Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Future of Self

Self-publishing, that is. The publishing is implied.

The printed word used to be a very primitive organism (photo courtesy of NASA).

Any phenotype tended to mutate quickly due to copying mistakes, assuming it could reproduce at all. The best a text could hope for was to hang around a monastery in hopes of hooking up with a monk for an act of reproduction that was painful for both parties. It was fragile and always on the brink of extinction.

Technological revolutions changed things: reproduction became easier and fidelity nearly perfect. But still there were economic constraints to thoughts becoming printed words. So the smart money generally kept the gate, watching over the memes in their printed bodies. The word for passing the threshold was "pubplyschyd." It just means to make public.

For a while longer, people will still think of paper and binding when you say "book." Paper books are like the cassette tapes of a bygone era of music distribution. They're expensive, bulky, and have to be hauled around the country in trucks. If you want to sell them, you have to rent a big building and buy a lot of shelves and put in a coffee shop. We make a lot of them. According to Bowker, in 2008 the US produced 275,000 new titles and editions.

But the way things are going (digital, instant, free) books and shorter texts will tend to be published as ethereal bits and bytes. The Internet has made publishing so easy your grandma can do it. According to blog central Techonorati.com, there are over 200 blog posts a week tagged "grand kids." True, I don't know they were all created by mother's and father's mothers, but it's a good guess some are.

By contrast, the number of blog posts tracked by Technorati with tags "music" or "tv" or "book" has hovered around 11,000 per week in the last few months. See the graph below.

You can click on the graph to go create your own version.

Technorati also reports that there are about 900,000 posts every day on blogs that they track. Just for fun, assume that a thousand blog posts equals the textual mass of an average book. That's about 329,000 blog-books per year (not all in the US). From the Technorati state of the blog-o-sphere page:

The blog has forever changed the way publishing works —now anyone can be a publisher. The issue is no longer distribution; rather, it's relevance. --Brad Feld, Managing Director, Foundry Group

Longer works, too, are easing past the traditional barriers to publishing. From Bowker, which calls itself "the world's leading provider of bibliographic information management solutions...":
Our statistics for 2008 benchmark an historic development in the U.S. book publishing industry as we crossed a point last year in which On Demand and short-run books exceeded the number of traditional books entering the marketplace.
You can find the statistics here. For 2006-2008 (projected), the percentage of on-demand, short run, and other unclassifieds went from 7% of the total to 30% to 51%. It's not given how many of these are from self-publishers, but with the explosive success of Internet sites like Lulu.com, it seems reasonable that this is where the growth is from: the release of pent-up demand for publication by writers frustrated by the traditional barriers. In the new ecology of literature, reproduction is perfect and as easy as the click of a mouse. But it's only free online. Paper books still require printing and distribution. It seems inevitable that the future of publishing is mostly self-publishing, and that it's mostly distributed in electronic form. 329,000,000 blog posts a year represents something of a trend, I propose.

Imagine for a moment where all of this is probably headed. Picture in your mind that virtually all printed works become electronic and freely available almost as soon as they are published, like music in effect is nowadays. How could an author become successful in this brave new whirl? Where's the payoff? Musical artists can at least hold concerts to earn money for live performances. It doesn't seem likely that authors can demand the same kind of treatment. Successful blogs can make money from advertisements, but it's hard to imagine that a reading public would put up with ads placed in the margins of their mystery novels. Someone could easily strip them out and distribute the plain copy.

This may be a catastrophe for publishers, who will fight it with digital rights management "solutions" and such. Until the Internet, publishing was about publishers--they set the standards and reaped the profits. If you poke around writers' forums, the first thing you see is "don't try to make a living doing this." No where is the pernicious effect of this bottleneck control more evident than in academic publishing. This too is eroding with pre-print services like arxiv.org, which have minimal gate-keeping and instant electronic publishing. For academics, I think there will be the dawning realization that good research could be directly building their own brands rather than the those of gatekeeper journals, who take freely donated product, slap their copyright on it, and mark it up so libraries have to pay through the nose for it.

For the first time in history, publishing is being controlled by writers directly. This is a good thing. The reasons to self-publish are as many as there are selves. From personal, limited distribution "works" like family photos and history, to advertisements on craigslist, to micro-publishing like Twitter and text messaging from phones (there are hundreds of billions of SMS texts sent in North America in a year), all the way up to those authors who dream of becoming the next J. K. Rowling. The self has been unleashed.

But suppose that this unknotting of the nous is not enough for you. What if you really do want to make a living at writing novels or non-fiction works? It may be that the answer is that you can't. In this literary apocalypse, the masses demand free content, change all the laws to make it official, and a tragedy of the commons results: commercial long-form literature survives only in the medium of flickering screens in the intervals between advertisements for fizzy drinks.

