What does being a “published author” mean in a digital age?

Laplace by Harold Hoyer

Laplace by Harold Hoyer

“Published author” is used all over the place, but is a slippery beast to define. At South by Southwest I heard it dozens of times, and I’m not sure any two people used it exactly the same way. Hearing it at the Wiley Author Party was very different from hearing it at digital publishing panels, or just talking with people about it over beers.

Do you have to charge for your book to be “published”? Does it have to be in print? Can a PDF ebook download on a website qualify? It’s all shades of gray, but since the term is so prevalent I thought I could pin it down.

I started the discussion with a Google+ discussion, then followed it up in our weekly Books & Beer video chat. Things got interesting.

How does someone qualify as a published author?

Here is where I started, with a list of things that seemed like a reasonable litmus test:

  • Work can be digital or print – Digital-only publication is well able to support an author as a career. Trees need not die in your name.
  • Self-publishing is still publishing – A contract with a big publishing house may be cool, but is no longer required. Most of the same work needs to happen, and the end result is often the same.
  • Work must be available in a major outlet(s) – Could be Amazon.com, iBooks, or the end-cap at Barnes & Noble. Readers should be able to have easy access to get your work in the largest marketplaces. A PDF ebook download on your website can take a long time to create, but people aren’t going to find it while shopping.
  • Must have an ISBN number – This is table stakes, even if you’re self-publishing. It makes you easily compatible with all major book tracking systems, and isn’t a step you can skip just because you’re flying solo.
  • Price is irrelevant – Books have multiple funding models, and there is great published material out there available for free. You do not have to be charging the reader.

Two things I intentionally left off this list after some debate:

  • Quality doesn’t matter – There is a lot of junk in the ebook market, but there has been junk on bookshelves since Gutenberg finished his little project. Probably before. This is always the amusing asterisk when someone brags they are a published author – “published” has never guaranteed someone is any damned good.
  • Word count doesn’t matter – I struggled with this one, because a 10,000 word short-story could legitimately be a popular published work, so why not 9,000? 8? Part of me feels there should be some lower level to this, but I’m having a hard time justifying it or deciding what it should be.

Does this represent a good threshold for someone to consider themselves a “published author”? Most people seemed to agree it was, but a few people asked whether the number of copies you sold should factor in. Do you need to sell any at all? This is a question of reach, and probably gets closer to a discussion of quality. If “published author” just means you’ve accomplished some technical steps, how many books you actually sell is a different (but valid) discussion.

Where things really got interesting were from people who said the whole topic was meaningless.

Why define published author at all?

105119 by El Bibliomata

105119 by El Bibliomata

Not having been around the publishing sphere much prior to things going digital I looked at the term as some measure of technical experience.

I never saw it as a mark of quality, as I’ve known fantastic unpublished authors and horrible published ones, but more like a merit badge for having navigated the halls of publishing, contracts, writing deadlines, editing, and all those hoops you have to jump through to get your book on a shelf. Not everyone sees it that way. At all.

I ran headlong into some very raw feelings about the term, and the impression that many people use it simply to be exclusionary or elitist. I’d already noticed people often defined it so that whatever they had previously accomplished qualified, but I was surprised by the level of derision. Several people didn’t see any value from using the term at all. Hated it, in fact.

Maybe the idea behind “published author” has come to an end in an age where some people who publish blog posts on a regular basis get more readers than many mainstream books. Perhaps its use won’t settle out until the publishing industry itself finishes transforming itself.

Either way, the term is still popping up quite often, so I’ll be rolling with my definition above for the next little while.

SXSW 2012 Digital Publishing Recap

Big line for SXSW

Big line for SXSW

SxSW Interactive for 2012 has come to a close. Bizarre weather, perennial connectivity issues and abused feet aside; I’m calling the show a success. Any wrap-up post you read will be by definition narrowly focused, as it’s impossible for one person or dedicated small group of collaborators to see everything. SXSW is simply too large for that. My attention was focused on digital publishing, Google+, and cigars & beer. In that order. As the latter two aren’t topics we cover on this blog, I’ll share my thoughts on the former with you.

Digital Publishing Nuggets from SXSW 2012

Remember that SXSW is not a publishing conference. Even so, I found 40 panels that would be of interest to the digital author, with the majority being laser-focused on digital publishing. I attended many (but by no means all) and came away with the following insights. If you attended others, YMMV.

Publishing is in chaos

No surprise there, right? But that chaos is having an interesting effect on industry insiders, established authors and lone indie or self-published authors. The group that got the most attention by far were the industry insiders. Even in 2012, deep within the self-publishing revolution, the industry still has pull. And pull is important when trying to get picked for a panel at SXSW. (Note to self: invite a friendly insider to be part of your proposed presentation next year.)

I already knew the industry was not happy with the realities of digital publishing. But I was a little taken aback by how vehemently they would fight to maintain the status quo. Which is an inevitable losing battle. The insiders I heard spent most of their time trying to convince fellow panelists, the audience, and perhaps themselves that their existing model was still relevant. And I agree. Digital publishing doesn’t negate publishing-as-a-business at all. But what they didn’t talk about was how digital publishing is changing their existing business practices to allow them to do more great things for more authors. And even if that isn’t their goal, I expected them to talk about how they can at least do better things for their existing authors with the changes digital publishing provides.

The juxtaposition from established authors published through the Big Six was interesting. Most are experimenting with self-publishing, choosing titles that their publisher/agent didn’t pick up for one reason or another. Some are finding success on their own, only to find themselves wooed back to the comfy folds of the publishing industry. But they are wiser for their actions, and have learned valuable lessons about what publishers can and can’t do for them in today’s digital publishing world.

And finally, the indie or self-published author was well represented. In the audience, at least. Many publishing panels were packed, with a slew of underpublished authors trying to gain some insight into the changing world of digital publishing. If they attended the panels I did, then they received a mixed bag of information. I had private conversations with a few that I hope continue. I’m sure others have a similar story to tell. Next year, I think the voice of the indie author needs to be better represented on stage, not just in the audience. I have some ideas on how we can do that better. Stay tuned.

No presence for digital technology vendors

As previously stated, SxSW isn’t a publishing conference. But it most certainly is a technology conference, and I expected to see some representation from digital publishing vendors on the expo floor. No marketplaces. No software vendors. Nothing. And I was looking; trust me. Maybe it’s too early. Maybe the other giant publishing conferences are taking all the spotlight. Maybe the audience they need to reach just doesn’t attend SXSW in appreciable numbers. I hope that changes next year.

Let’s put digital publishing on the map at SXSW 2013

I made some great connections at SXSW 2012. I hope we can keep talking over the next few months. If things go well, I’m looking forward to an onslaught of digital publishing submissions next year, enticing even more authors to get to SXSW 2013. I look forward to seeing you there!

Disclaimer – SXSW is a long conference, with lots of hiking and late night activities. I wrote this in the airport waiting to return home, with some quick self-edits prior to hitting the PUBLISH button. If I were a smarter man, I’d let someone proof this. But I want it out. So please forgive if you find anything terribly heinous. I blame it on little sleep! – Evo