Internet Threat: How the Internet May Threaten Nonfiction Authors’ Incomes

I don’t predict the future. In fact, I’m sick of hearing predictions about the future. It’s almost the only thing you ever read anymore. As an agent, I try to predict the present. To do so, I’ve done a lot of work lately researching the impact the Internet is having on writing and publishing. And, in doing so, I see a trend that could hurt the nonfiction writer’s income. I don’t have a lot of hard data to back up what I’m going to say here, but I think for many authors it may have the sting of recognition.

The free availability of information on the Internet may dilute the earning potential of nonfiction books. The Internet itself has become a competitor.

Nonfiction authors earn their money by creating new proprietary information. They create something unique, for sale. They are paid for their “product.” That is the fundamental avenue of income for the individual nonfiction writer. Whatever formats this unique product appears — printed book, audio book, movie adaptation, etc. -? he/she is still selling the same “product.” Any of the companies that the author sells to, who in turn offer the “product” to the consumer, are selling the product and receiving direct compensation for it. The author’s earnings are tied to this very sale.

The Internet presents a different business model. It is, for the most part, a free medium when it comes to access to information. Most people don’t pay to read things off the web. Most companies on the Internet are not in the business of selling an author’s unique product to the public; they give it away. These companies make money by selling advertising space and other — often non-book related products. Other “companies” aren’t companies at all; they are government agencies, universities, charities and hobbyists who also freely give out. They aren’t interested in making money at all in the conventional sense. So, the product, which the nonfiction author has worked so hard to originate, research and write and for which he/she is the proprietor of, is competing against an entity that is doing comparable work and not selling it at all, but giving it away for free to support its other income streams.

Do you write nutrition books? There are websites offering free nutrition information in return for third party advertising and product sales. Do you write health books about serious illnesses? Literally hundreds of expertly prepared websites and databases offer information for free. Do you write cookbooks? There are plenty of websites giving out recipes and cooking instructions.

The point is, with all these sources of free information, why would a consumer pay for it? With these “publishers” unconcerned with selling the product, since they make money from advertising and non?related product sales, the nonfiction writer’s income is almost certain to be reduced. The Internet threat goes beyond the free access culture that surrounds it. Because it is so easy and ubiquitous and because information is available from so many sources in such small pieces, it threatens the raison d’etre for many book purchases. If you need questions answered about health, cooking, finance, etc., you don’t have to buy a book, you can pull it off the web.

Initially, nonfiction writers may find that websites are good customers. They are commissioning original material. But, unlike traditional publishers, websites won’t pay royalties or share income in any other fashion. (Their business model makes income almost impossible to share.) Furthermore, as their area of expertise is being overrun by no?cost competitors online, it’s likely that nonfiction writers will find that it’s simply harder and harder to land book and other deals that have good income potential. The demand for information may grow but entry and profitability may become very serious questions for non?fiction book authors (not like they haven’t been). Depth, insight and presentation may become of even greater virtue as nonfiction authors compete against websites giving away loads of free information.

The Internet has the potential to help nonfiction book authors. I don’t want to slight that here. Buying books online is a big business that must be adding additional sales. Online book promotion has great potential. Research is easier. In all, if I had to judge the pluses and minuses, I’d have to consider the Internet a plus. But that doesn’t lessen the challenge I’ve diagnosed in this short essay.

I’m not a pessimist and I hope I’m not being an alarmist. I can’t point to a single sales statistic that bears out my views. Yet. But I see the way I “buy” information and I have heard hundreds of similar stories. More and more people are turning to the Internet for information about health, nutrition, cooking, vacations, etc., and not the bookstore. Nonfiction authors must re-evaluate their opportunities as this trend grows.

This article originally appeared in ASJA monthly newsletter, March 2001
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