Category Archives: Publishing

Nina Lassam on Wattpad: the Youtube of eBooks

Nina Lassam works at Wattpad, the ‘the world’s most popular eBook community’. Today I’ve asked her to share on the platform – what it is, how it works, and how you may benefit from it.
Wattpad Logo
The way I often explain Wattpad to people who are not familiar with who we are or how we fit into web fiction, is that Wattpad is “YouTube for eBooks + Facebook/Twitter for Authors”. The content on Wattpad is user generated by writers who range from teenaged hobbyists to self-published authors to established writers looking to promote and market their work to a targeted reading community.

Over 10 millions readers and writers visit Wattpad every month, spending half an hour each visit with an average of two visits a day. Like the viral videos that dominate the YouTube homepage, many writers can claim outstanding success with millions of reads and thousands of comments from fans who use Wattpad to find new works to read.

Where Wattpad has shown to be very different from YouTube is in the community-minded nature of the site. A reader comments on a story once every seven seconds on Wattpad, and writers and readers engage in discussions, provide feedback and recommend other works on the site.

There’s an App for That

One of the most common ways people find Wattpad is through their mobile phones. Wattpad is consistently among the top eReader apps in the Apple Store and BlackBerry App World. For authors who want their fiction to reach a mobile audience, Wattpad is available on over 1,000 different mobile devices and eReaders and provides a direct connection with reader.

Mobile is a large area of focus for Wattpad: we see thousands of our apps downloaded everyday and we are continuing to add more and more of the social features that are native to the website. Wattpad is not just a way to read and discover or a spot to upload fiction and poetry, but a platform that bridges both and enables authors to connect with readers in online space.

Who Uses Wattpad

The demography of Wattpad users has changed so much in the past twelve months. From a core group of young adults, we now see mature and experienced authors joining the site. The majority of members are from English speaking countries; the United States, UK, Canada and Australia and English remains the dominant language found on the site. Wattpad also sees a sizable number of readers from Asia and South America and we receive emails everyday from readers who say that Wattpad has helped their ESL skills tremendously.

Since partnering with self-publishing companies; Lulu, Smashwords, and Bubok, our presence in this community of authors has grown considerably. During the summer, we launched a program specifically for self-published writers and have opened a writing contest with literary magazine Shelf Unbound to provide self-published authors on Wattpad an opportunity for additional exposure. There is so much great fiction being self-published, but the struggle is to find readers to enjoy it. Wattpad has been able to fill an important role this way.

Monday, 27 September, 2010

The First Age of Print

There’s a remarkable article over at the Boston Globe titled Cover Story, that documents the first couple of decades following the invention of the printing press:

Inventing the printing press was not the same thing as inventing the publishing business. Technologically, craftsmen were ready to follow Gutenberg’s example, opening presses across Europe. But they could only guess at what to print, and the public saw no particular need to buy books. The books they knew, manuscript texts, were valuable items and were copied to order. The habit of spending money to read something a printer had decided to publish was an alien one.

Go read the article in its entirety – it’s well worth it, because there are strong parallels to the current, digital age of print.

I’d like to point out several interesting bits from the piece: Andrew Pettegree, Professor of Modern History at St. Andrews, found that the earliest printers made more money selling almanacs, and calendars, and municipal announcements than they did selling books. The very idea of buying a book off a shelf was alien to a public used to thinking of books as these expensive, made-to-order goods! And that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And even cooler: it took the first generation of publishers 10 years to figure out how to make money off this new technology. No wonder it’s taking time to figure out how to sell digital things, today.

(Digression: it’s hard to imagine people being confused by the book; perhaps they wondered at the invention of ‘turning the page’? And I can’t help but grin at that – it reminds me of this crazy skit.)

This is all exciting, of course. But what really strikes me is how chaotic it all seemed. Nobody knew what to do with the book, and so the current model of publishing – as a solution to the distribution of ideas and stories and such – wasn’t the result of deliberate creation at all. It was a gradual evolution of a reading public, and a bunch of publishers that sort-of, well, accidentally created that group. And that seems obvious now, with Pettegree’s research complete, but the degree of randomness is still very surprising to me.

I suppose I should stop turning up my nose at multimedian books, even if most current attempts really do suck. If what we have today arose out of total chaos, then it doesn’t seem too far off to suggest that the chaos today is a good thing. A sign of a working industry in the horizon, perhaps.

