Writers on Martha’s Vineyard catch the new wave of publishing

John Sundman of Tisbury — author, blogger, and digital theorist. — Photo courtesy of John Sundman

Lewis Carroll would be happy. The world of writing and publishing books today is a maddening muddle of long shots and unbounded opportunity in a cacophonous co-existence that stumps the Alices, who crave orderliness, but would make The Mad Hatters among us feel right at home.

An extraordinary evening of discussion by industry professionals (authors, agents, investors, literary savants) at the Vineyard Haven Public Library late last month outlined the scope of change to date and took a look at what’s to come in the once orderly and hushed world of book publishing.

First take-away: if your idea of an author is a starving writer in a monastic garret churning out the Next Big One… not so fast. The starving part may be right, but unless his garret is wired for high-speed Internet and streaming video, he’ll miss the constant chatter on Facebook, Twitter, and email that’s critical to even moderate success in a world where “Author” is no longer a valid job title unless it’s combined with “Entrepreneur.”

The panel at the library was moderated by David Wilk, a publisher, digital observer and theorist, blogger, and entrepreneur. Other participants were Dan Burstein, digital theorist, technology investor, entrepreneur, and author (“Secrets of the Code”); Nicole Galland, author of three historical novels and a contributor to “The Mongoliad,” an online collaborative writing project; and John Sundman, blogger (Wetmachine), author (“Acts of the Apostles…”) and digital theorist. A digital theorist tries to figure out where media and communication are headed.

Mr. Wilk set the stage. “Books [are the] result of intellectual interplay and manufacturing what is possible,” he said. “The advent of digital publishing results from technology, not as a result of a consumer desire to read digitally.

“The Internet has changed retail. Years ago, 8,000 retail outlets, including 5,000 independents were the distribution network. Now only 2,000 independents remain, and Border’s has closed 800 stores. Ironically, we have the greatest number of books in the history of humanity and a weird funnel through which 375,000 books a year compete for shelf space that can handle 30,000.”

Mr. Burstein is also a realist with skin in the game. In addition to writing the “Secrets of …” series, which has sold some three million copies, he runs a venture capital company to finance media projects. “My thinking has changed as a writer, reader, consumer, and investor in media firms. For example, many $200 textbooks are rented for the semester for $50.” He added that some schools are doing away with printed texts altogether.

“In the future, we’ll see beyond the book and more as a package of ideas,” Mr. Burstein said. “We seem to be building an ecosystem around the book with chats and author involvement that wasn’t economically possible in the print/bookstore (model).”

Mr. Sundman likes being an author/entrepreneur. “Most of my work is technical in nature,” he said, noting that he was a self-publisher. “MIT and CalTech are among my biggest accounts.”

When Random House called with interest in one of his books, Mr. Sundman was off to New York with visions of sugar plums. He was offered gruel. And turned it down. “The deal they offered would have produced less (income) than what I was doing by myself,” he said.

Perhaps the most complete picture of authoring joined at the hip with technology is “The Mongoliad,” a collaborative online writing project in which Ms. Galland participates. The experimental fiction follows the exploits of a small group of fighters and mystics in medieval Europe during the Mongol conquests.

Brainchild of author/entrepreneur Neal Stephenson, the work is intended primarily as a series of applications (“apps”) for smart phones, which the creators view as a new model for publishing storytelling. At the project’s core is a narrative of adventure fiction.

Here’s the big news: in addition to writers like Ms. Galland, collaborators include filmmakers, computer programmers, graphic artists, martial artists, and combat choreographers, video game designers, and a professional editor. Much of the content of “The Mongoliad” will be in forms other than text, not bound to any single medium and not in the service of the central narrative. Once the project develops momentum, the creators envision fans of the work contributing to and expanding both the narrative and the fictional universe in which it takes place. A plan to actually publish the serial in book form is under discussion, Ms. Galland said.

Since “The Mongoliad” was introduced online in the fall of 2010, its creators continue to polish the platform on which the idea is based. “We are definitely going to have a second season,” Ms. Galland said. She didn’t mention anything about plans for Mongolaid wearables.

“More reading and writing is done today than ever before,” Mr. Burstein said. “My conclusion is that amazing, positive things are happening. It’s a robust, exciting world.”

Still, Mr. Burstein has reservations. “The new world could wreak havoc on institutions like libraries and businesses built around bookstores,” he said. “And you can’t lend a Kindle book — or throw one.”

Ms. Galland crystallized a bittersweet undertone to the lively, informative discussion. “I feel like I’m caught up in a current, a positive current,” she said at one point. However, she added later, “I also feel like an innocent, doing what I’m told.”