The current revolution in electronic publishing is like the California Gold Rush† in a lot of ways.
- It’s real.
Underneath all the hype and ballyhoo and frenzied hysteria of 1849 lay a bedrock of sober fact: There really was gold in the California hills.
Today, a similar feverish atmosphere surrounds electronic publishing, and in particular electronic self-publishing. Publishers are scrambling to secure electronic rights; authors are scrambling to retain them; and web pundits and tech mavens are urging publishers and authors alike to get with the program now, right now, before it’s too late. A person of cynical bent might be forgiven for suspecting that the e-publishing revolution is in fact nothing more than a balloon full of hot air, rising high only to go *pop!*, but that person would be wrong. Electronic publishing really is a big new thing. Maybe even the big new thing.
- Some people will make a great deal of money at it.
In every gold rush, a few prospectors strike it rich. The creek that runs through their claim turns out to have more gold dust in it than sand, and the caves to either side of it are littered with gold nuggets the size of tennis balls. They go up into the hills bearded and starving and wearing jeans and flannel, and come down again wealthy enough to buy a mansion and a yacht and a couple of United States senators. In the e-publishing gold rush, a few electronically self-published writers will sell a lot of books and make a great deal of money and — if they want it — get picked up by established publishing houses.
- Other people will make moderate amounts of money.
Most of the prospectors who headed out to California in 1849, or up to the Klondike in 1896, didn’t strike it rich. Some of them, though, did succeed in panning enough gold to go back home and marry their sweethearts, or set themselves up in business, or do whatever else they thought was a good thing to spend their money on. In like fashion, a fair number of electronically self-published writers will make enough money over time to take a vacation, or repair the roof, or keep the pantry stocked for another month.
- But a whole lot of people aren’t going to make any money at all.
A few of them won’t care, because they only went West, or into e-publishing, for the adventure of it in the first place. The exciting times and narrow escapes they had, and the colorful stories they have to tell, are all the reward they ever really wanted. But bunches and bunches of people are going to head back to civilization even more broke than they were when they started out, and without ever getting close to realizing the dream they left home with. Assuming, of course, that they ever make it home at all.
- Because some of those people will have very bad things happen to them.
They might drown in the spring floods, or get dry-gulched by bandits, or succumb to malnutrition because they spent all their money on mining equipment and none of it on food. They will fall prey to swindlers who salt the claims, and to bad advice that leaves them stuck in Donner Pass with winter closing in.
If they are in e-publishing, they will start publishing houses with no capital and no business plan. Or they will entrust their manuscripts to scam agents, or submit them to publishers who are all façade and no action. They will hear all manner of bad advice, and take it all.‡
- But some people will make money without ever staking a claim.
They’re the ones who make it their business to sell mining equipment and blue jeans and flannel shirts and canned food and camp supplies to the miners. And the people who end up making steady reliable money off the e-publishing revolution are going to be the same sort of people: freelance cover designers and web-page maintainers and editors and copyeditors and e-text preparers.
The astute reader will note that a number of these goods and services are ones that established publishing houses handle — and pay for — as their share of the work required to turn a manuscript into a book.§
†Or the Klondike Gold Rush, or the Australian gold rushes of the mid to late 19th Century — insert local historic gold rush of your choice; there’s been a bunch of them.
‡They should read Writer Beware, and Preditors and Editors, and AbsoluteWrite. Then they will at least have a good set of maps and directions to work from.
§The astute reader will also note — per my sidebar link — that I’m doing my bit in the sale of picks and shovels. If you’ve got a NaNoWriMo book or other project that you’re interested in whipping into better shape, we can do business.
(In the spirit of full disclosure: This post originally appeared in my personal LiveJournal; I’m reprinting it here in the interest of reaching a wider, or at least more public, audience.)