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Writing in the New Publishing Paradigm

You typed your zines—or, if you were feeling particularly artistic, you handwrote them. And unless you had a basket of cash to fling at some professional binder, you put together your books and magazines manually.

My first publishing venture was at the age of ten. Equipped with typing sheets, my mother's office stapler and manual Smith-Corona, and, most wondrous of all, a box of carbon paper, I created twenty copies of a work entitled Faculty Frolics, a collection of stories about the totally imaginary romantic doings of the staff of Waite Park Elementary School. It was about as silly and scandalous as a fifth-grader could write. I charged ten cents per copy and sold twelve. Even my teacher bought one.

Twenty-five years later I dived into publishing again, this time with an even longer stapler, an electric typewriter, and a Kinko's copier instead of carbon paper. It was the early 90s during the height of the Do-It-Yourself movement, and I was a housewife, living with my husband Michael and our son at the epicenter of DIY, San Francisco.

For the benefit of you youngsters out there who barely remember what life was like before personal computers and the internet, let me tell you how it was with us rinky-dink publishers back then. You typed your zines—or, if you were feeling particularly artistic, you handwrote them. And unless you had a basket of cash to fling at some professional binder, you put together your books and magazines manually. Whether you had a large run or small, that was no picnic. I remember collating parties at the notorious leftist labor zine, Processed World, where we'd all get mightily stoned before commencing the daunting task of assembling 3000 copies of the newest issue in a single night. For my own publications, the slipstream fiction zine Absinthe and the Filipino humor zine Bakya, I was compelled to enlist my then-preteen son to help me carry boxes of freshly-run sheets home from the copy store. During the final days of Bakya and Absinthe, in order to minimize the construction process I devised a clever way to fold a single sheet of paper to turn it into a 5-page book, and stuck with that technique until I stopped publishing altogether. If you ever come across one of these quirky little issues (which I'm told are still floating around in the zinosphere), please let me know.

Let me clarify a point here. DIY publishing has never been entirely synonymous with small press publishing—à la Coffee House or Grove—which has its own concerns, and in many ways follows the business model of its larger kin: You listen to an agent, read her client's work, accept it, pay him an advance for it, publish it, garner acceptance of it by way of good publicity and good reviews, sell copies of it, and pay him royalties. It's only in scale where major and minor houses differ.

...the new paradigm wasn't launched by a bunch of Old Paradigm, fist-shaking New York editors who got dumped when big conglomerates like Bertlesmann and Holtzbrinck took over their various publishing houses.

DIY publishing—which really started to take off once high-quality photocopying became easily available to consumers—had much more in common with DIY music. The poet who made up little chapbooks to sell at her readings was a kissing cousin of the band that taped its own cassettes to sell at gigs. Both thrived on being able to offer their audience something palpable, something outlasting the ephemeralness of their public appearances. And though it might be argued that the Do-It-Yourself zine craze spread during the 80s and 90s because of grassroots outrage at the corporate takeover of creative culture, it really just had to do with the very basic impulse possessed by almost all writers: to get their ideas out to an audience as quickly, broadly, and tangibly as possible.

Technological advances, like shareable computer files, dedicated ebook readers and print-on-demand machines, are the new vehicles of these ideas in what has been dubbed the New Publishing Paradigm. Despite what you might have culled from news items these past five years in Publishers Weekly or MediaBistro.com, the new paradigm wasn't launched by a bunch of Old Paradigm, fist-shaking New York editors who got dumped when big conglomerates like Bertlesmann and Holtzbrinck took over their various publishing houses. This is evident because the New Publishing Paradigm isn't business as usual, it's not the author-to-agent-to-publisher-to-bookstore-to-reader route, simply at another address.

It is, rather, DIY with better machines, and it's being run by people like you and me. And on its own terms, it's succeeding and going places that no author, publisher or reader could have dreamed of a generation ago.

Let me give you the example of my own experience. In late 2001 I wanted to publish my husband's recently written novels and didn't want to go the route of the so-called self-publishing POD portals like Xlibris, iUniverse, or 1st Books (now AuthorHouse) which exuded then, and still exude—although a little less strongly nowadays—the bad odor of vanity publishing. So, I started an imprint called CityFables, a name I thought would reflect the whimsical fantastic nature of Michael's books. We had a dismally low amount of capital, but fortunately I found a hungry new little POD company that printed trade-sized paperbacks as high in quality as the ones in Barnes & Noble, that didn't charge for setup, required only a small minimum run, and delivered in one week.

