When I first heard the publishing industry referred to as an ecosystem I immediately wanted to see a map of it on the wall. How does water cycle through the system? Which communities are currently well-placed, and where are the likely spots for new ones to grow?
As much as they clarify and educate, maps quickly become misleading when the terrain is constantly shifting. For authors trying to make sense of the publishing landscape today, even with the best map it is always wise to carry a compass.
That said, what would the publishing ecosystem look like if we placed authors at its center? Let’s start with a spring, bubbling up amid the moss and bracken, spilling into creeks and irrigating fields as it wends its way downstream.
This is a very different vantage from the 30,000-foot view we normally hear about, where entire weather systems are created when Google changes its search algorithm, or Amazon moves against Apple. These are powerful, global shifts in distribution and visibility, and yet their affect on the ground varies widely.
Writers may prefer to focus on storytelling, but publishing is about cultivation and commerce. To some extent, legacy publishers are like barges on the mighty Mississippi. A century ago, an author whose story was picked up by one of those powerful paddle-wheelers could rightly expect it to be distributed far and wide.
Of course, book distribution will never again be just about physical products. With the ebook explosion an entire new water cycle has emerged, where instead of having to ship product downstream, anyone can set up a still and evaporate content directly into the cloud. From there, it appears around the globe instantly for a fraction of the cost.
Digital publishing (and self-publishing) alone is no guarantee of making it rain back home, though. For that, authors need to create one of the most complex and misunderstood mechanisms in all of publishing: the platform.
I find the term “author platform” misleading. It exacerbates the competitive, zero-sum anxiety all authors have, while completely missing the point of what we need to build. At the risk of pushing my organic map metaphor too far, it’s not just the height of the platform that makes an author successful, but the quality of the soil beneath.
In other words, any attempt at rising in prominence will ultimately fail if an author doesn’t offer value that benefits the community around her. That all-important compass must allow each author find a balance of in-person and virtual presence, a happy medium between social media acumen and genuinely good writing.
There is a whole landscape of platform-building start-ups and services being marketed to authors right now, and it’s hard to tell which is the next Betamax and which will be the VHS. One thing I know from my own travels is that alone, authors cannot hope to understand every new niche and tool. It takes working together, pooling resources and sharing insights, to compile a map that will help us all be at the right place at the right time, when it really does start to rain.