Category Archives: Writing Journal

3 things books must do to survive in an attention economy

Much of my first decade as a writer was spent helping people read and write. I ran workshops and development projects for libraries, a part of my professional life I wrote about not so long ago. A big part of my work then was caught up with the question, asked in various different ways, “why don’t more people read?” Reading is both fun and remarkably good for people. So why isn’t everyone an avid reader?

The common assumption, one I came to believe was profoundly incorrect (and got in to remarkable amounts of shit for vocally challenging), was that “non-readers” were a) poor and  b) uneducated. In other words, lack of participation in reading was laid at the feet of class and social politics. My own experience first made me suspect this was untrue. I grew up in a single parent family, in a council flat, on state benefits, in the “underclass” that were defined as “non-readers”, but I grew up surrounded by books, instilled with a love of books, and I knew that I wasn’t alone in that. When I began to look at the paltry research on the subject of reading I saw it presented no real evidence to back up the assumptions on poverty, and as I got deeper in to my work I saw the truth with my own eyes. In tiny homes on grim housing estates I would find hordes of books, defeating the poverty of ignorance stereotype again and again.

In fact the people who read the least were usually rather affluent. At least financially. Rich in money, but poor in time. Middle class parents struggling to maintain a high standard of material living. Young professionals carving out a career. Teenagers balancing  minimum wage jobs with their studies. The big gap in the reading demographic isn’t poor people, it’s busy people.

And we’re becoming a world of very, very busy people. To be clear, I’m not criticising people for being too busy read. I think many of us might benefit from making more time to read (I literally have to schedule reading time or, even as a writer and reviewer, I won’t do it) But if the reason we’re not reading is that we’re too busy living I can’t in truth see that as a terrible problem. And the combined wonders of digital technology and late stage capitalism keep us very busy living indeed. Laptops and smart phones mean we can carry on our work at any time or place, and the high competition of today’s economy means that we likely have to whether we like it or not. In short, our attention is occupied.

The recent discussion of the Amazon / Hachette negotiations turn, more than we may think, on this contest for attention. The core message of Amazon’s open letter is that books need to adapt to the new demands on our time that the digital, attention deficit economy imposes. The core belief of the writers howling back at Amazon is that books can, and in fact must, resist the pressures of limited time and attention. At heart this is not a business issue, at least not in its wider appeal to public opinion. Amazon / Hachette is a culture clash, and a serious culture clash at that.

I find my heart and soul divided in this conflict. Amazon are right, books will have to change. And writers are correct, books will have to change the world. They’ve done it before, they can do it again. Here are my thoughts on how :

1. An effective digital strategy

I write this in a 24 hour study cafe filled with *counts fingers* 160+ teenagers, students and young professionals. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM IS LOOKING AT A COMPUTER. Laptops, smartphones, tablets. Books have to exist on these devices, they have to be visible, and they have to capture attention not simply passively demand it. Amazon is absolutely right to point again and again at the need for books to compete with films, tv, music, apps, social networks and everything else that happens on these screens. And to be very frank, the reason Amazon are beating publishers up so badly at the moment is that they demonstrably understand the digital paradigm far better. In this area, Amazon and the technology companies win.

2. Innovate both form and content

Where technologists really don’t win is in writing books. You do not improve a book by sticking video clips in it, giving it a branching multiple-choice narrative structure or, and I will bold this for emphasis, make it a fucking video game. Books are already built on the most sophisticated technological communication platform ever evolved – language. That’s where they need to innovate. The novel as commonly encountered today is the outcome of a long series of technological innovations in the use of language to tell stories. Innovations made incrementally by writers and publishers. Publishers can reassert their importance in the digital era by innovating the book successfully for digital readers. To date, major publishers have done almost nothing in this space. That has to change. In this area, writers and publishers have the skills and experience needed.

3. Redefine Value

There’s very little likelihood of new release ebooks selling well for £17.99 (the standard hardback price) when other digital goods are much, much less. But a ten-part serial fiction at £1.99 an episode might make the same ball park revenue as a hardback. But to do so it would need both an effective digital strategy, and an innovative form that made to episodic structure work effectively in prose fiction. I’m not suggesting serial fiction as the answer, merely as an example of one answer that might redefine the value of books for digital readers, and maintain that value at levels needed to keep books an industry not a paying hobby.

