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

Pride and Prejudice [1]
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 [2], 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 [3], 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 [4], 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 [5]. 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 [6], 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 [7] 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 [8]:

“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 [9] 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:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1wGFoLNJoM&w=560&h=315]

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.


About Dan Blank [10]

Dan Blank is the founder of WeGrowMedia [11], 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.