“Yes, Sir, there are many happy people here. There are many people here who are watching hundreds, and who think hundreds are watching them.”
Samuel Johnson, Quotes on Vanity
“Digital publishing”, “ePublishing” and “social publishing” are the buzzwords du jour; Web 2.0 business models based on the idea that eBooks are the next big thing and social media platforms and tools are the best way to sell them.
There’s seemingly a new “publisher” putting up a digital shingle every day, and while the description and details vary somewhat among them, the usual common denominators are a savvy marketer’s dream combination of truth, opinion, hype, and a dash of old-fashioned “snake oil” opportunism:
- Print is dead.
- The distribution system is broken.
- eBooks are teh future.
- Social media has made us all publishers and journalists.
- Writers will do anything to get published.
That last point typically represents the digital start-ups’ primary source of income, monetizing a community of aspiring writers by selling their work back into the community, or by offering them fee-based services that allow them to do it themselves. In their ideal scenario, they double-dip.
While generally offering legitimate contracts and something resembling a distribution and marketing program — the latter of which will still fall primarily in the author’s lap — there’s a vague whiff of old-school vanity underlying the whole thing that’s bothered me from the beginning.
Richard Nash, former publisher of Soft Skull, has been making waves ever since stepping down from the acclaimed indie earlier this year to “go all in” and pursue his vision of the future of publishing. Equal parts philosopher and raconteur, his over-the-top performance at BEA’s 7×20×21 panel reminded me of Frank T.J. Mackey, Tom Cruise’s motivational speaker in Magnolia; I fully expected him to start yelling “Respect the READER!” at one point.
He refers to Cursor, the manifestation of his vision of the future, as “social publishing” because he believes niche or indie “fail to capture the organic gurgle of culture at the heart of the venture, the exchange of insight and opinion, the flow of memes and the creation of culture in real time that is now enabled by the Internet.”
Hey, Kool-Aid! Oh, yeah!
Each community will have a publishing imprint, which will make money from authors’ books, sold as digital downloads, conventional print and limited artisanal editions—and will offer authors all the benefits of a digital platform: faster time to market, faster accounting cycles, faster payments to authors. But the greatest opportunity is in the community itself. Each will have tiers of membership, including paid memberships that will offer exclusive access to tools and services, such as rich text editors for members to upload their own writing, peer-to-peer writing groups, recommendation engines, access to established authors online and in person, and editorial or marketing assistance. Members can get both peer-based feedback and professional feedback.
“Community” is another popular buzzword in publishing, and simply means niche, but with a Groundswell angle that attempts to recognize consumers as people, not just demographics to be targeted. Cursor, it seems, is basically niche publishing that monetizes its aspirant base — both as consumers and creators — and the backstory of how Nash got to this point is a fascinating must-read, and a little disturbing in its familiarity.
Legitimate contracts and good intentions aside, the thing that bothers me the most about Cursor and its fledgling counterparts is that they’re not really organic offshoots of the communities they claim to want to serve. Instead of filling a community need, they’re opportunistic initiatives put forward by industry insiders targeting genre writers, especially in romance and fantasy, arguably the most vulnerable writers after poets and comic book creators.
The future of publishing will be crowdsourced AND gatekeepered, leveraging the strengths of both into a mutually beneficial, value-ADDED relationship that serves the needs of their unique communities. From my vantage point, none of the start-ups I’ve come across so far, including Cursor, spring forth from within an existing community, and there’s a Field of Dreams vibe to the whole thing. As such, it smells a lot more like a traditional value-extraction model.
Additionally, many of the social tools and community connections Nash touts already exist, especially for poets and genre writers, so “social publishing” simply trades one intermediary for another, and arguably offers less potential upside in the end.
The ideal goal for writers is a direct, organic link to their relevant communities, and establishing their own independent platform to do so isn’t exactly rocket science.
What do you think?
PS: I should note that I have a lot of respect for Nash, thanks to his tenure at Soft Skull, publisher of Burning Down the House, the book of poetry I co-authored back in 2000, before he took over, as well as Words In Your Face, a non-fiction book in which I have a notable appearance. That’s a story for another post, though. [ETA: Check out my interview with Nash here.]