Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pirates, Gatekeepers and Darwinian Publishing, Part II: How we got here.

Last time I made the argument that the nature of the publishing business over the past two centuries had worked to keep real competition from the marketplace. This time I'd like to come at it from a different direction.

Thirty years ago, in 1980, it was a silly notion that microcomputers (IBM had just invented the marketing term Personal Computer) would ever have a serious place in business. Oh, sure some specialist might use one of them for some technical work, (I did) but it was inconceivable that they would have a place in the everyday business of business. REAL computers took up whole rooms and needed megatons of air conditioning.

In 1990, a few PCs were scattered around some offices doing word processing and spreadsheets, but a real tool for critical business operations? Well…no.

By 2000 PCs and networks were a given, and nearly everybody had one.

In ten years, it went from 'eh' to crucial 'gotta have.' (Today many of you will post your comments from your eThing or your iThing. It's not a gotta have anymore, it simply is.)

What made the difference? Hardware advanced, doubling capability roughly every eighteen months while staying the same price or actually getting cheaper. Connectivity, Internet & intranet, became ubiquitous, then essential, and software products to do things that had been pipe dreams, or not even conceived of earlier, exploded onto the business and recreational scenes.

Writers please note: I used the passive voice in the last two sentences. But the process was anything but passive. It was cutthroat competition among hardware and software manufacturers to bring new, innovative and useful products to the marketplace. Thousands of products competed, rose to prominence, and went by the wayside. (Remember Ashton Tate? The ZIP drive?) We tried the new stuff, made it work for us, and discarded it when something better came along.

The point is this came about because there was an open, competitive market for us, the customers, to choose stuff for ourselves. It was, and still is, a relentlessly Darwinian process. There are no gatekeepers to tell us what choices we can have, or to artificially elevate one product over another. (More about this next time)

The Internet, its wireless incarnations, and the aps being written for it, are completely unregulated and entrepreneurs have made available a truly astonishing range of products, many of them free or pretty cheap. Web sites, only ten years ago the must have thing, are now a ho-hum given. Blogs, facebook, twitter, youtube, ustream, all of which are free, are the new media. Add-ons by savvy entrepreneurs turn these freebees into powerful marketing tools, with everything from email newsletter managers to sidebar advertising targeted to the individual consumer.

I will use one illustration of how entrepreneurs are changing the way things get written and published. A site called (thanks to author Jeffrey Allen for the info) is a place where you can pick a topic, write about it, and get feedback plus a ranking vs. all others who have written about the same topic. You are expected to read and critique other works, not related to yours, so it is a mutual cooperation process. As you get your feedback and ranking you can rewrite and resubmit, getting more feedback and being re-ranked. As you improve, you move up the scale till you may reach the top. The top ranked pieces are submitted to appropriate publications by the helium staff, and you may actually get paid for it. The process is free, except for having to rank other folk's stuff. Helium does a lot more too, but this is what I want to highlight now.

Can you think of anything more brutally Darwinian? But if you participate, and persist, I guarantee you will become a better writer. This is now geared to non-fiction, but can you think of any reason, other than length, why it couldn't be adapted to fiction?

The people who put Helium together have invented the perfect writer training academy: write and be ranked, try again and be re-ranked, move up the food chain. The entire process is anonymous, so you don't feel so bad.

In a way, the entire publishing industry is about to become like this.  We are at a cusp of a change that hasn't happened since the invention of movable type. In some ways this change has already come about. Many of us are members of critique groups that consist of people we have never met and who may live in other countries. We routinely exchange manuscripts (which means 'hand written' BTW) with people on the other side of the globe.

There's a corollary to all this, something that is not always obvious. That is that the marketplace has become vast beyond imagining. Which means that the niches are also vast beyond imagining. The entrepreneurs who learn how to fill those niches will prosper.

As a writer you can be an entrepreneur who fills some of those niches.

More in Part III: Competition and Monopoly.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis, Bart. I'm looking forward to Part III.