Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Publishing Options and Exploiting Your Intellectual Propery

by Deren Hansen

Given the recent discussion of traditional and self-publishing, I feel the need to join in with some structural observations. My aim is to give the conversation a baseline of economic reality.

First, however, I have to say that the degree to which partisans are vilifying each other reminds me of the Mac vs. PC religious wars of the '90s. As someone who understands that all Turing-complete computational devices are provably equivalent, I grew impatient with the name-calling in that context until I came to understand that the deep feelings arose because people needed to justify the $3000 - $5000 investment they'd made in one platform or the other.

In addition to the investment dynamic there's a notion of art and its noble pursuit wrapped up in our aspirations as writers. You're here because books have affected you deeply--probably more so than any other expressive medium. That experience elevates reading and writing from the level of mere commerce. But the fact of the matter is that if you want to trade your words for money you're squarely back in the realm of business.

Writers who charge for their work are in the business of exploiting their intellectual property. It's unfortunate that the word, "exploit," has few positive connotations because it is the correct term: you're trying to derive benefit from your words and the stories they contain.

In the past, the best way to exploit your intellectual property was to license it to a publisher--effectively entering into a partnership designed to benefit both parties. Similarly, in high tech launching a start-up became practically synonymous with securing venture capital because the necessary equipment was too expensive to finance yourself. In both cases the pattern of trading future returns for current working capital was so dominant that alternative approaches could be written off as non-starters.

But things change.

In high tech you can rent all the computing power you need (and only what you need) from cloud computing providers. In publishing, you no longer need $30,000 to $50,000 to print, store, and sell books. In other words, it's now not only possible to exploit your intellectual property rights yourself--doing so in the right circumstances might make better economic sense.

All of which is a long way of saying that finding a publisher or becoming your own publisher can and should be a clear-headed business decision. And just like any other business, you must understand the full implications of your options: licensing your intellectual property to a publisher doesn't guarantee you'll be taken care of; publishing it yourself isn't a short-cut to the fame and fortune the gatekeepers have wrongly withheld from you. Both paths (in all their variations) require hard work over a long time with no assurance that you'll ever see a return on your investment.

We need to move past trying to justify one approach over another and take a clear-headed look at the promises and pitfalls of all the expanding opportunities for writers.

Deren blogs at The Laws of Making.

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