Anyway, I’m acting all confused and rambly now, so I’ll just leave you with this awesome concept video from IDEO:

Sunday, 19 September, 2010

Matt Blackwood on MyStory

Matt Blackwood is the creator and project lead for MyStory – a location-based fiction project funded and hosted in Melbourne. Here he talks about MyStory’s origins – how they got started with it, and why he’s doing the project:

They say it’s all about the details; the minutiae, the flecks of paint, the beads of sweat, the congealed Chupa Chups sticks, the smiles, the snarls and the occasional gleam – and you know what – ‘they’ were right.

The small things have always intrigued me. That’s not to say I don’t dig Space Odyssey 2001 or The Vidiot from UHF, but everyday humanity is something I’ve always cherished. It might have something to do with my background: not having much money, I spent more time staring at Lego catalogues than piecing together choke-sized blocks for spaceships.

And sure, it might not be trendy to be interested in the small and everyday when Sexagenarian in the City and Warepires are ruling the popular mindset, but the way I look at it, it’s now more important than ever to look at the everyday, to assess where we are, where we’ve been and where we are headed.

So these were the thoughts that spun around my head some 12 months ago; thoughts of how being a writer in a City of Literature didn’t automatically make my writing appear in the city. Thoughts wanting more people to read my work, wanting more support as a writer, and wanting to feel more connected with my fellow Melbournians, and so the framework for MyStory began.

In essence I was interested in location based stories.

I started by looking at different ways to combine the surging uptake in smartphones, mobile internet and the human desire to be told stories one-on-one. I wanted people to reconsider spaces they might have already walked down a thousand times before, or take a chance and venture down somewhere new. I wanted to peel back some of the layers, and perhaps even pre-conceptions about some of these spaces, while spinning tales that were true and truish. All this meant creating an interactive database where writing could be easily accessed in a form that made the most of mobile technologies, but also didn’t exclude people without smartphones or laptops. And I wanted to take it a step further, so that people with vision impairments could also access the content.

Then came the realities.

I knew that people weren’t going to stand and experience a story for a huge amount of time, even if they did happen to love the space they were in. The spaces were always going to be dynamic. This dynamism would obviously affect the experience of the literature; if the spaces were too loud or too busy, raining or sunny, busy or quiet, dark or midday bright; it was all going to impact the interpretation of MyStory.

Friday, 10 September, 2010

Kickstarter – a New Model for Indie Publishing

Kickstarter is a website for ‘funding and following creativity’. I’d never actually given the site much attention (even if I knew of one or two projects, by acquaintances, funded through the site) until – well, two days ago I stumbled onto a discussion on Kickstarter’s growing influence in the independent book world, and everyone seemed pretty positive about the service. So I decided to check it out.

Kickstarter’s core idea is simple: you post a creative project to their site, put up a description (and very often: a video), and then you set a series of pledge levels that show to the right of your project page. These levels indicate what backers get in return for specific amounts of money. For instance, this book project promises an autographed copy for $20, an 8×10 print (and book!) for $30, and an acknowledgment (plus doodle and print and book!) for $100.

The genius here is that these pledges happen before your book’s published, with absolutely no risk for all involved. Your book will be funded by the usual crowd of backers: mostly your readers, some fans and perhaps several Kickstarter community members. And if you can’t raise the minimum, your project closes, the page disappears, and nobody need pay up.

Craig Mod's Art Space Tokyo
There have been a number of striking book projects done through Kickstarter. Craig Mod, for instance, has published a run of handcrafted, silkscreened books with Kickstarter fundraising; Robin Sloan (of Snarkmarket fame), managed to get $13,942 to fund the writing of a novel. From his project page:

I’m writing a book: a detective story set halfway between San Francisco and the internet. And the more people who reserve a copy, the better each one will be!

I’m beginning to think that Kickstarter (and websites like it, that I assume will appear in the future) are going to play a prominent role in independent publishing – maybe in one or two years, but certainly for a long time to come. And how can they not? It makes perfect economic sense for both reader and writer. If a writer has to earn the privilege of getting paid for his work, then this model delights in that exchange, and rewards the avid reader. (Imagine: being able to chip in, for your favourite author! How fulfilling! How incredible!)

