Thank you, first, to Francis, for asking me to contribute a post to her blog. She maintains such an eloquent tone here that I’m a little afraid of tarnishing the silver, but since she reads “What The Hell” regularly, I’m sure she knew what she was getting into!
As a self-publisher with a newly released novel Yesterday Road I’ve been exploring lots of ways that writers like Francis and me can find and attract readers, so at first I was intrigued by a new concept in “book delivery” – Oyster.
Have you heard of it? No? You will, and probably sooner than later.
Oyster has been described as a Netflix for books, and it works like this: Subscribers pay $9.95 a month and get to browse, download, and read as many books as they want. Pretty simple. And, you can imagine, pretty attractive to a certain kind of reader. According to the web site, there’s “No limit to the number of books you can browse or read simultaneously.”
Currently, subscribing is by invitation only, though you can request an invitation here. As yet, Oyster is a mobile service for iPhone and iPod Touch. The developers are promising an iPad version of the app soon, with something for Android coming down the road. So far, readers can choose from over 100,000 titles, mainly from HarperCollins, but that’s expected to increase when Oyster works out deals with the other big publishing houses. A deal with Smashwords is also in the works, and that’s where we come in.
The practical question is, What’s in it for the writers? Mark Coker of Smashwords, on the verge of releasing a statement with details on the arrangement, claims it’s “an author-friendly deal, so I think you’ll be pleased.” It will be interesting to see what Mark considers “author-friendly” compared with our own sense of fairness.
In the long term, will it be better to sell individual copies of our books via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and other online systems, or to participate in server-based distribution like Oyster? The closest real-world model is not really Netflix so much as Spotify for music distribution, and believe me, musicians are not happy with the payment structure there. Anecdotally, some songs getting streamed hundreds of thousands of times yield the rights holder less than twenty bucks. I fear that a service like Oyster will begin, or rather continue, to devalue the product it’s ostensibly supporting.
But what is that product? Is it really books? If you get a chance to read Jaron Lanier’s fascinating, Who Owns The Future, you’ll get a glimpse of the hidden foundation of the new economy – what he calls Siren Servers. These are the monopolizing entities that control the flow of information, and they don’t care about “product” (or compensation of the content creators) so much as influence and reach. Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple — they’re all about big data, centralization, and making themselves indispensable. Just as the recorded music business has essentially collapsed thanks to the Siren Server phenomenon, I wouldn’t be surprised to see publishing fall into that black hole as well. Newspapers are already there.
The Oyster model fits right into this idea. It isn’t selling books per se but rather access to a trove of books. Individual titles will yield some level of micropayments to the authors — probably already-popular names — but there’s no way to know yet whether they will be mere tokens or might actually pay some bills for less well-knowns.
Laura Hazard Owen, who wrote a detailed piece on the app in the online publication GigaOm says, “Oyster wouldn’t get into details with me about how it’s compensating publishers and authors, and wouldn’t state whether newer, more well-known titles are getting better royalties than older ones.” Frankly, this reticence makes me think we’re looking at more of a Spotify model than a royalty system based on copies viewed (as if they’d been sold). Would you rather, as an author, receive a few pennies per view or a set percentage of cover price per copy sold? And what will count as a view? Completion of a book, or the downloading of more than a sample? It seems like these little details will matter.
Another angle altogether, though, is the exposure we might gain by hopping aboard a potentially popular trend. Oyster will have a recommendation algorithm much like Amazon’s, so an unknown writer might well gain some new eyeballs in that lottery. Readers browsing by category could pick up an indie writer’s novel on the basis of cover art, ratings, and books that it appears to be similar to. That’s not a bad thing at all.
I suppose we have to face facts, here in the early part of the 21st century. The game has changed. These “advances” are coming, and we’re not in control. Sure, we can advocate for our own interests and fight for a fair deal, but most of all we have to stay educated and make sure we understand the marketplace.
We don’t really have a choice, do we? The successful independent writers will be the ones who learn how to use these new tools to their advantage. Oyster is probably just the beginning of a new paradigm.
Links to Kevin’s work
Yesterday Road on Amazon.com – right here
Yesterday Road in other formats – right here
Our Children Are Not Our Children on Amazon.com – right here
Our Children Are Not Our Children in other formats – right here
Kevin’s book, Parts Unknown, is available directly from the author – right here