Is it tacky to say Publishing 2.0?

Eric Wiesen Jan 28, 2013 Back to blog

About a month ago I finished an awesome science-fiction novel called WOOL. Not necessarily newsworthy (although if you enjoy sci-fi, particularly of the post-apocalyptic flavor, I strongly encourage you to read it), except WOOL was an example of a rapidly growing genre: self-published fiction.

The notion of democratized production of content isn’t even remotely new. In fact it’s so old that even the trend's moniker,  “Web 2.0,” is completely passé. And yet as much as content and its production have expanded to allow ordinary people to join the conversation, the production of fiction and the novel form factor have largely been left out. Blogs have certainly created a massive firmament of non-fiction writing that has completely changed both producer and consumer’s relationships with self-expression. The rise of digital photography and platforms to both print, distribute and deploy photo assets into a variety of products have made everyone a photographer (in 2012 approximately 11% of all photos ever taken were, um, taken). GarageBand, Bandcamp and a variety of audio tools have begun (yes, just begun) to take the power of distribution out of the hands of the labels while platforms like SoundCloud provide the peer to peer platform for audio content.

WOOL is about #200 in the Kindle Store; #2 in Science Fiction, and it has no publisher. Ridley Scott is making a major Hollywood movie out of WOOL. And it’s not even the biggest self-publishing headline. Fifty Shades of Grey, while certainly not my thing (really) was responsible for one out of every twenty purchases of any book last year.

There's something even more astonishing about The Runner, by WJ Davies. The Runner is essentially fanfiction – a piece of writing that exists inside the universe created by Hugh Howey when he wrote WOOL. Fanfiction has largely been the stuff of poor jokes – assumed to be badly written stories by fanboys and fangirls who want to read about characters they like sleeping with each other so badly that they write it themselves. And yet The Runner is not only quite well written – it’s endorsed by the creator of the universe in which it takes place and is being sold in the Kindle Store - that's right, people are paying for this fanfiction.

All of which tells me that the basic structural constraints around how stories are being told, which is ultimately the core unit of fiction writing to begin with, are breaking down and very quickly. The enabling elements are all present: the rise (finally) of digital books, the creation of platforms like the Kindle Store and iBooks that collapse all the intermediate layers between author and reader, the availability of immediate, one-touch check out and delivery to our devices, the rise of subscription billing and commerce… all of these add up to a total rethinking of who gets to write fiction that we will read, and perhaps equally important – what structure that writing will take. The WOOL Omnibus reads like a standard length novel, but it’s actually 5 short novels that were published in quick succession. Because in addition to all of these enablers acting on any would-be author’s ability to reach directly into a readership, they also break down the requirements that “books” be written in a tightly defined number of pages/words in order to fit the needs of physical printing, bookstore merchandising and shipping and logistics. All of those barriers are gone. If an author wants to, she can write a story that gets published like the old serials – a new chapter every week or two. Personally if some of my favorite authors wanted to publish that way (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin), I’d be happy to pay $2 per month for a consistent but shorter fix (I know, I know, you could never deliver a great story that way, George – but a guy can dream).

As an investor, we’ve been very interested in the broad phenomenon of harnessing the creativity of individuals rather than a small slice of dedicated professionals. Whether it’s Quirky enabling inventors all over the world to get their ideas made into products or Makerbot giving everybody the ability to physically produce things or even the way WisdomTree gets ideas for its products from students as part of its new fund ideation process – the notion of unlocking the cognitive and creative abilities of the broader population is an enormously powerful (and still largely untapped) wave that can benefit everyone.

I’ve yet to ascertain whether or not this trend toward self publishing and the transformation we’re starting to see in the written word delivers value primarily to large platforms like Amazon and Apple or whether there is a disruptive startup approach to enabling this wave. Very interested to see what happens next.