing Industry

What are your writing dreams? If you’ve always fantasized getting a New York agent, signing with a major publisher, and seeing your hardback piled high at Barnes & Noble, you face a choice.

Sometimes societal trends turn in ways you didn’t expect. And though perhaps you viewed yourself as Mr. or Mrs. Mainstream, you can find yourself on the fringe, bewildered as the masses chase a trend that you don’t get. How should you react?

I know a pastor who jokes about his congregation by saying, “There they go; and I must hurry, for I am their leader.”

When the first horseless carriages hit the streets, buggy whip makers who wanted to continue making money faced a choice. They could cling to their carefully built processes of manufacturing quality whips, and wring every last dollar out of a business destined to decline. Or, they could abandon their hard-won trade secrets, and convert their factories to manufacture products for a growing market. Ideally: tires.

The digital revolution forces a buggy whip moment on a lot of industries.

Printed newspapers: dying. By “dying,” I mean the business model that originally drove newspapers can no longer grow. The immediate delivery of news on the Internet makes printed news seem old. Newspapers will struggle on for years, but they will never hit their former heights. A smart writer would never bet her career on anticipating a popular groundswell in print journalism.

Music sold through retail stores in shiny shrink-wrapped disks: dying. iTunes offers better prices, and lets you hear before you buy, all from home.

Free network television broadcasting shows subsidized by commercial interruptions: dying. There will never be another Roots. Digital delivery of whatever you want to see, on whatever device you want, whenever you want to see it, splinters the audience.

Also dying: the traditional publishing industry, printing books and granting the author a mere sliver of the retail price. If you can write an appealing book (or if you can hire an editing pro to clean up your work), all a publisher offers you is physical distribution. But you can sell your dead tree book from your own website. Better still, you can e-publish and keep almost all the gross. You no longer need a publisher; certainly not the way authors needed publishers for centuries.

So, regardless of what your lifelong writing dreams might have been, today you face the buggy whip dilemma.

You can cling to the traditional publishing model and try to wrestle your fortune out of its gradual decline. There are a few years left where that could be viable.

Or you can see where Kindle, Nook, and iPad are taking books, and embrace the new model.

But the revolution is already in progress. If you aspire to lead in it, you must hurry.

  1. Kyle says:

    This period in history, with so much dying that we’ve lived our lives by, reminds me of chaos theory – everything has to shift and fall apart before we integrate the new order. It’s amazing and frustrating to me that some people can see the new wave coming, catch it, and ride it right into shore – while the rest of us schmoes watch from the beach and marvel at their skill.

    Even when traditional publishing was viable, the odds of seeing your stuff in print were not great. And remember the Rock Bottom Remainders?

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