Once you launch your work into cyberspace, it immediately becomes part of the permanent body of human knowledge. Your work is indexable, google-able, findable, sendable, shareable, judgeable.

Now, this was a mere four years ago, but still far enough back in time when any printing on demand was viewed with a great deal of suspicion, and the very idea of self-publishing itself was held in absolutely no literary regard whatsoever, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman and James Joyce be damned. So, lacking a business model, I made up my own:

For each of the books, print a hundred copies; sell fifty at full price to break even (easily accomplished, as Michael and I were running a writers group at the time and could sell copies to our members); keep the other fifty for reviewers, public readings, book fairs, and just to have around for stock. (The POD printer could always supply more, within days, as needed.)

But—give away online the PDF version, the shareable computer file, as quickly and widely and for as long as possible.

If this goes against the grain, this concept of giving away for free the work you've sweated over, possibly to be debased, defiled, or worse, ripped off, please consider the words of fellow author and award-winning science fiction novelist, Cory Doctorow, who famously gives away his work:

The enemy of authors isn't piracy—it's obscurity.

And if the prospect of non-obscurity, that is, of getting your name and your work known by thousands of people all over the world, isn't sufficient to overcome your righteous desire to be financially compensated, ponder this: Once you launch your work into cyberspace, it immediately becomes part of the permanent body of human knowledge. Your work is indexable, google-able, findable, sendable, shareable, judgeable.

More important, it gets the opportunity to become Cool. As even the great Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Managing Editor of Tor Books and therefore top honcho of the biggest moneymaking science fiction house in the world, has acknowledged, the most underrated reason why people copy things off the internet is the simple desire to Share Cool Stuff with friends. What author could object to being introduced to his public in this way, by fans to other potential fans?

...if this were a sales or readership figure it would be laughed off the board—until you stop to consider that the most promising nominee for last year's National Book Award sold a total of 1300 copies of her novel.

I must disclose at this point that my decision to give away Michael's books wasn't entirely altruistic, or unsystematic, because at the very beginning of launching CityFables I equipped each of his titles with several information-gathering tools. I used, for example, a download counter and a hit tracker, and made sure to include in the file an email address for responses (he got a surprising amount from retirees as well as students, who wanted to know more about his subjects—the Sixties and San Francisco—including a young Turkish student who eventually wrote a thesis on Michael's entire body of work). All these services, I must add, can be gotten for free online. It was sort of like Bookspan, the rating service of the traditional publishing trade, only I wasn't interested in counting retail sales as much as finding out who downloaded Michael's books and where they were.

In short, I was searching for his audience.

When I toted up the download statistics for Michael's three novels after nearly a year, several interesting things stood out. One, that if people were inclined at all to download any one of his novels, they'd usually end up downloading all three; two, that people who downloaded his novels tended either to be college students in Canada and Australia, who downloaded in the afternoons, or a variety of people in the countries of Eastern Europe, who downloaded in the evenings; and three, that even without having his books listed at other, larger, better publicized online free download centers—that is, just from adding keywords to search engines that pointed only to the CityFables website, where the books could be downloaded —each of his three titles attracted an average of two downloads per day, bringing the yearly total to nearly two thousand for all of them. A swift mental calculation tells me that, even allowing for errors of miscount, his entire output has been downloaded—so far—about 8000 times, and that's not even counting whatever digital copies or printouts were made for the purposes of sharing.

In the Old Paradigm, if this were a sales or readership figure it would be laughed off the board—until you stop to consider that the most promising nominee for last year's National Book Award sold a total of 1300 copies of her novel. We have now gotten to the point where vetting by agents, publicists, marketers and Michiko Kakutani is no longer sufficient to rouse even the nerdiest bookaholic to buy a book costing two to three hours of the average wage.

And here's the kicker. People aren't reading less, they're reading more. It's just the way they're reading that's changed. They're reading off computer screens, ebook readers, Palm Pilots. They're downloading PDFs and printing out the pages as they need them. At present a friend of mine in Austria, the publisher Jörg Hotter, is attempting to negotiate a deal with the phone company there to include monthly billing for his service, which plans to send regular installments of new novels to subscribers to read off their cell phone screens.

It is, of all places, in the line of erotic romance. Women have money to spend for ebooks, the internet does not daunt them, and their hunger for good unformulaic stories remains unabated. Of all the types of e-fiction out there, this is the one that has provided the most reliable income for the most writers.

