Whatever medium you’re using to read these words, it’s not part of the traditional publishing industry. Some of the folks in that business aren’t thrilled with one of the ways I try to spread my ideas. My publisher is me, with the help of a company called Lulu, an enterprise that understands the changes the publishing world.
Some background: In late 2009, when I started serious work on the book part of this project, I was under contract to the publisher that brought out We the Media a few years ago. We parted company early in 2010, at which point my literary agent—the beyond-terrific David Miller of the Garamond Agency—started looking for a new publisher.
David told me at the outset that the potential field would be limited because I had a non-negotiable requirement: The book had to be published under a Creative Commons license, as We the Media had been, and publishers comfortable with Creative Commons (like my former publisher) are rare. For both books the Creative Commons license says, essentially, that anyone can make copies of the work for non-commercial use, and that if they create derivative works—also only for non-commercial purposes—those works must be made available a) with credit to me and b) under the same license.
The principle is simple: While I want my writing 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.
Almost a decade after Creative Commons was founded, and despite ample evidence that licensing copyrighted works this way doesn’t harm sales, book publishers remain mostly clueless about this option, or hostile to it. As David explained to editors, the main reason I’m still getting royalty checks for We the Media is that the book has been available as a free download since the day it went into bookstores. This is how word about it spread. Had we not published it that way, given the indifference (at best) shown by American newspapers and magazines, the book would have sunk without a trace.
That logic persuaded no one at the major publishing houses (not that we got that far in most cases—more about that below). And to my regret, the Creative Commons roadblock forced me to turn down a deal from a publisher in New York that would have been perfect for this project had I been writing a traditional book in a traditional way, and nothing more.
But this project isn’t just a book; at least, not in the way most publishers understand books, even as they dabble online. And if a principle means anything to you, you stick by it when doing so is inconvenient, not just when it’s easy.
To publishers, books are items they manufacture and send out to stores in trucks, or computer files they rent to their customers, or customers of Amazon, Apple and other companies that use proprietary e-reading software to lock the work down in every possible way. In both cases, publishers crave being the gatekeepers.
Mediactive aims to be a multifaceted project. Over the next few years I hope to experiment with the ideas here in lots of media formats and styles; to keep track, you can check mediactive.com. And—this is key—I also plan to experiment with this project in the broader context of the emerging ecosystem of ideas.
That ecosystem is evolving at an accelerating rate, and the people who have had specific roles in the one that prevailed in the past—authors, literary agents, speaking agents, editors, publishers and others—are going to have to change with it. Some get this and some don’t, but I’m happy to say that the people I’m working with directly today are definitely in the getting-it category.
Editors from big publishing houses have a habit of rejecting books in what they must believe is a kind way. They say something to this effect: “It’s really interesting and we like Dan a bunch, and while it isn’t for us we’re sure it’ll find a great home with someone else.”
Please, folks. Any competent author would prefer this: “We didn’t like it, and here’s why….” Honest criticism is more helpful.
One reason several editors did offer was a bit surprising. One editor wrote, echoing several others, “The main problem that people had was that they felt that they knew much of the information that Dan was trying to get across.…”
Wow. You mean that people who read and publish books for a living already know the value of deep and thoughtful media use? Right. But one of the major motivations for this project is the ample evidence that way too many other people don’t know this.
Several editors liked elements of what I was doing, and wanted me to expand solely on those, to create a different book from the one I was writing. Right or wrong, I wasn’t willing to abandon what I’d started.
In my days as a newspaper reporter, I learned that the only audience that really counted was my editor. This was a reality in the old world of highly concentrated media, but no more. Any serious writer needs a good editor, but the people who become your audience—and if you do it right, your collaborators—are the ones who really count.
Another “No” had the ring of truth: The publisher’s publicity and marketing people “felt that the major media would avoid the book because of the criticism of their techniques.” That’s one reason I’m writing it….
It was after I turned down the New York publisher’s offer that I contacted Bob Young, Lulu’s founder and CEO. Bob also started Red Hat, one of the first companies to prove that it was possible to make money with open-source software by providing services, and he’s been an ardent supporter of ensuring that what we call “intellectual property” offers as much flexibility for creators and users as possible.
Bob had told me about Lulu several years earlier, and in that conversation he’d suggested it would be a good fit for me someday. Now, we both thought, might be the 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. Daniel said he very much liked what I was trying to accomplish in this new project, and we had several further discussions. In the end it was clear to me that this would indeed be a good fit. I’d do the writing. An editor of my choice would help make the text sing. And Lulu would handle most of the rest of the job, for a fee, including printing, binding and distribution, and some back-office tasks.
Lulu isn’t the only outfit of this kind, by any means. The self-publishing business is growing quickly, in part because the old-line publishers are hunkering down these days. I like the way Lulu sees its own part in the emerging ecosystem. Doing it this way comes at a price, but it’s worth it.
Incidentally, had I signed with a traditional publisher, the book would not have reached the marketplace for a year or more from the date when I signed. With a company like Lulu, you wrap up the project and you’re off to the races. In a fast-moving area like media, that’s a huge benefit to foregoing the standard route.