But I also find it very cool – the very idea that you can help support your favourite writers as they produce and publish good books – books you already love, because you’re reading them online. This idea is wonderful, I think, and brilliant, and so befitting of the kind of closeness the Internet is able to afford its readers; its writers.

Digression: there’s actually a space right now for a service that enables closer reader-writer relationships – the kind of relationships that encourage a ‘you fund me, I’ll make good books for you’ ethos. Current solutions are good, but things can be, and will be, much better, given the right technical backbone. My bet is that Kickstarter has the seed of this in its model. All that remains is to think about this and tease it out a little.

I’ll be looking for a few Kickstarter authors to come write on Novelr in the future – in particular the ones who have successfully funded the publication (and sometimes even the writing) of their books. In the meantime, I’d recommend that you consider Kickstarter for funding. And maybe not for large, $10,000 runs, but it seems perfectly fair to begin with a small print of carefully-bound books, shipped to a loyal pool of delighted readers.

Oh, and a random thought: perhaps – as more web fiction writers stumble onto the idea of publishing with Kickstarter, we’ll begin to see an increasing number of links on Novelr to their respective project pages. Which I look forward to, and – I suppose – can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, 25 August, 2010

“A Small Industry Sitting Atop a Huge Hobby”

Here’s a heretical thought: suppose we never find a way for making money from online fiction?

I was walking back from campus the other day with Yipeng (who’s the technical lead for Pandamian, by the way, and is generally sharp about such things) and he asked me: “Is there any way to make money from … this web fiction thing?”

I paused for a bit, thinking about where to begin. “Well, yes and no.” I said, “There are some ideas floating around. One of them is to release the book for free, in web form, and sell the ebook and dead-tree versions.” – a pause as I think – “And perhaps another one is to sell merchandise around the book. Or sell signings and book tours.” – another pause – “The truth is that we don’t know.”

And we still don’t. Digital content is a chaotic, uncomfortable business to be in. Most working business models in this space have yet to be discovered, and the ones that do work are these odd, vertical stacks that few companies may tap into (e.g.: the iTunes store, and now maybe the Kindle/iBookstore – both with their own devices). Newspapers are feeling the worse of it, but books and music aren’t that far behind.

But I wonder now: suppose the majority of digital, for-entertainment writing is impossible to monetize? Or that – if it were monetizable, the money would go to a small circle of skilled/lucky authors, sitting atop a food chain of other less-profitable, digital writers?

I’m kidding myself, of course – such a future is likely to be inevitable. In all areas of human effort there will be a small number of successful/lucky people, a small number of very unlucky people, and a vast majority of what I shall call – for want of a better term – middleness. Digital publishing seems unlikely to escape the bell-curve that governs everything else.

What interests me is this idea that the bell-curve in publishing, so far, has existed because of the shape of the traditional publishing industry. In other words, the authors that get promoted to the top depend on which authors the publishing houses like the best. This is not true for all cases, and there are market forces to think about, but it is certainly true for many. In digital publishing there are fewer barriers-to-entry for the prospective author. In this version of a bookfuture – what factors determine the kinds of authors that get to the top?

I can hazard only a few guesses. The most successful authors are likely to be the ones who can best create and manage large communities. How they’ll do that is unclear to me, but it’s likely that the author will have some way of gathering his or her audience. It’s also likely that this way would be tied to or enabled by a publishing company.

I’ll also take a stab at it and say that the publishing houses of the future would endorse certain digital writers over others. The good news is that it’s easier to pick the winners in a flat market like the Internet. The bad news is that publisher-support would probably remain the defining factor for whether an author makes it to the big-time. And without such leverage, the rest of the writers would still be left without any way to make significant money from their work.

This isn’t a bad thing, really. Writer V. J. Chambers left a comment in an earlier Novelr post that struck me as true:

… I want to scream at people, “Getting paid for making art is not a right. It is a privilege.”

