While listening to The Command Line Podcast a few weeks ago, they started talking about how digital distribution allows for innovations in publishing. I don’t remember what they mentioned exactly, but the prior link should take you to the show notes. The talk started a series of synapses firing in my grey matter culminating in the following idea – what about a subscription model for authors. Right now it sucks to be an author in that your pay is very irregular. I know that my paycheck will be the same week to week. But authors get an advance for a book and then some royalties depending upon how well a book sells. So they can’t really plan their finances easily because they don’t know ahead of time how many books they will sell. But, with digital distribution, it might be easier to sell the author’s readers on a subscription model.
Let’s taken an author like Terry Pratchet who has a body of work encompassing a universe and series of characters. After building up a fan base from his first few books, perhaps he could end up telling people they could subscribe to get the future books in his series. Now, with the current way books are written, this wouldn’t work because it takes years between books. But what if the books were instead serialized. I know in the old days (the 1800s, I think) a lot of books would first appear in newspapers a chapter at a time. Then, when the book was complete, a reader could buy the entire story in book form. So if Terry (or Tom Clancy, Dan Brown [ugh!], etc) could deliver a chapter every month to continue your story (like a comic book storyline) would you pay to subscribe? This works out for the author because he/she now has a steady revenue stream. It works for the reader because you don’t have to wait years for the next book to come out.
What are the pitfalls to this scheme? First off, enough people need to have an ebook reader. Second, this has to work within the framework of writing books. I’ve never written a fiction book, so I don’t know exactly how the process works. Perhaps the practice of refining earlier chapters of a book as you work on later chapters would preclude certain (or all?) authors from participating in such a scheme.
Another potential money-maker with digital distribution of books would be add-on content. Perhaps for a premium, a reader could get commentary (audio or text) on the book. This is not without its negatives. The author would be busy producing add-on content instead of the next book.
Neither of these situations are perfect, but I think we need to continue to try and innovate as new technologies allow for abilities that didn’t previously exist. After all, would as many people have bought DVDs in the early days if you couldn’t skip chapters? That was the killer app for me when it was SO HARD to find the right spot in a movie if someone rewound it or if you just wanted to watch your favorite part over and over. And now we have technologies like Hulu bypassing the concept of channels on TV. Perhaps something just as disruptive could be on the horizon for books. Get on it, innovators!