Not that long ago, getting published was the big hurdle for a writer to overcome. You could produce all you wanted, but unless you knew how to get somebody to read your random submission, or you were rich enough to self-publish, your writing lived in a drawer, waiting for you to give it to a friend who doesn’t want to read it.
It’s hard to believe how fast technology has opened publishing up to people. Now, anyone with an opinion has a platform, and while it’s as tough as ever to make a living writing, the platform, in many cases, is totally free. So that changes the hurdle from publication to recognition. If everybody has a voice, how do you get heard?
This isn’t just a question of red-hot opinions on social media. The explosion of e-book publishing has enabled writers of all kinds and all backgrounds, and without a character restriction. Whether it’s through a blog, an e-book, or whatever, the gatekeeper has started to disappear, and to a writer who likes getting published, that prospect is thrilling.
But a new gatekeeper has replaced the old. The driving force of the explosion has been the Amazon Kindle. Since it was first issued in 2007, Kindle titles have taken an increasingly large share of the industry, and now make up nearly 20% of all book sales, not just e-books.
That’s astonishingly fast, and the publishing industry has been dragged kicking and screaming behind. It’s easy to see how it could be a painful transition for them. There’s no physical copy to print and they’re out of the distribution game, so publishers naturally make less per book sold than they had in the past. Amazon made deals advantageous to themselves, of course, but sales have continued to increase. The downside is that issues have arisen as a result of Amazon trying to strong-arm publishers who don’t want to play ball.
By the same token, writers make less in royalties than they once did, as well. That’s the sad part, I guess, but the positive side is that more people are writing and more ideas are floating around, which is a beautiful thing and vital to the advancement of culture. It also presents a brand new problem for the industry: information overload.
As long as there was traditional publishing, there was a structure in place to determine what writing was deemed “worthy” of printing. It kept dangerous or controversial views out of the public, sure, but it also filtered out the garbage. Academic publishing still has its review system in place to make sure a work is suitable to print, but the non-academic side now has little to no filter.
Let’s face it; for all the good that open access to publication can do for society, it also means that one may have to wade through a lot of it to find high-quality, relevant material. So the question becomes how to access it so that every time you want to find something, you don’t have to filter through a large amount of irrelevant and useless material. It’s for this reason that data management has become so vital. Its use has resulted in revolutionary new ways to look at publishing.
The basic fact of having an individual platform is big enough. But there are larger, more groundbreaking efforts to take advantage of the opportunities the technology has afforded us. Norway, for instance, is in the process of digitizing all of its books, all of them, to make them available online to anyone with a Norwegian IP address; the Digital Public Library of America is a growing resource connecting libraries across the country; and the Public Library of Science has turned the paradigm of academic publishing on its ear.
The concept of the digital library isn’t new. Project Gutenberg has been around since 1971. Little did we know back then what kind of value that might have. It’s only becoming clear now that analytic software has become so advanced. For Amazon, books were a means to mine customer data for other products. Now, that kind of data mining is commonplace. It doesn’t have to be about sales, though. In these library projects, that same level of data mining can be used for all sorts of purposes, from recommending new reading materials to a better understanding of a student’s learning habits.
The potential in these projects is limitless, and it takes innovative thinkers to look for patterns and derive ways to utilize them. But the most important thing to me is that what I write, what anybody writes, can be published and accessed for all to see in one form or another if somebody is interested. After all, if I want to read about new methods in cancer treatment or some crazy person ranting about aliens, I should have that right, and so should everyone.