Is Social Publishing simply Vanity Publishing 2.0?

Mural: Vanity by by Franco Folini
Mural: Vanity by by Franco Folini

“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.

Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Past and Future According to Richard Nash

“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.]

20 thoughts on “Is Social Publishing simply Vanity Publishing 2.0?

  1. Guy, first can I offer you my profoundest apologies for calling you Glen on the Jet Pack Facebook page (it's the Gle thing, my head reads “Glen” every time, sorry).


    I thought, when I started reading, I was going to want to rant, but I actually want to give you a great big hug for this post. I agree with, and am trying to create with Year Zero Writers and free-e-day, everything Richard Nash speaks about. I believe it with a passion. Reader-centric cultural exchange is my vision. I'm with him 100% of the way…until it comes to the money bit. And that's where social becomes vanity. I'm about to blog about new ways of creating global cultural value (some time tomorrow – haven't posted yet because I enetered it for Nathan's guest blog comp in the VAIN hope I might stand a chance), but these are about the empowerment of consumers and cultural creators. Any attempt to cream off some of that value just, to use the technical term, sucks. Which is why I will remain poor. But why, hopefully, I may contribute something to increasing the breadth of the interface between consumer and creator.

    What I really want to hug you for, though, is “The future of publishing will be crowdsourced AND gatekeepered”. YES. It's something I am constantly having to argue. But you are 100% right. What this means is that cultural portals will emerge out of vibrant niche communities. Sure, there will be APPS that enable this, and that's fine, but what there won't be is vibrant, valuable empty platforms that come and get filled just because they're there. Portals grow out of passion, and the gatekeepers of the future are people who care desperately about their niche. They are fans. And people give them gatekeeper status because they're fans. Because they care. And the moment those gatekeepers start trying to cream some capital, people will stop trusting them, and new ones will emerge.

    That's the real thing about future publishing. It's driven bottom-up and the force that drives it is NOT money.

  2. Hi Guy:

    Because I'd a finite number of words to work with in the PW there's a few mistaken assumptions. Cursor, or rather the Soft Skull-esque imprint Red Lemonade, emerges out of my desire both to continue publishing the kinds of books I used to publish but with a more sustainable business model. I am a part of those communities who writing I published—I gave my life savings (I had to declare personal bankruptcy) and my health (I developed tachycardia) to the communities Soft Skull served. I published in th epoetry community, the lit fiction community, the genderqueer community, “edgy” science fiction, race and gender studies, etc and consider myself part of those communities too. I will have editors and writers who connect with writers and readers in those communities also. Soft Skull could [barely] afford to in part because my average salary over 2001-2007 was $18K a year. And the company was precarious throughout—you'll recall my trouble paying royalties—there was also trouble paying printers, payroll, Fedex. Cursor is designed to allow for more effective publishing of more writers, out of more communities, to increase the chances of the companies in that world not going bankrupt, not failing to pay writers.I'm not sure why you're so confident it's inorganic when you've not seen yet who editors and advocates are who working in each imprint, what is being published, who is joining. It seems tremendously premature to categorically deny the authenticity of these communities, especially given my history, especially given that many writing communities did consider Soft Skull to be a member of their world, and to have added value to their community.

  3. The downside of the attention you're getting for Cursor is that it made it a focal point for some of the general concerns I have about current trends in publishing. You make a fair point on my assumptions, though I was careful to characterize them with “seems” and “apparently”, because there aren't a lot of details available on many of the new publishing initiatives being launched and/or proposed. A healthy dose of skepticism should be expected.

    I don't question your personal community cred in the least — I know well what you dealt with at Soft Skull, and surely only know a small bit of the story — and believe you're working with the best of intentions, but I do question the underlying business model, which as I see it, is simply monetizing a community's desire to be published for “corporate” gain, which is simply traditional publishing with a few trendy bells and whistles.

    I've yet to see a realistic distribution model proposed for ePublishing, and marketing will still primarily rest on the author's shoulders, so where exactly is the value-add that's different from the traditional model?

  4. >>>I've yet to see a realistic distribution model proposed for ePublishing,

    I don't know what you mean by that. Have you done a post about this?

  5. Thanks for the hug! I'm no extremist in either direction; I think there's money to be made in publishing, but the ideal model is one that's mutually beneficial to publishers and writers, because the balance of power has definitely shifted away from the former. If they're not able to add real value to the relationship, they're an unnecessary barrier between the author and the reader.

  6. “If they're not able to add real value to the relationship, they're an unnecessary barrier between the author and the reader.”

    I think that's absolutely right. I think my point about publishing is a bit like Bertrand Russell's point about calling the Universe a “thing” (if I can drag up my first year philosophy :-)) He said the universe is simply the set of all things. Once you've listed everything IN the Universe, that's it, there's nothing left over that's “The Universe”. It's a bit the same with publishing. Of course you need an editor, a marketer, a printer, a web designer, a plugger, a distributer. And you can have one person do more than one of these things (and that could be you). But if you can find someone to do each of these expertly for you, and outsource to them economically, there's nothing mystical left over that's for a “publisher” to do. I think that's going to be the increasing challenge for publishers as independent small companies and consultancies set up doing each of these things. They need to do some seriuos searching and work out just what it is – other than these things – they DO to add value. It may be possible; and it may be something no one's yet thought of. But as it's less and less taken for granted it actually exists, it's a question they'll have to ask increasingly.

  7. Most of the “conversation” (I so hate that word now!) tends to focus on the technology, but there's little discussion around why the new distribution channels would require an ePublisher, or a “social publisher”. I haven't addressed it specifically, but I touched on it somewhat here:

    Many traditional publishers are already making moves to sell their books direct-to-consumers — ie: — and are offering more of their books in POD and digital formats, and they have a built-in advantage as already established brands with existing relationships in their relevant communities. As you tweeted yesterday, the publishers who delayed their eBook offerings are at an advantage right now because the landscape is still evolving.

