New Directions in Personal Publishing
from point of view to online presence...
|The World Wide Web has made publishing far more accessible to anyone who wants to get into it. But who would want to? Why should anyone care? This article is an attempt to answer some fundamental questions along these lines. Basically, it's an exploration of why people write and what they read for. I hope what follows will surface some not-so-obvious advantages of personal web publishing -- to online authors, to online audiences, and to the sites that host their critical intersection.|
When is a Writer
Not a Writer?
While I often call myself a writer today, I didn't always think of
myself this way. I started out as someone with a point of view that I
wanted very much to express. Combining words into sentences and
sentences into paragraphs just happens to be one way to do that. And
a very effective way at times. But I didn't say to myself, "Gee, I
wonder how I can turn into a writer" -- and then go looking for
something to write about.
The point of view came first.
Similarly, this article isn't intended for people who think of themselves as writers. Quite the contrary. It's for people who might never have seriously considered writing, who can hardly imagine themselves doing such a thing. After all, writing is for journalists and book authors, right?
Well, right and wrong. It used to be that, outside of the occasional letter to the editor, writing was pretty much limited to such professionals. In 1961, media critic A.J. Liebling quipped: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one" -- the obvious implication being that if you didn't own one, you could basically go fish.
But things have changed since then. A lot. If you're reading this on the web, you do "own one." The rest of this is intended to help you figure out how best to use it, to encourage non-writers to write and non-publishers to publish, and to explain the upside of expressing that point of view you care so much about. Of course, if you don't have one of those, then you might as well stop reading right here.
But I'm willing to bet you do.
Anyone with any kind of audience -- consultants, lawyers, teachers, marketing types, small business owners, whatever -- can use the web to stay in touch with current contacts and build a larger network of engaged participants. Of course, this assumes you've got something interesting to say. But writing is funny that way. You often don't know if your point of view is interesting until you express it and get it out there in front of real readers. Some of the things I've written that I thought would surely bomb on the web have instead brought the greatest response. Go figure.
So, having said all that... I've done a fair amount of writing in
my checkered career, and I used to publish much of it in books,
journals and magazines. The homepage link on the left lists a
bunch of this material. With the advent of the World Wide Web,
however, I've tended to write increasingly online. Of the other
examples listed, only The Industry Standard piece (the final
paragraph of which links to what you're reading here) appeared
concurrently in print. It's not that I couldn't publish these
things in a more traditional way. I guess I just like the instant
gratification of seeing my stuff show up on the web right after
I've written it.
This element of immediacy lets me share my current thinking with friends around the Internet while it's still fresh in my mind. Whether the substance of the writing is analytical or expository -- or just plain out to lunch -- I get to engage with people I care about while I still care about whatever it was I had to say. Wisdom for the ages? I'd love to think so, but it's probably not. If I worried about that, I'd probably never write a damn thing.
Entropy Gradient Reversals
EGR: Required Reading for the New Economy
As it turns out, I do write many damn things, and most of the writing
I do these days I publish myself. I put out a zine called Entropy
Gradient Reversals, which today has several thousand subscribers after
two-years-and-change of wheedling and pleading and hounding and
begging -- all just to build up that modest level of readership. As
you can probably tell from the name, it's extremely offbeat. While EGR
has been favorably reviewed in certain quarters, it's certainly not to
everybody's taste, nor do I expect it to be. For present purposes, its
particular gonzo style is not the point. Instead, the point is what
I've learned through the process of personal publishing online. I'll
be speaking from that experience here.
OK, enough of prologue and preamble. On with the show...
Zine! It's a red hot neologism, very much associated these days with the razzle-dazzle wonders of the Internet. If you look into where the word came from, though, you'll no doubt also encounter "fanzine," which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as follows:
An amateur-produced fan magazine distributed by mail to a subculture readership and devoted to the coverage of interests such as science fiction, rock music, or skateboarding.Internet zines evolved from paper zines that largely focused on heavy metal music and other phenomena that were once considered far-out or fringe. The subculture connotation still carries a lot of weight, especially online, and many assume that a "web zine" worth its salt must demonstrate plenty of disgruntled spleen to qualify for the title. While EGR would have to plead guilty to this association, the term zine is in many ways unfortunate, as there's a lot more breadth and depth to online authorship these days. In addition to whacked-out humor and mad-dog opinion, so-called zines currently cover a very broad range of subject matter from topical news analysis to technical product reviews to business and investment advice.
