The best metaphor I can think of, at least off the top of my head, is that we’re clustered at the edge of a cliff, during an earthquake. The leading edge of the cliff’s underside is eroded, and the cracks are starting to show, in the ground beneath our feet.

This is the publishing industry.

Those who cling, not just to print itself, but more importantly, to the business models that arose out of exploiting the efficiencies of print–contracts and pricing based on overhead, printing costs, distribution, etc.–are at the edge of that cliff. The seismic shift in the industry is going to crumble the ground right out from under them–is going to, and is presently doing just that.

But I’m not just talking about publishers. They’ll need to adapt, of course, or go out of business. For them, adapting means finding a way to be indispensable to authors. Before, we needed them for initial investment. The cost of doing a print run was high, and the savings were in high volume output. We also needed them for distribution. They had connections to the retail outlets. Book catalogues, and promoters who worked with the book buyers at the chains.

Nor am I just talking about booksellers or wholesalers. They too, will need to figure out ways to adapt their business model in ways that make them indispensable to the process. Otherwise, they’re going to fall off that cliff.

I’m also talking about writers. And this is where the metaphor breaks down–or where I have to add in that the writers on the cliff also have superpowers (good thing I’m an SF writer), like the ability to float in limbo indefinitely, as the cliff erodes from under our feet. We also have the ability to will ourselves to flight and safety, even in mid-fall, should we decide to change our course.

We have a better chance than the others. We are one of the two indispensable components of the industry–us, and readers. We are alpha to the readers’ omega. The rest is the intervening apparatus that has grown up around getting our creations to those who wish to read them. This means that we’re not as financially invested in the technologies, machineries, and spaces of that old technology. For us, it’s just a matter of deciding which business model we’re going to buy into. The big problem is that we’re emotionally invested.

We’re dreamers. We imagine things. And when we imagine them, it is vividly, and in great detail. Most of us who have dreamed up stories and started writing them down, have also dreamed of someday getting “the call” from an agent or editor, phoning to tell us they’d plucked our diamond of a novel from the slush pile and were dazzled by its brilliance. We’ve imagined where we’d be sitting and what we’d be doing, when the phone rang.

It was tough for me, this past summer, to realise that if I ever were to achieve writing success (whatever that means), then it would look very different to how I’d always imagined. I probably wouldn’t be getting “the call”, for one thing.

It was hard to let go of that emotional imperative–but the more I examined the situation, the more difficult it became for me to hold onto it. It made no rational sense to do so.

I get the feeling that there’s a lot of similar bemusement in the industry right now. A lot of people, poised at the edge of the cliff, clearly don’t know how they got there. The ground is crumbling beneath their feet, and they didn’t even realise there was an earthquake going on. Others were convinced that the tipping point of the shift to ebooks would be much longer in coming. But with each day, the reality is growing ever clearer: it’s right here, right now.

And so I say: writers, it’s time to make the leap, and learn to fly.

Advertisements