|One of the last attempts to glamorize the publishing industry, 1988's Bright Lights, Big City.|
You ask whether or not I think these economic factors are invariable and unchanging.
No: I believe they have changed dramatically and profoundly within my lifetime.
We are not discussing the whole sphere of economics, but instead, more narrowly, the question of how economic motivations shape cultural production.
More narrowly still, we're talking about the contrasting instances of on-paper-publication and video game software development.
During my lifetime, the possibility of earning money from the publication of books, magazine articles and writing for newspapers has declined, to be almost zero. However, the cost of producing a book (or a magazine or a newspaper) has also declined, to be almost zero.
The situation with video games is worse: the cost of production has increased, whereas the prospect of earning money has withered away.
The most profitable video game ever made was Space Invaders in 1978. Every video game since then has earned less money (yes, even Pac Man).
There was a time when just one man would create a video game in just a few hours, and then small teams working for a few weeks. Now, the cost measured in "man hours" (i.e., labor) is astounding.
In 1986, The Legend of Zelda (for the N.E.S.) sold for $49.99 --now equivalent to $120 per cartridge. Of course, today, a game of that sort could be made by just one man (working alone) in a few months, or it could be made by a small team in a few weeks --but it could not possibly have a "ticket price" of $120 per copy (neither on cartridge nor as a digital download, etc.).
It also sold over 120 million copies. If we multiply those two numbers we're looking at a retail gross of over $14,400,000,000 (in 2021 US currency).
Now that's an industry. Not a hobby, but an industry.
Now, of course, lone programmers still exist, and once in a while they manage to make a few dollars out of it: "Cave Story" was (supposedly) the work of just one man, and now sells on the Nintendo Switch for $30 per box. However, to say that this is a one-in-a-million chance would be an insult to honest bookeeping: nobody could possibly finance a programming project with the expectation that they'd produce the next "Cave Story". This is about as improbable as a zero budget independent movie being the next "Clerks" ($3.2 million at the box office, BTW… compared to Zelda, that's positively losing money).
The price to produce a video game at current standards (not comparable to Cave Story, but comparable to Mario Odyssey) gets higher and higher, with the likely economic rewards getting lower and lower. The size of the market expanded, yes, but the vast majority of projects that are downloadable for $5.99 on Steam never break even for their creators (even the award winning examples don't break even, from what I've seen). So, the price per transaction declines, the price of production increases, and a tiny (tiny!) number of successful games make people into millionaires --but the vast majority of projects have to be undertaken on a charitable basis by all involved (thus the looming influence of Kickstarter, etc.).
This is not a simple situation in which the profit motive precludes cultural production: certain types of cultural production are encouraged, and others discouraged, by economic forces that have profoundly changed within my lifetime, and are likely to profoundly change again (for the worse, in my opinion, and from my perspective).
It has never been easier to publish. Conversely, it has never been more difficult to earn a living publishing.
I can effortlessly have my words "immortalized" by ashen ink and cloud-white tree pulp, but no effort in the world can possibly make it a profitable enterprise.
In a sense, I'm being paid to write the book right now, by donations from supporters on Patreon (all 135 of you!) but that is likely to be the only payment I'll get --so, I am myself an example of both the positive and negative motivation this economic situation brings.
If new video games are primarily paid for by Kickstarter (i.e., by donations, etc.) then we have a very different set of incentives and constraints than we had in the 1980s.
If new books (and new magazines, etc.) are written on a similar sort of "charitable" basis… imagine what a perverse effect that will have on authorship, on readership, on the whole strange cycle of cultural production… and, conversely, try to imagine what a perverse effect the profit motive had on the publishing industry (from the 1960s to the 1980s)… and how "un-perverse" we all must be (in myriad ways we cannot perceive ourselves) now that these motivating factors are gone.
I say this all as someone who has had to explain, again and again (even to my own father, when he was alive) that it was now quite impossible for me to earn a living from newspapers, magazines, or even editing books. Many older men insisted (on the basis of their understanding of the world circa 1960 to 1980) that it must be very easy for me to earn enough money to pay the rent in Cambodia (etc.) by simply offering my services to the nearest newspaper. Perhaps in 1965. The reality is that most of the people involved in those industries today are contributing their labor on some kind of "charitable" basis (nobody at the Huffington Post is paid a salary, etc.). And, of course, "charity" can resemble parasitism --i.e., with the publisher living parasitically on the authors (whereas, before, the authors were paid by the publisher, etc.).
So, yes, things change. Change is an objective fact. Improvement is a matter of ideology. From my nihilistic perspective, everything is getting worse, and will continue to get worse.
The cost of paper and ink and bookbinding has decreased --but it has not decreased as much as the money to be earned by publishing. What changes? Everything changes. The life of the author changes.
The cost of transmitting a video game has decreased (i.e., comparing the cost of a download to the cost of producing a cartridge) and yet, also, the potential money to be earned from publishing has decreased.
The difference is that it is neither more nor less work to write a book now than it was before. The hours of labor needed to make a video game (and the number of specialized laborers required to contribute their skills, etc.) has increased.
Some books are written by lone wolves, like myself, and some are written by teams, others by whole armies. Look at a Chinese-English dictionary published in 1901: how many people contributed to creating it? An army. And all of them were paid.
The most recent dictionary of the Pali language (i.e., in English) is the creation of just one woman. And I have met her. And I have a very low opinion of her intellectual caliber. But we must admit that even if she were the most brilliant person imaginable, the work she's undertaken is simply not suited to one pair of hands alone: some tasks cannot be undertaken by men, but only by armies.
As an author, I am in the most privileged caste precisely because I have this youtube channel. Believe me, I have now seen several publishers' websites instructing prospective authors to do what I have done: build a presence on social media and communicate with the potential audience for the book (for years!) before publishing. Even if my audience consists of merely 1,000 people, the only reason why the book will reach that small number is because of the work I've put into the youtube channel (now well over 2,000 videos, BTW!).
However, I did not join youtube because I wanted to work alone: quite the contrary. I came here to build a movement, to be part of a community, or at least to work as a member of a team. In this, I am a failure --and the whole world of print media (books, magazines, etc.) is doomed to failure, for this whole generation (and the next, so far as I can see).
The same media that used to unite people (as creators) now divide them. Magazines and newspapers, also, are cobbled together by emails sent between people who've never met face-to-face, you know: editor, author and photographer no longer meet at a boardroom table (as per Perry White and J. Jonah Jameson, etc.). The reality is that the authors are more mutually isolated than ever before.
And in this, too, I am privileged, because I can work alone, without any teacher, without any students, without any salon, without any colleagues, contemporaries, adversaries or co-authors. I can, but that's not what I chose: that's not what I wanted from this "exchange" with the ether of the internet. I didn't sign up to be a lone wolf intellectual. To be blunt: I didn't learn Chinese to talk to myself.
With these incentives and disincentives, who will write a book, in the 21st century? A very different sort of person from those who wrote books in the 20th century. And a similar sort of prism will now influence cultural production in terms of software, educational software, and video games (with or without educational content).