Ebooks need to re-invent Pulp!

Ebooks have revolutionized the publishing revolution and YOU TOO can be part of the Revolution!

In Burning the Page, digital pioneer Jason Merkoski charts the ebook revolution’s striking impact on the ways in which we create, discover, and share ideas. From the sleek halls of Silicon Valley to the jungles of Southeast Asia, Merkoski explores how ebooks came to be and predicts innovative and interactive ways digital content will shape our lives. Throughout, you are invited to continue the conversation online and help shape this exciting new world of “Reading 2.0.” 

It seems as if one way to make money with ebooks is to first make money with ebooks and then write an ebook about how to make money with ebooks.

Tobias Buckell, Science Fiction author with work first published in both tradtional and new ebook market makes a cautionary point about these kinds of works:

Survivorship bias: why 90% of the advice about writing is bullshit right now ...
The problem, right now, in eBook direct sales, is that everyone is paying and listening to people in the green area. They’re listening to everything they say, and sifting everything they say as if it’s a formula for success. 

Like in most cultish behavior, if you follow the rules and don’t get the results, you’re either ostracized, ignored, or it’s pretended you don’t exist. Many who don’t get the same results just shut up and go away. Thus creating an environment where people are creating massive amounts of confirmation bias by continually listening to the top sellers.

(BTW: Read the whole piece, its good stuff, and survivorship bias is a useful critical thinking tool in a wide range of areas, including policy campaigns.)

Tobias Buckell continues:

Does this mean I’m somehow against direct digital publishing? No, obviously I’m a hybrid player and have been for over a decade now. But my refusal to damn either version of publishing means I don’t get lauded by certain parties, ink isn’t spilled over me, I’m not some vanguard. I’m just a working stiff, a mid list writer with a decent but passionate audience. Both methods have benefits and drawbacks, and I’m fully aware of both and try to communicate that. 

Rehashed Revolutions: Ebooks as the New Dime Novel

The "revolution" in ebooks is the ability to just write a book and upload it into a multi-platform or Kindle-specific or Nook-specific site and sell it online!. Publicize it online on blogs, Facebook, twitter, and link your prospective audience straight to where they can buy the book! All the barriers erected by the big bad publishing industry are torn down!

Matt Blind has long been blogging about eBooks and traditional books and being a bookseller in the "Age of Ebooks". Matt Blind is "@ProfessorBlind" on twitter, Barnes & Noble bookstore manager, sometime maintainer of a manga online sales bestseller list, and occasional poster to his site, RocketBomber.

Matt Blind has recently posted a piece he titled The New Pulp, pursuing his lonely quest to remind people that the "traditional" publishing world that they are experiencing at the present is not the way that "its always been". Lots of people seemingly never knew or are in the habit of forgetting that if you press far enough into the past, its like going to an entirely different country.

The mistake so many are making when it comes to e-books and self-publishing is that they strongly feel they are shaking the very foundations of publishing, upsetting the established order of publishers and editors and gatekeepers and damnable rejection letters and bringing forth the Author’s Utopia where they and their works can Connect with Readers forever and ever amen.

But publishing is not a monolith. It may seem like there are only six publishers (soon to be five) but really: the publishers haven’t been the same since the big media consolidation of the 1990s. Smaller imprints subsumed into the morass continued to produce great books, but also largely only managed to do so, so long as they were able to fly under the corporate radar. ...

There is far more in the post than I am going to quote here ... including valuable block quotes collected from elsewhere ... but here is the key quote, which ties directly into Tobias Buckell's point:

E-Books are not the panacea some hope, and if you press the point: we’re going to have to stop you. Push it too much and you’re just selling e-book-snake-oil to a whole class of gullible creators. Can we all respect and repeat the point:

  • E- does not fix all.

A broken system that extends lottery-ticket-style winnings to a few, while ignoring everyone else, is not suddenly fixed when we bypass the single-channel Big Game to offer smaller jackpots to multiple winners via the internet. The ease of YouTube did not suddenly usher in a cadre of web-only TV shows to compare with The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, or The Wire.

