Author As Innovator: The Future of Publishing is Story, Not Technology

Pride and Prejudice
photo via Wikipedia

Who will shape the future of publishing? Authors. Too often, the conversation centers on publishers and startups and enormous companies as the focal point for innovation. These entities may have a financial market caps measured in the billions, whereas an individual author may be making just a few hundred or a few thousand dollars per year with their books.

Today, I want to talk about the author as innovator. I want to talk about the power of writers to shape the future of publishing.

I go to a lot of publishing and writing conferences, and often they are discussing the ‘future of publishing.’ Recently, I attended Tools of Change for Publishing, which focused more on the technology side of the future of publishing.

What is often missing from the conversation are authors themselves. Instead, we talk about “books” as if they spring into being on their own. As if they are manufactured.

There are other innovations that are possible for publishing today besides merely technical or retail innovations. Jason Ashlock recently interviewed Jeff Gomez, and characterized a point he made as:

“When it comes to storytelling innovation, authors lead, publishers follow.”

I recently found out about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which is an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice told via YouTube videos. Hank Green helped create the project, and it’s interesting to hear how he announced it in the very beginning last April. While he is using new media to tell a classic story, the actual innovation is very simple: it’s how they tell the story.

You can hear the uncertainty in Hank’s voice as he explains the concept. You hear how it came from the passion of a few fans, and that they are finding their way.

The real hurdle to innovation? Not technology, but taste. Okay, bear with me here…

Bill Cunningham has been crafting an astounding legacy. For the past 45 years or so, he has wandered the streets of New York City, taking photos of what people wear. The New York Times share his photos every week. His goal is to identify new fashion trends as they happen from the perspective of the street. It is his philosophy that the street is where new fashion comes from – bottom up, not top down. New ideas come from individuals trying new things which later catch on and become popular enough to garner the notice of fashion designers and fashion magazines.

In 2010, a documentary focused on Bill, and in it, he had this to say about creativity:

“A lot of people have taste, but they don’t have the daring to be creative. We are in the age of cookie cutter and sameness.”
– Bill Cunningham

For writers, what this means is that innovation is in your hands. How will storytelling or publishing change? Stop looking to “the industry! the industry!” as Porter Anderson would call it, and begin creating it yourself.

Innovation is not easy. One of my favorite all time videos is an interview with Ira Glass, host of This American Life on NPR. He talks about the process of storytelling and the challenges to doing it well:

“What nobody tells people who are beginners… is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not… your taste is why your work disappoints you… We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this… It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”
– Ira Glass

While technology is changing what we are capable of doing, there is so much that remains unchanged. That, for writers and storytellers, you are still tapping into the same motivations and emotional fabric of your audience that has existed for centuries. People have not changed. What motivated someone to keep turning the pages in 1813 when Pride and Prejudice was first published, is no different than what motivates someone to watch the latest episode of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Jason Ashlock made further comment on the author’s role in innovation:

“At onset of such innovations, authors may in fact carry new burdens, before machinery is ready to help.”

In this context, the “machinery” is the publishing industry. It is there to support the work of storytellers and those who share information. Bottom up, not top down.

Often the first piece of advice given to writers hoping to be successful is this: READ. Read often. Read widely. To me, this focuses on the idea that the basics matter, and that we can learn so much from those who have come before us. That innovation is understanding the past and using it to shape the future. The present is just a temporary stop between the two.

I would like to end with the man on the street, Bill Cunningham as he noticed the fashion changes in men at the start of 2013:

What just floored me about this report is when he reflects back on the last time he saw this trend. He didn’t go to 2002 or 1983 or 1967. He talked about he CLEARLY remembered the styles shifting among creative types from the 1940s to 1950s. That is just astounding to me, not just the memory, but the literacy of the topic.

Where is the future of publishing going? That depends on your own literacy as a writer, and what you are bold enough to create.

Thanks.
-Dan

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About Dan Blank

Dan Blank is the founder of WeGrowMedia, where he helps writers share their stories and connect with readers. He has helped hundreds of authors via online courses, events, consulting, and workshops, and worked with amazing publishing houses and organizations who support writers such as Random House, Workman Publishing, Abrams Books, Writers House, The Kenyon Review, Writer’s Digest, Library Journal, and many others.

