Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?
About two weeks ago I interrupted my current cybersecurity thriller series to post an essay I titled Intermission: The High Cost of Free. It could as easily have been posted as part of this series, but I wanted to make a point to the readers of that series. If you’re planning on self-publishing a book and haven’t read that piece yet, I believe that it would be worth your while to do so.
That post generated some interesting responses, some appearing as public comments and others arriving by email. Two struck me as being particularly relevant to this series, because they suggest the goal posts between which the future of writing and publishing is likely to lie.
The first response was posted as a comment by Martin Coetze at the end of an exchange that you can read here, and which read as follows:
In terms of self-publishing and the PODs [Print on Demand publishers] I think that it has been turned into a bit of a gold rush at the moment. Of course the gold isn’t going to the creators but to the clever people that are "changing everything". It’s just a variation of the dotcom bubble. These PODs don’t have a sustainable business model and at some point they will implode leaving only the companies that have either planned well for the future or have a strong business model. The wannabe writers that rushed in to cash in on the gold rush but don’t have the talent will realise the party is over and rush off to the next created gold rush in another industry. Once the dust has settled we will be back to where we were before the "traditional big publishing is dead" meme was launched and then everyone will realise it was only a format change.
So what this goalpost stands for is the proposition that we aren’t in the middle of a process of “creative destruction” at all, where an old model gets replaced by a new one. Instead, what we’re suffering through is a phase of purely gratuitous destruction. When we reach the end, the self-publishing model will be recognized as an illusion, the dominance of agents and publishers will be reconfirmed (albeit with new delivery platforms, new distribution channels, and fewer services provided to authors), and life will otherwise, sort of, go on as before.
Of course, in the meantime, lots of traditional publishers will have gone through some terrible years, many hallowed publishing names will have gone out of business or been merged into multinationals, thousands of bookstores (large and small) will have disappeared, and a lot of disillusioned, self-published authors will have learned that their work is never going to be read by more than a few friends.
Frankly, I think that this rather dismal scenario is likely to be what we see play out, because as we’ve learned, the Internet didn’t really “change everything.” Paradigms, in fact, only very rarely truly shift. Instead, all that happens is that the underlying technology has changed.
To give but a single example: Amazon today reigns supreme among general on-line retailers, but what Jeff Bezos has wrought isn’t qualitatively, or even quantitatively (as a percentage of retail market share), any different than what Aaron Montgomery Ward created in 1872 when he launched his national catalogue business.
In fact, what is most visible more than a decade after the Internet bubble burst is lots of new wine in old bottles. And the people that made the most money out of the Internet bubble weren’t those that relied on imaginary paradigm shifts, but those that figured out how to simply rebottle traditional human pastimes on line, like bidding in auctions and trading in stock.
The problem for would-be self-publishers is that innovators haven’t yet come up with a new bottle for the old functions of winnowing, editing and promoting books – all that print on demand publishers have really done is mate modern technology and distribution channels with the traditional vanity publishing model. In other words, they don’t offer any credible promotional services at all.
At the same time, as I pointed out in the essay I noted above, the Internet has almost driven out of existence other infrastructural elements that are essential to the promotion of new books, whether traditional or self published. Most notably, newspaper book reviews have almost disappeared, and new, trusted reviewers haven’t emerged to take their place at heavily used destination sites on the Internet. So while the supply of self-published books grows and grows, no effective mechanisms have evolved to help the best of them become recognized, and then reach a wide audience.
The very sobering question that independent authors must ask is whether such mechanisms ever will. If they don’t, then self-publishing is dead on arrival, while the importance of agents and publishers will remain. If so, then, quality books needn’t go into an irreversible decline. Perhaps new, leaner but equally serious virtual publishers will rise from the ashes of their brick and mortar predecessors, expanding the opportunities for new authors to find publishers to support their work.
But skilled, full-service publishers are only part of what a healthy book ecosystem needs to support good authors and good books. If trusted sources of third party evaluation of new fiction and non-fiction don’t reemerge, then everyone – including the reader – will certainly be worse off than they were before the whole cycle of random destruction was unleashed upon us.
So let’s turn to the other comment that I mentioned, and that other goalpost, to see if there’s hope for authors and readers to be found if self-publishing somehow does win the game.
That comment came by way of an email from Raymond Rawa, who was kind enough to allow me to share his email, which read in part as follow:
…Yes, I was one of your faithful readers [of The Alexandria Project,] hooked on every word. I knew that you were looking to turn it into a book. I hadn’t realized that you’d done all that much to the text since you released it in serial form.
When your latest serial came out I was really excited to see what you had in store for your readers this time. I’ve been faithfully reading along just as I did for the first one….
I have no idea just how much work goes into your writings and I appreciate your desire to get a little something back. Of course I’ve seen your advertisements for your Alexandria Project book. I’ve been tempted to buy your book as a way of showing my support but I’ll admit that I haven’t done so. I really enjoyed the story but I just don’t go back and reread books again. I don’t like the idea of feeding Apple, Amazon or the other publishers for something that you did without them. I don’t really want to support that model.
Have you considered simply asking for donations? …It really seems like a direct donation would be so much simpler. You’ve already given us the most valuable part so why complicate things with indirect support through a purchase?
I really enjoy and value the work you do and I’d like to show my direct support with a donation. I support public television. I give to charities. I’ve contributed to a number of good causes. Not because I have to, but because I want to. I want to be part of something good.