For this culture clash between technology geeks and book geeks to resolve, both need to play to their strengths and stop denigrating the strengths of the other. Technology companies like Amazon know digital. Writers and publishers know books. When they work well together then the book industry booms, as we’ve seen at times on the Kindle platform. If they continue to clash however, the future for books may be far less bright.

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FUCK YOU AMAZON! Fuck you for being right! Again!

Sigh. Writers and publishers are again up in arms about Amazon, this time because of a letter sent directly to thousands of self-published writers by the book behemoth, and repeated on a new Readers United website. Full text of the email below for non-KDP authors who are curious.

So here we are again. Amazon is correct, 100% so, in every major point they make. The comparison with paperback publishing is HUGELY relevant and the price elasticity is absolutely in line with every major consumer product that has transitioned to digital. And how have many writers and publishers responded? Basically by screaming…

FUCK YOU AMAZON!

Yeah Amazon, fuck you! Fuck you for being right! Again! What have Amazon ever done for books eh? Pioneered a postal delivery market publishers ignored? Yes ok, but what else? Invested millions in an ebook infrastructure publishers deliberately ignored? Fine, but what else? Opened up publishing to thousands of independent authors of all kinds, many of whom are making entire careers in digital sales with 70% royalties? Well, damn yes that’s pretty good I guess, but what else?

What else? Look people, there is no scenario where publishing isn’t utterly transformed by digital technology. Do you know what the real threat to book publishing is? Total and utter irrelevancy. If books aren’t present in the digital market places where people now buy music, films, tv shows, games and apps, they effectively cease to exist for the VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE. Remember record stores? Remember video rental stores? You’ll soon be remembering book shops as well, beyond a handful of well run independents in rich neighbourhoods. Where the hell do you expect people to see your books if not on Kindle, iBooks or Google Play? And in what possible universe are people going to pay $19.99 for an ebook when that pricing is waaaaaaaaay over the value of other digital media?

People are justifying this “FUCK YOU AMAZON” response by the “tone” of Amazon’s letter. Read and judge for yourself. It may be assertive, or it may be patronising. It’s still right.

***

From: Kindle Direct Publishing
Subject: Important Kindle request

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read). A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures. And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

- We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at http://www.readersunited.com

A reminder why book pirates are a writer’s only friend

There are 7 billion people on planet Earth. 7,000,000,000. That’s a vast audience that in the digital age is only really limited by language and literacy barriers. But let’s be really tight, and say that the operational potential upper audience for your book is 1 billion people. 1,000,000,000.

The best selling novels of all time like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter top out at between 100-200 million copies sold. That’s 10-20% of our arbitrary 1 billion. Sell 10 million books and you’ll easily enter the ranks of all time bestselling authors. But that’s far more than you’ll need to get on the New York Times bestseller list, which are often around 10,000 sales in a week. And a writer can penetrate the Amazon top 100 with only 1000 books sold. That’s right, you can become a bestselling author by reaching only 0.0001% of your potential audience.

If your goal is to be a bestseller, lack of people is not the problem.

“Your enemy is not piracy, but obscurity.” It doesn’t seem to matter how often this famous statement by Tim O’Reilly is quoted, authors and the publishing industry that represents them don’t seem to take it on board. That’s partly a matter of emotion – success as a writer is hard fought and for anyone who doesn’t find it, piracy is a convenient lightning rod for negative emotions. But I suspect the wider cause is that many writers have miscast the basic nature of their problem.

Obscurity is your problem. Obscurity of the kind a snowflake faces in a snowstorm, or a scream faces in hell. There are 7 billion people in the world and almost all of them are selling something on the internet. And so, as a writer with the goal of becoming a bestseller, are you. Engineers use a term called “signal to noise” to talk about the challenge of getting a desired signal through the background noise around it. The signal to noise ratio of the internet is immeasurably huge.

But the irony is that you may be better off penetrating it as a indie published writer than with the backing of a major publisher. Because in the unfolding era of digital publishing, major publishers aren’t demonstrating a single clue about how to overcome that staggering signal to noise challenge. I’m watching hundreds of mainstream published debut authors plunge in to the abyss, while all the new names I see establishing themselves in the imaginations of readers are either indie publishing or building their own marketing platforms on blogs and podcasts. Why is this?