Whatever you call it, writing on the Internet remains, first and foremost, writing. No matter what the theme or perspective, the motivation to communicate is still primary.
While today's web technology greatly facilitates publication -- in the broadest sense of getting your writing into the hands of potential readers -- people have been doing this sort of thing for a lot longer than we've had networks, computers, electricity, or even printing presses. Electronic publishing is only the latest wrinkle in a long and unbroken chain of cultural endeavor.
The link to the left attempts a quick and dirty reconnaissance of this
deep background. From the epics and histories of Homer and Herodotus
to the essays of Montaigne and Thoreau to the flood of memoirs
populating today's bookshelves, the tradition of writing stretches
from the haziest past into the most cutting-edge electronic present.
Whether ancient or modern, these writings have attempted to tell a
story, argue a belief, defend a theory, explain how something works,
or retell some moving life experience.
Perhaps this is all too obvious, but it seems worth remembering that people who write on the web are not just following in the footsteps of punk-rock zinesters with surly attitudes, but also of bards and balladeers, poets and troubadours, novelists, dramatists, essayists, journalists, all of whom have had one thing in common: a point of view that they were deeply driven to express.
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It may seem odd to compare great literature to what's on the web
today. However, I suspect there are major new talents brewing here. If
you just look at the numbers, there have to be. After all, anyone
who's ever become a celebrated writer started out as someone nobody
had ever heard of. But shooting for superstardom is hardly the
recommended place to begin. Celebrated writers did one thing often and
well: they wrote. And every one without exception started with a blank
sheet of paper and no credentials.
Note the word "amateur" in the definition above. We tend to think of this as meaning greenhorn, someone who doesn't really know the ropes. A related word, slightly more pejorative, is "dilettante" -- someone who practices a craft or studies a field in which he or she is not a recognized professional. But the etymological roots of these words tell a different story. Amateurs do what they do for love (from the Latin amare), while dilettantes do it for sheer delight (from the Italian dilettare by way of the Latin delectare). Passion for the work is a quality professionals often lose -- one reason Zen Buddhism puts great stock in what it terms "beginner's mind."
The Internet is home to many such amateur writers today. Thousands of authors -- some quite gifted -- who are very largely unknown. For readers addicted to bestseller lists, this is a big problem. They want that reassuring imprimatur from The New York Review of Books, or at least the nod from Oprah or Amazon, before they'll "waste their time" checking out new stuff.
But there's also a new kind of audience online. Some of these readers are hungry for a different kind of fare than they tend to find in bookstores or magazine racks. Despite the ancient claim of The New York Times, all the news simply doesn't fit. Or perhaps they're just looking for "the free stuff." For established authors, the latter isn't much of a draw. For writers just getting started, or seeking to broaden their readership, it represents a major opportunity.
The web is a kind of proving ground for the latter class of authors. The best will go on to achieve serious recognition, both online and in more traditional media. The best aspect of this recognition is that it will be directly based on the appreciation of Internet audiences instead of being determined by a steep hierarchy of agents, publishing scouts and marketing VPs, all attempting to leverage trend projections and abstract demographic data.
In contrast to conventional publishing, the web offers something more like the broadsides that writers once used to distribute ballads and political tracts, or the Hyde Park soapbox from which anyone could express an opinion.
However, if your primary motivation is financial gain, there isn't much prospect of immediate payoff in publishing on the web. Yes, there are people making good money by writing online today. But most of these are hired guns who pen whatever pays so much per word. There's nothing wrong with freelance journalism, of course, and some of the resulting work is very good. It just isn't the main focus of this article, which is writing that matters deeply to you.
Wishful thinking aside, it's tough to get anyone to pay you for this kind of writing. Unless you already have an impressive portfolio of published work to show, there are probably better ways to get rich quick. Like selling apples on the street corner. If you're convinced you are writing the Great American Novel or the definitive investment newsletter on trading pork belly futures, you're probably not going to want to put this stuff online for nothing.
But that's precisely what I do. And it's not because I think my stuff is junk -- though trust me, there are vast differences of opinion on that score. Instead, I publish EGR without charge because:
I'll talk more about (a) in advantages below, but let's check out (b) for a moment...
