Monday, 1 June 2009

Money Follows Innovation

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.


  1. I like your breakdown - I'm always fascinated by the way medium transforms narrative structure and vice versa. Honestly, I think you hit the nail on the head in a previous post, where you discuss learning from the music industry... doesn't matter if you are recording on four track in your basement or an expensive studio, if you can tour and sell a few t-shirts, you will make money. If writers were rockstars, POD would apply to merchandise other than actual books. How can a writer become a rockstar?

  2. Hi Piers. Yes - a lot's been made of blogging doing this, but I'm not 100% convinced - twitter much more so. And newspapers with serialisation and the cliffhanger, of course.

    I actually blogged on how writers could become rockstars (interesting, isn't it, that things like the Punk Fiction anthology show the whole world's prepared to accept that Rock stars can become writers - just that fewer of them want to be than vice versa!). Not literally, of course, but the idea was that we make our money by other means than selling books. It's fairly mainstream for writers to make more money by doing guest appearances/speeches/columns, but I did - daft as it sounds - suggest selling T-shirts. What first got me thinking was the fact I was quite prepared to fork out £10 for this year's "Murakami diary" and I realised that fans of writers are actually prepared to pay for merchandise the same as rock fans. I think I wrote in particular about special editions and customising.

  3. At the recent #hackedu conference in Boston, one of the discussions raised the question "how can we enable teachers to become rockstars" - it is obviously loaded terminology, but I feel it is useful to refactor the word "rockstar" to mean, literally, someone who *rocks* at whatever they do, and are able to reach people specifically because of this identity.

    In this case, monetization is a peripheral issue, so maybe this is off topic. I do feel this is a very important discussion, though.

    For instance, I would classify Nick Bantock of Griffin & Sabine fame as an example of a literary rockstar. Also James Joyce, who I'm sure would own the web domain, were he alive today.

  4. No, Piers, it's absolutely "on topic". I'm talking about how to make a living because everyone needs to pay the bills, and the average writer dreams of the day s/he can finally give notice and pay the bills with words rather than waitering/pen-pushing/pulling pints/answering calls.

    But I'm pretty sure that in writing as ain everything else, if you do it FOR the money then you'll never really make it. And I do wish people would stop saying "Ah, but look at commercial writers like Dan Brown and John Grisham and Martina Cole" They are hugely successful because they're good at what they do. It happens to be the case a lot of people like what they do, but that's by the by. It's like sport - top footballers get paid more than top bog-snorkellers because people like watching football - that doesn't mean that just because they went into football they're lesser athletes.

    As writers our first priority is always to be the best writers we can. What I'm trying to do a bit of with these posts is to get writers around to the idea that there's more to being a great writer than working on your characterisation (not that there's not a time and place for that as well).

  5. So many of the people I would classify as "rockstars" in the industry in which I work (software development) are open sourcers, and open source software runs the gamut, but is often better quality than production software, precisely because it is supported by a community of folks who are doing what they are doing because they couldn't not do it, if that makes sense. Money is made in the open source world by 1) reducing overhead cost when you use open source components in a project for profit and 2) getting paid for support when a 3rd party uses these components for profit.

    How this applies to the literary future, I am not 100% sure, but I'm certain it does. The open source paradigm must go beyond 'blogs and 'zines...

    On her weblog, Elizabeth Hand, whose writing I have always enjoyed, discusses some of these issues, such as reprint policies, fanbase, and etc. This really got me thinking:

    "I read a good line the other day, in a review I think of that film about the heavy metal ban Anvil -- the reviewer noted that one casualty of our current culture is that there's no middle ground left for an artist between success and failure. I think he meant commrcial ground, but we judge so much now in commercial terms that if you're not a commercial success, there's not much room left to be a success d'estime. .

    Still, I was never in this for the money. (Good thing!)"

    I honestly think that if the amazing access to information we now have should be good for anything, it should be to support this "middle ground" or "long tail". The challenge is realizing the "how".

    By the way, I've really enjoyed your writing, and look forward to furthering this discussion. Cheers!

  6. Hi Piers. I find that comment really surprising. Like you, I have always thought one of the great things the Web has done for literature is supporting the long tail through Print on Demand technology.

    I am a huge fan of the open source spirit. I love what you say about quality as well - it's one of the really frustrating things I find about writers that they have this suspicion of anything given away for free that it's going to be rubbish. When I started writing The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes on Facebook, involving readers in the writing process, and giving it away, a lot of my writer friends asked if I was doing it because I wasn’t really enthusiastic about the story the way I was about my other writing (when I canvassed writers before starting up the Year Zero Writers collective, it was amazing how many people said – “Oh, you can have this book for it because it’s not my best/I don’t really care about it” – they aren’t involved with it now ). I was really shocked because I’m actually MORE excited by and involved in the story than anything I’ve done before – I think it’s my very best thing to date, and that’s because as a writer there’s nothing more exciting than doing things for and with my readers. I also love working with other writers. I wonder if wiki-novels go part of the way to the collaborative element of the open-source spirit, but it would be great to have a something like a big project to get full, downloadable copies of every novel around in one place (even if we just start with ambitious “unpublished” authors) – but to make it more than just a repository – to have some kind of reader/writer interface at the same time. It’s something I’m always thinking about – it’s such an exciting time to be writing at the moment.

  7. Hi Dan - So much to digest here - if you have a chance, check out the film RiP: Remix Manifesto (I think you can see portions of it at - one thing that really struck me in this film was Cory Doctorow discussing Napster, suggesting that in a matter of months, Napster created a definitive catalogue of our musical culture at a point in time, and that was pretty astounding, and then such a shame that this was then made criminal.

    When you mention Derrida, it brings to mind Derrida and Blanchot's idea of the burning of the archive. Q: is an emerging read/write culture a return to something bearing similarities to an oral tradition, perpetuated through repetition and redundancy, rather than transcription? More wayward thoughts ;)

  8. Piers, apologies - you may have gathered I don't get internet access at weekends so will be back Monday - I will say though I've thought about this a lot - I studied Latin/Gree beofre theology and did lots on form criticism and the relation of communities and texts in the oral tradition stage - and it has occurred to me before the internet actually affortds scholars of ancient texts a unique insight into the way they evolve with their communities.

  9. I don't know if I have enough paws - but writing comes in all shapes and sizes. I can purr a litttle in Latin but not in Greek...we cats fully understand the importance of the oral tradition!

  10. how lovely to see you here, catdownunder - our four felines are very skilled in the interplay between speaker and listener - miaow, ignore, miaow, fingers in ears, deafening squawk, food on the floor, chomp chomp, peace, purr :-)