Startling innovations in democratic publishing.

crocA few months ago in the post, Kindle: The New Slush Pile, I talked about how publishers were offering old school deals to authors who had achieved significant sales on their own with the e-books format. Now, rather than wading through old manuscripts or polishing promising talent, a patient editor simply lays motionless & partially submerged on the riverbank, waiting for a juicy,                                                                            trending e-book to come waddling past.

More as an experiment than anything else, I decided to upload one of my own stories to Amazon, without a platform, just to see how it all worked and what would happen. Privately I was willing to accept the possibility that based solely on word-of-mouth and an enticing blurb, my story would generate staggering sales on the Kindle, gain the attention of a huge croc and spark a six figure, three book deal. But it had to be really good.

There are a handful of  short stories that in the imagination, seem to tower over all others. Somerset Maugham’s Rain, comes to mind, Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited, The Rocking-Horse Winner, A Clean Well Lighted Place, A Half-Skinned Steer. Stories that hack into your brain like a heavy blade, leaving an indelible scar of certainty about one thing or another; terrible truths usually. Profound stories that unspool perfectly, like unbroken lines of calligraphy; idea, style and execution blended flawlessly, like Hanzo Steel. 


Bit of a tall order for me then. But I dug around in the deeper recesses of my hard drive and in-between a complaint letter to Nynex and a text file on how to use the Command Prompt, I found a decent candidate. A story that if you smacked it hard enough it might ring or at least produce a pleasant clang. So I polished it up and copy edited it to the best of my ability; which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.. and logged on to Amazon.

Its pretty easy I have to say. You fill in a form, upload your work without format or page numbers, pick a price point, (just 99c) write the blurb, choose a cover and Bob’s Your Uncle. It’s fun actually and hell I’d even say a bit exciting. I hit upload & sent my baby out into the world. Well the margins were all screwed up and the text was in two different colors, my fault not theirs, but it worked. I then immediately Tweeted to all 15 of my followers and pasted a share on #fb. What happened? Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. Zip, goose egg. Phrases like ‘still born’, ‘lead balloon’ and ‘D.O.A.’ came to mind in the weeks that followed. No one bought it. Well that’s not true, my mum bought one and she said that Mrs. Simmons from number 32 said that her son Dave, who has a good job now doing something with milk said that he’s going to get her a Kindle for Christmas and then she’d definitely get one as well, so that’s two. So only a few thousand to go before I can attract a publisher’s attention. ‘Well, hardly any of my friends have Kindles.’ I told myself but that didn’t explain the total lack of interest by the millions who do. How could a story like mine; spelled correctly, fairly interesting, with that unmistakable clunk of truth, fall through the cracks entirely? In the end I had to accept the conventional wisdom that even if your story is pretty decent, without a platform it’s not going to sell. For every Fifty Shades of Gray, there are fifty thousand shades of well, invisible.

A while later I found myself at the Wix Lounge watching a panel discussion, hosted by Pubslush, on how un-established authors should develop their on-line presence, garner fans and present an appealing on-line persona – build a platform. There were reps present from Goodreads, Tumblr and Penguin, as well as successful e-book authors. The tone was light and upbeat, the panelists were on topic & their comments were pithy. They interacted well with the audience and bantered gamely with each other. Projected on the wall behind us, was Twitter feed highlighting the main points taking place in front of us. Cool. The talk was enjoyable & informative. The was advice excellent. The only problem really, was the audience.

Sure there were a few Young Turks sitting in back, balancing their Air Books on torn denim knees with one eye on the Twitter feed, but up front it was mostly the harder of hearing demographic with their Biro’s and spiral bound note books. “What did she say? She Feets during lunch?” The panel remained patient and kind, like a group of hip volunteers at the community center showing retirees how to email their grand kids. Not that bad of course. This crowd had grasped email and knew how to find the Huffington Post but when this cutting edge panel of funsters got into the specifics of how best to blend your use of FB, Twitter & Tumblr, their expressions started to look a bit vague. They stopped scribbling all together and started talking amongst themselves when the panel took a question, from the back, on whether it was OK to say “Fuck” on your Blog. (Ans: Fuck Yeah!).