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It's often said that the Internet routes around obstacles. One such
obstacle for writers has always been the challenge of getting into
print. Before we turn to personal publishing on the web, let's take a
look at some of the traditional obstacles this new option enables
writers -- at least a certain class of writers -- to route around.
Conventional HurdlesEven if you know you can get paid for your writing -- and I've gotten paid plenty for much of mine -- there are other good reasons to publish on the web rather than through traditional channels. One I've already mentioned: immediacy. I write something; I put it on the EGR website. No waiting. Another is that you don't need to ask permission.
The permission you must obtain when attempting to publish on paper takes several forms. The first is convincing an editor that your writing deserves to see daylight. Quite often, he or she will not immediately perceive your brilliance, or will react to your fevered pitch with a perplexing (to you) degree of boredom. Unless you get a green light at this level, dream on.
But even when I've managed to achieve the requisite mind-meld with an editor, and submitted what I knew was a dynamite article, I've often had to deal with copy editors who were not only massively ignorant of the subject material, but who also insisted on turning good English into bad. Being made to look like a drooling idiot in public is a high price to pay for getting your name on a byline. Of course, this doesn't always happen -- just often enough to count.
The highest level of permission involves what's called "peer review," whereby a committee of your colleagues supposedly assess your work on its inherent merits. There is no more politics involved in this process than there is in, say, a presidential election. Some depend on journals that use this procedure to advance academic careers and, ultimately they hope, attain the shining grail of tenure.
Am I ever glad I don't have to deal with that! As long as my stuff is online, and I can point someone to it, that's all I care about. Professional confirmation is nice, but it often comes accompanied by subtle, hidden costs.
|Common Knowledge or Superior Ignorance?||
Then again, sometimes these costs are not so subtle. The article called out on the left cost me my job when it appeared in print. Published in an official IEEE Computer Society journal, it made hamburger of several cows sacred to Carnegie Mellon University, where I was then employed. Some subjects are simply out-of-bounds -- especially for non-degreed grunts like myself. The amazing thing is that I got it past the editors at all. Today, I could just publish it on the web -- and lose my job without all that extra hassle!
I still write occasionally for magazines, and naturally, I love seeing something I've written appear in print -- especially when the check really is in the mail. However, when I want to stretch out and explore as a writer, with no boundaries or barriers, nothing beats writing online.
Online HurdlesBut wait. Let me qualify that a little more. There are many ways of writing on the Internet: email discussion lists, Usenet newsgroups, web conferencing systems, homepages, and zines. My own evolution has led me through each of these, and I arrived at the zine form mostly out of frustration with the others.
Among the best online zines that have managed this sort of full-bore
integration are Salon, Feed, and Microsoft's Slate. These are
established commercial enterprises today, not shoestring startups
founded by struggling writers. They are very good at what they do. And
the primary thing they do is integrate extended writing -- a la
conventional magazine articles -- with audience feedback. The rub
however, is that they get to write the articles and you get to feed
If you want to write the articles yourself, the answer is clearly personal publishing -- starting your own zine or whatever else you might prefer to call it. There are costs and hurdles here as well. You will have to learn HTML and FTP, or purchase software tools that will help you to format your stuff correctly and somehow get it onto a web site. Speaking of which, you'll need a web site. And possibly a domain name. You'll also need a way to collect subscriptions and some sort of list server to manage email updates, notices and interactive exchanges. Possibly, you'll need full web conferencing capability.
These requirements can quickly become too expensive for anyone who isn't able to count on an immediate and steady cashflow from their personal publishing efforts. Bummer. So anything you can do to reduce this outlay is clearly a plus. The three web sites linked at the left are examples of a new category of Internet business models that provide alternatives worth checking out in this respect. Each offers free web space as well as various tools to facilitate personal publishing and audience development.
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|Daunting as these obstacles may seem, they have not entirely deterred personal publishing on the web. Far from it. As the hurdles are not insignificant, this fact alone speaks volumes. In the minds of many authors, the opportunity to publish independently online, unconstrained by external rules and restrictions, has obviously played a larger role than the challenges.|
||Examples are abundant and there are several excellent catalogs of such sites. However, I want to point to just a handful of online publications as examples of what specific authors are doing with the medium. Each of the following four personal publishing initiatives represents a very different approach to subject matter and overall objectives.|
1. Cool Tool
Carton Donofrio Interactive
Sean Carton wears many hats, under one of which he writes Cool Tool of
the Day, a site that points out some useful software application or
resource every day of the week. As if that weren't enough, he also
writes regular weekly columns for ClickZ and Who's Marketing Online. Plus he runs a
business, Carton Donofrio Interactive.