Comments

  1. says

    First, thank you for the reminder to focus on story, not the technology. A relevant point as I struggle to build a website that I hope will be the backbone of my marketing efforts for my novel & short stories.

    Second, your post reminds me greatly of the book The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose. He talks about how the method (tech) of story telling may change to utilize social media, etc. but story essentially stays the same. A brilliant concept…and an exciting one for the storyteller.

    Third, my version of the advice for writers: WRITE. Write often. Write widely.

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    • says

      Rich,
      Thank you so much! Yes, see a lot of authors go down the rabbit hole of trying to craft “the perfect” website, when really:

      1. It takes time to evolve a website and find it’s voice.
      2. The content you share, and the relationships you build are more important places to put your time.

      I haven’t read Frank’s book, but have certainly heard of it. I may even have it lying around here somewhere, I will try to find it.

      Great advice.
      Thanks!
      -Dan

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  2. says

    I love this, because my gut has always told me it’s the story that counts. Over the past nine years, I’ve hardly paused to consider the how much the industry is changing as I worked to close my own ‘taste gap’ Glass refers to. I don’t mean I’ve ignored the industry I intend to be a part of, but I’ve mostly felt like a casual if interested observer. None of it will matter until I’m ready to deliver a satisfactory story into the hands of readers.

    I suppose it’s always been this way. I can imagine the angst of a minstrel when some of his competitors teamed up with scribes and managed to track down enough papyrus to immortalize their songs. There must have been a lot of pressure to follow suit, or to have his voice lost to history. I imagine the very best songs/tales found their way into our collective consciousness, in spite of my imagined minstrel’s angst. Perhaps he should’ve focused his energies on honing his songs, and worried less about the scribes and papyrus.

    Great post, Dan. Thanks.

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    • says

      Thanks so much Vaughn! I think for many writers nowadays, it is not an either/or choice. They cannot “just” write or “just work on the structure of publishing. The two are linked in possibility, as well as the balance between the hear and now, and focusing on the legacy one builds.

      -Dan

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  3. says

    Great post. It reinforces my feeling and belief that the story is where the magic is – not how it is delivered. So much of humanity’s history has revolved around storytelling in one form or another. I just can’t see that disappearing, regardless of the technology used to deliver the words.

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    • says

      Mary,
      Thanks. Story will never go away. Part of what I see is that the future is in the hands of writers. Too often, we look to others to tell us where the opportunity is. The reality: the big lump of clay is right in front of each of us. It is our own opportunity to shape or walk away from.

      Have a great day!
      -Dan

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  4. says

    Great post, Dan!

    You focused on the word “taste” in your Bill Cunningham quote, but for me the standout word is “daring.” Isn’t daring the opposite of fear, and isn’t fear what holds writers back more than anything? Wasn’t it some shade of fear that made uncertainty rise up in Hank’s voice over his new concept?

    I think fear holds the industry back, too. Traditionally, everyone is afraid to step outside of the box because it’s untested territory. I think that’s changing because of the freedom authors have now to publish works on their own, whatever the genre, whatever the content, however unconventional the setting/characters/concept. My hope is that traditional publishers and booksellers will see that these established boxes matter less than they once believed–that maybe readers “tastes” are more diverse than they ever gave them credit for–and make room for every type of story.

    p.s. I adore the Ira Glass videos, and what he says about evolving ability and taste. Classic.

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    • says

      Therese,
      Yes, that is SUCH a good insight. Daring. Thank you for that.

      Fear holds the industry back because all that they can envision is what they can lose. This overshadows what can be gained. I had heard this quote years ago when describing the music industry: “When your role is a middleman in a larger process, you can only create a future that secures your place as a middleman.”

      Which is perhaps why authors have so much opportunity, but so much responsibility in shaping what is to come. They are the source.
      Thanks!
      -Dan

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  5. says

    Terrific post, Dan. Story is and always has been at the root of the entire process. Someone said that a “big dream” is myth for the entire society [or human race] and that a little private dream is about your own personal life. Both generate story.

    But the author who can create and convey myth has a story which will last through the centuries and will make people huddle around the camp fire. So, given that power, it scarcely matters how the story is delivered, as long as it reaches the audience somehow.

