I recently began listening to the followup to The Lexus and The Olive Tree, entitled The World is Flat: A Short History of the 21st Century. The latter was written in 2005 so the author has had time to absorb the true impact of the internet, while it was just getting revved up when he wrote the former book. His key point in the first part (of three) of the book is that there have been many events which have caused the world to flatten. This flattening is a metaphor for a leveling of the playing field across many different industries. For example, Linux has leveled the playing field in computers by allowing poorer people to afford computers since they don’t have to pay for an operating system or programs. Fiber optics have leveled the playing field for India by allowing data to be transmited so quickly and with so much bandwidth that companies are able to do more and more abroad, allowing educated Indians to have jobs of a caliber they could not have before. You get the point.
Let me offer one other example which he doesn’t talk about in the book, or, if he does, he hasn’t mentioned it yet. While the RIAA may consider MP3s to be the bane of their industry, it has been a boom to indie musicians. Unlike .wav files, which take up 10 MB per minute of music, MP3s take up about 1 MB per minute of music at 128kbps sampling rate. This has allowed, as everyone reading this knows, for music to become small enough to transmit over the Internet. While the recording industry claims that this is bad because of piracy, the true reason that they hate it is because it threatens their entire industry! While this is a slow process which may or may not ever reach fruition, MP3s allow artists to be independent of record labels. If I were an indie group or a garage band who didn’t get signed by a label, I could put up a website and post MP3s of my music. If I were good, word would spread over the Internet and everyone would download my MP3s. Then, if enough people from my surrounding area liked me, I could throw a concert. Maybe it couldn’t be at Madison Square Garden, but some smaller venue (like my friends in High School used to do). In the “real world” artists never make money on their CDs anyway, they make money on Tshirts, hats, and concert sales. Therefore, they can bypass the record companies and still make money if they are good. Of course the RIAA feels threatened by this!
Some groups have already begun to do this. I wish I knew the name of the group, but an old 80s group has revived by doing this. Their label didn’t want to resign them so they began releasing MP3s on their website and have gained a huge following of fans who have begun to pour money into them through merchandise and ticket sales.
So what does all of this have to do with writing? Well, Lulu.com is poised to do to publishing what MP3s are doing to music. I discovered this company yesterday because a flickr group I am involved in is using Lulu to create a quarterly photo magazine. They were only charging $20 so I had to see what this was all about! Lulu levels the playing field for indie writers by not charging any money at all up front. If I create a book and upload it to Lulu, they charge me no fees. They tell me how much the book costs to print and then they ask how much profit I want to earn. Profit I want to earn + book cost = sales price. Lulu keeps 20% of this. So you only pay anything if someone buys a book. If no one ever buys your book, it’s ok because Lulu doesn’t charge you. In this scheme the reader really does cover all of the costs! You can even create an ebook, in which case it’s pure profit!
This gives indie writers many, many advantages. First of all, they can set a lower price because they do not have to cover the cost of distribution and markups from the distribution channels and store markups. Second, it allows an author to get his or her work out there without having to lay out any cash. Before, if an author couldn’t get signed by a publisher he or she had to pay for the printing themselves and then get it out and convince Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com to carry it. This is no longer the case! This is truly a wonderful time to be a great writer and you don’t have to remain unknown until a publisher finds you. Just as indie films are often the best, but studios wouldn’t produce it, indie books can be awesome, but not signed. This is dumb because it signals that publishers and producers don’t know what they are doing because good ones are not getting produced – their filter is too strong and it’s filtering out good work.
Andrew, you have some amazing work – get to Lulu now! The rest of you who have always had aspirations of being an author, get to Lulu now! I will blog about this again once I have my first book out. q:o)