I’m beginning to think that this is the right way of looking at things. If you’re a writer, and you publish good stuff online, and you get paid huge sums of money for it, you’re a lucky (nay, privileged) person indeed. And if you’re not – so what? You’re still doing what you love. Maybe the money’s just enough to cover your server costs. Maybe it’s enough to buy you an occasional t-shirt. It shouldn’t matter, because that isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Richard Nash argued that publishing is a ‘small industry sitting atop a huge hobby’. If we take that hobby to be writing, then what you have in the Internet is a tool that enables you to find people who love your writing, and who would love to talk about it with you. Never before in the history of publishing has this level of interaction been so attainable. And as a writer, I find this idea to be incredibly fulfilling.

If not being able to make money means I can talk to more readers … well maybe that’s not such a bad trade-off after all.

Saturday, 24 July, 2010

Surprising Truths From Richard Nash’s Publishing Talk

Richard Eoin Nash (formerly of Soft Skull Press) has a talk available on blip.tv that’s well worth a watch:

Wired editor Chris Anderson calls this the “best speech (he’s) ever seen on book publishing”. My eyebrows went up at that, and so I sat down for a listen. Anderson was right. Here are the best ideas from that speech; or at least, the ones that struck me as most surprising.

“We are a small industry sitting atop a huge hobby”

I’m not sure if Nash means reading, the hobby, or writing, the hobby (I suspect the latter), but I’d never thought of the publishing industry like this. An implication: publishing may become a hobby, just like how reading is part of the writing hobby, or computers are part of the programming hobby. A little far-fetched, I know, but something to keep in mind.

“(Writers) are not happy about being published. They want to connect. (…) They don’t write to stay alone. They write stuff so they can get out and connect with people who read their stuff.

We’ve known this for some time, of course. My contention is that writers want two things the most: a) to write, and b) to talk to readers. Anecdotal evidence suggests this to be true – Keren Wehrstein has a lovely guest post up over at Becka’s writing blog, where she talks about her shift from being a traditionally published writer to a online one:

When I first decided to do this, I emailed Alexandra Erin to pick her brain. She told me that she thought the biggest adjustment for me, switching from traditional to online publishing, would be dealing with immediate feedback in comments, and that it might be tough. My feeling was—are you kidding? That would be like nirvana! I did have a little trepidation—the net abounds with trolls, for one thing—but mostly felt I’d enjoy getting immediate comments.

The social component of people responding to your fiction, online (or anything of yours that is online, really) is incredibly addictive. Think of Facebook, and how much a timesuck that is.

“We’re in the writer-reader connection business. If our supply chain doesn’t do it (connect writers and readers well) we should abandon it.”

I found Nash’s articulation of the ‘publishing problem’ very elegant. My assertion – that publishing is a solution to the problem of distribution – seems obfuscated in comparison.

“Currently, publishing has products in the $10 – $30 price range. What about below $10? We have no products there. Or what about above $30? Say: $100? What products do we have there? Like perhaps a meeting with an author? We’ve not met all the demand at all the price points we might have possibly met.

This applies to big-name publishers, of course, but the idea that there are price points on the demand curve that are not yet addressed is worth looking into.

“The 20th century was about supply management. The 21st century is about demand management. You have to own the community.”

Nash’s thesis is that publishers no longer need to manage the supply side of things – there is more content now than at any other point in time in the history of publishing. He contends that publishers now have to ‘manage demand’. That they have to find, and build audiences, or at least create digital systems where communities of readers get to pick what books they’d like to see published.

“The absence of audio and video in long form text is a feature, not a bug.”

This is something I’ve been saying for a bit, but never have I seen it expressed so … succinctly. Nash has a real talent for ideas like this – I’m keeping an eye on him, and I think you should, too.

Wednesday, 21 July, 2010

Ebooks vs Web Fiction

There appears to be two competing systems for reading digital fiction today. The first, promoted by Amazon and Apple and countless others through their digital bookstores, is the ebook. You surf a vast collection of titles, download the ones you like, and choose others based on store-wide recommendations. It is a system that works.

The second system is web fiction. You upload a text on what is likely the most open, distributable format available: a website. You make purchasable editions (ebooks, POD paper versions) available to readers. You design your own online presence, craft your own books, and in turn you get loyal readers you can talk to, get to know; readers who will support you and may become benefactors of your work.

These two systems are currently competing for writer mindshare. Just as VHS fought for mindshare with Betamax, and SLRs and rangefinders fought for photographer adoption in the 90s, so is web fiction fighting for mindshare with eBooks. And web fiction is currently losing.

