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Social Publishing

Paul B. Hartzog's picture grew from this article that I wrote for the Corante Many-to-Many blog:

Social Publishing

I am always looking for connections and lately I have begun to see what I think is a promising trend in the publishing world that may just transform the industry for good.

First off, in his article “Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet” (in the July 2006 issue of Locus), Cory Doctorow writes:

Science fiction is the only literature people care enough about to steal on the Internet. It’s the only literature that regularly shows up, scanned and run through optical character recognition software and lovingly hand-edited on darknet newsgroups, Russian websites, IRC channels and elsewhere….

Some writers are using the Internet’s affinity for SF to great effect. I’ve released every one of my novels under Creative Commons licenses that encourage fans to share them freely and widely — even, in some cases, to remix them and to make new editions of them for use in the developing world. My first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is in its sixth printing from Tor, and has been downloaded more than 650,000 times from my website, and an untold number of times from others’ websites….

I’ve discovered what many authors have also discovered: releasing electronic texts of books drives sales of the print editions. An SF writer’s biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy. Of all the people who chose not to spend their discretionary time and cash on our works today, the great bulk of them did so because they didn’t know they existed, not because someone handed them a free e-book version.

And then I ran across “Something for Future Hugo Finalists to Consider” on John Scalzi’s “whatever” blog:

I’m looking at the vote tallies for the Best Novel Hugo, and it turns out that Old Man’s War placed third on the final tally. Second place was Charlie Stross’ Accelerando, and first, of course, was Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin.

Question: Is it coincidence that the novels that took win, place and show for the Hugo vote were also the books made freely available in electronic editions to LACon IV members (and in the case of Accelerando, to humanity at large)?

In the subsequent discussion, one comment, by Therese Norén, made the point that “a book that you’ve read is a book you can vote for.” She also points out that Robert Charles Wilson’s book “Spin” was blogged by Patrick Nielsen Hayden who encouraged people to read it and nominate if for the Hugo award, which it subsequently won.

On commentator however says that “The side benefit of course is that you will sell more books to the non-hugo-voting public who see the ‘Hugo Award Winner’ stamp on the next printing.” This claim, while possibly true, strikes me as similar to the claim that open-source software developers only contribute to collaborative production because they hope it will turn into actual monetary income someday. These types of claims, namely that self-elected sharing systems only persist as parasites on monetized systems, are all too frequent, and sadly myopic. Now, certainly publishers could tally community responses to electronic works and use that as a basis to decide what to publish on paper, but again, that style of thinking privileges the old-fashioned print world and fails to recognize the potential for electronic publishing to completely divorce itself from the older paradigm.

Besides, these are not DRM versions of these authors’ works. There is little attempt made to coerce or even cajole readers into purchasing the print copies. For example, Charles Stross, author of Accelerando, says on his website:

(We hope that if you enjoy the ebook you’ll consider buying a copy of one of the paper editions, but this is the only reminder you’ll get. I’m not into shareware with nag screens …)

What I am suggesting is happening is the reversal of traditional publishing, i.e. the transformation of the system in which authors create and distribute their work. In the old system, it is assumed that the publishing process acts as a quality control filter (see “The Myth of Quality Control”), but it ends up merely being a profit-capturing filter. The intially assumed axiom “good books sell” is transformed into the axiomatic “books that sell are good” and that resultant tautology rids the system of having to use any other criteria to assess whether or not the books are “good.” (“Good” of course begs the question “Good for what? Good for whom?”)

Conversely, in the new system, the works are made available, and it is up to the community-at-large to pass judgement on their quality. In the emerging system, authors create and distribute their work, and readers, individually and collectively, including fans as well as editors and peers, review, comment, rank, and tag, everything. This is already happening at sites like LibraryThing and BooksWeLike.

In his 1998 book Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, James O’Donnell predicted:

Peer review and stamp of approval will come after the fact of distribution and will exist as a way of helping identify high-quality work and work of interest to specific audiences.

Moreover, in this light, the very definition of “publishing” is at stake as the word comes to mean the simultaneous distribution of content both offline and online. Consequently, the purpose of authorship is no longer one-way broadcast, but instead shifts towards two-way interaction. So it should come as no surprise that each chapter of Robert Frenay’s newly published book Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things is being blogged via WWW (and RSS) to solicit reader involvement.

The rise of the great publishing houses of the twentieth-century provokes one to wonder if we are on the cusp of a new kind of publishing and with it a new kind of publishing company, namely, one that fosters community and matches writers to readers (many of whom are both anyway).

To return to Cory Doctorow’s Locus article:

The future is conversational…. The least substitutable good in the Internet era is the personal relationship.


In an interview with Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation we find:

MB: Exactly. Nobody but the individual concerned knows better the precise nature of the skills he can contribute; and his peers then validate his contribution. As such, it turns the old model on its head. There is no a priori selection, only ‘after the fact’. It is the model you see in citizen journalism and in projects like Wikipedia for example: Not select, then publish; but publish, then select.

That last line has a nice ring to it.


Teramis's picture

Thanks for fueling my epiphanies

I know this is an older post, but I just read it today and it is absolutely brilliant. Also in line with my own thinking on the subject, and reinforces a direction I've been moving in with my own work. Thanks for the mental grist that has helped fuel my own process. I just blogged about the epiphany I had in this regard, and plugged your post and this notion in it. You can see that in my blog here.

thanks, Paul!

Deborah Teramis Christian

I've been thinking along

I've been thinking along similar lines myself for a while. Orion's Arm caught my eye a few years ago, as an interesting experiment in collaborative world design (I'll give a link on my blog.) It's nice to see a forum starting up for this kind of thing.

Honestly, the biggest difficulty in getting myself to keep at the writing thing is the whole 'toiling in obscurity' issue. So yeah, I've gotta say I've got pretty high hopes for Oort Cloud, as a motivational driver if nothing else.

paulbhartzog's picture

Toil Not in Obscurity!

Toil in obscurity? Perish the thought. This is the information age.

Now you can toil secure in the knowledge that millions of others toil with you!

Thanks for playing :-)

Great Work!

This is very exciting for me as I have been finding my way toward writing my story in a science fiction or fantasy form over the past 2 years. And then, over the past week I've been introduced to the ideas of Mark Pesce, then up pops BoingBoing with this link to you and the concept of Social Publishing -- BRILLIANT, EFFING BRILLIANT! Congratulations!

I've been waiting for five weeks.

What is your idea? Let's see some story!

every wall collapses, given enough time.

Victory is inevitable.

Victory is inevitable.