People are still looking for stuff to read, and they're willing and eager to go to neat new places to find it.

So—if you're willing to trade the chancy prospect of being published by a traditional house more than two years after they've bought your book; of getting an advance you may have to give back; of royalties that cut your percentage when your book is wholesaled; of getting a cover illustration you can't stand to look at; of being allotted a publicity budget that wouldn't buy a Big Mac; of having six weeks of glory on the back shelf at Barnes & Noble, only to eventually discover that every copy of your book that wasn't sold was turned into mulch (yes, they do that)!

If you don't mind trading all that for the Olympian power and tranquility of just being able to write, write, write and get your words out the moment you're ready to a responsive audience, then please, consider writing in the New Publishing Paradigm.

Write a memoir, a diatribe, a bit of porn. Make it good. Don't lengthen it, shorten it, dumb it down, or geek it up because you're trying to second guess an audience whose reading habits you don't understand. Don't compromise. It will get read. I'm a housewife with a useless BA from a crappy university and if I can follow de Toqueville on my RocketBook reader, you can too.

The world we're living in these days isn't big enough to encompass the current explosion in human activity. We need to enlarge the world, not narrow it. We need more ideas, not fewer.

In response to an intellectually refined, Russian-born acquaintance of mine who recently remarked with disdain, Now anybody can write a book, I say, Yes! Isn't that fantastic?

Because we need more books, not fewer. And we need them now.

But let me take a breath and leap off my Olympian Mount to address at last a subject dearest to the heart of every writer, and that is money.

Is there money to be made in the New Publishing Paradigm? Well, if you disregard the newsmaking six-figure deals which are, one, as likely for an author to win as the lottery and, two, in the last analysis big expensive ads for the publishing houses themselves anyway, let's just say there's about enough money in the NPP as there is in the OPP. Online genre fiction magazines, when they pay, continue in the great tradition of doling out bupkes to writers—a penny a word is still the norm. Most literary online journals, like their prestigious printed siblings, don't pay at all.

At this particular moment in literary history, the single bright light is for authors of ebooks in the area of genre fiction, but it's not where you'd immediately think—not in high-tech science fiction, say, or lurid thrillers. It is, of all places, in the line of erotic romance. Women have money to spend for ebooks, the internet does not daunt them, and their hunger for good unformulaic stories remains unabated. Of all the types of e-fiction out there, this is the one that has provided the most reliable income for the most writers. It is actually possible to make a living writing strictly for this subgenre. True to the girl who wrote Faculty Frolics, I have dabbled here myself, with some success. (Don't look for me. I'm writing under a pseudonym.) It's the one area of writing where I believe I have any hope of finding recognition and steady remuneration.

Offline in the world of PODs, the situation is, perhaps, slightly better, because self-published print-on-demand books are now being considered sort of the triple-A team of major league publishing. A writer who can afford the thousands of dollars it takes to have her work privately edited, proofread, polished, packaged and market-analyzed stands a good chance of eventually being noticed by one or another of the big houses, who would be enchanted by the thought that there's very little else they'd have to do (read: pay for) to bring her little moneymaker to the marketplace. An influential litblogger (an online diarist focusing on literary matters) named GirlOnDemand specializes in reviewing self-published novels from POD portals like iUniverse and Xlibris. Although most, she reports, are absolute crap, occasionally she finds one or two gems in her reading pile that are major-house quality, and she's as pleased as anyone in the business when these titles do get acquired. On her blog is a list of POD novels that eventually made it to Kensington, St. Martin's, Crown, and other traditional publishers, and it's an eye-opener. (Just remember the next time that Reese Witherspoon movie comes around to cable—it started as a POD book.)

And while you're setting aside copies of your own POD novel for stock, be sure to wrap up a few to keep pristine. Mint editions of A Time to Kill, John Grisham's first novel which he paid to have published, are selling on eBay for upwards of three thousand dollars.

Meanwhile, Michael's readership continues to grow around the world at a slow but steady pace, while I dream of becoming the new Daphne du Maurier, only sexier. And who knows? My own present forays into the marketplace of remunerative publishing may eventually reap some big rewards. But as an author I can't count on the marketplace to supply the creative juice I need—that all us writers need—to keep on writing.

In the New Publishing Paradigm, it's there: The immediate response from engaged readers. The satisfaction of knowing that your work is going out to a wider audience than any author could have dreamed of in the past. The awe and wonder— and conferment of responsibility—when you realize that your words might, just might, be around for another generation or two to come.

© Cantara Christopher

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