Trojan Tub Entertainment

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Social Impact of Going Indie

Here is a compelling blog post by independent author David Gaughran, who apart from his fiction writes probably the best blog out there on independent publishing. Gaughran makes the case that the future of publishing belongs to those going indie:

The problem for large publishers…is that they are transitioning from a marketplace where they controlled distribution to one where they don’t. The digital playing field is wide open and, for the first time, the publishing conglomerates are facing real competition from a horde of hungry self-publishers, savvy small publishers, as well as, of course, Amazon.

You can read Gaughran’s post to check out the numbers that back up this claim. Among those statistics:

For the last few months, indies were responsible for between a third and a quarter of the top-selling e-books on Amazon.

That’s a significant loss in market share for traditional publishers, to put it mildly.

As I mentioned yesterday on the Facebook page of my company, Trojan Tub Entertainment, last I week I called into the Kojo Nnamdi Show, a local Washington D.C. radio talk show, which was featuring a panel discussion on the rise of e-books. I wanted to respond to one of the panelist’s observations that the rise of e-books (even apart from independent publishing) threatens traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores and the culture they foster and sustain. As I told the panel, I am in no way eager for the loss of traditional bookstores. As long as they’re selling coffee, they provide something rapidly disappearing from our culture: shared public space in which to relax, talk, read, learn. Yet at the same time, I don’t want to be romantic about contemporary bookstores. Most of them don’t really provide a rich “cafĂ© culture,” however good the lattes may be. But the panelist did raise an issue worth thinking about:

What’s the social impact of the rise of the e-book, and of the scores of independent authors and publishers, like myself, who are capitalizing on the technology? As more and more of the reading experience goes, as it were, “underground” to the Internet, is it a net loss or net gain when it comes to creating communities? In my call to the Kojo Nnamdi Show I claimed that the independent authors and their readers are forming vibrant virtual communities. The website on which Gaughran piece appears,, is just one of many sites and blogs where such communities are being formed. But is this an exaggeration? Can we really call these communities? Or are they simply marketplaces?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile, a final note from Gaughran’s piece:

As more business shifts online and to digital (and this Christmas will be huge in that regard), large publishers are going to suffer even more as, for the first time, a significant portion of their business is going to be subjected to the kind of competition they were shielded from through their control of the print distribution network.

If true, this is a powerful point about tectonic shifts in the field of book distribution. But even if it's true, what’s the social impact?


  1. It seems that this is a both-and problem. Virtual spaces host interactions between people that do, in many ways, bear many of the hallmarks of a community. This is especially true of a community's intellectual elements: a person can participate in a vibrant and enlivening running discourse on the internet. He can search out others whose opinions he values and whose beliefs he shares. His interaction with those people, however actively or passively pursued, provides a good deal of the value of a traditional community.

    But at the same time, there are a good many things that a virtual space cannot provide. To be somewhat banal, a virtual space is not actually a space: it does not provide a venue in which physically to engage in any activity. I cannot share a pint with anyone through a combox. Likewise, because participation in a virtual community involves interface through a computer, I fail to see how it could provide the same manner of implied pedagogical value as a physical community. By this I point to the fact that children's observance of their parents' and other family members' and neighbors' participation in certain acts at certain times in certain places is an important way that children learn assorted norms. But because online interactions involve temporally and physically disconnected actions and, perhaps most importantly, are largely unintelligible to non-participating observers, they cannot have the same pedagogical effects.

    The internet is a fantastic tool for learning and interacting with far-flung individuals. But even if it is a nice supplement to them, it is a poor substitute for a good pub, library, book store, parish, or park bench.

  2. Thanks, Titus, for your thoughtful comment. No doubt this is, at bottom, a both/and problem. Yet as you say, there is a hierarchy. The internet is no substitute for the pub, library, parish, park bench, or bookstore. It can supplement these truly public spaces, but not (effectively) take their place.

    But your comment inspired me to think more deeply about the nature of the book, both as traditionally bound and as ebook. It strikes me that the primary function of the book (qua artifact) is to make communication and learning transportable. Even if lodged permanently in a given location--like a manuscript in a monastery in the Middle Ages--the point of the traditionally bound book is to facilitate the passing on of knowledge. In this light, it strikes me that the ebook is not essentially different from the traditionally bound book. Both are "machines" (in the most literal sense of a "made thing"). It is just that one of the machines uses electricity and the other uses ink and paper and glue. And both are artifacts designed to create a community not only of those in physical proximity, but also of those existing "elsewhere." Such that when I pick up a volume of Aristotle in English translation off my shelf, I am entering into community with not only Aristotle himself, but his editors and translators and commentators from the ancient world to the present.

    The point of the book, then, in any of its forms, is not so much about where it is lodged, but about the intellectual community--gathered here, there and elsewhere--that it helps bring into being. Not that it isn't nice to have a bookstore or library to read and gather in, but the nature of the book itself is always to reach out to potential communities beyond these walls.

    In thinking about all this I am drawing on fading memories of Hugh Kenner's engaging little book, THE ELSEWHERE COMMUNITY.

  3. I continue to think, perhaps for purely romantic reasons, that ebooks and physical books are not inherently interchangeable. But the gloss regarding an ebook's capacity to permit one's participation in the intellectual community of People Who Read This Book, which you present in your comment, professor, I will agree with entirely.

  4. But sed contra, Titus, it might be said that, as artifacts, the printed book is in some ways superior to the ebook--certainly in terms of beauty. My Kindle is handy and makes many books effortlessly portable, but I don't want to gaze upon it simply for its own sake as I do a well-made book. Not yet, anyway.