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  6. says

    loved the article! thanks ;-)

    and esp liked the video! my wife and i just came back from a little over a month in paris, and it struck me how much more stylishly, yet subtly, the guys were dressed there, from what i was used to from folks i saw in vermont or texas (where we’ve been the last few years)

    what i see as slightly but distinctly different in the ny dress up the guys are doing there, as per the video, are the accent touches, nice ;-)

    anyway, thought the whole post, re story as being the real crux, to be invaluable, thanks again!

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    • says

      Adan,
      Thanks! When I went to London, I was astounded at how well the men dressed. But what I do appreciate about NY fashion is how varied it is.
      -Dan

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      • says

        Definitely more variety than Paris too; though casual creative seems to still be king here in Austin, but with record heat days already, less is more comfortable, not many chances for coats etc ;-)

        I was rereading your article and kept thinking of how strong the oral tradition was for so long via story. Just one person to another, even in a group.

        Yeah, very nice article, thanks! ;-)

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    • says

      Denise,
      I don’t usually agree with that phrase. I have seen far too many things be built and end up barren wastelands. But… that should not discourage one from trying, and trying and trying again, learning more each time.
      Thanks.
      -Dan

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  7. says

    Thanks for this, Dan! The reminder that story drives this whole thing came at a great moment for me. I also appreciated the advice from Ira Glass that it is in the doing of the writing that the gap between what we want to write and what we are writing narrows. It’s back to work for me! ;)

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  8. says

    FABULOUS post! I love this and couldn’t agree with you more! The change in the publishing world is about how content is delivered, not about the content itself! Story is a hardwired survival mechanism — we turn to story to make sense of the world. What grabs us, and holds us, hasn’t changed a whit — curiosity — the desire to want to know what happens next. Without that, doesn’t matter how beautifully written it is, or if it’s delivered into your brain directly via nanobots. It’s still gonna put you to sleep.

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  9. Jeanne Kisacky says

    I love that this puts the author back in the driver’s seat. Worrying about the publishing ‘industry’ takes the author away from the one thing they can control–and you hit it–story. Packaging is packaging, whether it contains words, images, or products. And the package(r) should not be determining the contents.

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    • says

      Jeanne,
      Thanks! I think there is an opportunity for writers here too which is unique to our time. The package DOES matter, but I am more curious to see what a writer does with it than a business development manager.

      -Dan

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  10. says

    “your taste is why your work disappoints you…” I’ve read Ira’s quote before, and, as a beginner, I found it so comforting. Thanks.

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  11. says

    This was a happy post for me to read today. I think it embodies the choice I made to move to self-publishing my novel. Once I realized my story was probably not something that would fit in the current mindset of traditional publishing, I decided to take my innovation to the people. Fear of failure continues, but I’m also optimistic that my innovation might be something other people might like. I figure there’s a lot of different types of taste out there, and if the story is available to the public (instead of sitting in my computer) then I might actually find some readers. Having people relate to and enjoy my story is the best part of writing for me. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post!

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    • says

      Lara,
      Thanks! And as you illustrate – there is a lot of risk/fear built into the process of having power and taking control. Persistence through the (many) small failures seems to be the key to success.

      Much appreciated.
      -Dan

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  12. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    What a post of empowerment!

    The power of story never changes, no matter how many changes come to the ways it is delivered. And the concept of a nanobot delivery lends for a great story in itself. :)

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    • says

      Bernadette,
      Thanks! Yes, the P&P example really struck me. 200 years later – and the story can be as fresh as the day it was first published.
      -Dan

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  13. says

    Great piece Dan. As a newcomer to the writing and publishing world, this is refreshing. It makes me feel that someone in my position (newbie) may even be at an advantage…I have a beginner’s mind. I don’t really know what has worked in the past or what is the ‘right’ thing to do. So I’m willing to try any and everything.

    I’ve partnered with my author-friend publish and promote his hilarious (yet educational) travel memoir about our trip through Iceland called Tales of Iceland. He’s a published author, but we’ve decided to partner together on this project because of the dynamic landscape of publishing…it’s tough even for previously published authors. I’m more of a business-minded guy, and he’s the creator, so the relationship works.

