The Pros and Cons of Digital Publishing

Gerry LaFemina

At the AWP Conference this past March, more than 10,000 people gathered for a long weekend of readings; panels; catching up with old friends, and meeting editors and publishers at the book fair, which featured table after table of traditional and a multitude of online publishers and websites dedicated to creating writing communities, fostering the literary arts, and providing toolboxes for creating and promoting the work of writers. 

 

When I co-chaired the AWP conference 10 years ago in Chicago, few book fair tables were wired. It wasn’t until late 2004 when the most notable of online writer’s resources was founded:  Web Del Sol, which remains one of the Internet’s premier online literary clearing houses with links to a variety of high-caliber journals, reviews, interviews, and writers conferences.  According to its website, “Web del Sol is a collaboration on the part of scores of dedicated editors, writers, poets, artists, and staff whose job it is to acquire and frame the finest contemporary literary art and culture available in America and abroad, and to array it in such a manner that it speaks for itself.”

 

In the ensuing decade, the role of technology in the artistic and business aspects of the writer’s life has changed dramatically. The previous two articles in this series dealt with technology and changes in publishing; this article will explore the role of technology in the work of writers.

 

One of the ongoing themes in the variety of AWP Conference panels that focused on the future of publishing this year had to do with the role of technology in the marketing of books, and how much of that marketing must be done by the writers themselves.  Time and again agents, publishers, and editors emphasized the symbiotic technological relationship between publisher and author. Synced Facebook and Twitter campaigns, the use of Goodreads as a forum to cultivate readership, book/author websites and blogs all play into promoting a book.  With roughly half a million new titles being published each year, “people are finding books differently now” because “no brick and mortar stores can carry all the books” according to AmazonEncore’s Jeff Belle.

 

 

Goodreads, Shelfari, Scribd and Library Thing among others are some of the places people are going to discover those books. Up until recently, these social networks for book lovers have provided an unfiltered place for readers to come together and share reviews, reading lists, and forum discussions.  The recent acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon.com suggests the importance of such sites to book sales and promotion–and its author toolbar feature allows authors to promote their titles to Goodreads followers.

 

Although some writers just use these networks to blast blurbs of their latest releases–often without permission and in ways that fail to follow the guidelines of discussion groups and online communities, many writers and publishers have come up with a variety of interesting and innovative ways to promote their work via social networks. To celebrate the electronic release of her most recent book, Pretend the World, poet Kathryn Kysar threw an online Labor Day book party. People from all over the world posted pictures of food, links to music videos, and “played” party.  Kysar admits, though it was more “publicity stunt than anything in response to the question ‘How do you have a launch party for an e-book?’” Still, sales spiked slightly during the weekend thanks to the heightened awareness of the publication.

 

April Lindner says her experience on a virtual book tour for her first Young Adult novel was positive and she attributes it to better book sales. “Over the course of maybe a week, [she] contributed to four different blogs, with a mix of interviews, brief essays (on a topic of the blog's choosing) -- things like that. It definitely helped with visibility.... The blog entries are staggered, and you can then link to them on Facebook, Twitter, your own Web page.” Such virtual book tours provide access to an audience without requiring outlay of travel expenses, the time away from home, and the bodily wear and tear of long book tours.

 

On the other hand, it’s harder to gauge the sales success of virtual book tours, and such cyber events may impact the peer-pressure element of buying a book at a “live” event, where the books are on display, available then and there, signed by the author, and you are one of a group of people buying the book. The success of the event is easily evaluated in terms of receipts and seats filled. Most participants in such events want copies of their books signed, as keepsakes of the experience.  They also want the evidence that they were there, part of a “happening.” Cyber events (and e-books) ignore this aspect of book promotion.

 

 

And this type of promotion isn’t going away; cyber events and conferences supplement the traditional book tour/reading/writers conference experience.  Although e-book sales continue to rise, Jeffrey Lependorf of the Council of Literary Magazines and Press pointed out at the AWP Conference that “few presses are doing purely e-books.” Julie Schaper, executive director of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution notes that only 10 perecent of Consortium books sold are digital editions and only 60 percent of Consortium Presses release digital editions. Therefore, the goal is to sell paper editions.

 

This work has always fallen on the author. Jennifer Joel, an agent at International Creative Management, notes that “the greatest challenge has always been getting a book visible.”

 

Social media, websites, and blogs all help with this visibility. One other way authors can attract attention  is in the form of virtual writing communities: online forums designed to give writers a place to find like-minded authors.  Many of these sites offer writing prompts to get work started; establish deadlines that encourage writers to actually finish pieces; and forums to post drafts of work. Finished work may get rated and ranked, highlighted on the group’s website, and in other ways “published” within the confines of the writing community.  Sites such as The Write Idea, CritiqueGroups.com, Writing.com, Writers Cafe, Critique Circle Online Workshop, Fuse, Authonomy, and Scribophile (which describes itself as “the friendliest and most successful writing workshop online”) provide opportunities for writers who may be shut out from traditional writing communities.

 

Of course, there’s no easy way to gauge if success within the online writing community equates to success outside of it. Liv Lansdale found a great deal of early success on Writers Bloq, which she described as “a useful incentivizing tool. They had a feature called ‘Staff Picks,’ where they help a writer get noticed by promoting one of his pieces through their blog. They also encouraged writers whose work they particularly admired, or whose works had been viewed and ‘liked’ most by other members of the online community, to blog for them.”

 

The site provided an audience, and as Lansdale prepared for her first chapbook, she believed Writers Bloq might provide a pre-fab community interested in these poems, But the site recently closed the community to become “a small publishing house for the most popular writers -- one or two of which,” Lansdale believes, “were on the staff from the beginning. As it turns out, this was their business model all along.”

 

Like joining any writing community, it pays to familiarize yourself with the goals of the community, the work of its writers (and their level of seriousness), and the aesthetic sensibilities of the membership.  And once you’ve joined, it behooves you to be active and engaged in terms of reading and responding to the writing of its membership.

 

All of this can feel like a lot of extra work for a writer– whether it’s finding a community or promoting a recent release, technology has added more tasks to the writer’s to-do list.  Publishing is a business, and publishers want to know that writers are going to support their titles and bring readers with them.  In the romantic notions we have about literature, the writer produces the work and someone else does all the work and then the writer gets the accolades, enjoys positive book reviews, and cashes the royalty checks while typing away on the next bestseller.  It doesn’t work that way.

 

But one can get forget about the first mission of being a writer, so it pays to heed the advice of Simon & Schuster senior editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler, who says this about the changes in publishing and the role of the author in marketing and promoting: “Don’t worry about it.  Write good books.”

 

Author Bio:

Gerry LaFemina, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is the author of a book of stories (Wish List), two books of prose poems, and six books of poems, including Vanishing Horizon (2011, Anhinga Press).  He directs the Frostburg Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University. He divides his time between Maryland and New York.

 

Photos: Design Continuum (Wikipedia Commons);  GoxunuReviews (Flickr); ShelbyH (Flickr).

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