There were three things that struck me about Raymond’s thoughtful email. The first was that I’d been a bad communicator when it came to promoting my book. Making money by selling books hasn’t been important to me at all, and I suspect that making money isn’t important very important for the vast majority of other would-be author (at least those with their heads screwed on). At the same time, giving the book away seems to me to demean all the work that went into it. Self-published authors shouldn’t have to give their work away to get someone to appreciate it any more than artists, bakers or shoe makers.
Book sales (or free downloads, whichever the author chooses) are simply the most available measure for an author to use to tell whether more people are reading and liking what she wrote. What writers really want is validation that their talent is real and that their substantial efforts have a purpose. Otherwise, it’s all just an act of self-indulgence, and (on the talent front) perhaps self-delusion as well.
So what I had failed to convey consistently in my earlier blog posts was that what I really needed my loyal readers to do was not buy a copy of my book, but recommend it to new readers.
The next point I realized from Raymond’s email was that some people would be happy to recognize the effort that goes into writing a book they enjoyed, if a way of doing so was offered that made sense to them. So my second revelation was that I hadn’t been providing the right opportunity for loyal readers to embrace.
The third, and by far and away the most hopeful and important part of Raymond’s email was captured in his closing words: “I want to be part of something good.”
And that’s where I think that the future of self-publishing, if there is one, can be found. Here’s how I think this could work.
Self-published authors need help in promoting their work – period. There is simply no way for an author to realistically spread the word unless they want to work on it almost full time, or pay someone else tens of thousands of dollars to do it for them. Even then, the odds of success would be terrible, and getting worse.
At the same time, people that love to read need to find out about great books. And there won’t be many great, new books to find out about if authors don’t have the time, encouragement and hope of success to hone their craft, revise their books, and pay for help they need to get their work into the marketplace in a form they can be proud of.
The answer, of course, is to bring these two, interdependent communities together in such a way that readers who enjoy the writing of specific authors can “be part of something good” by helping authors they like succeed, and thereby provide the incentives and wherewithal to those writers to keep going and learn how to write even better.
In other words, how do we enable a classic “virtuous cycle” to come into existence and persist?
By now, you’ve probably guessed where I’m going. What I’d suggest is creating a non-profit Web site with the following features and dynamics:
1. An author can post her work in serial or finished form under any of the standard genres. The model might work best for those that decide to post in serial form.
2. Readers can view any content for free, and can “follow” their authors, and suggest that their friends follow their favorite authors as well, thereby building a following for the best new authors.
3. Authors can have public and private dialogues with those that are following their work, asking questions and taking suggestions on anything and everything, from character development to research points to plot twists.
4. The social contract between authors and readers would be that those readers that are reading the author’s work for free will do something to help promote the author’s work when it is finished, since the supporters don’t need to read the book again themselves. Personal recommendations are the best tool that remains for promoting a book, and with the Internet, it’s easier than ever to make recommendations. So anyone can make a difference with a small expenditure of time and no special skills.
5. People with editing, art or technical skills might volunteer to help authors do things that authors can’t do themselves, like format original text for eBooks, design book covers, and so on. Others can write reviews of new books and, over time, acquire reputations as trusted sources of recommendations.
6. Finished books would credit not only the author, but also those that were part of the community of partners in art that had helped bring the book to its final presentation.
7. Over time, the site could put in place the tools and services that self-publishers commonly offer, such as preparation and submission of files to distributors and printers.
8. Because the site would be non-profit, it would only need to cover its own minimal expenses. So if it did begin providing POD services, it could do so for a far lower – or no – cost to the author, and especially if it made money through advertising.
9. The site could do weekly summaries of new books, announce new authors, compile “best practices” material from authors, and so on.
In principle, there’s no reason why such a site could not flourish. After all, people have been typing in thousands of books, one word at a time, at The Gutenberg Project for decades. And the bells, whistles, and additional ideas that you can tack on to what I’ve presented above are almost limitless.
Some of the features described above already exist at other sites, but to my knowledge no site is based on this concept of a community of authors and readers working on an equal basis as collaborators and partners – and that could make all the difference.
If you’ve been reading this series because you’ve written a book, are writing a book, or are thinking of writing a book, I’d be interested in hearing your comments below on what you think of this idea.
But if you’re simply reading this because you love reading and want to continue to have wonderful books to read – and would like to be part of something good – I’d really like to hear from you.
Could this work? Honestly, I don’t know whether to be hopeful or not. In the first month my book was available, I sold a grand total of 21 copies, and few of those copies were ordered by readers of my blog. Despite repeated suggestions, at most one person that read The Alexandria Project here posted a favorable comment at the book’s Amazon Page, something that takes only a few minutes to do. So what little data I have indicates that most people would rather lurk than participate.
So you tell me: what do you believe the future of publishing is going to be? And do you want to play a role in determining that outcome, or are you willing to simply live with what you get?
Here’s a little experiment to find out. I’ve just lowered the eBook version of The Alexandria Project to $2.99 again. We’re up to Chapter 13 now in this self-publishing series. Have you gotten something out of it? Are you thinking of self-publishing a book? Are you willing to pay $2.99 to support another self-published author? Then if you’re into thrillers, try giving it a read. If you like it, tell your friends that you think they’d enjoy it.
If you’re not into thrillers, then send a copy to a friend that might be, so they can tell their friends.
Here are the links to order pages again, and I’ll report back when I get the figures on how many readers responded with action:
So far, I’ve been doing all the talking, so don’t forget that the “post a comment” button is just below, and my email address is andrew dot updegrove at gesmer.com. Let’s exchange some ideas based on what you’ve read above.
Read the next chapter of Adventures in Self-Publishing here
Read the first chapter of this series here
Read Chapter 1 of The Lafayette Deception (the sequel to The Alexandria Project) here