On Collectives and Crowdsourcing

There have been two new developments in the last two weeks showing just how much digital publishing is changing.  When this site was started a year ago, there was still some holdover from the previous assessments of self-publishing – that is was a fringe type of publishing meant for people with limited talent.  This stigma is quickly diminishing, due in part because of the very high-profile people who are looking to self-publishing as a legitimate model.

Recently, Book View Cafe released a press release about their straight-to-digital publishing collective:

Traditional publishing, new media, ebooks, and now “vooks”… the publishing world is gripped by unprecedented upheaval. In the middle of industry revolution, what’s a working author to do?

For the authors of Book View Cafe, the answer is band together and take charge. This group of twenty-six award-winning and best-selling authors have elected to by-pass traditional publishing and bring out their latest work directly on Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s eReader.

All professionally published, and many currently under contract with traditional New York firms such as Random House, Tor Books and Simon & Schuster, the Book View Cafe authors first came together in 2008 to create bookviewcafe.com, a destination website for online fiction. Armed with a century’s worth of experience in all aspects of publishing, members include multiple-award-winning authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Vonda N. McIntyre, bestsellers like Sarah Smith and Laura Anne Gilman, and new talents like Seanan McGuire.

Once the main site was established, the authors formed Book View Press to take their titles out onto the wider Internet world.

What’s so notable about this is the inclusion of the writer Ursula K. Leguin, who is likely familiar to people who aren’t overly familiar with science fiction.  That one of the world’s best-known science fiction writers is using this publishing model is a major development.  Digital publishing is not just for people who couldn’t “make it” otherwise.

The collective model of self-publishing is one with possibilities – taking some of the “self” out of self-publishing, while still allowing writers to avoid the traditional route and take a book directly to readers.  Other collective models for self-publishing include Backword Books and Year Zero.  (Full Disclosure: I am a member of Backword Books).


Another highly-recognizable writer is also using the self-publishing model.  Andrew Sullivan is publishing a photo book via Blurb.  What is notable is that he is crowdsourcing the book to bring down the price – determining how many buyers the book might have before releasing it:

We’re now heading toward 1500 pledges to buy the Window View book, which makes a 2000 book offset print run feasible, which in turn means that the price is now headed way below $20. We’re going to wait a day to nail the exact price down (it could go as low as $18, more than a third off the regular one-off price) – and the more of you who pledge the lower it will go. I don’t know about you but crowd-sourcing a bargain is a pretty cool way to buy books. And to get a four-color coffee table/toilet book down below $20 means the chances of getting more regular print products even lower are now high. Imagine getting paperbacks for $10. That should send some shivers up the spines of the book publishing marketing industry.

His readers have chimed in about the self-publishing phenomenon:

The biggest upshot of the self-publishing revolution is the greater likelihood of people finding the crap that means something to them rather than having experts tell them what crap should mean something to them. To survive, the publishing industry needs to figure out how to make money in that environment because there are tens of thousands of individuals working on the same problem and nowadays the gap between Random House and chuckleheads like me has never been narrower.

Two things about this project: Andrew Sullivan is saying that he is not trying to make a profit, he is just trying to cover costs.  So saying this is a new publishing model is slightly inaccurate – though crowdsourcing is certainly feasible as a profit-making venture.  In addition, both Ursula K. Leguin and Andrew Sullivan are highly-recognizable, so self-publishing is a more-realistic and easier proposition.  That said, the fact that high-profile writers are using the venue shows just how quickly the publishing dynamic is changing.

Edited to add: Warren Ellis has his own self-publishing experiment – putting out a book through Lulu, Shivering Sands: “Part Greatest Hits collection, part late-night ramblings, all crackling text transmissions sent down the wire from anywhere Warren Ellis had access to a computer and something to say.”  He writes on his blog:

A persistent criticism of my interest in POD has been that only writers at my level of cultural awareness can make any kind of success out of it. And some of them will now be saying, well, even Warren Ellis can only move 400 copies in the first week of a POD project. But, for one thing, it is about the long game. For everybody. The book doesn’t go away. And, for another, if I’m not aware enough of you to order that POD project — whose fault is that, really? Because, I’ve got to tell you, I wasn’t born with a book deal in one hand and an exclusive comics contract wrapped around my other flipper. Hell, when I was starting out, there wasn’t even an internet.

Shivering Sands on Lulu.