An Online Publishing Revolution?

Written by Tom Bensley.

I’ve been trying to work out whether or not there’s a publishing revolution on right now. If there is, it’s one that couldn’t exist without the internet, social media and, oddly, a lot of free content. It’s also one that established and best-selling authors are getting on board with. Literary giants such as Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carrol Oates and recently Stephen King are on Twitter, tweeting regularly (Oates just 2 minutes ago; Rushdie’s taking a break to finish writing a book; King’s been busy sparking controversy) under no obligation. So maybe, that’s the way things are headed for the publication industry.

There was a publishing revolution after WW2, when major capital cities in affluent parts of the world lay in ruins and the demand for lost, destroyed and as-of-yet-unwritten information was high. The major publishing companies which survived the war took on this demand and flourished because of it. Penguin distributed paperbacks to soldiers in the war and published information on military equipment, while Alfred A. Knopf sent one of the first publishers to Europe after the war to discover and promote European literature, and W.W. Norton donated 123 million books to military servicemen. At this time, print was the best way to distribute information and even a method to rebuild history. Companies at the time had to find new ways to promote and sell literature.

“New” is pretty much the key word for online publishing.  Not only in regards to blogging and posting on social networks, but opportunities for publishing on the internet continue to expand rapidly. And, despite this supposedly being a generation of short attention spans, much of this writing is long form, given the internet’s infinite space.

But a lot of writing online doesn’t point to any kind of publishing revolution. If there is one, it’s because now is being touted the golden age of self- and independent publishing. More than a decade ago, an author’s best deal was to be picked up by a major publishing house who wanted to buy and sell their work. This meant the author’s name was going to be out there, that they would be in a better financial position to focus on writing and able to let their employer handle the rest. But since self-promotion has become easier and more commonplace, the self-publishing route has turned a few more heads and new independent publishing houses are making themselves known, recruiting debut authors. Are writers now getting better at publicising themselves than the employers of the previous generation ever were?

Flavourwire’s list on some of the best indie publishing houses shows that, while the best-selling authors might still rule the markets, literary work is finding a new comfort zone. And while Forbes magazine’s Jeff Bercovici stated that this is the end of the era of the book, Paul Carr from Tech Crunch shot back and claimed the opposite, that in fact online publishing has caused book sales to thrive. Meanwhile, self-publishing golden-boy Hugh Howie has been working on a manifesto, detailing, if he was in charge, how he’d be running the major publishing houses and Penelope Trunk (hugely successful blogger-cum-author) tells the internet why she picked self-publishing over a major book deal.

It might be hasty to call this a revolution. Especially because, when it comes to the internet, it’s hard to tell what’s actually a big deal and what just happens to be getting lots of shares and retweets that week. But the broad discussion on the topic feels like, at least, the beginnings of something.

I think Rushdie, Oates and King logging onto Twitter shows that even those who’ve been around forever need to get online just to keep up. Maybe they want to be part of the revolution too.


Writes for Blaire Magazine

Tom’s work appears in the O’week (2015), Awkward, Time, O’week (2014) Space, and March editions of WORDLY Magazine.

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