    We’re viewing his upcoming book like a startup company: the book is the product. And we want to try to get it into the hands of those who would most appreciate it. We’re trying to approach this as creatively as possible.

    One idea: Create a book website that actually makes the book the sideshow instead of the main event. Instead, the purpose of the site will be to create a community of people who have been inspired by Iceland (like we were) and can share their own ‘Tales’. The book is our ‘Tale’.

    Curious if anyone else has used any similar or non-traditional tactics for promoting their books? Anyone else approaching their book like a startup?

    Thanks again Dan. Always great content.
    Matthew

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    • says

      Matthew,
      Thanks! What you describe can broadly be called “platform” where the book is just one element that readers can engage with. I love how you are partnering with someone else, that makes this whole journey WAY more fun. Frodo would have been bored without Sam.
      :)
      -Dan

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  14. says

    Yes yes yes. Great post. Readers don’t talk about the technology they talk about the characters. Reader and Writers will find each other wether we live in a digital age or the stone age.

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  15. says

    Good piece. I like the point of our taste dictating our creativity. At first, as this piece says, my work had potential, but my tastes were askew. I knew what I wanted to say, but I had this sanitizing attitude for some reason. Then I slowly started–for lack of a better phrase–making it real, and the more real my work got, and the more my taste for reality overrode my taste for telling the truth in a sanitized way, the more my work took off.

    As Bill Cunningham says, it’s about changing taste, and it starts at the ground level. With the people on the street wearing the clothes, or with us writers putting words on the “page.” Still, it starts here.

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    • says

      Steven,
      Thanks. Yes, it’s often the point at which we stop trying to act like others that our own voice really takes off.
      Have a great day.
      -Dan

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  16. says

    My mantra for several years now has been: authors create the product which is story, not the book.

    Readers consume the product.

    Everyone else is in between.

    Publishing is still too wrapped up in the book being the product. It isn’t.

    Story can be told in many different ways and through various mediums. I’m getting ready to do a serial– I first did one too soon, back in 2011 and it was a year at least, ahead of its time. Now it’s the ‘coming’ thing.

    In the same way I blogged about hybrid authors in June 2011, and now everyone is acting like it just got invented at Digital Book World in 2013.

    What authors really need to do is be ahead of the technology. Stop waiting for NY to announce it, because when they do, they are at least a year behind already.

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    • says

      Bob,
      Thanks so much for the comment here! I like that attitude about story. But it seems part of what you are talking about is not tech, but trends and what people are aware of, ready to purchase, and what the middlemen are ready to promote. Serials are not knew, their ability to distribute them via online channels is not knew, but their time has come in terms of trendiness. And of course, some will “strike it rich” in the way that only serendipity will allow, while most others will battle the quality/quantity filter, and how it lines up with the larger business model and access to readers that they have developed. EG: what I would call platform.

      Much appreciated.
      -Dan

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  17. says

    Excellent post, Dan — thanks!

    I see too many Dylan Thomas types on the Web who all rage against the new world of books.

    I say embrace what never changes: Book (or, if you will, Story) as Service, not Product.

    While not an original concept with me, this idea can shift the entire paradigm for writers/authors. We can lead the way even as the publishing cabal struggles to figure out who it really is, too.

    This New World can benefit us all with mind-expanding choice and potential. If we will allow it.

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    • says

      Thanks Melanie! I suppose I don’t see this as a “new world” at all, but rather an opportunity to focus only on work that matters.
      Much appreciated.
      -Dan

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  18. Lindsey Bosak says

    I really enjoyed this post because I could completely relate to the idea that it is the story itself, and not the way in which it is delivered, that is important. I consider myself proof that if someone loves a story enough they will never get tired of it, and will love it no matter what form if comes in. To date, I have read Pride and Prejudice five times, and am on my second watch of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I love the story that much!

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  19. says

    Thanks! I’m a new writer and I’ve recently read a few articles that said great books were denied because no one knew how to market them. Those articles zapped my motivation. My novel is science fiction with a dab of romance. I’m aiming at both men and women, but the internet convinced me I was excluding both.

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    • says

      Jenna,
      Thanks for the comments. But… don’t believe everything you read on the internet! That is, unless it’s posted on Writer Unboxed.
      :)
      -Dan

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