Digital Publishing’s Set To Explode. Will You Be Sidelined?

It is tempting to assume that what we’re doing here, at Novelr, is going to be the centre of the new digital publishing revolution. We probably feel like we’ve been doing a lot, haven’t we? We think that we’re going to render publishers and their ilk useless. We think that getting published on the Internet is as good as getting published on paper. And, yes, I’ll admit there has been a constant increase of writers who start blogs and write fiction, and who gather here at Novelr to talk shop and to discuss new ways of writing, of publishing, and of circumventing the old agent-publicist-publisher network. We have become closer, as a community. We’ve started a quality filter, a Web Fiction Guide (recognition to Chris Poirier here), to help new readers sort through the dross and find good things to read. And we’ve done quite a bit in the past two years or so.

But guess what? I’m starting to believe that what we’ve done is not enough. I’d been out of the loop for four months, and I hadn’t been keeping track of all the new developments in the online book world. But this afternoon I sat down and made my first real sweep of the lit blogosphere – my first in half a year. And God, let me tell you: it was different. Scary different. Former boundaries I’d taken for granted were no longer there. People I never expected to talk about digital fiction were now talking about nothing else. Publishers had started blogs, opened up experimental digital teams. Regular people had created commentary blogs similar to this one, in an attempt to make sense of this shift from page to screen. And what was scary about this whole thing was that the biggest efforts everywhere were by the publishers.

Now I’m not really surprised, but my initial enthusiasm during Christmas has by now worn off. It may well be true that a rising tide raises all ships, independent producers like the blooking community included, but I’m inclined to think that it’s not going to be clear cut. And why should it? Look at the facts: the publishers that are jumping into the digital medium are making big waves, and they’re the ones with the money. Independent content producers – we the writers, the blog fiction people – we’re disjointed. We don’t have the resources nor the manpower to do anything matching the kinds of sites and software that these companies are now throwing up (you mark my words,  Authonomy won’t be the last site we’ll see from Harper Collins). Can we create an iPhone ebook reader? Can we push out a platform for publishing novels, and pipe them straight to the bookstore? The truth is that we can’t, and that once the big wigs step in, we’ll be revealed for what we truly are: big fish in a small pond. To me, it now seems that the book future before us will be startlingly similar to the book world we thought we left behind.

A Glimpse Ahead

But what book future are we talking about? I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball, but a few things seem certain in the near future, given recent developments.

Firstly: more and more people would begin reading books in the digital format. Sharon Bakar points out that an increasing number of people in the US and the UK received Kindles for Christmas last year; Gregory Cowles said in a recent blog postKindles are a regular sight on my train these days, and seem poised to become as ubiquitous as iPods …

Secondly: There will arise a new kind of publishing industry, a major portion of which will be heavily invested in digital and Internet-related technology. How they make their money isn’t clear, but I believe (though don’t hold me to this) that they’ll adopt a scalable, free model – most books available for on-screen reading; payment for book/mobile download. This model meshes with what we know of commerce on the Internet thus far, and it would make sense, considering the success of iTunes for the music industry. But let’s pause here, and think about what this means for us. If thousands of quality, paper-published writers are shifted online, for free, how will the independent writers be heard? What will happen if the major agencies and publishers begin their search for the next hot writer on the Internet? We will be swamped and oversaturated, won’t we? And here’s the question that matters most to us: what will the relevance of WFG be, in light of these huge online repositories of free, quality fiction?

The answer? In the dark. We will be driven into the shadow of these central big wigs, or at least we’ll learn to coexist uncomfortably side-by-side, never experiencing the same levels of attention that they enjoy. There will be a much larger percentage of quality stuff where the big publishers set up their shops, and it’ll only be safe to assume that the majority of readers, the Internet mainstream – they’ll be more attracted to those sites, as opposed to places like WFG. 

But … Where’s The Silver Lining?

Well it’s not complete good news, I’m afraid. We can do nothing about the big publishers coming in, nor can we prevent the fact that most Internet readers are probably going to be clustered around their efforts, not ours. This isn’t necessarily bad, though it’s a change that we’re probably going to have to get our heads around. But remember: nothing’s happened yet. If we can pre-empt and carve out a sizable niche for the indie producers, than why not? The publishing industry’s currently doing nothing more than dipping their toes in the water, checking for temperature and climate. And I’d say we’ve got a year or so to do something significant, before they all dive in and claim the land for themselves. And this is where the assumption that a ‘rising tide raises all ships’ becomes dangerous. If we agree with it, then we’ll just sit back as the opportunities are all gobbled up by the big fish. And being a small content producer myself, I’d say that no, we can’t let that happen.