I believe this is bad for all of us.

How is Web Fiction Losing?

A cursory glance of the blogosphere suggests that most writers think the ebook/digital-bookstore/electronic-reader ecosystem to be the shape of the bookfuture. It’s easy to see how they may think this: that particular vision isn’t very different from the current paper-book/phsyical-bookstore/home-bookshelf manner of reading that we all know and love.

The truth is that independent writers today don’t think of posting their book in website form. They think instead of creating a pdf and uploading that to Smashwords, and then perhaps opening a writer blog and building a following around that. (A quick comparison: Smashwords has 15360 listings; Web Fiction Guide: 754). Web fiction is not an obvious choice for the new writer. Nor is it, currently, the default manner of thinking about digital publishing.

Now I must note that the web fiction model is compatible with the ebook one – you may both have your book on a website and sell that same book through ebook stores (e.g.: Amazon, Smashwords) at the same time. But what it also means is that more writers are likely to plug their books into the Kindle store, instead of starting their own web-based books.

Why this happens is simple: it’s easier, for one. Uploading to the Kindle store and waiting for the money to come in takes far less energy than setting up your own blog, designing your own book, and building your own audience. There is a technological barrier to web fiction that we have not yet overcome. The other bit of it is that it’s easier to understand the idea of a ‘digital bookstore'; as I’ve mentioned above, it’s not very different from what we have in the real world.

So then – why is this bad? Why is web fiction so important, if the ebook model works?

Wednesday, 2 June, 2010

The Adams Theory Of Content Value

Scott Adams (yes – the same guy who does the Dilbert comic strips) wrote a blog post yesterday titled The Adams Theory of Content Value. He asserts that: “as our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.” Which is a fancy way of saying things will become free because people will be better able to find good alternatives to the current non-free stuff. To wit:

At the moment, plenty of people still pay for media content. Those reasons will evaporate. Let’s consider books. Most people still prefer old-timey tree-based books, but the Kindle and other ebook readers are eating into that preference quickly. I haven’t yet heard of anyone buying a Kindle and later returning to a preference for regular paper books. It appears to be a one way ride. The Kindle, and similar devices, are designed for buying legal copies of books, which is a doomed attempt to forestall the inevitability of all media content becoming free.

I’m not sure why this notion makes me so uncomfortable. It could be because I’m supportive of writers making money off of their content, or it could be because I’m also building something that may go that way.

My immediate, almost visceral reaction to this is to argue that there is value in commercially-created content. I think of software when I make this argument: free, open-source software has existed for years, and yet consumers have historically opted to buy closed-source products over free, open source ones (e.g: the iPad, and the variant of OSX that runs on it).

But that doesn’t make sense. Software isn’t exactly the kind of content we’re talking about – people don’t need a book or a game or a song the same way they need Microsoft Office. And I suspect open-source software isn’t as widely adopted simply because its creators (i.e.: bored geeks) don’t spend enough time optimizing for non-geek users. So this is one argument that’s fairly easy to discredit.

But then where does this leave us? It leaves me with my original discomfort, certainly. It is true lately that content is a bad business to be in, and whatever business models there are that are working are vastly different from merely ‘selling’ content. iTunes works, but then they’re not really a store – some have described it as a tollbooth; a gateway that charges you at a rate below your threshold of attention. And even if that were not true, iTunes still sells its albums at a price-point lower than albums were sold pre-Internet. If we extrapolate this, we’d probably have to accept Adams’s theory as the logical end-point for the value of content.

I’m still not sure if he’s right, because the argument sounds a little odd to me. And I can’t figure that out. It’s simple, but is it too simplistic? I’d like your help here. What do you think?

PS: Sorry for the lack of updates. I’ve been spending the last three weeks programming (and all the learning that goes with that) for Pandamian. This post is my way of easing out of code and into the text editor – updates are forthcoming, I assure you.

Tuesday, 20 April, 2010

To Change Publishing, Make Publishers Obsolete

Publishers will die if they cannot change, but it doesn’t seem like they’re interested in change anytime soon. Why?

