One of the questions I’m most often asked when I explain what I’m doing is “How are you going to make any money doing that?” Actually, it’s not usually phrased quite that way – more “it’s all right for you, but we’ve got bills to pay” or less family-friendly rewordings of the same sentiment. After I’ve ridden the virtual punches occasioned by my stock tongue-in-cheek-but-actually-serious answer that no one’s owed a living and in a market economy it’s up to me if I give my work away (and anyway, if it’s as bad as all that how’s it really a threat, free or not?), it’s worth mentioning I’m not actually barmy to think I might earn money from my exploits (or at least, even if I don’t see a bean, I think people who do what I do only better might).
It’s worth saying here this is a general post. I’m not going to tell you what innovation you should come up with. If I could do that then 1. it wouldn’t be innovation when you did it and 2. I’d do it myself. Instead I want to explain what I mean by innovation, and give some examples of successful, and not so successful, innovations to illustrate what I mean by money following innovation.
The reason is that generally speaking money follows innovation. I want to preface this with what’s probably the obvious observation. In the internet age, the real money flows to those with innovative software (Napster); and flows next to those who put existing software to innovative uses (selling goods in Second Life). I don’t have the technical expertise to do the former, or the start-up capital and time to give me access to technology to do the latter, although you may. Nonetheless, there IS a third rung of innovation – one that’s content-driven, that won’t make swathes of the population rich, but will make a few people a tidy living.
There are two ways to make money from innovation. It’s as true in traditional publishing as it is in technology. You can be first on the block – huge risk and huge return; or you can be second-up, the first of the “me too”s – lower risk, lower reward. In publishing terms, you can be the Da Vinci Code, or The Rule of Four. In tech terms, you can be IBM or Amstrad. Sometimes it pays to BE IBM and act like Amstrad – keeping your powder dry, waiting for someone else to take the risk and make the high investment, and content yourself with a lower yield sure thing. The obvious example from my youth where this paid in spades was the Betamax/VHS video recorder battle.
To return to the original distinctions, let’s take a look at how writing is open to innovation in each of the three categories I listed.
1. New software – if I knew what the next big software breakthrough was, I’d be looking for a business partner not writing a blog with a handful of partners. The person who devises it will be very rich. The most obvious example of this kind of innovation is the file-sharing software that made Napster’s founder first infamous, then rich. Wiki software and social networking software come into this category. I don’t know whether literature is liable to produce this kid of innovation (by nature I have a feeling it’s adaptive rather than creative, which is exactly the kind of statement designed to make me look an idiot when someone hits the jackpot – which is partly why I say it)
2. New applications – for me, this is where the big money lies, although I don’t know if it’s us writers who’ll cash in. The three obvious areas of what I’ll call (for want of any clue whatsoever what the real term is) adaptive innovation ripe for someone to come in and do an Amstrad are mobile phone subscription; wiki-novels; and POD machines. They shouldn’t need explanation. Each of them is clearly going to be central to the future of literature and publishing.
3. Content-drive innovation. By this I don’t mean looking for new ways to deliver the same kind of literature. I mean using existing technology to do something new. This is where writers’ big opportunity lies. It’s NOT big bucks. At least it will be for a couple of people, but most people, even the cutting edge innovators, won’t make a fortune. I think blogging IS an example of this kind of innovation – reluctantly, because formally speaking it’s not really that different from a diary – it’s just a diary/column that appears on a screen. It’s not a step forward for the literary form. Phone novels again for me are evolutions of the serial form, not phenotypic quantum shifts. I think they’re DIFFERENT because there’s the chance to be clever with the way phones display text, the way you write emoticons and text-speak in, but that’s not really innovation.
It goes without saying I’d LIKE to think of The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes as a genuine literary innovation – the fact it exists on multiple platforms each of which forms a part of a whole story, for example, is something it excites me as a writer to play with. Interactivity and metatextual commenting is great as well, but I have a feeling it’s little more than an evolution from primitive gaming books. The big innovation will be the thing that drives the shape of the novel forward. It MAY have to do with wikis – I love wiki writing if it’s done collaboratively and iteratively and not just treated like a high tech game of consequences. It may have to do with Bulletin Board Sites (BBS) – All About Lily Chou-Chou, in fact, may already be THERE – I’m amazed more people aren’t playing with this.
I have two predictions that are, at the same time, challenges. First, the big, literature-changing innovation will work around the way we take information in – it will break down linearity in the way modernists would have done had they not been stuck between covers. It will make us click links, and it will make us active participants in the world that the author is creating – in this sense it will borrow from narrative-driven art and gaming. It will be the ultimate realisation of Derrida’s claim that the text is everything.
Second, the money will go the Amstrad route. The first people to do it will catch the imagination of someone with an entrepreneurial mind and a marketing savvy streak, and they will make the money. So my advice to you is keep your ear to the ground.
Oh, and for those of us who lack that degree of imagination but have a certain knack for mixing up a cocktail of analytics and chutzpah, the way to make money from innovation is to talk and write about what others are doing, have done, or might at some time in the future do.