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