There’s an enlightening quote in the New Yorker article published yesterday, where Madeline McIntosh of Random House says:

“I think we, as an industry, do a lot of talking,” she said of publishers. “We expect to have open dialogue. It’s a culture of lunches. Amazon doesn’t play in that culture.” It has “an incredible discipline of answering questions by looking at the math, looking at the numbers, looking at the data. . . . That’s a pretty big culture clash with the word-and-persuasion-driven lunch culture, the author-oriented culture.”

More tellingly – Markus Dohle, the chairman and CEO of Random House, thinks “the digital transition will take five to seven years“. He believes that the argument over the iBookstore is rushed, and unneeded; accordingly, Random House is the only one of the ‘big-six’ publishers who has not signed up with the iBookstore.

The problem with publishing today seems to be that there’s not enough impetus for publishers to change. And this is rather perplexing. The way forward for publishing appears to be clear, if people like MCM and Mark Barrett and Michael Stackpole are to be believed. Go online, stay digital, jettison your legacy printing systems, and build good digital filters for popular content. More importantly: create publishing brands readers can identify with – the same way readers now cluster around authors as brand names.

But this has yet to happen. Despite all this common-sense advice, despite the many publishing roundtables and conferences that have happened recently, publishers appear to be more interested in squabbling over eBook prices than in investing for long-term change. I’ve waited four years for some of these changes to happen, and none have yet materialized. In the meantime – articles like the ones I’ve linked to above have begun appearing at increasing frequencies. Why has the publishing industry failed to act? What has gone wrong? Can no publisher see what these writers currently do?

It occurred to me recently that the problem may be deeper than just these surface recommendations. Suppose publishers are institutionally incapable of changing? All these articles by well-meaning, far-seeing writers would be of little use, because they do not address a deeper, more fundamental problem: that publishers simply cannot change, and will remain the way they are until they die, or something bigger comes their way. Are there reasons for this? I believe there are. But the answers to these questions – and what to do about them – aren’t particularly comfortable ones to answer.

Monday, 12 April, 2010

Paper Houses

Diana Kimball is a writer, thinker, and all-round enthusiast. Paper Houses was originally written as a research paper, on the problem of credibility in self-publishing. She has kindly allowed me to republish the entire essay here, on Novelr.

Early in autumn, in the year 2000, members of the American Printing History Association gathered at the Rochester Institute of Technology to consider the precipice between centuries. The conference: “On the Digital Brink.” Among the figures invited to address the assembly, Robert Bringhurst stood apart. As a typographer and poet, Bringhurst was intimately acquainted with the forms words take, and the ache that accompanies shepherding one’s own work toward print. Asked to issue an epitaph for the twentieth-century book, Bringhurst approached its apparent demise with caution; sensible, for at the turn of the twenty-first century, the book in its familiar form retained a certain indeterminate allure.

On a Friday evening in October, Bringhurst issued a forecast. “The book,” he first said, “is poised to move, in the coming century, from its familiar paper house to a kind of handheld movie screen.” But, he continued, “I assure you that I see no reason to be worried by any of this. For while it does look to me like a part of our future, I expect that part to be short-lived. Wherever human beings live their own lives instead of somebody else’s, stories form in their hearts and in their heads.” Finally: “stories and people nourish each other. Where that occurs are the seeds of the book, some of which are certain to sprout.” Expressing sympathy for the impulse to publish while remaining vague about what form that impulse would come to inhabit in the future, Bringhurst drew his epitaph to a close. Stories, he suggested, were going nowhere. But nowhere did he promise that the houses they inhabit would not change.

Tradition

In 2005, a scandal broke. At issue was the definition of “tradition”; the controversy involved a print-on-demand publishing outfit called PublishAmerica, a mass of frustrated authors, and the troubled state of the novel in a digital age. PublishAmerica, The Washington Post reported, had lured authors to sign over rights to their manuscripts with the assurance that their work would be produced by a “traditional” publishing house. PublishAmerica identified itself as “traditional” to distinguish itself from vanity presses, which—historically—charged authors for the privilege of seeing their work in print, rather than paying authors for the privilege of publishing it.

PublishAmerica did not charge, but it barely paid, either; worst of all, authors who believed they were legitimizing their work quickly discovered that they had instead condemned their manuscripts to collective disdain. When one PublishAmerica author stopped by a local bookstore to schedule a book-signing, “an assistant manager checked her computer, ‘looked at [the author] and said, “That’s POD,”’” a compact and often derisive acronym for print-on-demand. The author was told that the bookstore did not do signings for POD authors. She was devastated.

