Who’s going to be the Louis CK of publishing?

Even if I didn’t find Louis CK funny, I would still like him. He’s wickedly honest (as the best comics tend to be), to the point where he’d rather have complete control over his work than have to compromise for money. This started, apparently, when he stopped asking for guaranteed money for his live performances, which allowed venues to charge less for tickets and to do less advertising. This actually made it easier for him to sell out shows and even raised his take-home per gig.

Later, after a series of failed TV gigs, he made a deal with FX that gave him complete creative control over a series. The catch? They didn’t give him very much to make it, only $200,000 per episode for the whole production. So he ended up writing, directing, and editing it all himself. If you’ve seen the show, you know what the result has been: a personal, daring, uncomfortable, and stunning half-hour comedy. (I don’t want to get carried away here, but I can’t think of a more interesting half-hour comedy in my lifetime.)

His latest move is more daring yet. He is selling his latest recorded special through his own site, DRM-free, for 5 bucks. At first it doesn’t sound that unusual, but when you look around at the other ways you have to buy, rent, stream, or otherwise consume premium video content, you realize how user-hostile it all is. And how smart and risky Louis CK’s move is.

While the motivations for him are similar to the other creative decisions he’s made of late, creative control and better user experience, this is the first that really feels different from the consumer side. The cost is minimal, the transaction process non-invasive, and the product, well, is yours, no ifs ands, or buts. The file format is one any reasonably modern computer and most recent smartphones can play. Even the pricing somehow seems genuinely interested in making you feel comfortable: the flat $5 stands in contrast to the weaselly $X.99. And the dang thing has sold really well, with all of the money going to Louis CK. He took the risk by being his own production and distribution, so he gets it all. (I didn’t realize this until just now, but part of the reason this whole thing seems so great is that I know that the artist is getting my money.)

This is how I want to buy everything now, with ebooks at the front of the line. I want some author to make their next book available on their own site, in the most compatible format, with a middle-low price. Whoever this is needs to be a couple of things for it to work. First, they have to already be reasonably successful. Two reasons for this: they need to be able to afford the risk and they need people (especially tech-savvy readers) to be excited about the book on offer. Second, they need to be committed to addressing the problems readers have with ebooks directly, namely DRM, purchase process and file compatibility.

Who might this be? There are plenty of writers who ship a bunch of copies of their books, but it’s harder to know who has the stomach and reader-empathy necessary to try this.

Here are a few candidates that might fit the bill:

  1. Neil Gaiman. Rabid fans, social media-smart, and just seems like the kind of person willing to do something different.
  2. George RR Martin. Now that Voldemort is dead, we only have one event-worthy series going, and it’s The Song of Fire and Ice. So Martin definitely has the pop-culture juice. He also says he thinks he interacts with his fans more than any author he knows, writes a blog, and is a Hollywood defector who seems to value creative freedom.
  3. Margaret Atwood. She’s thinking about this new publishing world deeply already. She’s technologically clued-in. Could she generate enough interest to make an experiment like this fly? I think she could.
  4. JK Rowling. I’m wary of over-stating it, but I think Rowling could change the game in one move. Imagine if she released a sequel, coda, or prequel to Harry Potter that was available for $5, DRM-free, and compatible with any e-reader you could throw at it. Unfortunately, Rowling’s foray into digital publishing looks to be moving away from simplicity and transparency to an online game-land that at this point is about everything but books, so this is a more of a thought-experiment than a real possibility. But tell me this wouldn’t make you sit up and pay attention?
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