For the past one or two hundred years authors have been paid based on each sale their books make. In many ways this is a fair way to do business as it rewards merit and those that are more popular get more money. However it discourages diversity and penalises those who have trouble, for whatever reason, in bringing their books to market. Is there another way to compensate content creators that is not directly tied to book sales?
As a computer programmer I get paid an annual salary. It is indirectly tied to productivity but recognises that some days will be better than others and on average over the year I’ll have brought in enough money to cover my wage. Could an author be employed in a similar way? Could they work nine to five, Monday to Friday, and receive a pay cheque at the end of the month? Journalists get paid like this. I think novelists could likewise earn a living as a retained worker. A publisher could put projects together, determine what sort of writing skills are needed in a team and assign writers as needed. It could be argued that books produced this way would lack the organic artistry that a single, inspired author could produce. But I think, you could equally argue the books would more readily satisfy the tastes and desires of the market and writers would get paid. The downside for authors would be that even if their book absolutely took off they would still only receive their normal pay.
This is an old business model and is similar to the salary model. The main difference is that the author has more freedom and would work alone. Their patron would pay them a retainer to produce the work the patron desired. It would then be up to the patron to decide what to do with the book. They might keep it for their personal collection, hand it out for free to friends or sell it in a shop. Why would someone do this? For any number of reasons. It could be because they really like the author’s work, they just want certain stories to be told or they want to run a bookshop. The upside for the author is greater freedom, often more pay than a salary and a greater level of fame due to the exclusivity of their work. The downside is they would need to somehow snag the attention of a wealthy individual or company in a very small pool of patrons. If you translate this to the modern age, I think you’d be looking at crowd sourcing, things like kickstarter.
A group of authors could form a cooperative where they pool their works and charge a subscription to their talent. Subscribers would receive regular content, like a radio or TV station. Authors would receive a share of the subscriptions. Following the radio / TV station model the authors could sell advertising and sponsorship. This would allow complete artistic freedom, more or less, and provide a steady income. However fair pay for fair work could be an issue. How do you measure the input of each contributor. Some will be more popular than others.
Why look for another way? Because times change, markets evolve and distribution platforms mature, expire and are born. E-books are here to stay and look to swallow the paper publishing model. But e-books can be copied with no loss in quality or utility. Why pay $22 for a paperback (yes they are that expensive in Australia, just like everything else) when you can just take a copy of the e-book version? Why pay $10 for an e-book on Amazon when The Pirate Bay has it for free? Let’s look at it in purely economic rationalist terms. That means we ignore arguments like “you might want to do the right thing” because right and wrong are meaningless when judging things only on their economic value. The answer has to be one of two things, the legit product has some greater intrinsic value than the free one or you move to a different model (see above). Many e-book only authors already understand the concept of providing more value. Simply listing your book on Amazon or Smashwords provides more value because they are easily searchable, there are reviews to help customers choose and it is easy to get the e-book in the format the customer wants. But this demands the price reflect the relative value of these benefits over the pirated versions. In both cases you get the same content so you can only price in the value added by the distribution platform. Can you charge $10 for it? To an extent. But will you get more money if you sold for $5? It probably depends on who you are as some books will have a market dominated by people happy and willing to copy while another author may have a market dominated by those willing to pay. The other answer is to provide more content for legitimate purchasers. How? Maybe I’ll think about it and come up with some ideas for next week.