The internet has had an undeniable influence on everything we do in the modern age, and writing is no exception.
In this interview, Monique Duarte, CEO of online publishing platform FicShelf, talks candidly about the effects of the digital revolution on the publishing process, providing practical tips for building an audience online, describing the top digital tools for current and aspiring authors, and discussing the implications of the latest technological advances for traditional publishing.
Q What impact do you think the internet has had on writing and the writing process?
The internet has affected every aspect of our lives, so naturally it affects how we write too. It gives writers instant access to an infinite number of resources, which are now at their fingertips.
Back in the day, writing used to be a solitary exercise. Writers would go into their cave – or retreat into a cabin somewhere – take their typewriter, and stay there for ten months or so until their book was finished.
It doesn’t have to be like that anymore.
Of course, it’s true that every writer still needs a room of their own, but I think these days it's much more comfortable if that room has Wi-Fi in it. Suddenly, you are no longer alone – you have the whole world around you – and that surely has to influence the creative process.
Q Do you think there have been any negative impacts?
Sure there have – the transition hasn’t been easy, and it wasn't as if we received a manual on how to write in the digital era.
As soon as we had the possibility of making our content readily available online, and figured out a way to circumvent the gatekeepers, we forgot that many of the traditional processes of doing things were still necessary.
For a time everybody was pretty lost, I think, and we are all still trying to adapt. There is so much information available, but no quality control – even your resources might now be of low quality – so you have to be very discerning. Ready access to information is a powerful thing, but it makes it that much harder to choose the best path.
Q How do you think authors can best harness the power of the web to further their careers?
In the open space of the World Wide Web, anyone is a potential reader. That's an amazing thought to start with. You can write for anybody. (As long as they can read your written language of course.)
But it's a scary thought too. How do you go about reaching these people? How can you build a captive audience and cut through all the noise?
In my view, writers need to get out of this mind-set of writing being a solitary activity. In order to engage an audience as early as possible, they need to involve readers in the creative process – to put their work out there – and join a writing community. There are so many to choose from, covering every conceivable niche. Even if you're an experienced writer, the reality is that by tapping into one of these niche communities you are accessing readers who are already interested in your subject matter.
That's exactly what happened with 50 Shades of Grey – the audience E L James was sharing her work with were already fans of the Twilight books – and they soon became James’ fans too.
This can be a frightening process for many writers; especially since it involves sharing your work with an audience before you’re 100% sure whether it’s an idea that people will accept. You are opening yourself up to a lot of criticism – but maybe that's exactly what you need!
You will also find that there are many people out there who are willing to help – to be part of your creative process. You can always use a pen name, and publishing online doesn’t mean you have to abandon your usual working processes. So try out new ideas, give publishing periodically a go – it’s a new creative experience.
Q Writers who choose to self-publish online now have more control over the process, but the onus is on them to build their own audience. To what extent is this a good thing?
When you are building your own audience, and you don't have someone else doing your PR – a publishing house promoting your book, and so on, what you do have is a much closer relationship with your audience – and they will be fans for life. They will follow you, support you and buy any book you publish – not just the one that’s being promoted at the time.
“Traditionally” published authors are learning to exploit this too – some people call J K Rowling the queen of Twitter because she does it all the time – driving conversations with her readers.
Q How important is social media for building an audience? Should all writers have their own social media accounts?
I think these days that's a given. Writers need to be using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn; they need to get involved in discussion groups and share opinions related to their particular genre or subject area. Social media is now the preferable means of communication across the entire world, and you can’t afford to ignore that.
Q Does the Internet value its content producers enough? Do you think independent writers can ever make a living through publishing online?
Well, most people write to be read, and since the Internet facilitates direct interaction with an audience, it does make it easier to receive that ultimate source of validation – writers love it when they get letters from their readers. Many readers provide online content producers with an invaluable service by giving regular feedback, opinions and commenting.
For too long, however, publishing businesses have focused on the reading experience alone. Of course the end user will always be the reader, but in order to keep people reading you need to keep writers happy. There is a reason that FicShelf’s tagline is “Use your time wisely” – there’s a strong connection between your happiness and how you use your time. We need to make sure that writers can make a good living out of what they are happiest spending their time doing – writing.
Do I think that writers can make a living through publishing online? Actually, I think online is the only way the majority of writers can make a good living out of publishing these days when you consider the size of the audience and current social trends.
There's a lot of readily available content for free out there at the moment, and I think we need to shift our mind-set a bit in this respect if we want better quality and a sustainable end product. We know that people will pay for the things they enjoy – on the whole it's not that they don't have the money or the inclination to support the writers they like – it’s a myth that with the growth of free content people will refuse to pay for books. But if we don’t find a balance between free and paid-for content, there is no long-term future for publishing, and we will suffer as a society.
Q What implications do you think all of this will have for traditional publishers and physical books?
These days, traditional publishers are actively seeking out talent that has already been validated online, so in that sense the industry is adapting. Publishers now realise that there is a lot more out there than just what arrives on their desk.
On physical books, let me be clear – eBooks, online periodicals, etcetera – these are just different ways of experiencing reading. Although we are an online company, and focused on ePublishing, we want it to be part of our legacy that physical books are available to readers too.
I see print on demand as one sure sign that technology is evolving to protect printed books. Print on demand removes so many of the logistical problems of traditional publishing – publishers and self-publishers no longer have to put so much money up front, or to store piles of books they haven’t yet sold.
Q Is there any value left in the traditional processes that used to be the mainstay of traditional publishing?
I know that I have touched on this before, but I can't reinforce enough how essential traditional processes are for the publishing world.
With technology we can improve the process, but there is a human factor – there will never be a replacement for a person going through every single word of your book, over and over. There is no artificial intelligence that will ever be able to do the job of an editor, proof reader or cover designer – technology has its limitations. If you want a book to touch people, you need to have people involved throughout the process.
Q What are the best digital tools you've come across for authors?
It’s probably an obvious one, but I think it’s important to stress how transformative Google Docs has been for writers – it allows you to keep your book in the cloud, give access to others to comment, give different permissions to different people, use version control, have multiple people contributing at the same time… if you're still using MS Word docs on your desktop, I don't know what you're doing! If your computer breaks, you lose it all.
I’m also a big fan of word clouds myself – these can be an amazing tool for authors to identify their clutch words or fillers, and cut out any unnecessary repetition.