It’s hard enough for me to get my head around the mechanics of building a platform. I can’t imagine what its like for the American Graffiti generation. I used to think that writing required 300 hours in front of a typewriter, some schmoozing and an exemplary query letter, but now I see it’s Hipstermatic photos of photos on my fridge at sunset, an endless stream of thought provoking musings and frantic after hours encouragement to an @person I’ve never actually met. But its ok, I’m willing to do what’s necessary from now on. I get the whole mutual back scratching thing, I do and I’m sure I can develop ‘relationships’ without eye contact or body language. Seems a little ‘autistic’ but if that’s what it takes to get published. Right?

So, for those who dream of finally seeing their words for sale the good news is that your writing no longer has to be superb enough to get past some fussy old editor. The bad news; its pretty much ‘do it yourself’ in terms of the marketing. No one’s going to build that platform for you! And if you want the prestige of a print deal, you better get selling. Now this is where Pubslush comes in.

When the discussion wound down the hosts finally gave their pitch, it was a good one. This is how it works. I think. You write a book, you go to Pubslush and you upload a blurb about it, an excerpt and maybe a video pitch to boot. Then visitors to browse the prospective titles. If they think that your story is something they might like to read, they pledge to buy it if, it ever gets published. When a thousand people have pledged to buy it. Pubslush publishes it. Simple. Brilliant. Let the people decide. A prepaid, guaranteed audience. This could really help with building your platform. You can direct your contacts to the site and get exposure to Joe Public as well. I know you can reach a thousand pledges! Your work is that good! But, you only have 103 days to do it. After that it’s goodnight Saigon & let someone else take a shot.

tron-fat-guyWhat a great option for unpublished authors. Personally I’d be uneasy, because there seems to be little or no filtering. It appears that they’ll take anything the public can produce, throw it up there and see if it sticks. These books may get scanned for obscenity or hate mongering but there seems to be zero quality control, which sucks for the genuinely talented writers on the site who deserve to be read. But it is truly democratic though, which is cool, I guess. But two minutes on the site and already you’re dodging floaters. Actually if you’re anything like me; the kind mean spirited jerk that likes to watch epic fail videos on YouTube late at night and if you’re kind of literary snob as well. You’ll really get a kick out of the earnest bad writing on display here. If prose that is clichéd, hackneyed, unintentionally funny and grammatically incorrect, gives you the giggles, def check out it, yeah? My guess is that sooner rather than later, a much bigger company will buy this great idea and the new owners will start vetting submissions. So give it a try now Tron tribute writers and may the odds be ever in your favor!

About dorian thornley

bookseller, dad, manhattan
This entry was posted in books, e readers, kindle, Paradigm Shift, Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Startling innovations in democratic publishing.

  1. Dan Levin says:

    Hi Dorian,

    As the first to comment on this post, I hope I receive some attention. I’m in the publishing business, but before you get excited I should mention that it’s software publishing and we’re small to boot. But I’m also a writer on the side, and a good one. One of those without an audience or contract that won’t have an audience unless I build one.

    But this reply isn’t about me. It’s a model about democratic publishing (of fiction) that isn’t out there but the business guy in me thinks could for the author guys and gals like me.

    1) Authors pay a reasonable amount, say $300, to submit their publication ready work to a “jury” of 12 regular volunteer readers who anonymously rate the work on several factors and receive slave-wages equivalents to do this. If a work sucks, they can read 10 or 20 pages and just return it to the slush pile.
    2) The best of the submissions are awarded a medallion and are offered a publishing deal which costs the author nothing, and their work is featured by the publisher (say my firm) along with the other medallion winners, which would only be about 5-10% of submissions.
    3) The organization which manages the evaluators is COMPLETELY SEPARATE from the publisher, who only cares about the best and receives NONE of the money the author paid to have their work judged.

    Would you consider those works “self-published”? Isn’t this a democratic and viable way for authors, a publisher and the public to know that the works are worth their time and a little bit of money? You can reply to my email if you wish.

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