Digital Natives and a New Generation of Content Publishing

Nov 04, 2015

In May of 2012, I completed graduate school with a MFA in creative writing. I'm not bragging here. Having a master's in fine arts isn't exactly a moneymaker. Still, graduate school was one of the most rewarding times in my life, a feeling I was recently reminded of when an old friend asked me what the best part of graduate school was. While I'd like to have said it was the faculty or the curriculum (both were wonderful, really), in reality, for me the best part was the fact that in those three years, I became friends with a group of intensely talented writers, many of whom I still consider friends today.

The best part about being friends with a group of writers is that you always have something interesting to read. Unfortunately, the worst part of being friends with a group of writers is that you are constantly seeing talented people who take their craft very seriously get rejected. They submit a story/screenplay/novel/poem to a publisher only to receive a "thanks, but no thanks" letter back a few weeks later. It's a frustrating process that can drive you mad, and it's been this way for hundreds of years.

Will it ever change? Maybe.

In the early 2000s, many people (including Stephen King) believed self-publishing would destroy traditional publishers. Why submit and resubmit your work to an editor you've never met hoping that one day he or she would cut you a break, when all you had to do was pay a couple hundred dollars to have your novel printed they way you want? Imagine the possibilities. Anyone with a credit card could become the next John Grisham. Fortunately (or unfortunately, for some) self-publishing only gave publishers something to bite their nails over, but it didn't tip the boat the way many had anticipated.

Now, fifteen years after King's prognostication, writers in all genres have a place to showcase their work even when they don't have the cash to get their own masterpiece printed. These days, it seems like it's all about building a community and brand around your work. The ultimate goal is to get people talking, and it's amazing what you can accomplish when you make enough noise online.

For example, consider the recent movie The Martian with Matt Damon. This blockbuster, which had the second-biggest October opening ever with $55 million earned, was adapted from a 2011 science fiction novel of the same name. It's author, Andy Weir, initially faced resistance from traditional publishing agents with other works, so instead of getting himself into the same predicament when he finished writing The Martian, he decided to release the book online in serial format, posting one chapter at a time for free on his website. That's right . . . for free.

After his fans asked him to sell the entire work as an ebook, he released a Kindle version for 99 cents, which, by the way, is the minimum amount he could sell it for. Cut to years later when Weir sells the rights to the book to Crown Publishing, the hardcover edition debuts on the New York Times best seller list in twelfth place, and Matt Damon walks the red carpet at the movie premier. All of this started online.

Recently, it's become apparent that there's a new wave of writers that recognize the impact a thriving online presence can have on the success of your book. For example, a fellow Emerson graduate is currently building a community of readers as she travels through Europe researching a future novel. Her blog had 43 visitors in September, before she started her social media campaign. In October, she had 251 visitors from all around the world, including Japan, Sweden, Israel, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, France, and Australia. This is all from friends sharing her work with other friends. She hopes to build a solid following, and relay that momentum into a possible book deal down the line. Given how quickly quality content spreads via social media these days, this is absolutely possible.

Should this publishing model strike fear into the hearts of media companies everywhere? Yes and no. While many writers and content creators have proven they can build an online presence and relay that into career success, it's a hard row to hoe. Large companies still have the upper hand based purely on resources. But writers who are going it alone are usually the most creative, and they are finding success by putting their fans' wants and needs first.

Unfortunately, as someone who works in publishing, I often find myself wondering how we can compete with success stories like Andy Weir and The Martian. At this point, considering we're all in this content revolution together, isn't it time we shift the conversation and ask what we can learn from those stories instead?