I left the traditional newspaper world almost six years ago. Now I’ve left the traditional book publishing world, too. The publisher of my new book and website, Mediactive, is me. With the help of a company called Lulu, an enterprise that understands the changes taking place in the publishing world, I’m moving beyond traditional boundaries to figure out what a book is in this digital age.
The publisher that brought out my book, “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People,” a few years ago was planning to publish “Mediactive,” a user’s guide to democratized media. Early this year we parted company, and at that point my literary agent, David Miller, started looking for a new publisher. He told me that the potential field would be limited because I had a non-negotiable requirement: This book, like my first one, had to be published under a Creative Commons license that I use for my work. Under the license I’ve chosen for this project, anyone can make copies of the work for noncommercial use, but if they create derivative works—also only for noncommercial purposes—those works must be made available a) with credit to me and b) under the same license.
My primary goal in using this system is simple: to spread the ideas. There is no better way to achieve this than by offering the book for free downloading and remixing. The financial principle behind the Creative Commons license I’m using is also simple: While I want my work to get the widest possible distribution, if anyone is going to make money on it I’d like that to be me and the people who have worked with me on it.
It’s a rare commercial publisher that would agree to such stipulations. The publishing industry is understandably skeptical, and we’re in the early days of understanding the dynamics of what happens when books are published in this way. Yet almost a decade after Creative Commons was founded, a recent small study of nonfiction book sales found some evidence to support making books freely available. Writing in the Journal of Electronic Publishing, John Hilton III and David Wiley asked “What happens to book sales if digital versions are given away?” The data made them “believe that free digital book distribution tends to increase print sales,” but they also cautioned “this is not a universal law.”
My own experience falls solidly on the side of publishing books this way. Miller explained to editors at publishing houses that the main reason I’m still getting royalty checks for “We the Media,” which was published in 2004, is that the book has been available as a free download since the day it went into bookstores. This is how word about it spreads. Had we not published it in this way, I believe the book would have sunk without a trace—especially given the indifference shown to it by American newspapers and magazines in the weeks and months immediately following publication.
Some editors took the “Mediactive” proposal to their in-house committees that decide whether to buy a book. Several asked me to write what amounted to a different book, which I wasn’t willing to do, in part because the one I was writing was almost finished. And the few publishers that did understand the value of Creative Commons didn’t want to publish my book. One rejection was almost amusing; this editor told my agent that his company’s publicity and marketing people “felt that the major media would avoid the book because of the criticism of their techniques.”
Another major New York publisher—a nearly ideal fit in any number of ways—did offer us a deal. But it came unraveled when the publisher flatly refused to agree to the Creative Commons license—even after we’d offered to drop the advance to zero dollars. With that, our search for a publisher ended. If a principle has meaning, then it meant sticking to it even when I felt tempted not to.
I’m convinced that publishers who aren’t willing to head down the Creative Commons path today will eventually do so. This will happen as they appreciate how profoundly digital media are transforming the business of book publishing—and the book itself. In the current way of thinking amongpublishers, books are what they manufacture and send out in trucks to fill store shelves or in digital files that they rent to their customers—or, more often, to customers of Amazon, Apple and other companies that use proprietary e-reading software to lock the work down in every possible way. In all of these scenarios, publishers still are the gatekeepers, a position they crave and stubbornly defend.
I intend for “Mediactive” to be a multifaceted project—a book plus a lot more. During the next few years I hope to experiment with the ideas I write about in the book in lots of other media formats and styles. Experimentation will also carry them into the ecosystem of ideas that is evolving at an accelerating rate.
After I gave up on the old-line publishers, I contacted Bob Young, Lulu’s founder and CEO. I’ve known him since the days when he started Red Hat, one of the first companies to prove that it was possible to make money with open-source software by providing services. He’s been an ardent supporter of ensuring that the principle of intellectual property offers as much flexibility as possible for creators and users. He’d told me about Lulu several years earlier and suggested that it would be a good fit for me someday, and now was looking like that time.
He put me in touch with Daniel Wideman, Lulu’s director of product management, who told me about the company’s VIP services for established authors making the move to this kind of publishing. He liked what I was trying to accomplish in this project so we talked more until we realized the fit was good. I’d write and then an editor of my choice would help make the text sing. For a fee, Lulu would handle most of the rest of the job, including printing, binding, distribution and some back office tasks.
Lulu isn’t alone in offering this kind of publishing opportunity. In fact, self-publishing as a business is growing quickly, in part because of how traditional publishers are hunkering down. I like Lulu’s vision of its part in the emerging ecosystem so while our publishing partnership comes at a price, it’s worth it.
The publishing timetable works well, too. Had I signed an agreement with an old-line publisher, “Mediactive” would not have reached the marketplace for a year or more from that date. Not only that, but my editor there might not have fully understood what I was trying to say. Besides, it’s unlikely that the publisher would have spent time or money in marketing the book unless it suddenly decided it might have a big hit on its hands. With a company like Lulu, I’m well aware that the marketing is my job. Once the project was finished, the turnaround from manuscript to book was relatively quick. In a fast-moving arena like media, that’s a huge benefit.
Upgrading and Updating
In “Mediactive” I ask readers to think of what they’re looking at as version 1.0—the first major release in what I expect to be an evolving effort. A year from now, I hope to launch “Mediactive 2.0” in print, which will be a fully updated book that takes into account what I’ve learned since publishing the first edition. I’ve asked readers—and will continue to ask them—to be part of this updating process; I count on them to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong and what I’ve missed.
Updates will appear more regularly on the Mediactive website with audio and video interviews, links to resources, and much more, including previous versions of the book’s chapters available alongside the current ones. Thus, the book becomes a subset of the larger project. Initially, the e-book edition will be little more than the printed book with hyperlinks to my source material and other information. Over time, I’ll experiment with making those versions a more immersive digital experience using other media forms.
Along the way, I’m having fun contemplating the question of what a book is—and can become—in the 21st century. I’m exploring a range of issues I had never considered before. For example, I’m still trying to figure out the best way to help people who might have cited a section from the book that’s since been revised. With nonfiction, it’s hard to imagine why an author wouldn’t want to bring new insights and information to an endeavor. We never get things exactly right so this becomes an interesting and important issue in publishing today. What is the baseline when we continue to improve and fix what we’ve written?
All of this speaks to the expanding potential of writing a book in our digital times. It can be a living document—as it should be.
Dan Gillmor is the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This essay is adapted from “Mediactive,” which is copyrighted (as is this essay) under a Creative Commons license.
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