Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Mandarine/Emily Interview Continued

And now it's my turn to answer Mandarine's questions. (He asked me some real thought-provoking ones, so I think what I am going to do is to devote one blog post to each question.)

Mandarine asks Emily:

You have worked in the publishing industry as an editor, you are a bulimic reader, and you are an accomplished (albeit unpublished) writer. In addition, you write that contrary to many in your profession, you do not see the internet as a threat but as a big (maybe immature) opportunity. People often complain about the poor quality of self-published literary works on the internet, and I was wondering whether there could be some sort of open-source, collaborative, web 2.0-like business model in which authors would write what they have to write, and also edit peers' work, even submit manuscripts to a few chosen readers for extra advice and scrutiny, then release the book online for free. Up to this point, it would be entirely volunteer work. It would already be a great improvement over what we have now, namely either an author finds a publisher, or he has to be completely alone and not know whether the book is any good. Personally, I am convinced this would suit a majority of authors, who do not write for fame or money, they just want their work out there and not run the mad race of finding a publisher while still having a day job (and working on the next novel at night). The kinds of books that would be created in this system would surely be lightyears away from what the publishing industry dares to go into, while attaining the same quality level in terms of writing and editing effort.

Now onto the business model. If it relied on a non-commercial Creative Commons licencing scheme, this would ensure that commercial applications would have to seek permission and contribute a share of the proceeds. The first option could be pay-per-print, as people might not like to read from a screen or an electronic e-book: ordering a paper copy would cost them much less than printing the book on their personal printer. The second option would be to let publishers (or filmmakers) pick works that they would want to publish on a broader scale (while taking on the risks). We would know from reader comments and download statistics which books might be revolutionary or popular (or both), and professional editors could find it interesting to have access to a wealth of manuscripts which would have a distinctive personality, but at the same time have been thoroughly trimmed and groomed already.

The question is: what do you think? Does this make sense at all? Have you envisaged contributing to this sort of project?

I think it makes terrific sense. My biggest problem with self-published work is the lack of editorial help for authors. I know there are authors out there who like to think they have written masterpieces that need no editorial guidance, but it just isn't so. A good author/editor relationship is a symbiotic one, and authors and editors should admit that they need each other. I learned while being an editor that even those authors I think can write circles around me still need someone with a red pencil (or red type, as the case is today) to correct typos, query what the editor thinks others may not understand, and suggest material that could be reorganized and/or cut. When I put on my "writer cap," I know I need an editor, and I wish very much that I had an editor for this blog, so that I could just do the job of writing and know that someone else is out there to pick up the crumbs and help make it sing. Your model would allow for that.

I've thought for some time that publishers aren't taking enough advantage of bloggers. Imagine not having to do so much guess work about which authors will or won't sell. It seems, right now (I'm an outsider looking in when it comes to trade publishing, so I may not know what I'm talking about here), most companies are only looking for bloggers with some sort of clever niche or interesting story instead of bloggers who can write and have a popular following. And they seem to be using blogs more as advertising and marketing tools instead of as acquisition tools. If I ever worked for a trade publisher, I'd be mining the Internet like crazy and offering to link up with successful bloggers (so many have sitemeters on their blogs with public access that it's easy to see who's getting lots of hits, and it's also very easy to see who's getting numerous comments). I'd be reading as many book bloggers as I could to find out what those who actually buy books are reading and enjoying. I'd be thinking about bringing back into print books that seem to be gaining a "cult" following. For instance, many of us in the book blogosphere not only review out of print books, but we seem to read publications like Slightly Foxed and even comment on the fact that we wish a lot of those books weren't out of print. And I'd be paying attention to reviews of books that have been self-published.

All this is why I say it's actually a very exciting time for the publishing industry. We have people out there freely telling us what they want to read; we don't have to pay for focus groups for that material. We have ready writing samples. We have information about which out-of-print books could be brought back and given new life (which is a very cost-effective form of publishing). We are getting reviews of books written by people who are not being paid to provide them, and they don't have to be "wined and dined" the way major review sources do.

I most definitely would participate in a model such as yours, both as a writer and as an editor. My hope is that the huge publishing giants are all going to collapse and break up and that smaller companies are going to be the ones to pave the way for this sort of innovative publishing, offering customers whatever format they want: books, digital, and audio. And my hope is that this kind of diversity of publishing and access to what the reading public is thinking, will allow companies to quit focusing on finding the "next Harry Potter," and instead focus on its real audience: those of us who are "bulimic" readers, providing us with as much good material as they can, while occasionally marveling when they hit upon a "Harry Potter."

