Monthly Archives: December 2009

  •    David Ulin, from the Los Angeles Times, speaks of our changing relationship with the written word:
    What has changed is our sense of text as fixed, not fluid, as something solid to which we can return again and again. That’s the influence of the Web, of course, where story has no end and no beginning, and readers are not passive but play a determining role. This is scary to a certain way of thinking, but I want to look in the opposite direction, to suggest that what is more compelling is how this opens up the possibilities.
    This essay is a wonderful way to wrap up 2009, book-wise. I take particular comfort in Ulin’s conclusion about books: that despite the technological chaos of the last decade, reading – for better of worse – is here to stay. (via) #
  •    The New Yorker’s got a David Foster Wallace short story, All That, published in time for its Christmas issue. Like all DFW short stories, definitely worth a read. #

The Publishing Support Layer

Shortly after the Internet ran a knife through the publishing process, I began thinking about how it would be like to work in a publishing company of the future. A ‘digital publishing house’, if you will. I must admit that I have been working on a idea for a digital publishing house over the past couple of years, and while a launch is imminent, I cannot talk about things that I have not yet done. But what of it? There are certain trends in publishing today, and I think it would be really cool to follow each of them to their logical conclusions. (See also: Dispatches from a Digital Publishing House)

Trend #1: Writers In Control

Say you’re an author and that you want to get published. A couple years back, this would mean the usual gamut of things new authors all over the world have come to know and dread: you find an agent, the agent finds a publisher, and depending on the circumstances – the quality of book and nature of the market, say – a protracted game of cat-and-mouse begins. We all know this, of course. If you survive the initial negotiations, the publisher signs you on, wins himself a whole damn chunk of your book’s profits; and you in turn gain access to a global distribution network the publisher readily provides all its authors with.

Thing is, that’s not how it works today. Publishers used to have complete control over the distribution network, and the only way for writers to reach readers would be through a contract with a major publishing house. This was the value proposition that the publishers brought to the table – they connected writers with readers. It was a good value proposition. A fair one. It was also, however, the value proposition that the publishers no longer have today. New writers don’t need a publisher to reach readers; they may simply take their writing online. Publishers, on the other hand, have no easy way out of a low-margin business, and as such are beginning to do certain things that reflect this shift in power.

Three quick examples? Harper Collins hopes to capture new material from online writers with Authonomy; Harlequinn gets yelled at for releasing titles under a self-publishing model (never a good idea with an old-boy network); and – earlier this week – an editor hires a publisher to do his dirty work for him.

Trend #2: Separation of Bits from Atoms

Trick question: which business is a publisher engaged in? The business of atoms (bound books) or the business of bits (content)?

I used to believe that publishers dealt in both, but the problem with this idea is that the economics of the two are worlds apart from each other. Businesses that deal with atoms aren’t nearly as affected by the Internet as businesses that deal with bits. Conversely, businesses that ship bits (e.g: ebooks) are able to keep their costs down, while businesses dealing in atoms (paper books) need to pay for the logistics of handling merchandise – be it bicycle or warehouse or plane or ship. These two paradoxes come to a spectacular clash in today’s publishing world, where many publishers seem trapped between the costly bloat of their atoms and the low prices of their bits. This is probably why you hear so many of them arguing for higher ebook prices. They are eager for a new revenue stream, but they do not realize that they may need to jettison the bloat to focus on one or the other, but not both.

Trend #3: Alternative Value Propositions

So the publishers have lost their status as the only gateway to the readers. But really – when you think about it, that isn’t as bad as it sounds. There are other value propositions that publishers may bring to the table. Existing publishing houses have been designing and promoting books for a far longer time than writers ever have. So yes, the Internet has gone out and made things easier for writers to reach readers. But when it comes down to actual marketing, fact remains that writers are not particularly good at it. And when you’re talking about artwork, and getting good book covers for your book, publishers are particularly experienced in finding people to do just that. (At the very least, they know who to go to for artwork/typography, and unlike writers, they don’t settle for vomit-flavoured book covers).

Trend #4 Loyal Audiences

Seth Godin argued recently that book publishers needed to start thinking like magazine publishers. In simple terms: that publishers needed to create passionate audiences for themselves, in the sense that when readers buy books, they do so because the publisher logo on the spine tells them something about that book. I think Godin’s on to something with this idea. To back it up, the two book publishers who already are thinking like magazine publishers seem to be doing well for themselves – I’m talking, of course, about publishing houses McSweeneys’ and O’Reilly, both of whom have loyal audiences built around their brand. Compare this with most other publishing houses: you may come across a J, K. Rowling fan, but it’s unlikely to find a member of the Cult of Bloomsbury (who was first to publish the Harry Potter books). If publishers want to prevent themselves from being commodity businesses, this is one way to do it, even if it’s terribly difficult in today’s level of imprint-shrimprint saturation.

