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The Changing Face of Publishing

In yesterday’s intro I promised some writing advice about the changing face of publishing and the new market.

It’s a tough topic to tackle, but one we’ve got to address. After all, it’s important to know where you’re going — to know why you’re putting in all the effort to do things like starting a blog to build your platform — but the “career path” for a hopeful writer can be a fickle and cruel thing.

I first started trying to understand that path while I was still in high school. Back then (at least as I understood it), the path to publication went through magazines and periodicals. The “plan” was to publish some short pieces in crappy little magazines desperate for content, then get noticed by the editors at bigger, more popular publications, then publish some pieces there where you could get noticed by a book publisher who could turn you into a real writer.

I tried — Heaven knows I tried — but the stuff I was writing then couldn’t even pass muster at the little niche magazines, and by the time I was writing quality material, the literary magazine was dead.

The Writer as Promoter

With its passing came a new path, though — the one I talked about two weeks ago. Today you’re supposed to establish yourself with an online presence (your blog), then build that into a significant platform, then convince an agent your platform makes you worth his time, then wait while the agent petitions the big important publishers on your behalf.

The problem with this model is that it’s way more work — and work that has nothing to do with writing. At least in the olden days you were writing to get noticed (not doing web design and scouring Flickr for Creative Commons background art).

Not only that, but after you put in the extra work, success in today’s path gets you much smaller rewards. Back then you were getting published at every step of the way (and getting paid!), and when you finally did land a book deal you could count on the publisher to get your book sold.

Publishers today are no longer marketing their products (word is they can’t afford to). That’s why it’s so important for you establish your own platform — you’re the only one who’s going to be able to effectively sell your book — but that takes a big chunk out of the incentive to get a book deal in the first place. What’s the point of signing away your rights to a monolithic corporation if that corporation isn’t dumping money into making you a success?

They are, of course, but as the publishing industry has withdrawn from marketing (and, if I understand correctly, from much copyediting as well), they’ve left themselves specializing almost exclusively in warehousing and delivery, services that are increasingly irrelevant.

The Tools of the New Industry

It’s not as though they could do a lot to transition into the new era, though. The tools of the new industry offer no real advantages to monolithic corporations.

What are these new tools?

  • Internet-based advertising, retailing, and distribution
  • Targeted sales
  • Freelance editing and document design
  • Print-on-demand publication

In other words, all the services that sites like Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors have been (rightly) warning against for the last two decades.

The market has moved, though, and services that were little more than fraud tech yesterday are going to become the core machinery that drives tomorrow’s market.

Tomorrow’s Market

Anytime anyone starts talking about “tomorrow’s market” in the publishing industry today, the first thing that comes to mind is “e-Books.” And the e-Book is a formidable thing — it’s virtually free to print, stock, and distribute (all the services exclusive to traditional publishers). They’re also wonderful for consumers, offering enhanced readability, access, and convenience, not to mention fancy digital perks like hyperlinks, animated illustrations, and even embeddable videos.

And all that fancy bookmaking can be done by…well, anybody. You. Me. I put together a PDF e-Book in about two weeks (after the writing). Converting that into the sort of e-Book you’d read on a Kindle or iPad took me all of three or four hours, and it was the first time I’d ever gone through that process.

There’s more to the new market than just e-Books, though. Real books, paper books, still make up the vast majority of sales (for now), but today’s technology is even democratizing the printing process. Print-on-demand is creating books of higher and higher quality (and lower and lower prices).

That means novels of competitive quality can be produced as-needed, liberating writers from the need for extensive warehousing and expensive consignment agreements with retailers. Universities and libraries are also trying out a new(ish) bookmaking machine that can print, cut, and bind a professional-looking paperback while you wait, drawing on a library of millions of digital files like the one I designed last month.

Between technology like that (which you know will only get cheaper and better over time), the rising popularity of e-Readers, and major digital storefronts like Amazon, a novelist could — all on his own — write, print, and distribute a book to many millions of buyers, sharing none of the profit with commercial publishers (and hanging on to all the creative rights, as well).

In fact, the only pieces missing are copyediting and marketing — one a service you can easily acquire from freelancers without ever thinking the words “slush pile” again, and the other a service publishers increasingly refuse to provide anyway.

Giving Up on the Gatekeepers

Now…what should you do about all this? It’s a tricky question, and I can’t answer with perfect certainty (except to say that you should start a blog to build your platform).

I’ve got some ideas, though. Come back tomorrow for the application and assignment.

2 Responses to “The Changing Face of Publishing”

  1. Courtney Cantrell says:

    It’s a brave new digital writing world out there. 🙂

  2. Dave Doolin says:

    I’m all in. I’ve done some deep thinking about this for a long time in the context of academic writing, and mixing code with prose (e.g., literate programming).