Into the Digital Future

SHARP Affiliate Organization Panel at MLA
“Into the Digital Future: Amazon, Apple, and Google Make Book History”
Vancouver Convention Center West 121
Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Book Trade from the Perspective of Its Businesses: Recent Developments
Daniel Raff, Univ. of Pennsylvania

This talk will survey the evolution of channels of distribution for long-form reading matter and the relationship of channel actors to their customers from the mid-1990s to the present. It will begin with the growth of “superstore” bookstore chains in the 1990s, probing the consequences of this for mall-based chains and independent bookstores and also the internal impediments to profitability and further growth the chains developed as the 90s wore on. The possible and actual histories of online bookselling will be sketched, from the early 1990s roots through the near catastrophe of the early post-millennium years to the present. The current state of play is one in which the number of independents       is much diminished, the principal mall chains have been absorbed by larger entities, Borders (with its captive mall chain) has gone bankrupt, Barnes & Noble is troubled, and Amazon’s book sales and market share are flourishing with many of the “books” it is selling being electronic files readable only on Amazon-sold and -controlled devices. The legacy publishers are very worried, with, as the recent and ongoing struggles between Amazon and selected major publishers this calendar year have shown, good reason. Amazon’s resources and competitive strategy—as these have developed, as they have the firm currently situated, and the opportunities they have created for Amazon and other collective actors going forward—will be characterized in a way that will situate the discussion in the papers by Laquintano and Sickmann to follow.

Amazon Et. Al.: Self-Publishing and the New Intermediaries
Tim Laquintano Assistant Professor of English Lafayette College

This presentation will begin by profiling the meteoric rise of self-publishing and its growing role in the contemporary publishing economy (recent estimates suggest 30% of Amazon’s best selling ebooks are self-published). Then, working from the premise that digital giants (e.g., Amazon) have become key intermediaries in the publishing chain, it will attempt to theorize, in a grounded way, how the “new intermediaries” shape the work of self-publishing ebook authors. The presentation draws on ethnographic interview data from a six-year study of seventy ebook authors to show how digital distributions systems impinge on the relationship of writers and readers. It pays particular attention to how the affordances of such systems (publishing policies, payment systems, metadata) shape the production of writers and their attempts to foster the circulation of their texts. It ultimately aims to advance a burgeoning discussion about how writers negotiate new models and possibilities for publishing.

Co-Creating Fictional Worlds Online: Hugh Howey and Kindle Publishing
Carrie Sickmann Han, Indiana University

Hugh Howey’s bestselling science fiction series, The Silo Saga, is attracting attention in the book industry for its unique online publishing history. What began as a short story published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP) quickly grew to a three-novel series (all first published using KDP) when an enthusiastic readership took advantage of online forums to demand more. Despite an unparalleled deal with Simon & Schuster that allows Howey to retain electronic rights to the books after they appear in print, Howey adamantly rejects any claim to exclusive rights to the fictional characters, events, and worlds he creates. He actively denounces Digital Rights Management (DRM) and encourages readers to use his fictional worlds as springboards for their commercial publications. Howey’s view of fiction as “a potentially collaborative affair” is gaining popularity with digital authors and readers, and major publishers like Amazon are responding by developing platforms that encourage readers to become co-creators of their favorite stories. By tracking Howey’s innovative use of Amazon’s newest publishing platforms, this paper will argue that we’re progressing towards a digital future that treats fiction as co-created, interactive, expanding worlds that extend beyond a single book or author.