Could it be that the hysterical response of publishers to piracy is emblematic of why? Faced with the titanic struggle to penetrate the signal of a new writer through the noise of the internet marketing apocalypse, what do publishers do when they identify small pockets of people who are actually interested in reading that authors book? They waste their time issuing DMCA take down notices (because legal threats are always a great way to solidify a reader / writer relationship) when they should be taking a leaf out of the indie writer playbook and doing everything they can to befriend the book pirates. Because while pirates aren’t your best friends, as a debut author they may well be your only friends.

inspiration_bookshelves

What ebooks need are…ebookshelves

I have a friend who buys books on the basis of what will look good on his shelves to anyone inspecting them after he has died. Like always wearing clean pants just incase you get hit by a car, this motivation for book purchasing has a lot to do with how others see us. I don’t recommend it. But I think it’s likely true that part of what most of us enjoy about books is the act of putting them, keeping them, and ordering them, on shelves.

I no longer own any book shelves. I’m currently living out of a single back pack as a globetrotting digital nomad. I do have some boxes of books in storage, and one day I might place them back on some shelves of my own. Until then I’m 100% ebook. My book collection lives on a hard-drive alongside my music, film and tv collections. My ebook collection is by far the most important to me. But it is also by far the least satisfying in its digital format.

Ebooks themselves are unsatisfying. I love reading them, but as objects they are a failure. An ebook is really just a text file wrapped in some markup code which instructs your e-reader on how to display it. It’s technically almost identical to a webpage, except with all but the most basic features crippled to create the perceptual illusion that this is a book (something worth paying for) not a web page (something most people are not willing to pay for). As skeuomorphism recedes from digital design, ebooks are clinging on to it for dear life. But it’s in contrast to print books that ebooks fail as objects. A print book arrives ready to read. An ebook needs bits of software and hardware, may well need converting if not for the exact platform you are reading on, and will often break and lose essential formatting. An ebook feels much like an unbound print book, like a stack of loose pages liable to chaotic disorder.

The Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Kobo and Google Play platforms solve this problem by providing a beginning to end experience from choosing and purchasing and ebook to reading and storing it. But none of them do it very well or very creatively. The best ebook library software is the open source Calibre, but it’s ugly and buggy and will never be loved despite being extremely useful.

What I want for my ebooks are…ebookshelves. I want software that beautifully and elegantly stores my ebooks, in someway echoing the experience of a study in English stately home, stocked with excellent hardbound tomes. I want a reading experience, on my computer, phone or tablet that replicates the satisfying objectness of a print book while integrating the best of what ebooks could offer in interactivity and illustrating graphics if they chose to. And I want these things not just as a reader but as a writer as well. Because if the writers business (as opposed to art) is, ultimately, selling books to people, then the experience of buying, reading and owning those books still needs to be radically improved from its current piecemeal, unsatisfactory state.

What is Hachette fighting for?

The Amazon books team deliver some interesting, but non-specific, data on ebook prices. Bottom line – lower prices deliver higher revenue and profits because e-book prices are “highly elastic”. So indie authors putting their work on for £2.99 against the standard publisher price of £8.99 are doing exactly the right thing.

It’s worth noting here that ebook prices now behave much more like the dynamics of crowd-funding than traditional book pricing. Your product is essentially unlimited so you price at the point that produces the highest volume. It’s clear publishers don’t understand this yet. They are setting prices on the basis of product scarcity – put simply, publishers still don’t understand the market for ebooks.

One more note on our proposal for how the total revenue should be shared. While we believe 35% should go to the author and 35% to Hachette, the way this would actually work is that we would send 70% of the total revenue to Hachette, and they would decide how much to share with the author. We believe Hachette is sharing too small a portion with the author today, but ultimately that is not our call.

via Amazon.com: Customer Discussions: Update re: Amazon/Hachette Business Interruption.

This begs the question, if Amazon are fighting for higher author royalties and more profits overall, what are Hachette fighting for and why does anyone support them? It’s clear, Hachette are fighting for their existing and increasingly outmoded business model. They’re fighting for stasis in the face of inevitable change. Worst of all, they are fighting against changes that are vastly to the benefit of writers. I still say this is a fight authors do best not to take sides in. But if you are going to join the battle, you’re a fool not to see Amazon as your ally.

Look at the state of British Sci-Fi

Strange Horizons publishes a large an interesting report on “The State of British Sf and Fantasy” which with the input of six authors does a fairly good job of reflecting many current trends. I take issue with Juliet McKenna’s opening essay The Market and Trade. Not because it is incorrect – it is well researched and has much useful information. But because it is myopic in its focus and unforgivably negative in tone.

