The top five per cent of writers make 95 per cent of the money. T'were ever thus. And probably always will be.
It's on the publishing end that the sea change has taken place. Publisher's used to subsidize 95 per cent of their new titles with that five per cent of books that were making money. But ask any publisher - finding those titles is hard. Holding onto best-selling authors once you find them is only going to get more difficult.
With e-books, authors are able to get much larger slices of the revenues than with printed books. But by self-publishing, an author can quite conceivably keep 75 per cent or more of the profit. Sounds good - and if you build and maintain and keep yourself accessible to a hard-core of a few thousand cultish followers, it could be an extraordinarily fun and rewarding way to scratch out a living.
But I suspect most authors who take that route are discovering the downside fairly quickly. Without the PR machinery of the imprint - new work gets less exposure, resulting in fewer reviews and ultimately in weaker sales and less credibility in the marketplace. A couple books down the line, your sales are down, your new readers are falling off in droves and leaving you with growing library full of books (or at least virtual books) and the memory of a once very promising writing career.
With lower e-book prices and diminishing sales and visibility - it's hard for mid-list writers not to panic. It's hard for publishers not to panic. And it's even harder finding solutions.
Here's an idea.
Writer's Collectives. Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith have done some interesting experiments in that regard. But the model I am putting forth is more like the Night Visions collections from Dark Harvest in the 80s. In Night Visions 3, there were four authors on the cover: The editor was "George RR Martin" The book contained novellas by Lisa Tuttle, Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker. The byline on Night Visions 4 featured Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, Edward Bryant and Robert McCammon. I can guarantee that every author who took part gained new fans because of their association with the other authors. While it's true that the better known names have less to gain - it's still a net gain for everyone at the end of the day. Which is precisely my point. Everyone's fan base will grow - whereas if you are completely on your own and not cross-promoting with your homies - it's a struggle to hold onto the readers you have let alone find and recruit new fans.
There are potential drawbacks. One writer friend pointed out how these things tend to go - with one person doing all the work and only getting 1/4 of the benefits. But I think there are ways to prevent that from happening. My main suggestion - take it out of the hands of everyone who is actually in the collective. But put the actual production of the book into the hands of a "packager." The packager is like a publisher - except for the fact that you pay them a flat rate for their services.
So that I can present my idea more clearly here, imagine me as the "packager." Ultimately, the collective is paying to self publish the book. Let's say they pay me a flat rate of $5000 for putting and keeping the project together (looking after cover design, typesetting etc.) and for getting word out about it and for setting up the retail side.
Let's say you are China Miéville (whom I've never met, but his name came out of my mental hat). The first thing we would do is sit down and discuss writers you share a sensibility with. Perhaps you feel that Paolo Bacigalupi is the best thing since sliced bread and it's a mutual admiration society and Paolo thinks that Nalo Hopkinson is the shit and you're all interested and available in forming a collective for a one off project. So I come up with an idea to get Angela Carter to be the guest editor and we get her. No one is off the table as a collaborator/collective member until they have turned you down! I challenge anyone who assumes that writers at that kind of successful late-career stage wouldn't be interested in a wacky project like this. I think anyone with a keen interest in the future of publishing and in the possibility of helping shape the future of publishing could have their curiosity and enthusiasm piqued by a project like this. (Of course lots of people won't be interested or available - but hopefully some will.)
In the end: instead of a self-published novella by China Miéville - which is a pretty cool thing that might do brilliantly on it's own...what we're putting together is a one of a kind collection featuring new novellas by some of the coolest writers writing - all edited by Angela Carter and put together in a jazzy package with a cover by the hottest cover design I can afford on our budget.
Then it's a matter of building buzz - making everybody curious to see how the project comes out.
Please note that even though this is all so much hot air, I am conspiring to put together an amazing book. Getting good co-conspirators on board is an essential part of this process. With participants of that calibre, selling ten thousand hardcovers at 40 dollars each should not be a stretch. And then God knows how many e-books, POD soft covers etc could be moved.
Whether you're a writer, artist, businessperson or "other" - I'd love to hear your ideas, feedback or alternatives. And certainly, most collectives wouldn't be as jam packed with stars - but the project is quite scalable as long as you can afford and find a good packager.