Technology complicates tradition. The publishing industry as it existed in the twentieth century was a masterpiece of systematized inefficiency. Publishing houses routinely printed thousands of copies of a book so that enough people would see it that a few might choose to buy or read it. The enterprise was, of necessity, surrounded by an ecosystem of quality control and promotion devoted to recouping the massive cost of that inefficiency. This ecosystem included the apparatus of the book review, the role of the editor, and the specialty of creating cover art. Bookstores, given limited shelf real estate, carefully chose which books to stock; publishers, given the tremendous cost of publishing a volume in quantities that would enable certain economies of scale, took great care to bet only on books they thought bookstores might stock. The advent of online merchants such as Amazon.com altered the equation slightly, offering a new outlet for books unconstrained by the limitations of physical display space. The ease of desktop publishing, and the undeniable efficiency of print-on-demand technology at managing supply and demand, hold the potential to alter the equation further.

Friday, 9 April, 2010

Why Editors Are Important

Two days ago web fiction writer MCM posted a well-written argument against the book editor. He argued, approximately, that book editors have become obsolete in this day and age, for reasons somewhat related to the way writers are now chosen for publication by most major publishing houses. I’d like to present a counterpoint: I believe that editors will become increasingly important as publishing becomes digital, and that this change will happen over the next five years or so.

Writers in publishing houses have taken the editor for granted. Part of it may certainly be – as MCM suggests – due to the decreased investment editors have in writers, but I suspect a majority of traditionally published writers trust their publisher to bring quality to their work. More often than not such quality is attributed to book editors.

In the relationships between writers, editors and publishers, however, the balance of power seems to be shifting towards the writer.

Never before has the writer been presented with so many alternatives to the traditional publishing house. With the Internet, the iPad, and the increased competition from Apple v. Amazon, writers are now able to skip publishers entirely and deliver straight to the reader. It is likely that publishing in the future won’t be so much about publishing writers as it would be about empowering them.

With writers now able to write online – why, then, are editors still so important? The incorrect assumption to make here would be to say that the quality of writing in a post-publishing world would decline, and would happen due of a loss of editorship. But that assumption is merely that – baseless. There is nothing to suggest that editors would have to die along with publishers (if the publishers even die at all, which is unlikely) – rather, it is likely that writers will need editors all the more. To wit: here’s an example of an editor hiring a publisher. Absolutely impossible just a couple of years ago (not to mention crazy) but there it is, clear as day.

Craig Mod believes that editors will become increasingly important as writers become more empowered. I think this is true. But an interesting corollary to think about here is the changing nature of the editor. If the publishing equation has changed to favour the writer, then an editor’s loyalties will no longer lie with the publishing house they belong to, and instead change to favour the writer instead.

Why Writers Need Editors

Perhaps a more important question to answer is: do writers really need editors? Web fiction writer Lee L. Lowe turned to online publishing for the simple reason that she couldn’t stand being edited, and there’s something rather valid in that (another friend of mine told me recently that he was increasingly bitter at the way his publisher-appointed editor was treating his work … for ‘marketability’). If writers turn to the net because they can’t stand the nature of editing in a traditional publishing house, why would they want to hire an editor today?

The answer lies in the nature of writing. When you finish a book you’ve spent a year with, your first urge is to share it, almost immediately, with friends and family. This isn’t ideal, of course. Some of your friends know nothing about writing, and most won’t be able to give constructive feedback of any usable sort. (In fact many – my sister, for instance – will deliver judgment with a four word response: “Yes I liked it”.)

Writers tend to become wiser over time with whom to take their advice from. Most writers I know have a small group of friends and family they go to, after they’ve finished writing a piece. These people are the ones whose opinions they trust the most. Today – a portion of those people are likely to be Internet buddies, or writers clustered in small communities like this one.

When you hire an editor, what you’re essentially doing is that you’re paying for an extra pair of eyes. (A pair with good writerly instincts, of course.) And this is different from asking your writer friends for feedback. Hiring an editor is to force him or her to be on your team, to see you through the publication of your book. Stephen King once described writing as rowing a bathtub across the Atlantic, and what you’re doing, really, when you hire an editor is to invite someone else into your bathtub, some five hundred meters away from shore.