    What distribution access are these ePublishers bringing to the table that authors can't access on their own? The Kindle? Smashwords? Lightning Source? Ning?

  8. >>>What distribution access are these ePublishers bringing to the table that authors can't access on their own? The Kindle? Smashwords? Lightning Source? Ning?

    Put that way, none. OTOH, publishers can acquire a cachet, as Soft Skull did, as The Do Not Press in the UK did, whereby people have an understanding of the kind of book they're most likely to get from such a publisher. That counts for much, I think.

    With traditional print publishers, there's no identity. They're like TV channels, mostly interchangeable.

    You cite TOR, but even they don't have such a narrow focus, either. Though I do understand their customers like them, so I'm probably missing something there.

  9. I really don't get your skepticism: “Instead of filling a community need, they’re opportunistic initiatives put forward by industry insiders targeting genre writers.” You had the same negative response to Publetariat on Self-Publishing Review – as if the sheer fact that someone's trying to make a profit automatically makes it corrupt. A business needs to be sustainable. Also, any of these new ventures are works in progress – we're at the beginning of the future here, so having so much skepticism at the starting gate seems counterproductive. I think Nash's credentials are good enough to give him the benefit of the doubt (as are April Hamilton's). Monetization and corporatization aren't equal terms. Indies need to bring in revenue as well.

    I agree though that I'm unclear on the distribution model here. He doesn't mention in-store distribution, which is the real dividing line between online platforms and the traditional system. What exactly does this mean: “The business will focus on developing the value of the reading and writing ecosystem, including the growth of markets for established authors, as well as engaging readers and supporting emerging writers.” A little business-speak obscure. But the value add is the credibility and promotional reach of Nash, who's been in the game and can get a headline on PW. Some people are gatekeepers for a reason – because they know what they're doing. If he can create the Soft Skull version of current digital platforms, that's a great development.

    By the way, my first novel was published by Soft Skull – the Sander Hicks Soft Skull, not Nash's.

  10. Hi Henry – nice to see Publetariat get a mention – I am a huge fan of April's, and it's a site I frequently recommend. I agree there's nothing wrong at all with charging for what you do and letting the market decide if it's worth paying for. I think the challenge is for people to come up with reasons for others to make that payment. Like you say, at the moment we are at the beginning of something. What will happen (and we need) is a lot of people will try a lot of things. Most of them will fail. Some will succeed – and the models that gained them their success will become the benchmark for the next generation of businesses (and will spawn a lot of me-toos, many of whom will also fail!!))

  11. What I'd like more explanation on is the book itself. Are novels going to be collaborative efforts? Because I believe that fiction is an art that springs from one person's consciousness. A collectively written novel may be an interesting group writing project, but it's not something I want to buy or read. So how exactly will the communities be playing part?

  12. You have to get lots of buyers to get very well known to do that. Both Soft Skull and DNP built up their reputations over years. But yes, that's one way of trying to escape the pitfall of corporate publishing. Good luck.

  13. Hi Maria. First, can I be really rude and link to my post “We're all Homer now” here:

    I think that's the point I would make. Fiction as the product of one consciousness is a very new idea (I'm guessing people will place its origins with Piers Plowman although there's a case for NeoPlatonist mystics). Stories always were communal property and TOLD by many tongues (like Homer). It's only time and the fact we see them in a book not around a campfire that makes us think of them otherwise.

    But I get your point – about unique voices. I'm experimenting with The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes at the moment – my “interactive, real time Facebook novel” The voice is 100% mine, but readers tell me what questions they'd like to see answered, and I answer them in my way. It's a back and forth collaborative thing, but I never lose my hand on the rudder. A bit like the Platonic model of the tripartite soul, in fact.

  14. The very lack of clarity you note regarding the distribution model is just one reason for my skepticism. As I noted above, this isn't specifically about Nash and Cursor, but the underlying concept so many of these new initiatives are based on. There's a lot of “business-speak obscure”, as you called it, being thrown around, and way too much drinking of the social media Kool-Aid.

    As a publisher myself, I actually think Nash has the most interesting model I've seen, and he gets my vote for “most likely to succeed”; as a writer, I'm still not fully convinced about its value to most writers, nor its long-term viability.

    PS: Holy shit; I didn't realize you were THAT Henry Baum! I have a copy of Oscar Caliber Gun; picked it up from the office when we were working with Sander on Burning Down the House. Good stuff; wasn't quite my tastes back then, but it's totally up my allety these days! I'm going to have to re-read it now.

  15. Yeah, that's another question I have. I'm a fan of collaboration, as an exercise, but I have no interest in reading exquisite corpses cobbled together by fans! That's exactly what's made the current generation of superhero comics so bland.

    That said, I am intrigued by the collective model, two of which Dan referenced above. I'm looking into that both for a future post as well as personal interest.

  16. That “building a reputation over years” platform is exactly what's missing from these new initiatives. They're relying more on the traditonal name-brand imprint model, with a niche focus; it's not terribly new or innovative.

  17. Guy, I've been blogging at about the ups and downs of holding together a collective with Year Zero – feel free to plunder for ideas or to e-mail (I'm happy to discuss without being mentioned/plugged in the piece). Also happy to talk about the historical stuff (I did a lot of form criticism as a student about the influence communities had on the texts that arose within them). Just shout any time

  18. Publishers used to try to make money out of readers, now they try to make money out of writers. That seems to be what this model is about and why it worries me. I have seen it done on different scales but the fact is, unless the so-called community develops a readership outside of itself, the writers will always be being paying the publishers for services they could otherwise access for free. It's like selling workshops in self-publishing.

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