I haven’t been writing much lately, for two reasons. One is the age-old complaint of the day job, which has a tendency to have the same effect on my brain as a steamroller has on a Victoria sponge (all the component parts are still there, but they’re not going to give rise to, well, anything). The second reason is great television, which is having the same effect on my brain as a Class C narcotic (it’s not preventing me from doing anything, but it’s certainly making me not want to bother trying).
It’s too easy to lapse into passivity these days, consuming content instead of creating it. There was an old name for this kind of portable entertainment which we could dip into whenever we wanted, back in the day: it was called a book. Now we’re getting our stories in visual form, and books are suffering, both through the distraction of writers, and the distraction of readers.
But all is not lost. With every fall of an empire comes great opportunity. Great new TV still depends on exactly the same primary ingredient as that which fuelled books throughout their centuries of mass popularity: a good story, well told. And the new era of television is ushering in a brand new opportunity which didn’t exist before the era of internet TV – niche content for smaller, more focused audiences.
The traditional producers of television might complain about audiences being more fragmented than before, but nothing changes the fact that we’re still consuming content. We’re just consuming it differently.
No longer does a network have to have blockbuster shows that will attract all the advertising. Now, it’s about attracting subscribers to the contents of the entire shelf. Networks and streaming providers need to have a suite of products which together, not alone, make a subscription worth it.
It’s unrecognisable today even in comparison to 5 years ago, when streaming TV began to take hold, and everyone was talking about that one show subscribers signed up to see. After all, without Breaking Bad and House of Cards, who knows whether Netflix would ever have entered the mainstream? We may never have even heard of ‘Netflix and Chill’, let alone Stranger Things, The Good Place and Jessica Jones.
Nowadays each streaming service needs at least 5 so-called must-see shows for people to justify taking out a subscription – and they’re getting them.
But what’s most important is that the TV industry managed to create a whole new world where people were prepared to pay for good content. The modern audience understands that the good stuff costs money, and they seem to be happy enough to pay for it.
So what has this got to do with opportunities for writers?
Well, first it’s got to do with the death of the blockbuster in favour of niche content. We’re now used to audiences being more fragmented. What this means is that there’s more room for innovation and risk-taking when it comes to creativity. There are opportunities today for smaller, more unusual stories which would never have been traditional blockbusters 10 years ago, or would never have been made if they had been destined purely for 1990s network television.
Think of all those shows you loved which got cancelled back in the day, simply because they didn’t hit the impossible targets set by their networks. Firefly and Freaks and Geeks come to mind, to name but two. Not to say that modern TV can’t be just as ruthless, at times, but the point is more that shows which wouldn’t even have got a pilot in 2003 are now getting a 2-season run.
You may have fans in Trinidad who’ll make up the numbers, so you don’t have to rely on an impossible 10 million viewers in the even more fragmented US. You don’t have to copy that other big blockbuster, either. You can do something crazy and combine 2 million fans across several different markets.
So why can’t this happen for books, which are a lot cheaper to produce?
New TV is making enough money to sustain itself because it’s not discounting itself out of business. To put it in financial-speak, it’s using sustainable income streams (long-term subscriptions) to fund its output, and it got these by never leading its customers to believe that the product should be free.
It should be pointed out that TV producers have far less competition – the barriers to entry are huge, despite YouTube, because home-produced drama on a shoestring always looks awful. Cheap TV just can’t compete with multi-million dollar professional content.
But it has to be said too that publishers allowed their products to be destroyed by poor discounting models and the devaluation of high-quality content. Also, they’re not leveraging their own competitive advantage.
For instance, if the big publishers were to invest heavily in exclusive branding to differentiate certain niche genres for hard-core fans, or innovation or technology to do with Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style narratives for thrillers and romances, digital extras, or fan-targeting side projects, no indie publishers or small presses would be able to compete.
And as for those opportunities for writers… well, to get back to television, we need new stories now more than ever before in order to meet that demand for lots and lots of niche content.
But also, just like TV, books should no longer have to be blockbusters. They should just have to be unique enough so there’s something for everyone (i.e. every niche) in the audience.
Also, now that TV has once again proven that people are willing to pay for the good stuff, perhaps it’s time for publishers to change the narrative when it comes to books.
There’s still time to convince their audience that when it comes to highly curated, high quality content, it makes sense to pay for the stuff which you didn’t know you were looking for all of your life, until it came looking for you.