Is this man hyperactive or just plain nuts? The answer is: neither. This herculean publishing work attracts substantial traffic to his real business, which is selling web site and CD-ROM development as well as online marketing advice. This is critically important. It's easy to fall into thinking that online publishing doesn't pay. But even if readers won't fork over a subscription fee to read what you write -- and most will not -- that doesn't mean there's no payoff.
|2. Online Insider||
I worked at MCI and IBM at the same time as Robert Seidman, author of
the eponymous Seidman's Online Insider. This newsletter-cum-website
appeals to investors as well as those simply interested in how the
various online services, portals and major web content providers are
Robert has amassed a very substantial readership and has achieved guru status among both vendors and investors. In addition to consulting, he recently began selling analytic reports for serious money -- over 1000 bucks a pop. I'm sure he'd agree, this would probably not have been possible without the substantial visibility -- and credibility -- his online newsletter and web site initially provided.
|3. This is True||
Randy Cassingham writes This is True, an email newsletter that recasts
humorous bits that have appeared in the traditional press and adds his
particular spin to each. Unlike the utility of the previous two
examples, this is pure entertainment. It's also happens to be
brilliant social commentary. And it works at a practical level as
In addition to a disgustingly large free circulation -- he knows I'm jealous -- Randy offers a premium for-pay edition of the newsletter. He also self-publishes past issues collected into books, which he sells from his web site. He lives entirely off the proceeds of these revenue streams, plus speaking engagements and consulting.
The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization is a webzine published by
David Weinberger, who used to work at Interleaf and Open Text. He's
also a regular commentator on National Public Radio. JOHO is a strange
animal, part twisted humor, part serious analysis of crucial
information management issues. It's readership includes people working
in various quarters of this field, who follow JOHO both for its
substance and for its author's razor-sharp wit.
EGR and JOHO trade humorous barbs at every opportunity, but there's more going on here than virtual stand-up comedy. David and I are consciously intersecting two distinct audiences and seeing what happens from their convergence. If we made any money from our publishing efforts, we'd be competitors instead, which wouldn't be any fun at all.
All of these online publications began without much hope of large returns, but in one way or another they have repaid their authors very well.
When I started publishing Entropy Gradient Reversals in May of 1994, all I knew was that I wanted to write again. I couldn't publish in the so-called legitimate press because I would have had to tout the wonders of my then-employers' fabulous products. And I would much rather have set my hair on fire.
Since then, I've reaped all kinds of benefits from writing EGR, even though I foresaw none of these perks in advance. Let me tick off a quick half dozen here before wrapping this up. These examples are obviously from my own experience, but I think they speak to the advantages of personal publishing in general.
While most of this article has focused on the personal advantages of online publishing, a final few words are in order on a larger set of benefits. Personal web publishing can be a powerful vector for porting -- maybe I should say sneaking -- new ideas into large organizations, which due to their size and bureaucratic structure, are often slow to change. It can be a significant source of valuable concepts, perspectives and techniques that may not yet have been accepted -- or even thought of -- by the mainstream press. Of course, critical reading is required to sort dross from gold, but when was this ever not the case?
Personal publishing also enriches the public sphere, providing a broader spectrum of opinion than would otherwise be available. This is one of the greatest gains society stands to realize from the Internet phenomenon. Everyone knows that free speech is central to democracy, but no one benefits unless that speech is exercised, or if it is exercised only by a few companies able to pay the high cost of entry into the ranks of the mass media.
Finally, the overall economy stands to benefit by the creation of valuable new products and services. At least some of the niche audiences of today will grow into substantial commercial markets tomorrow. Because it is not only the Microsofts, Netscapes and Newscorps of the world who can play this game. Online, as never before, the marketplace will judge what constitutes genuine value. And in the case we've been considering here, the emerging market consists of avid readers. Readers ready for something different, something smarter, something better than what they've been offered so far.