Free Labour and Free Stuff

The Future of Publishing

Loren March, staff writer


Picture this: The year is 2020. You get home from work and decide to kick back on the couch with what was once called a “book.” After you turn your “book” on to “read” it, the possibilities multiply. Your iTunes syncs a playlist as a score to the story. Your Facebook profile information is automatically shared to see which of the main characters are your best romantic matches. The page is interactive. The story becomes a choose-your-own-adventure film reel projected on the backs of your eyelids.

The future of print is becoming a strange realm of possibilities, and as digital slowly assumes supremacy, the possibilities are only multiplying as innovators push to keep the classic printed word afloat. But as creative as many of these ideas are, a lot of writers aren’t able to jump on board quite yet and are left struggling in the wake. Between unpaid internships, volunteer positions, short-term contracts, and the DIY world of the Internet, is the traditional print industry these days just one big race to the bottom?

A staggering 98 UK publishers folded last year. Tribune Co. – owners of the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, and six other daily newspapers – cut nearly 700 jobs at the end of 2013, instead planning to focus on the digital growth of their company. La Gesca Ltd. – owners of the Montreal newspaper La Press – just paid $31 million to Transcontinental Inc. to be able to reduce and have flexibility about the consistency of future printing of the paper. Hell, even the almighty Oxford English Dictionary has gone digital. But not everyone is panicking like the big players.

Slow publishing is making a huge comeback in the face of new industry superpowers like Amazon. Other small publishers and writers seem to be shrugging off the old conservative grip of the industry, taking advantage of the frenzy to diversify and imagine new possibilities.

How do you innovate books? You’ve probably heard of blogs and ebooks, right? But do you know what a textual mix tape is?

A Canadian company called BookRiff has handed the reigns to the consumer, allowing readers to “curate” reading material into their own compilations. Have you ever heard of Pressbooks? Their online website generates DIY ebooks, PDFs, and webbooks in an easy four-step process. The publishers at Iambik partner up with authors and publishers around the globe to make audiobooks out of “great books that have been overlooked.” They are connected to the fine folks at LibriVox who are working with audiobooks that are – get this – totally free.

The amount of public domain reading material online these days is almost overwhelming. Online websites like Gutenberg.org, the Oxford Text Archive, The PDA Librarian, and Mslit.com, provide vast collections of PDF and DOC files that are often formatted for mobile readers. There has been a long and hard-fought campaign to make this sort of information accessible to the public – especially academic articles. Maybe you’ve heard of Aaron Swartz, the computer programming guru and activist who was instrumental in creating the Internet Archives’ Open Library, Creative Commons, and Reddit. He passed away last year, but the campaign for free information and unrestricted access continues.

But is it all roses? What does all this free stuff mean for writers trying to make a dime?

When it comes to getting your work out there, Montreal-based writer Jon Paul Fiorentino maybe puts it best: “I think it’s easier to be published, and harder to be published well.”

This seems like a pretty good assessment. This is, after all, the age of “content farms,” companies that employ huge numbers of copywriters to write for an audience of search engine bots instead of people. And “employ” is maybe too strong a word. Some of these copywriters are paid as little as ten cents for every 1,000 clicks on their pieces. The options out there in the “professional” field look more and more bleak all the time, as does the level of quality (how much quality can your work have, after all, when you have to use a keyword a hundred times and your whole purpose is just to satisfy an algorithm?) Writers who want to maintain their integrity are having to find other routes.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily easier to get published, but it may be easier to establish a platform, via blogs and that sort of thing, as well as reach people,” says Sheldon Birnie, journalist, writer, and song-and-dance man from Winnipeg, Manitoba. With his last novel, Down In The Flood, Birnie decided to self-publish and try the ebook route. “I think it’s great,” he says. “But you need to know your market, have a platform, and be somewhat savvy with regard to marketing. I don’t know if I would necessarily rush to self-publish again, though it is an interesting experience and many people are finding some pretty crazy success with that route. The benefit is if you have a product you feel you can market, or just want to get out there, or you are a niche writer, or you have a broad platform, this route could work better for you than taking the traditional route.”

As for whether he thinks the traditional book is here to stay?

“I can’t see people rushing to abandon the physical,” he says. “Who wants to buy someone an e-book for their birthday? Weirdos, that’s who.”

Gonzalo Riedel, a Winnipeg writer who just released his new book, Behaving This Way Is All I Have Left, through the independent Insomniac Press, agrees.

“I think there’ll always be some version of the physical paper book,” he says. “It’s like vinyl albums… I think what freaks me out most about the digital age isn’t the digital part itself, but knowing that I’m competing with so many things that take up people’s time. What I mean is that I’m flattered if someone wants to buy my book, but I’m actually honoured knowing that someone took the time to read the thing when there are a million distractions to keep them from reading it. In the digital age, I find I’ve been reading more than ever. With all the screens in my life, I feel crabby after awhile, and looking at something that isn’t a rectangle of flickering light tends to balance me out. Hopefully other people feel the same in their lives.”

BIO: Loren March is a freelance writer based out of Toronto. She is a Communications graduate hailing from sunny Winnipeg, Manitoba, and currently completing her degree in Urban Studies at York University. Follow her blog at http://lorenmarch.wordpress.com/

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