Archive for December 4th, 2008

A Movable Feast

I wrote this on my personal blog, Unabashed, and thought it might work over here.

I had a revelation yesterday that I wrote briefly about, but now I’m going to elaborate a bit more on it. It’s one of those things that creeps up on you, that you don’t realize it’s there until it’s bitten you on the throat and sucked out all your blood (but in a good way). Over the course of the past ten years, something revolutionary has happened in the publishing industry. Ten years ago, it was impossible to self-publish a book without a wad of cash. But today, CreateSpace has freed us from the bonds of the ruthless publishing houses. But the history of the revelation goes back farther than that.

600 years ago the publishing industry was born. Before that, a fellow had to hand write every book, dipping his quill into ink day by laborious day until maybe only a year had passed between start and finish. But along came Johannes Gutenberg and his wondrous movable press. Wham! The books started flying to the tune of a hundred per day rather than one per year. Time Magazine named Gutenberg’s printing press the most important invention of the second millennium. Little wonder, that: culture and knowledge suddenly became mobile. Some say the movable press was responsible for the European Renaissance, and you can hardly doubt them.

But then 600 years happened and an estimated five trillion books have been printed in that time (okay, that’s a made up number. I really have no idea how many books have been printed in those 600 years, only that it’s A LOT). The publishing industry, or at least what eventually developed into the publishing industry, adapted a model for shucking out books that, let’s face it, hasn’t changed very much since. Until now. Right this moment. Suddenly, everything is different.

No big surprise that the culprit is what will probably eventually be remembered as the most important invention of the second millennium: The Internet. The movable press just became a movable feast, because POD publishing just reinvented the wheel.

Consider this: When I first began writing seriously, it was 1996–twelve years ago–and I wrote out a book that took me a couple of years. It was a children’s book, and it wasn’t very good at all. It read like a first-time writer’s novel. Before that book, everything I had ever written I’d written on notebooks with yellow covers. I wrote longhand. I wrote most of a book that way, over the course of seven years and six notebooks, between 1989 and 1996. But writing longhand is no picnic. So, the reason for my massive transformation, from hobbyist to what I considered to be a “serious writer,” was the purchase of my first personal computer. It came with a word processor built in, and suddenly I was writing as fast as I was thinking the words. By 1998 I had a book in hand and no idea how to publish it. I went to the library, as every published writer will tell an acolyte, and I hand copied a dozen entries in the Writer’s Market that looked like they might fit what I’d written, and over the course of a year collected a dozen form rejections. So I began to look into print on demand. But at the time–ten years ago–POD was an expensive endeavor. You had to shell out five hundred bucks just to get the process started, but then you had to buy a minimum number of books–like a hundred–before the printing would happen. So, POD was out. What was I to do? I just went back to writing and figured the publishing thing would take care of itself.

It didn’t. Next thing I know it’s 2002, I’ve got another book I’ve written on a new computer, and a dozen short stories and I hadn’t sent out a submission since those first twelve. So I decided that’s what I’d do. I bought my own copy of the Writer’s Market, subscribed to their online service and began circulating my twelve shorts, figuring if I got them published that would give me an in to have my novel published. Two years later I collected my first acceptance, and since then, three more, and earned twelve bucks for my efforts. Hm.

But I’m a little like the publishing industry myself. I get focused in on a routine and, like a wheel stuck in a rut, I just follow that line until it evens out. Because I haven’t really considered POD since that first experience in ’98. Little did I know that the publishing industry has changed, and in a significant way. Suddenly, my book can be published for free, by the biggest bookseller in the world. Significant? Oh, yeah.

When I finally was able to sit back and consider the ramifications of what this meant for the publishing industry at large, my mind was boggled. This POD model could very well do for writers what the Internet did for sharing information.

And that brings us to today. Ramifications considered, what will this mean for me, personally? I won’t be able to compete with the big publishing houses, but why would I want to? I would have been perfectly content, ten years ago, to have a handful of copies of my book to share out among friends and family. That was impossible then. If one of those friends really liked it and gave it to someone else–yes, I know it’s piracy, and unfortunately for the powers that be I happen to be a piracy advocate. I want people to give my books away–then there’s always the chance that you can catch lightning in a bottle. The best marketing, as they say, is still word of mouth. And if you adhere to the 1000 True Fans model, legitimacy isn’t selling a million books. It’s only in satisfying a small crowd of dedicated readers.

Right now, that’s enough for me.


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