I'm not so pessimistic, however. We can list some possible strategies for the self-publisher. All of them require a personalized presence on the web somewhere you can call home. The only uniqueness left on the web is the domain name--you really can own that. That and your personal identity have to be the focus; everything else can be copied. Once you get traffic to your electronic address you begin to have options like advertisement and product endorsement, reputation for expertise in an area, invitations to participate in other projects, and so on. Authority, like fame or money, grows exponentially when well tended.

Possible strategies include:
  • Serialization. This is an old trick to milk content for what it's worth. Chop up your content into pieces and dole it out to the masses. Make a podcast while you're at it, so they can listen to your ideas while commuting.

  • Added-value. A place for readers to comment about your work. A blog to keep fresh events at the top of the page. Give readers a reason to keep coming back. Host fan-fiction. Index everything useful that has to do with your topic. Make your site the place to go for anything to do with X, whatever X is. The possibilities are endless here, from Internet game spin-offs to greeting cards.

  • Go on the road. If you have the speaking skills, go sell your personality along with your intellectual product. Richard Dawkins isn't famous because he sold some books--it's the ideas in the books and the way he presents them that draws crowds when he speaks.

  • Hybrid approaches. Add value to your product online, but keep back major works to sell in the form of physical on-demand books. I see this as an intermediate strategy as the probable transition to electronic delivery evolves.
You don't have time for all this. There's no way you can do all of this--or even a small part of it--and still continue to write. That's why the surviving publishers will morph into companies that provide services to authors (instead of the other way around). Web maintenance, editing, advertising, and all manner of creative value-added options will exist on a buffet to entice talented authors to share their glory (or at least profits) with publishers. The music industry is going through something like this now. Textbook publishers have discovered the trick too, with quite good online supplementary materials--restricted of course to those who buy the text. As the price of the text tends to zero, the add-ons will become the main business.

In case this vision leaves the budding superstar author in despair, I can offer one more strategy: the get rich quick scheme for writing in the 21st century. Like all such plans, it's a nice dream, but in practice you might have a better chance with the lotto.
Get rich quick: Write your novel, get it edited, and release it electronically on a cheapo website branded to the book. When it becomes a major success, have the screenplay ready. Sell it for millions to a major company and hang on to merchandising rights. You might want to think about how your characters would look on the side of a Biggee drink at Burger House when you describe them in your novel.
The author died in the 20th century, but he's back with a vengeance. Maybe this explains the resurgence of vampire and zombie stories in pop culture. The whole point of self-publishing is the focus on self. The self is the motivating factor for creating the work, but also is half of the relationship between reader and writer. The responsibility of the scribe is to find relevance without being told what it is by a publisher. When an anonymous guitar player created a sensation on youtube--the most downloaded video yet--people wanted to know who it was. The New York Times wrote a piece about tracking him down. Finding relevance may not be easy, but it will get noticed when it happens.

The payoff for the author is potentially geometric growth. If you make a great product year after year and become known for it, you'll accumulate pointers in the form of hyperlinks and critical opinion. Tim Ferriss has this down to a science. For most of us, this daily grinding out of product, attention to the business of getting it in front of people, and the wait for the eventual payoff, is too much. It is now and will always be a particular breed who can make a living solely by writing in long form.

With the barriers and capriciousness of the middleman going or gone, great heaping piles of junk no one will ever read are being produced along with the nuggets of good stuff. But that's okay because it's all indexed, tagged, and filtered through formal and informal social networks that feed us the good stuff. Yesterday I glanced at my customized feed on reddit.com and discovered a new graphic novel about Bertrand Russell and the history of logic. Now that's a niche product, and it found me effortlessly. The problem is not that there's so much junk out there to filter through; the problem is that there's too much good stuff to ever read in a lifetime.

The future of self will be more and more closely related to self-publishing. I've pushed this idea (here) as a framework for creating student portfolios early on, to provide training and infrastructure for creating a rich resume as their professional life unfolds. Employers won't just look at Facebook before hiring, they'll want to see evidence of a rich production of professional output and online reputation in the field. Academics already take this for granted, and many create websites with links to published papers, blogs, and other added value. Self-publishing becomes a means to establish an identity and reveal it to the world. Sooner or later, we'll drop the "self" part as implied, and go back to just publishing. Or perhaps, as I suggested at the beginning of the article, it will be the other way around: the self will imply published.

Note: this post was entered in a contest at Backword Books to write about self-publishing. Nicely self-referential, no?

Update: After work I read a bit more of Logicomix and discovered that Principia Mathematica was self-published.

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