Thursday 21 August 2014

Self-Publishing Before the Digital Age

Jane Austen self-published her first book, anonymously too.
Without self-publishing, many of our literary gems would never have seen the light of day. 

In eras of rapid sociological change, driven by new economic imperatives, with rapid technological change accompanying these processes, disintermediation often appears to occur, but is rapidly replaced by re-intermediation, just along new, non-traditional lines. If we look, for instance, at the romance publishing industry, we find that during the early 1800s, your late Regency era of early industrialisation, you ended up with a unique combination of factors which led to an explosion in publishing and the creation of the modern day novel. Ravaged by what, in effect, amounted to 23 years of war against Napoleon, including blockades of goods, England was forced, rapidly, to industrialise as an adaptation technique.

One of the great innovations of the era was the rotary press (and various iterations thereof), which sped up printing astonishingly since no longer need you rely on the old wooden presses and this totally transformed the publishing industry technologically. At the same time, you had a newly leisured set of middle class women and – publishing exploded. A seriously long tail of Gothics[i] was printed – in large part, self-published. Jane Austen self-published, the Brontë sisters: self-published (and were excoriated for tackling unseemly subjects). 

However, these authors self-published in the hope of being picked up by a publishing house. How? Their works were fed into the circulating libraries, where people paid subscriptions so they could read a book and then return it; those books which were taken out frequently then caught the attention of the publishing houses and were re-published. It’s remarkably similar to how digital publishing acts today, and it is noted that people such as Martjin Vreugde from South Africa began publishing articles on platforms such as memeburn after he became well-known on G+ and not before, partly because he was anyway producing content in social media (29 April 2014, personal correspondence).   

An oft-quoted effect of this new digital era is the concept of ‘flattening’; as Thomas that the barriers to entry were effectively lowered by the ubiquity and connectedness of the internet. In other words, the blogger in Bengal could gain as much traction, views and followers as the well-heeled daughter of a New York Investment Banker with a Trust Fund to back her up. Not so fast.

As quick as the barriers get lowered on one side, they are raised on another.

Initially publishers did not have to commit themselves to any major risk given that the authoresses (and most writers during this era were, indeed women) self-published a small set of books. If demand for more of the same came back from the circulating libraries, a second, third, fourth, etc., edition was published, this time by the publishers themselves. Which is why first editions of many such works are so often prized – and almost non-existent since they didn’t take multiple handling well. Of the three sisters, only Charlotte Brontë was a best-seller in her day, the other sisters lost money. Later on, as books became cheaper, this model became the free library, also driven by the imperative of extending literature to all. But at this time as well, the huge growth was phenomenal. Everyone it seemed could write and publish, there was great lamenting as to the poor content, etc. There was lots of risk, lots of it apportioned to the author.

However, it can be argued that the publishing world soon began employing more and more editors, type-setters, artists and others who jointly would create a high-quality book. It’s not so different in the modern digital world, and the increasing emphasis on value that is being placed on works in the digital realm is indicative of the fact that in terms of the signal to noise ratio, there is a lot of noise in the content, and the Search engines are increasingly attempting to filter out poor quality content – which in turn, raises the stakes in terms of the production of quality images, superb, high-quality, original, compelling content, including videos, well-written text and the like. In other words, gaining traction in the world of social media is beginning to look like SEO, re-intermediation is happening at a rapid rate (professional videos, photographs, etc., require well, professionals) and Google’s Webmaster guide to publishing in terms of the 23 things every webmaster should consider (see Appendix A) though written for web-masters is highly relevant to brands wishing to utilise social media.
In other words, compelling content is required, more than ever before.  

[i] The term “Gothics” is short-hand for the “Gothic romance” precursor to modern-day romance fiction published by houses such as Mills & Boon and Harlequin. 

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