Here be Dragons
Part 2 of the Story Stack essays on the future of storytelling
This is the second in a series of essays focused on the future of storytelling: the “Story Stack”. The first one was on the movie industry and covered the history of films and the rise of curators (and how they became the arbiters of quality). This one focuses on the written word and the publishing industry.
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”
217 million average monthly active readers.
7.8 million writers and 11.7 million literary works covering over 200 genres.
Let these numbers sink in.
This is Yuewen (aka China Literature) - a behemoth of online publishing in China (Tencent is a major shareholder). It has 9 reading products (QQ Reading is the flagship app) through which it has integrated content aggregation and distribution. It owns/ co-owns the rights to each literary work and turns the best ones on its platform into hit TV shows and movies (it also owns a movie studio).
Top writers upload chapters daily/ weekly - and some of the novels now run into millions of words. Writers are paid based on readership (how many readers and how much they read). Readers earn points and money for reading more (a complete reversal of traditional monetization models // personalized ads are served to users from time to time// though some subscription models also exist). Readers decide what is a hit or a miss. No middle-men. No curators (publishers, editors).
China Literature has turned a large percentage of China’s internet users into readers: an amazing flywheel effect - nurture writers in a country which cherishes its grand literary tradition and make reading accessible and cool. But something tells me that this 16-year-old company is just getting started.
A Writer’s Lament
Making a decent living as an author is incredibly difficult and always has been. The economics of traditional publishing are terrible. It is impossible for the person who puts in their blood and sweat into writing to make any money out of it. Most writers make single-digit percentages on the list price of a book. So if your new fantasy novel is selling at USD 10 a pop, you typically only make a dollar on it. Starting salaries for a developer in the Bay Area easily top USD 120K. So if you wanted to be a full-time writer on the West Coast and make the same amount of money as a starting developer at a tech startup, you’d have to sell 120K books in a year. (Of the million or so books published in the US in a year, only 10 sell over a million copies. Only 5000 writers typically make over USD 50K in a year. More than 5000 students join various MFA programs in writing each year across US campuses. Go figure.)
Most authors hold down day time jobs and write on the side. They freelance as journalists, ghost write reality TV shows or celeb books, edit manuscripts for others and eventually move towards film and TV writing (a lot more lucrative now, given the war for content being waged between all the big OTT players).
And sadly a writer’s work is not done once they have written a good book. The onus of selling (book launches and book tours and readings in public) also falls on the writer. A mid-sized publisher typically puts out 300-500 books a year (roughly a book a day). They pick 10-20 books to really back through the year (through promotions, etc) and hope that at least 10 become bestsellers (sell out their initial print run and go into a second/ third print run). If one ends up winning a literary prize or gets picked up by a TV/ movie producer - your year is made as a publisher.
Traditional publishing (including ebook sales) is so badly broken that it is a constant surprise to many outside the industry as to why and how the industry is still surviving.
Models like Kindle Direct Publishing are definitely better for writers and the resurgence of self-publishing and platforms similar to Yuewen in the West are a welcome sign. However, ask any writer and they would still give their left arm and leg to be published by a traditional prestigious literary publisher. The stigma against self-publishing is massive. The approval of readers is sadly not enough. But how did things get so broken? A short history lesson on the rise of curators is here.
A Detour to Fan Fiction
Fan fiction is where the true heart of the internet beats. Whether it is Star Wars or Trek, Marvel or DC, LotR or Harry Potter - fan fiction is thriving and this is where a lot of new writers cut their teeth on the way to becoming established authors. (My favourite Harry Potter book is actually a fan’s variant of the Order of the Phoenix - which dealt with breeders of dragons. So much more creatively insane than anything Joanne ever wrote.)
But something truly staggering happened in the world of fan fiction two years ago.
Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and its sequels The Dark Forest and Death’s End are perhaps the most important books written in the last twenty years (note - I said books and not just science fiction books). A massive fan community formed around the trilogy and a lot of fan fiction was written over the years. But then Cixin Liu did something unprecedented. He endorsed one fan story: Three Body X: Aeon of Contemplation by a fan called Baoshu and made it canon. It was published in 2019 under the title The Redemption of Time and is now an official novel in the Three-Body story universe.
By turning the world that he has created into an open playing field for other writers (and creators) - and endorsing one of them - Cixin Liu has made his work truly transcendental and immortal. A TV series on Amazon Prime is in the works. Our children and their children will be reading Three-Body stories and playing Three-Body games.
So what does an author-first model of publishing look like?
Authors will own/ co-own (along with the publishing platform) the rights to their work - physical, digital, translation into other languages, film and TV
Authors will have easy access to an ecosystem of other creators - editors, illustrators, etc to help give shape to their work and make them more marketable
Publishing platforms will be verticalized and will operate at every step of the publishing cycle - from inception to writing and publishing, distribution, to reader reviews, secondary market for rights, etc
Authors will have access to their data and insights from readers - demographics, what is working and not, revenue made, rights sold
Secondary markets will emerge for translators, script writers, game developers, etc which will help in spreading the original work to other mediums - increasing monetization possibilities for the author
Marketing and merchandising as a service will be available
A group of writers will be able to come together and create and run a shared universe of stories and characters (already happens in games, comic books and television)
A fan community will be an integral part of this platform - fan fiction and fan creations will be encouraged and distributed widely
Limited/ no middlemen
No curators - readers decide what is good or not
More importantly, talented writers will be able to make a decent living by being full-time writers. The more they invest in their work, the bigger their reward.
We are finally seeing the outline of the Story Stack emerge.