Lots Of Profitable, Small Publishers

So what do these trends mean? I believe they all point to a future of many small, profitable publishers, most of them operating online. My belief is that it’s no longer particularly difficult to create and run a digital publishing house. If you start small, and keep your costs low, you should be able to do fine even as the publishing industry behemoths crumble around you. Keep your business model light and centered on bits. Printing presses expensive? Outsource them to POD companies. Don’t know who to go to for cover art? Scour deviantArt and build relationships with the artists your writers like. Want to find and publish new, original fiction? Last time I checked, there’s a heck lot of web fiction out there. You only have to reach out to find them.

But those are the benefits to the publishers; the business owners. What of the writers? What benefits would they have of signing up, voluntarily, with a digital publishing house? Just off the top of my head – the digital publishers would have to show writers that they’re good sources of readers; that they provide invaluable support in editing; that they know a thing or two about design, and who to find and what to do when a book is dealing with a specific genre or audience. If I were to sum up the publisher value-proposition today, I would call it the Publisher Support Layer.

The Publisher Support Layer

The Publisher Support Layer is this idea of mine that publishers exist to enable writers. I must admit that this is a rather stunning reversal from how writers have been thinking about publishers, say, from just ten years ago. But let’s be realistic about it. The first thing a small publisher can do – particularly so if the publisher is a digital one – is to recognize that it is the writers who now hold the power. If the writers don’t like you, there’s nothing to prevent them from packing up their bags and leaving the building. With this kind of power, we have no choice but to rethink the writer-publisher relationship. Publishers exist to enable writers. Publishing a book is a tough thing; and so it is within the publishers’ best interest, once they have some good writers to work with, to do everything possible to make it easy for the writers to do the one thing they’re good at – write.

Because you know what? Writers like to write. They don’t like to promote. They don’t like spamming writing forums every couple of weeks to post links to their fiction. They don’t enjoy surfing webcomics to decide on ads, and they don’t enjoy cross-promoting their work through Twitter. (Okay maybe some do, but that’s beside the point.) The point is this – given a choice, I’m pretty sure any web fiction writer will tell you that the most enjoyable bits about writing web fiction is a) the writing, and b) the interaction with the readers. And that’s all that matters. My contention is that a digital publishing house will succeed if it recognizes this fact, that if it goes out of its way to act as a support layer for the writers; taking care of everything else but the writing and the interaction, the writers would be happy, and the publishing house would be able to exchange this value for a slice of the writer’s profits.

Here’s another way of looking at it: I’ve shown you four trends that are shaping the publishing industry as we know it. Taken to their extremes, we may conclude that:

  1. The writers have power; publishers will need to compete with choice
  2. Publishers should deal with atoms or bits, but not both
  3. Publishers should offer writers things they cannot readily find on their own
  4. Publishers – digital publishers in particular – must find their own readers

The unifying idea here is that, if you’re a digital publisher, you are only good for the things that the writers cannot themselves get, easily, online. Writers don’t have good designers; publishing houses do. Writers don’t really know how to market their work; publishing houses should do this for them. If you want to take the idea of indie-publishing a step further, you may even say that publishers should exist to connect writers with readers and designers, for a fee.

Now I’m not sure if this idea – this publisher support layer – makes sense when seen from the birds-eye view of the publishers in London and New York. I doubt it will. But if you’re talking about independent publishers – small, net-based publishers with little history and no traditions, then yes, this should be something that makes sense.

And of course that isn’t easy. In fact, there is absolutely no empirical evidence to show that this is even possible. I haven’t talked about finding readers, and I’ve absolutely no idea how the business model would look like. But the truth is that I’ve been thinking about these things for close to two years now, and I’m coming close to launching a digital publishing house as a proof of concept, early in 2010. I hope to prove it to you, the same way that I hope this idea won’t crash and burn. Till then, these are some of the ideas that I’ve had about digital publishing houses. I hope you’ve found something useful in them.

  •    I’ve recently signed up for an account at Bookfuturism, a site dedicated to ‘mapping the future of reading’. It’s built on Drupal, administered by the venerable Tim Carmody of Snarkmarket, and populated by various book geeks interested in the sticky business of reading and/or publishing. Am posting a link here to say it’s worth a look, if you’re interested in a high-level view of the book future. #
  •    The Awl’s got a cool piece on editors hiring publishers. Choire Sicha writes:
    … here is an editor, who built and owns his publication, who is now going to be the editor-owner, who will employ the publisher. For those of you who have worked at any sort of publication, the implications of this are staggering.
    (via df) #

A Simple Explanation

Imagine this: you’re a web fiction writer, and you’re approaching a publisher, or an editor, or a reader – a person who does not understand this thing that you do. You want to explain web fiction to him. You do not want to be associated with fan fiction (admittedly the bastard-child of the publishing world) but you know that there is this risk of association, especially so when you’re publishing to the web. What do you do? How do you explain this, simply and quickly?