Writers earning a living wage from their fiction and giving up the day job is an increasingly unlikely prospect. Advances for novels continue to fall and the contractual rights surrendered become ever more all-encompassing, giving publishers first call on income from foreign translation and other formats. Backlist sales once sustained writers but with bookshops no longer holding such stock, that revenue has shrunk for most but the top sellers. Short story and small press deals cannot offer enough money to make up such shortfalls. Direct sales through ebooks may bring writers a higher return in percentage terms but those authors who make significant sums remain newsworthy precisely because they are the “man bites dog” stories of publishing.

via Strange Horizons Articles: The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium, by Juliet E. McKenna, Kari Sperring, Nina Allan, Dan Hartland, Martin Lewis, and Maureen Kincaid Speller.

An “increasingly” unlikely prospect? There are more writers than ever earning a living in the genre. It’s a much more likely prospect. Why the intense and inaccurate negativity?

What is missing from McKenna’s purview? Digital, ebooks and most critically the indie author revolution. There’s nothing to gain from bemoaning the problems in traditional publishing without paying detailed attention to the context giving rise to those problems. WE’RE IN THE MIDST OF THE MOST RADICAL CHANGE CHANGE IN KNOWLEDGE DISTRIBUTION SINCE THE PRINTING PRESS WAS INVENTED. The publishing industry as you know it is an artefact for of the pre-digital era, there is absolutely zero chance of it continuing in its established form in the face of digital technology, and yes of course writers trying to shelter within the collapsing infrastructure of that industry are going to have an increasingly hard time.

Where are writers earning a living wage today? In self publishing. How are writers protecting their intellectual property from publishers contracts? By self publishing. How are writers profiting from their backlist? By self publishing. When are short stories making unexpected profits for writers? When being self published. How does McKenna characterise self-publishing? As the “man bites dog” outlier of success. No doubt many writers and publishing professionals continue to see it that way. They’re likely to continue on the same downward spiral McKenna describes for as long as they do so.

Why do you hate indie authors?

Hugh Howey once again shares another interesting perspective on the indie publishing revolution, in this case a refutation of the frequent criticisms of the Author Earnings reports methodology, from the unnamed Data Guy behind those reports.

I do apologize to those whom this information proves troubling, but it is a fair view of what is happening in the world of ebooks today. And all the trends we’ve seen point in the same direction.

via Data Guy on the Author Earnings Methodology | Hugh Howey.

Howey’s brief quote there interests me, because it raises the simple question, why are so many in the industry so vindictively determined that indie publishing can not exist? I see the same fatuous counter arguments placed against the existence of indie publishing again and again. The data is unreliable! Jesus H Christ folks just spend five minutes on the internet looking at the hundreds of indie authors clearly doing very well with their work. They’re just a few needles in a haystack! All success in any creative field is like being a needle in a haystack. Do you use the very rare success of traditionally published authors to condemn the traditional publishing industry? Most indie authors sell no books! Most authors FULL STOP sell no books. They spend years making submissions and in slush piles and learn nothing. Yes, you might claim it’s better to publish nothing until an agent or editor approves you. Personally, I think its better to give that power to readers.

Indie publishing is real, it’s here to stay, and its tranformative effect on the industry is just beginning. So the question remains, why do you hate it so much?

I tell you, ergodic is the future of fiction

The novel’s great strength is also its great weakness. A novel is (with a few rare exceptions) the work of one author. That can give it a depth, coherence and unity that is rare in our modern world. But it is also a challenge to our modern way of being. We’re creatures obsessed with social interaction. And we live in age when every conversation is now two way. If we expect to be able to answer back to film stars, governments and corporate brands on twitter, why would we sit still for a twenty hour lecture from a novelist?

The literary answer to this is voice. Shamelessly populate the novel novel with the words, perspectives and opinions of the author. The commercial answer is story. Strip mine the history of narrative for compelling story arcs, and put them down on the page in transparent prose that deletes any sense it was created by a human imagination. But there is a third option, currently under-explored, that I believe will play a very major part in the next few decades of literature.

Ergodic literature is defined as requiring non-trivial effort to navigate. If a traditional novel requires trivial effort to navigate – simply reading the words in the order written – then an ergodic text is handled in ways that demand greater effort from the reader. The term comes from the Greek words ergon meaning work and hodos meaning path. Ergodic fiction is the path that requires work.

The most famous and accomplished novel recognised as ergodic is House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. Multiple narratives are presented to the reader as unordered fragments of text taking various formats. The story is there to find, but the reader has to work to construct it. The reader must be active in the creation of the story, which then becomes interactive.