Unfortunately, though, publishing is proving itself to be an extraordinarily conservative industry. From what I can tell, not many are taking advantage of the Internet in the ways they should, and they seem still to be following the old model for their acquisitions: reliance on author submissions and agents finding authors for them. Some do seem to have these token sites where authors can submit material, and people can vote on it for publication, but my question there is: why? I don't know many readers who visit publishers' web sites on a regular basis, so you've got a tiny audience there. My guess is that those who are voting are mostly those who have submitted their own material. Why run such a segment of a web site, when editors could just be browsing blogs and would already know that there are many of us out here dying to read books by Bloglily, Charlotte, and Courtney, all of whom we know have been busy working on novels?

One smart thing publishers are doing is sending galleys to bloggers for review. However, they ought to pay bloggers to do this. I am sure that would still be far cheaper than most forms of advertising (and also cheaper than "wining and dining" the major review sources). I think it's only fair to the bloggers, because, yes, we do get free copies of the book (well, in galley form) for doing so, but we are also reading books we might not ordinarily choose to read. Academic publishers pay for peer review, and I'd like to be paid $200 or so for reading and writing about a book I did not choose to read.

I have all kinds of other ideas, too (e.g. a return to old-fashioned serialization, like the way Dickens was originally published, via electronic publishing, "the best of bloggers" sites, which take the best of bloggers of certain genres and invite them to post on a specific collected site and then publish collections based on that, etc.). I think I need to start my own publishing company, no? I would love to have a Web 2.0 site like the one you describe from which to work. In fact, a smart startup company might just start that way and then begin to figure out the logistics of paying authors/editors (I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that authors and editors really ought to get paid for their work) and ways to make money.

Anyone want to send me some money to get Emily Publishing off the ground?

Question #2 of 3 will be answered in a later post.


Susan said...

Wow. Great answers, Emily, to really thoughtful questions about books and publishing, writers and readers. Having just finished reading The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, where Buzbee talks about the internet, and bloggers, and kindle, this makes a good tally to compare to your ideas. I think I like yours very much. I love the idea of encouraging publishers to put out of print books back into print. i also think that watching blogsites to see what people are reading, and what they are looking for, would help agents with their slushpiles of queries and manuscripts.

I also think Mandarine has a very excellent point about publishing a book for free on the internet, and then waiting for a publisher to come along to buy it. That is an interesting ideas. He's right you know - what most of us who write want, is for others to read our work. A little money would be nice! but if I knew say 50 people had read my ghost story or fantasy novel and really enjoyed it, then maybe what could be needed is a publisher who specializes in publishing the works that online have done very well, in order to print the work out in a permanent book form. you know, how there are different editions of books available. That could work too.

Danny said...

If I had any money I'd invest every cent in Emily Publishing, you seem to have your finger on the pulse of the future of that industry. Any mainstream publisher would be insane not to snap you up as a highly paid consultant/Editorial Director/Visionary.

I also agree with Susan's comment about writers wanting to be read and, thinking of the comments about blogging a couple of posts ago, will add that I have had people from all over the world contact me about my writing through my blog which is certainly as rewarding as being published in some old school literary journal that is read by a very limited crowd.

litlove said...

If I finished a book and couldn't find a publisher, I would certainly publish it online. I feel that the audience I get on my blog is probably the most satisfying audience I'll ever have. And I would love to see you atop an internet publishing empire, Emily. Have you ever looked at Authonomy on the web - the Harper Collins slushpile site for unpublished authors? Stick the name into google and have a look at that, if not. It's different to what you are talking about, and often misguided, I think, but it shows you what some people have done.

Stefanie said...

I have very much enjoyed your and Mandarine's interviews. both of you have given me some food for thought.

As for Emily Publishing, it sounds like a great idea. Have you thought of putting together a sort of business plan and then soliciting micro loans/investments? I'm sure I could shake out the sofa cushions and find a dollar or two. And I might even be able to donate some web design help. I have advanced beyond the stark balck and white of hello world :)

Emily Barton said...

Susan, yes, Mandarine is right. Most of us who write are looking first and foremost for an audience who wants to read us. It's an interesting experiment to see what happens if authors take control by offering free material first and then asking for payment, which is what the blogosphere allows us to do. I'm pretty sure that at this point, those of you who enjoy reading my blog would be willing to pay to read other material I write, just as I would be willing to pay for material written by those bloggers I enjoy reading. I'll have to check out what Buzbee had to say.

Danny, too bad you don't have any money, although with those twins on the way, there's no way I'd let you invest it all in Emily Publishing. And, yes, it is extremely rewarding to have people from all over the world reading and commenting on my blog, and to have that kind of interaction with my readers, something that authors have never before really had.

Litlove, I checked out Authonomy ages ago, but I haven't been back in a while. I probably ought to check it out again.

Stef, I'm thinking about it a lot and have lots of ideas, plus so many great connections. I will definitely keep you in mind if it becomes anything more than a pipe dream.

Dorothy W. said...

It sounds like there are a lot of great ideas percolating here -- it's exciting to see! You are in a great position to do something like what Mandarine suggests if you are inspired to try -- with your experience and connections and interests. Very exciting!