When Novelr first started, the dream we had, the one that I shared here, was of a way to sidestep the publishers, the agencies, the rejection letters. We saw an Internet that would allow us access to our readers, to hell with typical publishing conventions. And it was all ours, for awhile – it was a small pond and we were the big fish, and we grabbed a respectable amount of readers from the influx of Internet users who came in via the blogging craze. They were there for the taking. Shed that assumption. The sharks are coming, and, for better or for worse, this is no longer the same sea. 

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Category: Publishing · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://fiction.courage-my-friend.org/ Chris Poirier

    Hi Eli,

    I guess my response to this is “meh”. I can’t say I ever went in this to “win”, nor do I think a few hundred readers — or even a thousand — is much to talk about, in the big scheme of things. It would be hard to make a living off of that kind of readership, that’s for sure.

    If people with money want to start legitimizing this platform, I say more power to them. Frankly, *until* people with money show up to legitimize this platform, the platform is irrelevant. Money isn’t moral — it’s an indication, of collective will. It’s an *effect*, not a cause.

    I’m still going to write my stories, and if only a handful of people show up to read them, that’s just fine with me. Though, frankly, if the big guys help teach large numbers of people it is okay and useful to read fiction online, I don’t see how that can be bad for independents looking for an audience.

    Really, guys, we’re not that important. We never were. But that’s not to say we should stop what we’re doing.

    Chris.

  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome lethe

    I agree with Chris. I don’t see this as a zero-sum game. Yesterday I met with a blog fiction writer in person. He’s a writer I reviewed for WFG. Sure he’s my competition, and much more so than these big, anonymous giants; but I welcome his work into the collective pool of online fiction.

    Let’s be honest. For the most part, our readership is confined to ourselves. We’re reading our own work. The outsider readers are slim, if any. We congratulate each other, we criticize each other, we comment on each others’ blogs. That’s something the publishers won’t really effect, and like Chris says, they may even bring more outside readers in.

    There are other platforms like this, albeit without the backing of a major publisher. You can publish your manuscript to Issuu.com and Scribd.com. Thanks for sharing “a working library”. I really like the aesthetic. Guess she designed it herself. Nice, clean presentation.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Hi Chris, Chris (gosh I’ve always wanted to do that!),

    My point is that sometimes we think we’re the middle of the digital revolution, and that we’ve got a natural right, being the first ones here. For instance, Chris Al Aswad said in a past comment that Novelr may very well see itself at the center of a digital publishing revolution. Which I didn’t think would be correct to say – because Novelr’s such a small blip in the grand scale of things! Maybe a tugboat in a whirlpool would be a more correct term to use …

    Part of what Novelr does is to figure out how to get more people to read web fiction. This cause might well be irrelevant if what I’ve talked above comes true. And it’ll be foolish if we were to coordinate the community without taking into account outside factors – example: how do we best leverage this publishing inflow to benefit as many independent writers as possible? We may not be the biggest players now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think ahead and prepare to take advantage of the landscape that is to be, no?

    Last, but not least, competition has nothing to do with this. What writer, after all, considers his fellow writers as competition? The dynamic we have between writers could perhaps be compared to that between scientists, or artists … but then it’s always been an internal thing in these disciplines …

    Okay I think I’ve just shot my argument in the foot.

  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome lethe

    Yes, perhaps it was a hasty comment to make; but by nature, I’m an enthusiast and I prefer to be hopeful than grim . . .

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Well, as they say – prepare for the worse, hope for the best (or was that the other way around?). Thing is, even if we don’t do anything, we should benefit from an inflow of money and commercial producers. It just remains to be seen who can adjust fast enough to get to the biggest waves. And I hope that this community can do just that.

  • http://www.dirigibleditties.blogspot.com/ Samazing

    Hm. I think that you’re trending a bit too much towards the negative perspective. Rising tide raises all ships they say, and, well, it’s true. There are probably dozens of reasons that this is a good thing, not least among them the fact that if prominent publishing houses begin regularly finding and publishing works found on the internet, it legitimizes to a great extent what you’ve been doing to the world at large. More attention will be drawn to fiction in online form. More authors will come, more readers will too, and even if they’re bending to the big publishers there will be many others who will seek to expand their horizons and will find you ready and willing to greet them.

    I agree that Novelr and other sites might not dominate, but this new wave will give you something to build on (what a crazily mixed metaphor!).

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    You might well be correct, Sam. And I hope that whatever happens, more doors will be open for the writers who write regardless of economic, social or industry constraints.

  • http://www.meilinmiranda.com/ MeiLin Miranda

    Shall I slit my wrists now, or later?

    I’m not going to stop because the dinosaurs finally figure out that this is where the audience is moving to. I doubt any of us will.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Oh, we won’t stop. But how we change and what we change into would be greatly affected by how the publishers shape the terrain. And that’s the real challenge we face, as independent publishers.