Today I’ve gone and done up a simple definition site for web fiction. My hope is this: if you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to explain your work – repeatedly, say – fear not the ignorant man. Point him to the site, instead. I hope that this would save you the bit of time needed to explain your work; the same way it should prevent publishers from rejecting you as ‘fan-fiction’ material.

What Is Web Fiction?

Two more things.

First, I’ve asked a number of people about the definition, and most of them think that it’s fair. If it isn’t, or if there’s something that you think it lacks – feel free to start a discussion in the comments below. (Note: you may want to read Jan Oda’s excellent primer on web fiction definitions before you do so). My position, however, is simple. I believe that if a work is published to the web, it should be considered web fiction. There are two additional clauses in the definition:

  1. The work must be original. This clause was added to differentiate the field from fan-fiction, something that I think most of us would agree with. Web fiction is not derivative; it should be always original (in the copyright sense of the term, that is).
  2. The work must be written for the web. A tad puzzling, but we must remember that not all fiction found online may be considered ‘web fiction’. Take Google Books, for example. Google will soon upload a large number of books – some of them novels – formerly published under copyright law. These books cannot be properly considered web fiction, simply because they were not meant for the web. However, if an author takes a previously published work and takes pain to put it online, make it presentable for long periods of on-screen reading, etc; then the work may be considered web fiction (though, I have to admit – this is a loose interpretation of the above clause). I realize that I’m quickly approaching a thin grey line here – when is web fiction … web fiction? When is it an everyday novel? I do not know; and I do not presume to know at all times. I’m not sure if this definition will ever be all-comprehensive. I do know, however, that I recognize web fiction when I see it, and I expect that with enough time a reasonably bright reader would, too.

The second thing I would like to mention is how odd it may seem, to a reader several years down the road, that someone had actually taken the time to create this site. I certainly hope that this would soon be true: that in the near future, people won’t need a definition site like this one – that they’d know what web fiction is the same way you and I know what a movie is, or an EP, or a picture book.

Till then, pass this link to people who don’t yet know what Web Fiction’s all about. I hope this helps, and – lest I forget – Merry Christmas, everyone! Consider this Novelr’s gift to the community. Now off you go, and have yourself a very happy new year.

  •    Wibbly Press’s got a new merchandising option for the web fiction community:
    Early next year, Wibbly will start producing merchandise and selling it through our site, and we want to offer our services to the the web serial community. You may have considered, or even be using services such as Cafepress or Zazzle, but find the costs and low payouts to you troubling. I can assure you our prices will be more than competitive and have outlined the differences below.
    You earn up to US$18.25 per shirt, and that’s just for starters. #
  •    Harper’s has a wonderful article about the decline of the American newspaper. Richard Rodriguez writes:
    We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill. We like to say that the invention of the internal-combustion engine changed us, changed the way we live. In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city.
    One of the best essays I’ve read all year. #
  •    David Pogue says the Nook sucks. What a disappointment. #
  •    Detainee 063 is a ‘live’ storytelling experiment: each entry of Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani’s interogation log is posted seven years after the time of its recording, in ‘realtime’.
    By the date the log begins, Al-Qahtani has already been in US custody for almost a year, having been captured in Afghanistan in December 2001, and has been marked for intense interrogation for several months, his fingerprints having linked him to an August 2001 attempt to enter America.
    The whole site is a frightening read. #
  •    Joe Queenan on good books with bad covers:
    … this prompted me to think more closely about magnificent books I had resisted reading over the years. The first to come to mind was Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” When I was in high school, the assigned version of Miller’s seminal play had a grim, depressing, green-and-brown cover depicting a stubby, doomed man with his back to the viewer, clutching two suitcases filled with merchandise for which no buyer could possibly be found. I was living in a subpar neighborhood at the time, and my dad was out of work, so it never seemed like that play was going to be as uplifting as “The Black Arrow.” So I never read it.
    To be honest, though, I’ve read my fair share of good books with horrible covers, and I’ve rarely had a problem. Case in point: all seven of the Harry Potter books. #
  •    Ommwriter is the most beautiful word processor I have ever set my eyes on. Can’t wait for it to leave beta. #