Every week, it seems there is more evidence that the balance of power in the book industry continues to tilt towards the author and away from the all-powerful publisher. One of the latest examples is John Green, who writes fiction for young adults from his home in Indianapolis, and whose latest novel has hit number one before it has even been published. Green gives credit for this phenomenon to his Twitter and YouTube followers, but the real credit should go to him for being willing to not just use social media as a promotional tool the way some do, but to actually reach out and engage with his readers and fans.
As the Wall Street Journal describes it, Green simply posted the title of his new book — a story about two young cancer patients called “The Fault In Our Stars” on his Twitter account — where he has built up a following of more than a million fans — and on his Tumblr blog, as well as a community forum based around Green’s work called YourPants.org. He then offered to sign the entire first print run of the book, and later followed that up with a live YouTube show, in which he discussed his plans for the book and read from a chapter of the uncompleted novel.
The whole process started on Tuesday afternoon, and by that evening, the book had apparently hit the number one spot on both the Amazon list of bestsellers and the Barnes & Noble list. Not surprisingly, this kind of word-of-mouth marketing multiplied by the force of social media has caused a lot of raised eyebrows in the industry. As one senior editor at publisher Harper Collins told the Journal:
Everyone is now focused on it, because when it works, it can be a runaway train
Obviously, not everyone is going to have the million-plus followers that Green has, or the devoted following on YouTube that he and his brother Hank have built up over years of doing what used to be called “vlogging” or video-blogging. The two have also created a couple of thriving communities of online fans such as Nerdfighters and YourPants, which are very similar in some ways to the communities that other artists such as Ze Frank have been able to create around their work (PDF link). The point is that no publisher or agent or industry had to create those things; the author did it himself with help from his fans.
Green is just one of the new authors changing the rules in the book business in unpredictable ways. Although he is still represented by a traditional publisher (a unit of Penguin Group), the kind of following he has been able to gather through social media gives him enough clout that he could easily decide to publish on his own, as author Barry Eisler recently decided to do, turning down a $500,000 advance after years of publishing through a traditional agency relationship. JA Konrath is another author who has argued that more writers should pursue the self-publishing route because it gives them more control.
Amanda Hocking is another example that many point to of how authors can become powerful entities in their own right, while controlling their own fate: Although she recently signed a $2-million publishing contract, her ability to negotiate that kind of deal was a direct result of the incredible success she had self-publishing her own young-adult fiction through the Kindle publishing platform, with many of her books selling for as little as 99 cents. In less than a year, Hocking was able to rack up more than $2 million in sales, without any help from the traditional publishing industry at all.
And Amazon’s Kindle isn’t the only non-traditional outlet for authors. Startups such as Byliner are also carving out new niches in the space between the novel and the magazine-length feature, as are sites such as Long Reads and another startup called The Atavist that focuses on publishing long-form nonfiction.
Some feel that authors like Green are “outliers,” or exceptions to the rule, and that just because they can marshal an army of millions of Twitter followers doesn’t mean others can. The publishing industry, these critics say, is becoming more and more like the pop-music business, which focuses its attention on a few million-selling mega-stars — the book equivalent of Brittany Spears or Justin Bieber — while ignoring the bulk of writing that occurs outside the spotlight, where authors don’t get access to the publicity machine.
That may be true, and it may be that not every author can become John Green or Amanda Hocking. But that doesn’t change the fact that the same tools that these authors have used, whether it’s Twitter or YouTube or the Kindle Singles publishing platform and 99-cent books, are available to anyone who wants to use them. In a lot of ways, this takes more effort than simply signing with an agent and then complaining when the publisher doesn’t promote your novel properly and your sales tank — but at the same time, it gives authors more power to affect their own future, and create their own success.