Don’t Panic! 6 science fiction themes that illustrate a positive future for publishing

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This article first appeared in issue 5 of Publishing Talk Magazine.

While some publishers view digital as a dystopian nightmare, Alastair Horne considers six science fiction themes and how they illustrate a more positive future for the industry.

Don't Panic! 6 science fiction themes that illustrate a positive future for publishing

Something not-quite-so wicked this way comes

Dystopian fiction has provided the publishing industry with some of its biggest recent successes – Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy is reported to have sold more than 50 million copies in the past five years. The vision of a dystopian future that has had the greatest influence over publishing in recent times came not from a novel created for young adult readers, however; it is in fact the fate suffered by the music industry in its attempts to deal with to digital disruption.

Desperation to avoid this future has guided many of the publishing industry’s steps on its path towards a digital future. Fear of the piracy that ravaged the industry – from Napster to Bittorrent – has, for instance, led to an insistence on copy-protection which has in turn served to lock customers into a relationship with what some perceive as an even bigger threat: Amazon.

And yet, all the while, there has been a more optimistic future on offer, and from an area where one might expect to find such futuristic visions – the world of science fiction publishing. In this article, I’m going to consider six ways in which science-fiction publishing might represent a more positive future for the entire publishing industry.

1. Funders’ game

Increasingly widespread in recent years, the crowd-funding model sees artists finance projects by seeking investment directly from their audience, ahead of publication. The approach has proved particularly popular with musicians either unwilling or unable to find backing from record labels.

Kickstarter remains the best-known crowd-funding vehicle generally, but perhaps the most prominent variant on the model within the publishing industry comes from Unbound, which outsources the financing of the books it publishes to readers, whilst still providing many of the other activities conventionally associated with publishers, such as editing and marketing.

A recent move in the world of science fiction publishing, however, suggests a slightly different model, in which publishers do not entirely abdicate the investor role that has traditionally been such a key part of their contribution to the publishing process.

Earlier this year, Gollancz invested in a Kickstarter project set up to fund development of a sequel to the classic 80s computer game Elite, offering £13,500 in return for the rights to publish a series of three tie-in novels. The move suggests a future in which publishers might co-fund projects across different forms of media, in collaboration with other interested parties – readers, other media companies, the artists themselves – enabling them to share the costs of publication, and thus take greater risks.

2. Starship Two-fers

In September 2013 Amazon announced its new Matchbook offer, allowing readers to purchase digital copies of the print books they’d previously bought from the store, at a cost of up to £2.99 per title. Though at the time of the announcement, the offer was restricted to the United States, and only one or two of the big five publishers had signed up, it still attracted considerable attention both inside and outside the industry.

Of course, bundling physical and digital products together is hardly new; indeed it has been common across other media industries for some time: magazines and newspapers offer hybrid subscriptions through which a print edition is delivered through the subscriber’s letterbox and a digital edition to their smartphone or tablet, and some DVDs now come with codes by which the buyer can download a digital version. Indeed, Amazon’s own AutoRip, launched in 2013, offers buyers MP3 versions both of CDs they purchase in future, and of those they’ve previously bought from the retailer.

Publishing has been slow to join the party, perhaps in part because – as the launch of Matchbook has demonstrated – the player currently best placed to deliver ebooks bundled with print is Amazon. Few publishers are keen to strengthen their grip on the industry, as may be seen by the current absence of most of the big five publishers from Matchbook.

And yet the Osprey imprint Angry Robot successfully demonstrated how publishers might successfully work with smaller retailers on bundling so that both benefited financially. Offering ebook versions free with their print titles when bought in certain independent bookstores, Angry Robot saw sales treble during the first two weeks of the trial, while the bookstore found itself not only with a competitive advantage over the chains, but also relevant once again to ebook buyers. If the wider industry could attempt something similar in response to Matchbook, it might have the effect of increasing its earnings whilst also supporting a more diverse retail ecosystem.

3. The mid-list cuckoos

One of the more frequent complaints made by ebook buyers is the lack of catalogue on offer: only certain books by their favourite authors are available, with the works of many writers missing entirely.

The reasons behind such omissions are easily understandable. Most publishers have enormous backlists, built up over decades – if not centuries – and making these available in ebook formats is no quick or easy task. Often digital files for older titles don’t exist, necessitating the scanning and then checking of print originals. A further problem awaits once ebook versions have been made available: how to draw readers’ attention to titles that may have been out of print for years, without the benefits of even the minuscule marketing budget assigned to new titles?

