In my column for the National Post, I talk about the process of writing Patriots:
“Publishing used to be an industry. Now it’s a button.”
That aphorism by NYU professor Clay Shirky overstates the case, but only a little.
I signed up to write my sixth book back in the olden days of 2005. Seems like only yesterday, right?
But from a writer’s point of view, 2005 might as well be a different century. In those days — before Facebook opened to the general public, before YouTube, before Twitter — the only way to deliver long-form communication to a broad public was via printing press, just as in 1905 or 1805.
The Web could carry journalism, of course, but experience had proven that most people stopped reading online at about the 500-word mark. If a writer aspired to reach an audience of any size, he or she had little choice but to depend on a large commercial publisher.
In the fall of 2010, I was seized by a new writing project. The project would evolve into my seventh book, a novel, Patriots: a satire of Washington in the time of the Tea Party (and excerpted on this page). By the time I finished in the fall of 2011, the advent of the e-reader had transformed the world of publishing.
The e-reader did to publishing what first Napster and then iTunes did to music: it opened a channel of communication direct from content producer to content consumer. In so doing, the new technology plunged an old industry into chaos.
What did publishers do? From a writer’s point of view, basically four things: they manufactured the physical book, they distributed the physical book, they helped edit and revise the book content, and they marketed the ultimate product. In return for those services, publishers collected about 85% of the after-retail proceeds of the book sale.
Publishers were reliably (if not perfectly) capable at the first two of those tasks, relating to the book’s “hardware.” They were not nearly so reliably capable at the second set of tasks, relating to the book’s “software.” The e-reader is rapidly rendering the “hardware” tasks obsolete — and the publishing industry’s economic model unsustainable.
The transition is as yet incomplete, however. And so a writer of books in 2012 faces an agonizing choice: join the pioneers — or adhere to the tried and true?
I opted for the new.