But it is not interactive in the common sense of that word. The reader is not interacting through the trivial device of selecting a path through a branching storyline. This is not a Choose Your Own Adventure game-book, or an action video game with cut sequences. Books already demand a far deeper form of interaction from the reader than trivial plot dynamics. Novels require the reader’s imagination to bloom in to existence as stories. And ergodic literature works with, not against, the extant interactivity of all novels.

But an ergodic text kinks the reading experience in a way that can reengage readers disenchanted with a 20 hour lecture from a novelist. All readers are already deeply engaged with ergodic texts. On today’s internet we move through a webwork of blog posts, news articles, social media statuses, annotated memes, video clips, podcasts, forum posts and comment threads. The challenge of constructing a personally meaningful narrative from this effectively random barrage of information is compelling to us. Our minds and imaginations are now wired for that deep interaction with out texts. And it’s that behaviour ergodic fiction can use to re-engage the reader.

I’m sorry I can’t point you to more effective examples of the ergodic fiction in action. Many have tried, most have failed. But then, that’s exciting right? It means the challenge is there for the taking. Go to it.

Just how many literary worlds are there now?

Online meme factory Flavorwire published a list of the 35 most influential writers on the internet recently. It’s a…questionable list at best. I know most of the names on it, and I’ve read many of those who have books published. But it reads in large part like a list of the authors friends on Twitter, which I imagine with some research it would prove to be.

The list inspired some of the Sci-Fi writing world’s rooting, tooting, gun shooting right wing authors to come up with an alternative list of writers that also look rather like the author’s friends on twitter. Hmmm…I sense a trend here.

You don’t need to become a mainstream media figure to have a successful career as a writer today.

The internet and social media have a fracturing effect. The grand narratives of mass media are shattered in to a thousand small stories, each playing to their own niche audience. This is even more true in literature than other media. Books have always attached to niche audiences and sub-cultures. But that fracturing multiplies with every new technical advance in publishing.

Looking at the online world of books I see many strong communities. There is the traditional literary world, still surfing the momentum of its former mass media dominance. As the strong online discussion around today’s Booker prize list demonstrates, it is translating well to social media. Genre fiction has a massively strong presence online, especially Sci-Fi which has become the de-facto mainstream literature of online geek culture. But crime, romance and other genres also have their fanatical followings. The politically affiliated literary communities are interesting. As mentioned, right wing conservative science fiction is a thing, but so also is liberal science fiction, and both are relatively removed from mainstream sci-fi (which is largely apolitical). The Flavorwire list is really a list of bloggers and social media gadflys who publish books as an almost secondary activity. But again, that’s another perfectly valid literary community.

What powers these niche communities is participation. Who wants to be a passive consumer of culture when you can start making your own? The internet is now stuffed full of communities of self-published writers. Or largely unknown writers who have banded together to form their own publisher. Some of these also have a readership beyond their immediate circle, but most are more of a circle jerk, creating the impression of an audience when really no one is listening.

Where audiences do exist though, the multiplicity of online literary worlds is a new paradigm for writers. You don’t need to become a mainstream media figure to have a successful career as a writer today. In fact a much more viable career option is to find a niche community you love and become a writer for that community. And with so many literary communities co-existing online, that’s a more viable career

Disruptive

Will the next wave of publishing technology favour writers?

Independent author Susanna Shore expresses the bottom line on the state of independent publishing in a well thought out post on Kindle Unlimited.

As a KDP author, it’s impossible for me to remain completely neutral, even when keeping outside the dispute. Generally, I tend to favour the opinion that all big companies look for their best interests. For now, Amazon’s interests are favourable to me, but that doesn’t mean they are on my side, or that their interests will continue to be in my favour. Moreover, I don’t have to be on their side to benefit from their desire for profit. In this, I’m firmly on my side, which doesn’t mean I didn’t feel sorry for the authors affected by the dispute.

Read more of So…Kindle Unlimited

The high emotions engendered by the transition from print to digital publishing often cloud the basic facts. As Shore bluntly states, that transition, lead by technology innovated by Amazon, has fallen firmly in favour of writers, and particularly those writers with the energy and skill set to publish independently. Digital eliminates the entire print, distribution and retail chain that once sucked so much value from the wealth generated by publishing books. Now a writer can write and then publish a book to one of a half-dozen ebook marketplaces, Amazon Kindle being by far the largest, and keep hold of most of the wealth the book generates. Even after a substantial cut has gone to the marketplace, the author still gets a far higher percentage return.

