August 25th, 2010 11:06 EST
The entrepreneurial journalist: you don't have to be a wage slave
Journalists don`t have to be wage slaves. They can and do buy and start businesses. One of the most intriguing challenges confronting the entrepreneurial journalist is the way technology is running out ahead of available business models.
Seven or eight years ago when the idea of downloading entire books into hand-held computers made its debut the traditional publishing industry and its satraps "major corporate publishers and media that advertise and review their books "fell all over themselves heaping scorn on the e-book.
Less than a decade later they can`t get in on the action fast enough, and there`s the rub. When you`re busy disparaging an idea you`re hardly positioned to make money on it, so now the publishers are playing catch-up. But there are relatively few viable business models for the e-book. The initial problem was that e-book visionaries were undercapitalized and therefore unable to generate attention. Print-on-demand technology is an even more interesting case.
Booksellers and major media ostentatiously ignore POD books, but at the same time there`s a consensus that the technology will define the future of a large segment of publishing. It means that publishers can keep books in print cheaply. It means that authors cold-shouldered by the Big Six in book publishing (like myself, I should confess) have an alternative other than e-book publishing. But here again there aren`t enough workable business models. There are plenty of POD publishers, but few of them have been successful in marketing their books in the teeth of indifference from booksellers and hostility from the major media. To the extent that they haven`t tried very hard they`re rightly equated with vanity publishers, because they wind up making their money not from sales but from their authors. But these technologies will eventually be blessed with sound business models.
Young journalists should give some thought to this situation. It`s not a bad idea to enrich your journalism major with some business courses. And a few courses in computer science would help, too. The major media cold-shoulder the POD book because their contrived objections to it excuse them from screening thousands of books which they might otherwise have to consider. They`ll tell you two things: 1) they can`t possibly review all the books being published, and 2) they`re reviewing all the books worthy of being published.
The first contention is true, but if you believe the second they`ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. These convenient contentions have a sister: the claim of some reviewers that all the books worthy of publication eventually are published. In other words, vanity books and the books of POD presses that make a genuine effort to promote them are all unworthy of publication. You don`t even have to consider all the self-published authors, like Herman Melville, to savor the disingenousness of such contentions. But they go unchallenged because who`s going to challenge them if not the media making them?
What`s really going on is that the traditional publishing industry is trying to: 1) figure out how to dominate the POD and e-book industries, and 2) protect its role as cultural arbiter. It will eventually corral a huge piece of the action, but its role as cultural arbiter is not as safe a bet. And that`s good, because greed is a bad cultural arbiter.
With the Fourth Estate relentlessly centralizing, society needs to give much more thought to who tells us what`s good and what`s bad and how things are. There will be ways to screen the POD and e-books for thoughtful review. But in the meantime book review editors will serve corporate-conglomerate interests by dismissing them with generalizations. It`s no more true that all self-published and all e-books and all POD books are unworthy of serious attention than it`s true that all best-sellers are worthy of it.
Bad books often sell well. Consider Ayn Rand. Good books often sell poorly, if at all. And many good books would have sold well if the small presses that published them had the resources to promote them. And many best-sellers would have fallen on their faces if they`d been published by small presses. These are matters worthy of a young journalist`s concern.
The marriage of technological and business innovation offers the chance to make more money than any medium will ever pay a young journalist. So while you`re still studying is a good time to kick around some ideas. Here`s one: what about a journal to advertise and seriously review POD and e-books? And will this journal be published by the photo-offset, POD or electronic process, or all three? Who will advertise in it? The small presses that can ill-afford to, bookstores, printers, or all of the foregoing and more? Who will read it? Will readers be willing to pay for it?
These and other such matters are the elements of business models. But you can make book on the fact that there are other issues that haven`t even been raised yet, and other ideas that wait in the wings to make money for someone with the patience and skill to assess them.