Oli is not me being unable to spell ‘Oil’. Nor is it a Russian term for very rich bloke from a dodgy background who likes to drink sweet champagne and eat caviar on the Costa Smerelda.

Oli – comes from the Greek for “Few” – Oligos

I was reading a post on the rise of the Oligarchs in business this morning. It was fascinating to me as the sort of idiot who bothered to read both Adam Smith’s Philosophical tomes and understood some of it.  No, contrary to what you may have heard from Gordon Whatsisname, Smith did not say that greed was good. He did, in a nutshell say ENLIGHTENED self-interest makes economies successful, and in his first (and possibly greater) work point out that we see ourselves in society’s mirror.  We’re a social animal and all our measures are relative to our fellows.

So what does this have to do with writing?:  Well, quite a lot actually.  Enlightened self interest means THINKING how your self-interest will affect those who you depend on: your suppliers, your customers, your business itself.  Publishing is a part of business, although it may at times not have seemed like it.  And it is a very good example of what happens when you have a situation in which an oligarchy develops: it can survive a status quo, but starts to unravel when the situation changes. You see, self-interest has certainly ruled in publishing for a long time… and that was fine for the oligarchs. But a monopoly or oligopoly does not find it necessary to conduct serving that self-interest in a way that was  ‘enlightened’.  It’s rather like the enlightened employee knows just how far he can push the perks of the job. If he’s working in a confectioner, hand making chocolates and he knows the boss is okay with stale chocolates not going in the bin, but going home. And never takes too many and makes sure it’s Okay with the boss. His enlightenment runs to knowing where the limits are. But if he’s a key employee,  well, he stretches those limits and is allowed to… If it goes on for long enough, he starts to become a very expensive employee.  He starts cutting the expensive ingredients from the display chocolates for sale, and makes himself large private batches with that…

It gets very interesting when the company faces hard times and the possibility of an automatic machine doing his job. He will do anything to retain the status quo, and basically he can’t. It’s him or the business. The business can still survive, be successful, but it has to change.

You could take the same example and translate into any business, and see the same thing. We’ve undoubtedly reached that point in publishing. You see publishing not only was an oligarchy, but also an oligopoly, where a few companies controlled almost all the access to retail space.

And thus they had no need to worry much about enlightened behavior. Until the internet and internet retail and then e-books broke their model.  It has done in part already what happens eventually to any oligarchy – it’s flattening it out. Already the same amount of income is being spread very differently, in a way that is not good for the oligarchs of publishing,  or the author oligarchs either… but is certainly in the interests of the authors in general and the readers. The distribution curve is flattening – more authors are getting SOMETHING, and the Oligarchs are getting a lot less. They’ve been frantically (at the big 6) trying to avoid relinquishing rights, and resorting so fairly dodgy behavior to get that e-book money at the royalties they’ve been used to taking. And if that fails, playing dog in the manger. Oh yes, and convincing each other that somehow, in a year or two, if they can just spoil and play a holding game, all of this will go away, and authors and readers will come crawling back. Tactics such as just putting the books (to which they’ve lost the rights) up, to simply not answering mail and calls are very much de rigeur. Authors don’t have the money for legal action, and if it happens, they’ll just co-operate, knowing they gained time and money.

So here is my advice to you. A year ago, I’d have said: if offered a deal, sign. It’s a start, a way of finding at least some audience. Now… well, I would say anything that did not offer very clear termination terms – including minimal sale by both numbers and value, and a short time frame, and competitive  rate for e-books… will only serve your vanity well. And it’s worth knowing that in society’s mirror (except for funfair haul of mirrors in NY where the literati peer at themselves and friends), the success of ‘self’ publishing has made that quite as acceptable as being traditionally published, and, shall we say, a commercial failure.


  1. While I still crave the recognition of “published” writer, I’m beginning to shake the idea of a Tradition Publisher being the only possible grantor of that status. And yeah, if such a contract ever came my way, the contract would be gone over carefully, then passed to a IP lawyer for further perusal.

  2. From what I’ve read, the rot starts when the not-yet-oligarchs realize that they can rearrange the business environment to keep themselves in power and keep those icky startup types out. Whether by a stranglehold on distribution and purchaser access (like publishing) or by buying special cases in the legal code (just about everything that’s big enough regardless of political affiliation) or laws designed to benefit them and kill everything else (see the atrocious Hollywood-designed legislation working through at the moment in the US under the guise of ‘protecting’ intellectual property, New Zealand’s ‘three strikes’, the ‘Great Firewall of Australia’ and various other disasters). Then they’re oligarchs, and if they aren’t in power themselves, they’re in bed with power, whatever they pretend.

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