But we live in fast moving technological times. The model of a few centralised ebook marketplaces is likely to disappear as fast as it appeared. I personally doubt it will last beyond the end of this decade, 2020. But what might replace it, and will the next wave of publishing technology continue to favour the author?

One way to understand the success of the Amazon Kindle marketplace is as a byproduct of the limitations of internet search. What do I mean by that somewhat jargon heavy statement? We need a central marketplace for ebooks, because Google search doesn’t quite fulfil that function. A Google search can help you find an author or book, but it quickly hands you over to anther information source that actually holds more extensive meta-data on that author or book. Amazon, or the Amazon owned Goodreads, are nearly always the top returned result for any ebook search. And of course it’s in the Amazon marketplace that you actually buy the book, and download it to your e-reader.

But the next stage of internet search has the potential to entirely bypass the Amazon marketplace, and other similar marketplaces for digital goods like ebooks. The semantic web is a simple idea made complex by a somewhat off putting name. In brief, it is the idea that every piece of information on the internet is tagged with the meta-data that describes it. For example, my name “Damien Walter” would also be tagged with my place and date of birth, web address, email etc etc and thousands or millions of other pieces of “meta data”. An ebook, let’s say Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, would be tagged with all the meta-data relevant to it. For instance, it’s current sales data, recent related tweets, reviews, and all kinds of other useful information. Once you have extensive semantic data on most ebooks, Google can effectively displace Amazon as the marketplace for ebooks.

Why? Because when you search, say, for “Science Fiction” on the semantic web, Google will return a far more useful result to you than the current Amazon science fiction category. It will be able to show you bestselling titles, top authors, most talked about books on social networks, and a huge amount of other data tailored to your needs. And all of this data will be decentralised. It will be provided directly, by publishers, by authors, and by readers. And of course, with it’s own robust payment systems, Google will happily deal with the translation to buy this product directly from the author, again without the involvement of Amazon. Instead of uploading an ebook to the Amazon marketplace for a 35-70%, authors might instead upload their new book to their own website, tagged with all relevant semantic data, and sell it via google for 97%, minus only Googles 3% transaction fee.

This is of course speculative. But given the current trends in our technology, there’s every reason to believe that the next technological developments in publishing will give even more power to authors than the Amazon marketplace has done already. Authors are, until computers start writing fiction, the only essential worker needed to create novels. As such the tendency of technology to automate all kinds of work will also tend to shift more and more power away from publishing professionals of all kinds, and towards the author.

Yes writing is a waste of time.

The Think Buddha blog features a charming essay on the necessity of time wasting to creative life by Tory Syracuse (it’s a three year old essay but, self-evidently, time wasting is a timeless subject) and it has some interesting things to say about the flow state of writing.

One of the great gifts of writing—and, though I don’t have much experience in other areas, I imagine this is true of most forms of art-making—is that it is not a linear process. Too much structure and focus on the end goal will, at least for me, derail the entire creative act.

Writing cultivates flowing, associative thought, the loss of time, and the spontaneous yet concentrated creation of something from nothing.

I have general writing goals, and I certainly have to impose discipline on myself to make room for writing in my day, but the generative process itself blessedly un-goal-oriented.

Goals and outcomes are all well and good for strategic planning, career paths, and athletic feats.But to similarly structure every aspect of life is to lose the art of it

via In Defense of Wasting Time.

That flow state is what I am in writing for. I can get it in other activities, but in the same way a heroin addict isn’t satisfied by a methadone hit, it’s writing I come back to for the most powerful hit.  (Drug addiction isn’t a frivolous comparison either, it literarily is the escape from self that we go looking for in narcotics.) Non-fiction can take me to the flow state consistently, but it’s fiction writing that really rings my bell.

Writing challenges us to do something that we are, as humans, terribly bad at doing. We’re trained by our culture and our schooling to be organised, productive, focused. We learn that if we want to achieve something we need to concentrate. All of these things are about asserting our self in the world. But writing demands the opposite. To write brilliantly we must forget ourself. We have to let go. And for most of us, letting go is haaaaaaard.

We want to make writing conform to our need for focus, productivity, organisation. We set word-counts. We aim to write a book a year.  We try and top the bestseller lists. But it’s all nonsense to make ourselves feel like we’re in control, when really the whole of writing is letting go of control. We want writing to not be a waste of time, when really the best thing about writing, is that it always will be.