I’m being intentionally harsh. I want to get you thinking about the system: It’s rigged, and it’s rigged against you — and as much as you think you’re participating in a Revolution, you’re still letting the Lottery Winners of Publishing skew your expectations. Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath, E.L. James, and John Locke are not your business model. The model you want to emulate is not the major publishers, c. 1980-2000yesterday, but instead the pulps of the 1920s and 1930s:

  • We Need E-Pulp.

What's the deal about Pulp?

So, what's the big deal about Pulp? Why should Ebooks aspire to that?

Right now E-books are the new Dime Novels. In the late 1800's, on the back of new publishing technologies and the rise of mass literacy, there was a "Publishing Revolution" (actually several) in the form commonly called Dime Novels. The name came from the first series, Beadle's Dime Novels, establishing the norms of the format: 100 page paperbacks, roughly 6½" by 4¼", lurid adventure tales with breathless titles.

But the dime novels often were not the platform for a writer's success. As the Wikipedia Machine recounts:

As noted, much of the material for the dime novels came from the story papers, which were weekly, eight page newspaper-like publications, varying in size from tabloid to a full fledged newspaper format, and usually costing five or six cents. They started in the mid-1850s and were immensely popular, some titles running for over fifty years on a weekly schedule. They are perhaps best described as the television of their day, containing a variety of serial stories and articles, with something aimed at each members of the family, and often illustrated profusely with woodcut illustrations. Popular story papers included The Saturday Journal, Young Men of America, Golden Weekly, Golden Hours, Good News, Happy Days.
Although the larger part of the stories stood alone, in the late 1880s series characters began to appear and quickly grew in popularity. The original Frank Reade stories first appeared in Boys of New York. Old Sleuth, appearing in The Fireside Companion story paper beginning in 1872, was the first dime novel detective and began the trend away from the western and frontier stories that dominated the story papers and dime novels up to that time. He was the first character to use the word “sleuth” to denote a detective, the word’s original definition being that of a bloodhound trained to track.

And it was in part technology that paved the way for the transition from the Dime Novel era to the Pulp era:

In 1896, Frank Munsey had converted his juvenile magazine, The Argosy into a fiction magazine for adults and the first pulp. By the turn of the century, new high-speed printing techniques combined with the cheaper pulp paper allowed him to drop the price from twenty five cents to ten cents, and the magazine really took off. In 1910 Street and Smith converted two of their nickel weeklies, New Tip Top Weekly and Top Notch Magazine, into pulps; in 1915, Nick Carter Stories, itself a replacement for the New Nick Carter Weekly, morphed into Detective Story Magazine, and in 1919, New Buffalo Bill Weekly became Western Story Magazine. Harry Wolff, the successor in interest to the Frank Tousey titles, continued to reprint many of them up into the mid-1920s, most notably Secret Service, Pluck and Luck, Fame and Fortune, and Wild West Weekly. The latter two were purchased by Street & Smith in 1926 and converted into pulp magazines the following year. That effectively ended the reign of the dime novel.

The Pulp Writers and the Editor

In my younger days, I only ever heard of dime novels by reference, but I was directly touched by the Pulps. As I grew up as a young Science Fiction fan, some of my favorite work had originated in Pulp SF magazines. Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series originated as a series of eight short stories in Astounding Magazine. As he recounted in a collection, "the Early Asimov", the premise was based on ideas in Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", and was invented while he was on his way to a meeting with the Editor of Astounding, John W Campbell.

Indeed, I only came to fully appreciate how much the Pulp Magazines had contributed when I returned from teaching Math in Grenville, Grenada, and had to fill a year before heading off to Graduate School. With my pending departure, it was difficult to get skilled employment, but in the late eighties in the rural areas near Columbus, it was possible to get work as an unskilled temporary industrial laborer. I was staying in an apartment rented by my father in a college town, and one of the ways I saved money was to walk up the hill to the college and explore the college library.

One of the things I found in that college library was a quite long run of Astounding and several other old Pulp SF Magazines. So between random shifts at work and trying to learn how to program my Commodore 128 and/or 64, I spent a lot of time diving into those old magazines, seeing how the genre I had first encountered in novel form as it had originally emerged.

