Or, The Freedom of Self E-publishing (Part 2: Genre)
Yesterday I blogged about the freedom digital publishing (especially self-publishing) offers in terms of form. Today I want to talk about content. N.B.: I am conflating digital publishing with self-publishing here, or at least considering the possibility of self-publishing in every mention of digital publishing.
Fiction is broadly swathed into genres in a bookstore, but within a “genre” there can be so much variation as to make one example unrecognizable as the same “genre” from another example. The designations are also highly arbitrary. Take romance as a genre. If you pick up 10 random romance novels, you will find all but maybe two feature stories that, by plot, are really mysteries, Westerns, historical political dramas, or fantasy/science fiction adventures. Very few romances are truly only romance. Or look at science fiction and fantasy; a high number of them will actually be mysteries or romances by plot. The groupings are imprecise and arbitrary, yet cross-pollination is often discouraged from publishers until one outlier succeeds against the accepted wisdom. (To clarify: I mean true double-genre work, not genres that use elements of another in small doses. For example, just because an epic fantasy contains a love story doesn’t mean it’s a romance…I mean when you have in a fantasy setting a story that is built around the romance and is explicitly erotic and reads literally like a romance novel in a fantasy world.)
Digital publishing, especially self-publishing, demolishes genre boundaries. Maybe there is not a strong enough market for science-fiction romance novels for a publisher to bother with—no fans of science fiction who do not also read romance would touch it, and no romance readers who do not also read science fiction would touch it. That small subset of the two reading populations is not worth pursuing.
But in digital publishing, there is no production cost other than the services used to render the book to its final published form—editing and cover art—and so the point where the publisher breaks even on the product is much lower. A print book that sells 500 copies over its life but requires 450 copies to pay back its production costs (editing, cover art, printing, shipping to store, advance to author, and eating the cost of unsold copies in the print run) makes less money than a digital book that sells 500 copies but only needs to sell 50 to make back its production costs (editing, cover art). Suddenly going after that niche is viable, because the return will be so much higher than the expenditure: it goes from a lousy investment with a 10% return to one with a 450% return.
Examining the philosophy of an actual publisher shows that digital opens up niche markets that did not exist before.
Bypassing publishers opens it up even further.
You can literally write about any weird topic or conglomeration of genres and styles that appeals to you. And via the internet you can reach the audience for it.
Remember that old compliment, “You’re one in a million”? Let’s suppose that’s true, that each of us in our special snowflake way is one in a million. Guess what? There are 6 billion people in the world; that means there are 6000 others exactly like you. Imagine finding them. 6000 purchases on that strange niche you thought only you wanted to read about is a lot of money in your pocket at 70% of the purchase price. Maybe you only find the ones in the U.S. Even assuming a homogeneous spacing throughout the world population, that’s still 300 people who now have the opportunity to enjoy your work, whereas before the internet and digital publishing you would have had an audience of exactly one: yourself.
Another aspect of digital publishing in terms of content is the revival of genres publishing had decided were “dead,” such as Westerns—maybe the audience isn’t big enough for publishers to pursue, but they are a comfortable niche for an author self-publishing.
Referring again to my post from yesterday, the lack of form constraints might also lead to a purification of genres. Instead of having only those romances where half of the story is solving a mystery or adventuring across the world, readers will now also be able to read those whose only story is the love story. Maybe the book didn’t have enough Story for a publisher to have picked up. Maybe the author thought it was perfect at 30,000 words (a novella) and didn’t want to shoehorn in another round of conflict to expand the work to a “publishable” length. Maybe it’s about two ordinary people who fall in love without any extraordinary circumstances surrounding them. Yawn, right? From the books on the shelves it would seem publishers think so. But if there is a hidden market for that kind of story, digital publishing allows that story to find them.
Ultimately, that kind of splintering into niche markets is where our cultural economy is heading, and I think it’s wonderful. As a writer, I love the freedom to simply write the stories that I want to write without having to obey arbitrary “rules” of length and topic. I might still refer to them as guidelines or a common denominator sort of judgment, but there is no imposed necessity.
And as a reader, I am thrilled to be able to find that one book that combines custom millinery with fighting vampires that I’ve been hoping someone would write since I was 15. Oh, someone did? Click….