I’m not sure about you, but I think the monetary reimbursement is justified.

Editors of the Future

I suspect that the editors of the future will be exactly as MCM described, in the closing paragraphs of his post: smart, keen editors who still value quality and nurturing authors. The problem we might have, however, is for an easy way for writers to evaluate and choose good editors. There may be a technological solution to this (job boards for editors, anyone?) but by and large, I think this kink would work itself out, over time.

The more writers sufficiently capable of publishing on their own, the more demand for professional editing there would be. And you know what they say about necessity and the mother of all invention …

I look forward to the editors of the future. I hope you do, too.

Saturday, 30 January, 2010

What The iPad Means For Digital Fiction

So you’ve probably heard about the iPad, and Apple’s latest plans for world domination. For the first time, however, we – we the small, rather obscure digital writer community(!) – are directly affected by the actions of what is probably the most influential tech company of the age. This is big. This is something worth thinking about. What does the iPad mean to the digital book world, and why should we care?

I think there are two things that we need to talk about. First, the Kindle is screwed. There has been some debate on Twitter as to why and how Apple compares with Ye Olde Amazon, and the biggest argument against the iPad is that it has a backlit screen, and backlit screens suck for reading.

Now this is true. Backlit screens do suck for reading, and I know this because I own a aluminium Macbook, and the screen is terrible when I’m doing work under sunlight. But I don’t think it matters. Isa asks: Why would anyone want to read on an iPad? and that is, I think, a rather valid question.

It is also the wrong kind of question to ask. The correct question people should be asking isn’t “why would anyone want to read on an iPad?” but rather “why wouldn’t they?” Isa’s question assumes that the majority of buyers would be logical book-nerds – comparing e-readers on metrics such as heft, size, and screen quality, but that’s the wrong way of looking at things.

The right way of framing the question is to begin asking: who’s likely to buy the Kindle? Who’s likely to buy the iPad? What kind of people are they, and how are they different?

The Kindle is for readers – book nerds, but of a particular, non-technophobic kind. People like you and I. The iPad, on the other hand, appeals to just about anyone: rich geeks, early-adopters, technophobic aunts, families who’d like a secondary computer, kids who want a gaming device, your uncle Harry who loves reading in the toilet … the list goes on and on.

The iPad is a computer. The Kindle is an ebook reader. In this aspect, at least, the Kindle is outclassed. There are more people interested in buying the iPad than there are people interested in buying a Kindle.

And so the question isn’t – who wants to read on an iPad? – because that’s the wrong question to ask. The question you should be asking is rather – what, exactly, is going to prevent all these people from buying books and reading them? What’s going to prevent Johnny, say, whose parents buy him an iPad for Christmas to play games and surf the web on – and one day the new Harry Potter equivalent comes out – what’s going to prevent him from thinking: hey, the book’s cheaper on the iBook store, and I don’t have to go all the way downtown to buy it from a shop. What’s going to prevent Johnny from buying the book – literally flicking his thumb over a sheet of glass – and reading it on his iPad?

The answer? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And the truth of the matter is that Johnny’s probably going to buy other books for his iPad, and spend ridiculous amounts of time arranging them on his virtual bookshelf, simply because it’s a) cheaper, b) quicker, and c) it’s all just a thumb flick away.

And so now here’s a related question: given the audience of these two devices, who do you think the content producers – the publishers – are more interested in going to? The Kindle? Or the platform that is the iPad? The answer to that, of course, lies in the number of potential readers, which is related to the number of current users, and I’m willing to bet that there are far more potential readers on the iPad than the Kindle ever would have, given a year or so.

It isn’t clear, however, how Amazon would react to this news. John Gruber predicts that Amazon would jettison its Kindle arm to sell content through the iPad, because Amazon is a content company first and a product company second (and Apple the reverse). I’m not sure if this would happen, because I can imagine Amazon’s fears of being locked into a single store, but regardless of how you look at it, the Kindle’s days are numbered.

There is one last thing we should know, and this affects us more directly than any of the above predictions. It is this: the iPad uses the ePub format. The ebook format wars are effectively over. We’ve got a winner, folks, and that winner is ePub. Plan for that, because things might get pretty heated, pretty fast.