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"None of this is good or bad; it just is"

Lev Grossman takes a pragmatic look at the changing state of authors, readers, and the definition of publishing:

Self-publishing has gone from being the last resort of the desperate and talentless to something more like out-of-town tryouts for theater or the farm system in baseball. It’s the last ripple of the Web 2.0 vibe finally washing up on publishing’s remote shores. After YouTube and Wikipedia, the idea of user-generated content just isn’t that freaky anymore.

And there’s actual demand for this stuff. In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print. But [Lisa] Genova and [Brunonia] Barry and [Daniel] Suarez got filtered out, initially, which suggests that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn’t serving. We can read in the rise of self-publishing not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one–an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too.

(Via the Reading 2.0 list)

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Comments: 3

  1. This is the type of analysis I’ve been waiting for: thoughtful, measured, long-view, and accepting of the evolutionary nature of change. There are simple truths here that need to be acknowledged:

    * The inefficiences of past techniques are being replaced with *better* methods.

    * Content is now dispersed across thousands of channels.

    * Money is dispersed, too.

    * Future publishers, for the most part, will be smaller.

    * Blockbusters will still occur, but they’ll emerge through all sorts of channels.

    * The future of publishing will be defined by hundreds of separate innovations and decisions, all coming together in ways we can’t possibly predict. Publishers who open themselves to opportunity and experimentation have a much better chance of survival — and success — than those crying about the “death” of publishing (or journalism … or music … or any other content-based industry).

  2. mac said:
    > This is the type of analysis I’ve been waiting for:
    > thoughtful, measured, long-view, and
    > accepting of the evolutionary nature of change.


    the article does have some good qualities, i agree…
    (i especially enjoyed the “garden/jungle” metaphor.)

    but it’s still constrained by an old-world mentality.

    the focus on writers who obtained contracts with
    big publishing houses as a result of self-publishing
    implies that such contracts should still be the goal.

    and comparing self-publishing to “out-of-town
    tryouts for theater or the farm system in baseball”
    reinforces an underlying allegiance to the system,
    as if anyone who self-publishes is just a “wannabe”.

    and the act of calling the self-publishing revolution
    “the last ripple of the web 2.0 vibe” gives the idea
    the phenomenon has played itself out, when really
    it’s only just barely begun to get started in earnest.

    (and it’s badly flawed factually as well. _blogging_
    is an original example of “self-published” content,
    and — by giving us plenty of interesting reading —
    it did greater damage to the publishing companies
    than the cited examples of youtube and wikipedia.)

    the truth of the matter is that the “filtering” which
    corporate publishing companies have done lately
    has been purely targeted toward the blockbusters,
    with a mass-market lowest-common-denominator
    approach that has alienated all the niche interests.

    (in the old days, _some_ publishers felt a need to
    include a bit of “quality literature” on their roster…
    but the corporate suits who run the companies now
    couldn’t recognize that if it kicked ’em in the shins.
    they have focus-group mindsets, not literary guts.)

    self-publishing changes all that.

    even if an author will only have 200 fans worldwide,
    s/he can now _find_and_fulfill_ those 200 people…

    now the niches can celebrate their newfound riches.

    so guess what? tomorrow’s authors will _turn_down_
    the major publishing houses that try to court them…

    why would anyone reject a 6-figure advance?

    well, maybe most won’t. but how long do you think
    publishers will keep waving around that big money?

    when the executives have to start deciding between
    retaining their own salaries or maintaining advances
    — most of which have proven will not “earn out” —
    what do _you_ think they will choose? i thought so…

    money isn’t too important to artists. but control is…

    and when you self-publish, you do it on your terms.

    when you sign work over to a big publisher, however,
    you do things on _their_ terms. and their terms are
    often contradictory to your own long-term interests.

    we’re already seeing this happen in the music world.

    bands are starting to realize the recording company
    has a dedication to the next-quarter’s bottom-line
    that is inconsistent with the career arc of the band.

    the corporation wants to suck as much money out
    as it can, as quickly as it can, even if that strategy
    means “burning out” the public on seeing the band.

    what does the company care? they’ll have _another_
    band the public can turn to when they’re sick of you.
    in fact, it even _wants_ the public to get tired of you,
    so they will be primed for the next band in the pipe.

    one of the sharpest observers of this phenomenon
    is bob lefsetz (google him), who advises bands to
    instead build a fan-base slowly and methodically.

    he cautions to avoid becoming fodder for the biz;
    they squeeze out all your juice, then discard you.

    this advice is even more important for _writers_,
    who have no need to go on tour playing concerts,
    and who have far fewer expenses than musicians,
    plus a direct link to fans, via text on the internet…


    from my viewpoint, the road from here on out gets
    rougher and rougher for the corporate publishers…

    but o’reilly gets big money from the big publishers,
    who pay you dearly for conferences and the like, so
    i see why you wouldn’t want to deliver that message.


  3. > from my viewpoint, the road from here on out gets
    rougher and rougher for the corporate publishers…

    No argument here. A massive shift is underway and the landscape we’ve known is going to look dramatically different in the years to come. Who remains and who emerges are completely up in the air, but I would place my bets on the individuals and companies who find, nurture and serve audiences through all sorts of digital technologies and channels.