21st Century Publishing

A few weeks I went to a conference on 21st century publishing held at Emerson College and sponsored by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. When I received the announcement I was impressed and excited, the subject was Business Models for 21st Century Publishing and this is something, with the launch of my new press, I’d been giving a lot of thought to.

The day itself started ominously enough when the managing editor of Ploughshares asked if there was a hashtag for the event and was met with silence. Well, she said, is anyone tweeting? Silence. So I pulled out my phone and started tweeting it at #21cPub (and there were some great tweets, so check it out). Not, though, the most promising start.

The single-day conference was primarily designed for institutionally-supported non-profit print journals who are struggling, and many of them are, to transition to a socially-networked online publishing world. And for those few of us who were there representing truly independent journals, it was perhaps a little more-of-the-same. Perhaps some there truly didn’t already know that social media was important for publicity, or that traditional some-free-online models aren’t really generating traffic and revenue for online extensions of print publications. But once we got all that out of the way, there were some interesting things that came up.

Primarily, for me, in the last part of the day which was left open for audience comments and conversation. Electric Literature’s Andy Hunter left at lunch, clearly more interested in pitching his journal than engaging in a community of indie publishers, but most of the other invited speakers stayed and engaged with the small gathering of publishers who were there. And many of us have already given lots and lots of thought to what new media publishing can and should look like.

The two most interesting points that were made, for me, were about net neutrality and the ecosystem of independent literary publishing. An audience member, whose name I didn’t catch, brought up net neutrality as something that indie publishers should be paying attention to, and was almost summarily dismissed by the folks nominally in charge of the open forum, who clearly didn’t understand the real concern. He tried to explain his point, talking about how ISPs may be allowed to restrict access to websites. He was shut down again by someone (from Agni? from an established print journal, in any case) who said (I paraphrase) “Our readers won’t mind clicking through a few extra pages of search results to find us…” and the conversation was essentially shut down.

And that’s absurd. If we’re talking about monetizing independent online publishing ventures, then net neutrality has to be of primary concern. The great boon of the digital revolution for publishing, and especially for independent publishing, has been the essentially leveled playing field. Net neutrality is the basis for that leveled playing field, where the quality of the content and not the resources of the publisher gives it an edge. So if there are gatekeepers who determine access to the content, then we’re back in corporate-controlled publishing without even a chance. And that’s just one of the issues wrapped up in net neutrality. A good 101 on net neutrality is here, at savetheinternet.com and every independent publisher out there should not only care but be active in the fight to preserve a fair, free and open internet.

The second very interesting comment came from Rebecca Morgan Frank of Memorious whose reflection on the historic status of online versus print publication seemed to ruffle a few feathers. Earlier in the day, a speaker had mentioned that author’s perception about being published online or in print had radically shifted over the past few years. More authors wanted and even preferred online publication, because it got them more readers, more attention, than traditional and limited print publications. The stigma of being on online journal was dissipating, she said. Rebecca picked up on this, wondering if that fact was represented in the conversation that had been happening, mostly surrounding turning a profit (because even most non-profits try to…). She talked about her own, all-volunteer model, and met with some surprising disbelief from other journal editors.

“So how do you afford the website?” one print-journal editor asked, as though it were impossible to conceive a literary journal without a budget.

“My web developer volunteers her time.” Rebecca responded.

This went on for a few minutes, all the while Rebecca held her own splendidly against the barrage of shock from journals with budgets. Finally, she re-framed the conversation, and this is what I found really interesting.

Rebecca described what she termed an eco-system of independent journal and book publishers. There are the for-profit kind, like Electric Literature, focused on commercially successful works of literature with relatively wide audiences. They generate revenue that goes to pay for the publication of (usually) already well-known and established authors, ones who are likely to make a return for the publisher. They cater to the established and normative tastes of the literary world. Then there are the smaller, institutionally supported independent publisher like Ploughshares and Agni, who are on a non-profit model and have an institutional budget for administration that they have to supplement by selling subscriptions and advertising, who are the ones who turn lesser-known writers into established writers. They are on a traditional model that is having trouble adapting to the 21st century digital possibilities, and are the ones who will benefit most from conversations like this. And finally there are the very small, all (or mostly) volunteer not-for-profit publishers like Memorious, and if I may be so bold, like Anomalous, whose primary goal is to ‘discover’ and promote work by new authors. We are the ones who take the biggest risks, and have the least chance of capitalizing on our authors’ work. And some, like Memorious, stay around for years, continuing to innovate and respond to the changing publishing environment precisely because they’re not bogged down in a traditional format or stymied by fear of losing financial support. And they feed new and exciting authors to the 2nd tier, who feed to the 3rd tier.

So really, it’s the high-risk, low-reward model that is most flexible for transformation and most likely to publish exciting new work.

A few other interesting things of note from the conference:

  • Weightless Books provides an independent ebook distribution option to counteract the corporate monopoly of Amazon.
  • If you have 501(c)3 status, you can apply for Google Grants which give you in-kind advertising, and seems like a pretty sweet deal.
  • The Harvard Bookstore’s print on demand machine, Paige E. Gutenborg, is amazing.
  • Matthew Battles’ two blogs, Gearfuse.com and HiLoBrow.com, are both fantastic, and allow him to pursue serial models of publishing.
  • Fetishized books-as-objects occupy a similar space to the 3rd tier indie mags, in that they are in it for the love (good news for me, since that’s where I want to move into next with Anomalous), and Bateau Press proves it.



    • Thanks! I’m not sure I’m well versed enough on the issue to do more than say “you should care about this!” But I think someone should…anyone who is outside of corporate publishing (indie publishers, self publishers) should actively protect net neutrality.

  1. aliceflynn

    I’m and illustrator, not a writer, but we illustrators have concerns also about the transition from print to digital media. Your comments about this conference are interesting.

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