One science fiction imprint offers a possible solution to this secondary problem. In the past two years, Gollancz has not only made more than 2000 of its backlist titles available as ebooks, but has also built a website, SF Gateway, to promote them. By incorporating content from the comprehensive Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction – which the publisher has made available in its entirety online for free – along with a forum, and a blog, Gollancz has turned an online catalogue into a go-to site for science fiction fans. Sales are up 50% year on year, and continued expansion is anticipated.

4. The DRMed world

The publishing industry’s continued use of copy-protection or digital rights management (DRM) technologies to ‘protect’ its books from unauthorised sharing is perhaps the clearest sign of how its actions are informed by its obsession with the dystopian vision of the future provided by the music industry.

Theoretically, DRM protects publishers from the tidal wave of piracy that swept away much of the music industry by preventing readers from sharing the books that they’ve bought with friends, or on file-sharing sites. In practice, however, these technologies have little or no effect on anyone capable of googling the term ‘DRM removal’ and then following basic instructions. Instead, they merely inconvenience readers who’d like to read all their books on a single device or in a single app – if you buy books from Amazon to read on your Kindle, you won’t be able to read them on another device, except via the Kindle app. With the majority of ebook buyers owning Kindles, the industry’s insistence on DRM thus ties readers to the very company that many within publishing see as a far greater threat to it than piracy, thanks to its increasing domination of both the print and ebook markets.

A few publishers are beginning to abandon the DRM consensus, however. The science fiction imprints Baen and Tor, among others, now both sell their ebooks directly to customers without DRM, making grand statements about the reader’s right to access the books they’ve bought however they choose. Neither has seen a significant increase in piracy since doing so. If other publishers were to follow suit, perhaps the industry might take a step towards a future less dependent upon a single retailer.

5. Slash – ah, ah – is going to save every one of us

Fan fiction has moved suddenly into the mainstream in the past eighteen months. First Fifty Shades of Grey slipped the chains of its origin as an erotic reworking of Twilight to become a massive international guilty pleasure. Then, earlier this year, Amazon launched Kindle Worlds, allowing fan fiction writers to publish – and sell – their own stories about other writers’ characters, provided that those original authors had signed up to the scheme.

In the decades before Fifty Shades and Kindle Worlds, though, what was the best-known example of fan fiction? Step forward – from the bridge of the USS Enterprise – Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, whose man-on-Vulcan love remained for many years the archetypal example of the ‘slash’ fiction in which fictional characters lose their inhibitions and their clothes. Once again, science fiction stands proudly ahead of the game.

6. Do androids stream?

Having survived – just – its opening encounters with digital, the music industry is busily creating a new dystopian vision of the future for itself: one in which its customers don’t buy content but instead pay a flat subscription fee to a third party (such as Spotify) to stream all the music they can manage. In this new model, according to the dystopian interpretation, content creators (those people we used to call ‘musicians’) are rewarded with royalty payments so tiny that none but the already massively successful can afford to make music.

The publishing industry already has its own equivalents of Spotify and Pandora. Outsiders ready to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital distribution to shake up traditional business models include the likes of 24Symbols (for ebooks) and Bardowl (for audiobooks). Yet within the industry, there are also those attempting to explore subscription models, and in significantly different ways: Angry Robot offers its readers the opportunity to buy everything they publish over a six- or twelve-month period – a minimum of 12 or 24 ebooks – at a discount of a third on the cost of buying each book individually. By selling direct, and guaranteeing income up front, the publisher is able to offer such discounts without ending up out of pocket.

Genre publishers have an inbuilt advantage over the likes of HarperCollins and Penguin Random House, in that the products they sell are enough of a ‘known quantity’ for customers to feel able to risk buying them sight unseen. Yet it should not be beyond the ingenuity of larger publishing houses to create their own versions of this, offering subscriptions to individual imprints, or to authors. The benefits would be the same.

Good omens

At the heart of almost all these innovations lies one fundamental truth: that relationships with readers rest at the heart of any positive future for publishing. Understanding and responding to their needs, trusting them not to pirate content, and even involving them in the funding of books – publishers need to strengthen and deepen their relationship with readers if they’re to escape the dystopian future they fear. Science-fiction publishers offer them plenty of positive examples of how it can be done – can the rest of the industry respond?

With thanks to Darren Nash and Marcus Gipps of Gollancz for their help with the sections on crowd-funding and backlists, and to Lyn Strutt for improving the piece no end with her suggestions.

About Author

Alastair Horne is social media and communities manager at Cambridge University Press ELT, and writes, talks and lectures widely on publishing. He’s the author of the Media Futures report on the Future of Publishing, and blogs for The Bookseller’s FutureBook site. He’s spoken at numerous conferences and taught classes at universities across Britain. See pressfuturist.com and follow him on Twitter at @pressfuturist.

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