Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My self-publishing threshold

So I was a bit surprised to find this article by Kimberly Blanton on the front page of the Business section, in the Boston Globe. But yes, I suppose it is business... and really, what other news is there to report in this section anyhow?

So the article is about aspiring authors going to sites such as TheNextBigWriter and YouWriteOn to get editorial suggestions from similar scribes, folks toiling away alone on a novel or poetry or what have you. It's an industry now, these websites, so while they're just essentially writing groups but online, now there's money being made. And the man who started at least two of these sites, Sol Nasisi, "sells ads on the sites and said he's turning a profit from his ventures, though he declined to disclose the amount." Curious, eh? This is once again an example of the promise the internet holds, and also the money-making opportunity for those willing to take a risk. So enjoy the promise of an instant writing group, but be prepared to drop almost 50 bones a year.

I do, however, like this system, with which I was entirely unfamiliar:
TheNextBigWriter uses a novel technique to give writers a strong incentive to help each other. At the center of the editing room is a bank. Each writer has an account and is rewarded with credits for editing fellow writers on the site. They then use the credits they earn to "pay" fellow members to edit their own work.
Seems smart to me, and kind of cool. Again, this used to be done a bit more "naturally," if you will, when people formed a writing group and then just workshopped, but whatever works for folks.

But why does the article have to move to publishing? This is where these ideas get tricky and where, quite frankly, we - me and some of these entreprenurial folks - part company. It's one thing to have an online writing group, but another thing to publish online. I don't think it's a bad thing, but I do think there's an anti-publisher drive behind it, and that could be problematic in terms of strong writing.

First, there's truth to this:
The websites operate far afield from the big East Coast publishing houses that dominate The New York Times bestseller lists. But they are still in their infancy, and they see themselves setting the stage for publishing's next phase: Books, they say, will move slowly but surely away from paper and find their way to readers' computers, e-books, and iPods, diminishing the influence of the big publishing houses just as the online distribution of music altered the role of the major music labels.

Fine, I get it. And I was listening to someone talk about this change in the music industry in a way that actually made sense recently. And publishers are slowly getting it. I'm all for this e-change on some level.

My point has always been a question of who is determining what is good, what is strong. Institutions and individuals work to build a stable of authors or books that readers like me come to trust, so that we know if they like it, we might like it.

Now we all know that we are getting saturated by media, so when people argue for choices, choices, choices, let's keep in mind that 1) it can be overwhelming, and 2) each choice provides an opportunity for an entrepreneur who may or may not divulge his or her profit margins. Our friend Nasisi, after not admitting his profits, is quoted as saying, "Every individual now can become their own publishing house to some degree." I hear that and I groan.

Why? Because it's chaos! Let's expand publishing and work to get independents out there, but let's also hold people to a high standard. I don't want to read something just because a marketing department had enough money to throw it into every bookstore on the East coast, but I also don't want to lose bookstores and find my reading my scanning website after website. Podcasts are hard enough for me... and again, it's because so many are crap. I end up going back to the Guardian or NPR just because I know, with these names attached, there's a bar in place. If I find an independently produced podcast I love I'll be loyal, but only being able to search online, I get irritated and go back to the stand-bys. If I'm only looking for a new book, e- or otherwise, on an Amazon-esque site, with every Mary and Bill and Jaclyn and Terrence publishing their own work, how am I going to find a good book?

So, um... I am an elitist?

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