Reading Notebook #17: Technology Brings Author Empowerment—Yet A New Struggle to Surpass Average

Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

As I was reading Chapter 4 of Here Comes Everybody, I was struck at how Shirky’s description of the power law applies to authors who self-publish—since there is NO barrier now to do so:

Any system described by a power law, where mean, median, and mode are so different, has several curious effects. The first is that, by definition, most participants are below average. … The other surprise of such systems is that as they get larger, the imbalance between few and the many gets larger, not smaller. As we get more weblogs, or more MySpace pages, or more YouTube videos, the gap between the material that gets the most attention and merely average attention will grow, as will the gap between average and median. … You cannot understand Wikipedia (or indeed any large social system) by looking at any one user or even a small group and assuming they are representative of the whole. … We’re used to being able to extract useful averages from small samples and to reason about the whole system based on those averages. … Instead, you have to change your focus, to concentrate not on the individual users but on the behavior of the collective. … The power law helps explain the difference between the many small but tightly integrated clusters of friends using weblogs and the handful of the most famous and best-trafficked weblogs.

And—I’d say—the most famous and best-selling independently published books (think: J.A. Konrath).

Posted in Electric Speed, Getting Published, Reading.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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12 Comments on "Reading Notebook #17: Technology Brings Author Empowerment—Yet A New Struggle to Surpass Average"

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John Smith

Yeah, I guess if you self publish an ebook on Amazon or something, there really isn't any barriers. No one to disapprove it, you don't have to wait for it to get published, it won't cost you anything, etc….

Tim Barrus
If there are no gatekeepers, why are so many people in this so-called business so utterly paranoid about the need for filtering. Why need filtering because… Oh, please. The paternalism in publishing knows no bounds. We need filtering because the gatekeepers need jobs. It's ALL about the marketing. Fiddledeedee. No one wants to talk about POWER. It's forbidden. It's not nice. Behind every whining plea for more gatekeepers, the issue of power struts and frets another hour upon the stage. There are still gatekeepers. They've just been marginalized. For now. But don't think for a minute they are going to… Read more »
Tim Barrus
I agree. They kept diversity to a minimum. To wit: gay publishing. The people in it have struggled for years. The mainstream gatekeepers have traditionally maintained that this “material” wasn't commercial because the public didn't want it. So people went out there and published it themselves and sold to a community. Then and only then did mainstream publishing want a piece of it. Even today, “We have enough gay books,” is the whining refrain. It pretends not to be homophobic but it is homophobic and often it's humanphobic. I have read the book. It's a damn good read. I just… Read more »
Mary Scriver
The survival strategy of the bamboo the pandas eat is to rarely form seeds, but when they DO, the place is knee-deep in them and the seed-eaters are bursting with them. They cannot keep up! Something like that is happening with print media and info. But if rats had algorithms, could they pick out the seeds they want to eat? Could we go somewhere and punch in: 1) geology 2) western US 3) non-academic 4) photos 5) maps 6) written at a high school reading level 7) written since 2005 8) printed in the USA 8) praised by the best… Read more »
Rosemary Carstens

In a way, Jane, this is not news, although I always enjoy hearing your thoughts and ideas. It's always been 10% of the people who do 90% of the work and excel. With self-publishing 90% of the people will still think they can stick a family photo on a cover, write trite, unedited stream of consciousness, and will then wonder why they didn't make the money Konrath has. Konrath works HARD. He studies the market, he puts in his time and he pays his dues–that's why he's in the top 10%.

Mary Scriver
There are two interesting comments posted on the reference's comments: One is about audio books. What made music take off as it did, I think, was that one listens to radio while working and driving. Urban people going back and forth to work and rural people going back and forth to shopping (more infrequently but longer distances) appreciate sound while they drive or ride. But even podcasts require a bit of concentration so don't really work for some jobs or for tricky driving in traffic. On the other hand, music is a universal language — print is not. Another issue… Read more »
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