Tangled Web: The World of Online Publishing

This past April, I spent a weekend at Ad Astra, where I met a number of Canadian authors and a publisher or two. I spent a lot of time around the SF Canada table, where I met the affable Ira Nayman who gestured towards the various vendor tables and noted that there were so many interesting books by talented Canadian writers, and yet few Canadians seemed to notice them. Now, I love good speculative fiction (I certainly picked up enough at the convention!), but I had not heard of many of the authors represented at Ad Astra. Those I was familiar with, I knew about through the fiction authors and editors I already know.

That got me thinking about why Canadian authors seem to have such low profiles. Granted, it’s tough to make a living in the arts anywhere, but there’s no reason why that should be. So why do so many brilliant writers of fiction and non-fiction alike struggle to pull themselves out of the shadows? Is this just a general artistic malaise or is there something peculiarly Canadian going on — or going wrong — here?

These are big questions, and to begin the crawl towards some kind of answer, I decided to get Ira’s thoughts on the issue.

Background

Currently, Ira writes humorous science fiction novels and frequently vents his pent-up hilarity on his website Les Pages Aux Folles, but beneath the funnyman exterior lies a seriously smart cookie with a PhD in communications. As it turns out, he knows a whole heck of a lot about the modern publishing world and the effects of the digital revolution. His path wasn’t entirely a straightforward one.

As a kid, Ira liked to write amusing stories, which he would scrawl on the backs of his accountant father’s papers — one story per legal-sized page. In high school, he delighted his teachers with hilarious and unique assignments. But as the eldest son of his family, he felt compelled to achieve something, so he trundled off into the academic world and discovered that he really enjoyed the intellectual atmosphere.

While attending an academic conference in New York, he met Dr. Paul Levinson, a communications and media studies professor and science fiction author. Levinson saw the bloom in internet usage as a boon to education and began developing an online program. He agreed to be Ira’s MA supervisor, and Ira received his degree in 1996 after completing his program online (of course). His thesis focused on interactive media and the ways this changed the experience of the reader/user/player, who is no longer a passive observer of a story, but who can now exercise a degree of agency, thereby affecting the outcome of the story.

In 2000, Ira received his PhD in communications from McGill University. His doctoral research centred on the changes in the publishing industry specifically — who was publishing how, and why they were doing it.

Big Changes

Traditional publishing is a slow process with heavy layers of editorial processing and various artistic and financial concerns. First, a manuscript has to survive the scrutiny of an acquisitions editor, and then the author may have to wrangle with the publisher over the contract — whether the author will receive an advance and what percentage of royalties they will earn, who holds the rights to the finished product, etc.

Once the contract has been signed, the manuscript will likely be assigned first to a substantive editor, who will look for major structural problems and suggest changes to the organization of the content, or even provide a full overhaul if necessary. The author then has the chance to review these amendments, accept or reject them, and make further changes. Once the back-and-forth with the substantive editor is done, the copy editor will clean up sentence structures, make sure that the wording is appropriate and the author’s meaning is clear, and check that spelling and grammar are correct and consistent.

After the author approves those changes, the proofreader checks the galleys for typos and other small errors, as well as formatting issues that will distract or confuse the reader. That done, the book is sent to the printer, who creates the plates and returns a set of proofs for the publisher to review. If there are further changes to be made, the printer is sent the corrections pages and then begins the costly process of making new plates. The publisher will likely have a chance to approve the final corrections before the first print run begins. In the meantime, of course, the marketing team has been busy preparing the world for this wonderful new book, and an artist has produced the smashing cover that will capture the attention of browsing eyes.

Did you get tired reading that? Well then, you should know that this process takes months at the best of times, so imagine how exhausting and frustrating it is for an author to endure this emotional marathon. And that’s only if their book is selected for publication. An author may spend years slinging their manuscript around, hoping beyond hope that someone will recognize its worth.

Enter the personal computer and the rise of the World Wide Web.

A new method of communicating and publishing meant that new publications (such as ezines) proliferated, and writers discovered early on that they could publish their own work online. Perhaps some authors turned to the web because publishers would not accept their manuscripts, but the evidence contradicts the general assumption that writers release their creations on the web because they just can’t publish any other way. Indeed, a number of the writers Ira interviewed had published in small literary magazines; others, such as Daniel Curzon, had long since established successful writing careers (see “Who Publishes on the Web” in Chapter 2 of Ira’s dissertation).

Publishing online may not be terribly lucrative, but it certainly cuts out the middleman. Not only can authors publish what and when they choose, but now they can get rapid feedback from readers. Instead of waiting for a publisher to forward mail, authors may receive nearly instant responses online. Unfortunately, they can’t always be sure that readers have given their work more than a cursory glance, and there are no real barriers to those who send destructively negative feedback or spam (see “Evolving Relationships: 1) Authors and Readers” in Chapter 2 of Ira’s dissertation).

Reaching an audience of potential buyers isn’t always the intention, however. In a significant number of cases, writers put their work on the web to share it with other writers so they can receive feedback from their peers and provide feedback to others. It didn’t matter whether you had worked with a big publisher or had never received so much as a penny for your thoughts — if you put your stuff online, other writers acknowledged it. The web created a perpetual writer’s workshop (see “A Community of Writers on the Web” in Chapter 2 of Ira’s dissertation).

Continual Evolution

Mind you, Ira’s dissertation reflects the reality of the 1990s, before self-publishing grew to behemoth proportions. Those who are simply looking for feedback from peers can still join online groups and share their work through those forums. But now, authors who believe they are ready to introduce their literary children to the world no longer have to wait for lumbering publishing houses to wade through “slush piles” and either offer contracts or send form rejection letters with the appropriate name inserted.

The rapid inflation of the self-publishing industry has been fed in part by the internet itself, which allows users to easily locate and contact editors, designers, and print-on-demand companies, and provides a venue for promoting one’s own material. It’s relatively easy (compared to traditional publishing, at least), and many writers continue to take this route. This means that some truly excellent work can reach the public despite what any overburdened or short-sighted editor may have to say about it. However, some might argue that self-publishing is a little too easy, that it lacks sufficient quality control mechanisms to prevent bookstores from being overrun by petty drivel, thereby putting greater pressure on readers to avoid funding literary flotsam.

Whatever you may think of self-publishing and the authors who do it, it has certainly driven major changes in traditional publishing and upped the ante for everyone in the industry. This fall, I will be taking a look at some of the changes that have occurred over the last decade or so and how they have affected authors, publishers, and everyone in between.

About quillsandqueries

My editing experience includes a wide variety of books, articles, and commentary in both fiction and non-fiction. I work with authors of novels and short stories, students preparing for their dissertations, and corporate clients who publish in the financial and education sectors.
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