Is Self-Publishing Today Similar to Programmers in the 1980s and early 1990s?
This is a rambling thought process. I am going to date myself, as I often do. I am also going to show a bit of my technology background, so if your eyes glaze over, skip forward a few paragraphs.
In the early 1990s I finished graduate school and started working for this relatively unknown company, called Microsoft. Yes, I seem to have a predilection toward working for what many term evil empires during their rise. My other sojourn into an empire was Amazon, but I was a bit late to storming those gates—their empire was well established by the time I crossed the threshold.
When I entered Microsoft, I knew a number of software developers who had made a small business by selling a program they wrote on their own. These software developers fell into two camps: one was the self-taught developer who had never taken a formal class in software development, but had a knack for it and understood the basics behind procedural programming (most developers back then were not interested in object oriented programming), the other type was a programmer who had some formal training, but was not interested in working for a large company.
What made it possible for either of these two to be successful (this was PRE-Internet as we know it) was the success of the personal computer. Someone other than corporations was buying software. That software could be rather primitive, as long as it worked.
A few of these software developers made it big. Some faded away. Many joined companies of many sizes. But, for a few years, there was a period where anyone could write a program and make some money. You would hear countless people say, “Really? I could do that. I’ll write a program too and make a lot of money. It’s not that hard. Working for a company, they’ll take all the money that I could be making. I don’t want some measly salary.”
You probably get the drift of the analogy. We are in a period where anyone can publish a book, especially and eBook. eReaders are the PCs of this decade. Authors all over are saying “I could just publish on my own and sell it. Why should I split my money with a publisher?”
Wait, I hear a few of you (a few of you might constitute my entire reading audience, but let’s pretend) say, “Why limit yourself to the 1980s and ‘90s? Look at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Groupon (well, given Groupon's missteps already, don’t look at them) and a host of other startups.”
Because, they are not software startups. They don’t sell software as their core product. They did not start up with a software product. It was a service. I’m talking software programs that you sell. Any software startup big hits in the past decade? Can you name one? Can you name one written by a single person, versus a team?
There are still people making money selling single programs (ala the Apple app market—bringing a bit of the 1980s back), but not many. And for everyone who does, there are a thousand who don’t make any money at it.
So, what does a good programmer do? She, or he, finds a company to work for. Many work for big companies and do really well. Many also go to startups, work long hours, and get almost no benefits. Why? Some do it hoping the startup will get big and they will get carried along. Yet, that is not the only reason. It is not even the biggest reason, as most programmers know that the odds are the company will not go big. Yet, they go there and stay. I was CTO at one small software company over fifteen years ago. The company has not grown since. Yet, many—a surprising number—of the software developers that were there 15, nay 17 years ago are still there. Why?
Before answering that, let me try and pull this loose analogy back to publishing. I do admit it is loose.
Now is the heyday of self-publishing. Not programmers this time, but authors. Just as there were no real filters for software being sold in the 1980s, there are no filters for self-publishing authors now. Word of mouth (such as Amazon reviews) is one filter as are the increasing number of blogs that do reviews. Writers that have great ideas, but frankly suck at writing, can do well. Writers with significant education in writing, with technical skill, often still fail. Writers are having “fun” just as all the programmers in the 1980s were. But, the ecosystem responds. Why would Amanda Hocking, the self-publishing poster child selling millions on her own, go with a large publisher? The same reason a Ray Ozzie might join Microsoft (Ray was core of Lotus Notes when it was first created). The same reason a programmer today might join a small, stable, startup.
It (moving to a publisher) allows them to focus a bit more on the creative act they like. Not always a lot more, but a bit more. It also provides a built in community of collaboration that is hard for natural loners to achieve on their own. In this respect programmers are a lot like writers. We tend to create well in isolation. But, if we are smart we know that feedback and learning from others is important. It provides a sense of family and stability.
Stability? With small publishers folding every year? I said “sense” of stability, but that sense is important. We are products of our feelings. If you are published by a small publisher, you will probably have a home with them as long as you work hard and have the right attitude. A small publisher will publish your work. The publisher will give you a deadline, making you work—and if you are like many writers (or programmers), without a deadline you are going to take twice as long. The small publisher will read your work and provide feedback. The heart of real editing (not that line editing you paid someone to do). The publisher, even though not large, has a sense for commercialism. The editorial response will be geared toward a market. Again, not necessarily what a paid editor for a self-publisher does.
Just like software startups, there are different types of small publishers. Some are in it as a pass through, you are really still self-publishing.
Why to some programmers leave Microsoft and move to a small software company? Why would an author leave a large publisher and go to small publisher? Large companies will push you out with the review process. If you are not a superstar, you are cog in the wheel. This is true if you are a writer or a programmer. Often the programmer, or author, needs the right environment to flourish. To be creative. Thus, if they can afford it, many leave the big company and go to the small company. Freedom to create. Faster response times. Someone to talk to.
Just as the age of programmers “self-publishing” their work changed in the 1990s, I think self-publishing for authors is already changing. Many self-taught programmers when to small and large companies and gained training, skills, and experience and either stayed, or applied those at yet another company. The self-published author who did not make it huge on their own, might look at a small press the way a programmer whose idea did not make it big on their own looks to a small startup: “Here is a place to grow, gain skills, and in a few years, either stay, or move up the food chain.” After a few years, you stay. You are doing well, not getting rich, but doing well and learning. Growing. Appreciated by the small company. You make friends. A decade passes.
This is the reason that the small company I was CTO at still has so many people from the core group of 17 years ago working there. It is also why so many small presses that do survive have authors there that were there ten years ago.
I believe as the industry changes, as Amazon further becomes like Microsoft or Oracle did for software, that the authors will move toward medium sized presses, small presses and self-publishing will become less popular. Self-publishing as we know it, will become less popular. It will lose its remaining stigma, but become less popular for the professional writer. The writer that wants to make a lifelong career out of their craft. Small presses will be a hybrid between current publishers and self-publishing. The small press will have skin on the game, but will leave much of the work and initiative to the author. The author will reap larger rewards (percentage wise) than now.
I also believe the educational ecosystem will react. It already is. Just as a computer science degree was rare in the 1970s and even 1980s, it is commonplace now. What is taught is completely different also. For writers, the number of workshops, MFA programs, retreats, etc. has exploded in recent years. Some of these are good, some are weak. In ten years what is taught at an MFA will change radically to reflect the technology and marketing that is now part of the “craft” of writing and will be more so. But, that is the subject of another rambling blog.