Ebooks: What do Mark Twain and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ have in common?

‘New ways’ of publishing have roots in subscription services that are centuries old


The stand-off between Amazon and Hachette has caused uproar in the publishing world in recent weeks. With the other major publishers soon to enter into similar negotiations on pricing with the online giant, big questions about interdependency in the modern bookselling market are being asked.

It is worth remembering amid all the talk of who needs who the most that authors are the only essential part of the book-creation process. This is especially true today, where self-publishing platforms and social media enable authors to go it alone if they so choose.

From independently published romance novels, to sites such as Wattpad with its legion of young adult writers, to a resurgence in online magazines championing sci-fi and fantasy short stories, technology gives authors the tools to issue material when and as they want.

But if digital publishing brings freedom for authors on the one hand, it is also exerting more external influence than ever before in the guise of the reader. Where a book might have been lucky, or not, to get a handful of reviews two decades ago, the internet gives every reader the opportunity to publicly voice their opinion.

Readers are being empowered as the value chain of traditional publishing continues to change. Crowdfunding has become popular in various cultural arenas in recent years, with sites such as Kickstarter helping to support a range of both fringe and more established projects across theatre, film, literature, technology, art, design and music. Niche crowdfunding sites for books such as the UK-based Unbound and its US counterpart, Pubslush, aim to undercut traditional publishing models by purporting to offer new ways to bring readers and writers together. Or as the blurb on Unbound’s website goes: “We think people who love books – primarily readers and writers – deserve a say in what does or doesn’t get published.”

Pursuit of royalties

These “new ways” of publishing have roots in subscription services that are centuries old. Displeased with the royalties from earlier work, Mark Twain started his own subscription service with his nephew in the late 19th century. The first book they published was the autobiography of US president Ulysses Grant, in a two-volume set shortly after his death. With an inspired sales strategy that saw agents, many of them civil war veterans, go door to door in uniform prior to printing, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant was a huge success, selling more than 350,000 copies.

Monthly magazines and quarterly reviews publishing short fiction and literary comment are seeing a revival due to online platforms supported by funds from readers. Fireside, a monthly multigenre fiction magazine in the US that espouses fair pay for authors, recently generated more tha n $25,000 for its third year of publication.

Crowdfunding and fan fiction are egalitarian and commendable developments in one sense, but what is happening to author identity and individuality as a result?

Digital publishing has skewed the economics of writing. An increasing supply of new titles continues to enter the market, an upsurge not matched by demand.

This broadening of choice for the reader – or oversupply, depending on how you look at it – impacts on all types of sales figures, from debuts to bestsellers. Whether traditional or digital, books have to compete for readership like never before.

There are concerns that this affects the creative process by pushing writers into certain genres that will sell. The choice between commercial and literary has of course always existed, but in an age where reader data is easy to track and the masses are buying certain genres in unprecedented numbers, it is arguably harder for fresh ideas to break through.

Fan fiction

The phenomenon of fan fiction in recent years, for example, has been heavily criticised for stifling original thought and contributing to repetitive cycles in popular genres. Proponents argue that it encourages reader interaction and an interest in books and writing. Whatever your view, it is certainly a prolific and growing genre.

There are more than 600 entries on one website alone –fanfiction.net – for the Fifty Shades trilogy, which is itself fan fiction of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Anna Todd, a 25-year-old Texan, last month landed a six-figure book deal for her online fantasy fiction inspired by boy band One Direction.

Crowdfunding has also given new life to a part of the industry that has been in serious decline over the past few decades. As competition for attention grows tougher, the question of what readers want becomes more important. In the past, authors relied on sales figures, fan mail, reviews and personal appearances for feedback. Nowadays subscription services such as Oyster and Scribd are able to sift through reading habits with a fine toothcomb, offering data on how much of a book gets read and at what point interest falls away. Established writers have the option of ignoring this type of data. Emerging writers on the other hand pay attention to trends in the market – and if readers are asking for something, it will be supplied.

In an article on form in fiction in the Telegraph earlier this year, the Scottish author Allan Massie wrote of how ebooks and modern reading habits are affecting writers: “We authors may live closeted in our studies, but our computers are not housed in ivory towers, and if new modes of reading invite certain ways of writing, we will oblige.” His point is that authors respond to and are influenced by market conditions. As more and more titles continue to flood the market, it will be interesting to see what demands are placed on writers in the not-too-distant future.

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