Who shares in the risk/reward of publishing books?

I’m here at the Waterside conference and it’s been interesting so far. The keynote was from Tim O’Reilly, well-known open source pundit, visionary and head of O’Reilly & Associates.

Unfortunately, he got lost in the world of “paradigm shifts” and his enthusiasm for the new, the different, and the adoption cycle (without remembering to call it that) and forgot to address what I believe is the fundamental question of this conference…

Tim’s main point, I think, was that authors represent early adopters for technologies and that the role of book publishing is to ease the adoption of new technologies by the masses, to “reduce the learning curve.” As Tim colorfully put it, “our job is to be midwives in the birth of a new paradigm.”

The question of ebooks? “I certainly think that EverQuest is a great example of an online fantasy ebook.” which is an intriguing perspective worth exploring in a different ‘blog entry.

The problem I have with Tim’s perspective on authorship is that getting closer and closer to the front edge of the adoption curve with technologies makes it harder and harder to differentiate what’s going to be a success and what isn’t. For every successful prediction about an up-and-coming technology, there are three where publishers, authors and even readers waste time learning, paying for and adopting ultimately dead technologies. Since the challenge of publishing is to try and simultaneously anticipate the future and reduce the risk of any individual publishing effort (and companies like the recently dead WROX demonstrate the dangers of focusing too much on one side to the exclusion of the other) it’s disappointing that Tim didn’t address that issue directly.

My personal view is that publishing needs to move into a place where authors have the option of choosing either to share the risk and have a potentially higher upside for riskier topics, or accept a lower upside/risk for more proven technology. It’s a problem with the “artistic” view of writing: are authors part of the business of publishing, or are authors artists who should be compensated for their efforts by the publishing industry independent of the success of the book? To some extend I’m arguing advance/royalty versus work-for-hire, but there’s a deeper issue here, and one that should be addressed here at the conference: are authors able to contribute to the improvement of the risk/reward picture for a book, or not?

More as the conference progresses…

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