Cheap pulp paper and high speed printing may have been what made it possible to sell a pulp magazine that often included work of about the length of a Dime Novel along with a collection of other short stories in a genre ~ detective mysteries, speculative fiction, horror, romance ~ at what had been the price of a Dime Novel alone. But it was the Editor that made a Pulp Magazine into a success.

The Editor didn't just identify which submissions would be of interest to the reader, fix the spelling and plop it in. The Editor also identified the writing talent, and worked with their writers to ensure an ongoing supply of the kind of work that the Pulp's readership was selling.

This is perhaps the most important element in what Matt Blind calls "the escalator". The writer must, of course, still write. But in the modern version of the Dime Novel Ebook publishing "revolution" (where 'revolution' is more in the literal sense of coming full circle), an author is self-publishing through the primary Ebook channels. The author has to do the market the work and therefore their name. They have substantially less than a year before it falls back into the vast ebook back catalog, and had better have another book written in the meantime.

And they have to do the editing of their work: not just the copy editing (though for many ebooks, a bit of copy-editing would go a long way), but the core editing, the discussion of what the work is trying to do, what parts succeed and what parts need more work. There is no telling how many hopeful new self-publishing writers languish for the lack of a good editor.

And as important as the editor is, there is also the question of visual impact. Those lurid full color covers and inside the magazine black and white story illustrations did not draw themselves. Even though the work is worksmithing, effective visual illustrations cut through and get notice in a way that often cuts through the frontal lobes and reaches back into the older emotional centers.

That's what Ebooks need to do: move ahead from re-inventing the Dime Novel, and reinvent the Pulp Magazine. Provide the editorial and marketing and graphical arts support to allow writers to both become better writers, and also, as Editors find the writers that will appeal to their existing audience, help the writers find their audience.

Considerations and Contemplations

So Ebooks are not yet the new Pulp ... but they ought to be. An Epulp foundation would offer the opportunity for "midlist" writers to have a stable platform, grow their audience, and as they discover which of their works are most popular, a launching pad to put a freestanding work further up the slope of the forbidding power-law distribution of self-publishing ebook success.

New technologies do open up the door to new opportunities, even while re-using the core of the institution of Pulp Magazines. The high fixed costs of a print run meant that even the independent Pulp publishers needed a certain threshold level of capitalization. Take those fixed costs away, and there may well be fewer obstacles to establishing a new Epulp as a cooperative. Indeed, a group of people who are not just aware but engaged in social networking media, possessing a core of production, editorial and graphical arts skills, could launch an initial Epulp run on the basis of their own written output, and reinvest sales proceeds into opening up to submissions at a page rate and share of sales ... and the number of submissions purchased carefully balanced against cash in hand ... so that the entire enterprise could be launched on the basis of sweat equity.

Get sweat equity cooperatives along those lines established, and even though a market of readers is being tapped in much the same way as the Pulp Magazines did ... that really would be something that would merit being called a revolution in publishing.




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That's an exciting idea

geomoo's picture

Fun to consider, as is much in this piece.

I have to respond to the incidental mention of the Commodore computer.  I was in charge of buying computers for the high school I taught at back in the day.  The choices were IBM, Apple, and Commodore.  Commodore was the best by far, and IBM the worst.  Where Commodore was user-friendly, the IBM--I think it was TRS 80--was positively antagonistic toward the user.  I'm still pissed that IBM won because of their name, and not just because it made me look foolish.

I will refrain from waxing nostalgic about the great sci fi stories in my youth.  Anywho, another educational piece.  Thanks.

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The TRS-80 was Tandy ~ the first IBM was the "PC" ...

BruceMcF's picture

... not that IBM was arrogent in claiming the whole market niche for itself, or anything.

The TRS-80 was dubbed the "Trash 80", with good reason.

You're not far wrong in saying that IBM eon on the name. The 128 kbyte RAM and 4.7MHz 16 bit processor were decent specs for the time, but what made it a big hit was a department in a corporation that would have a hard time getting a "game machine" like a C64 or PET or AppleII approved could get people to sign off on an IBM PC at twice the price without a second glance.

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Yep, that's right.

geomoo's picture

Those were the 3 in the running--it was before the Apple IIE had come on.  As in corporations so in education with everyone cowardly choosing IBM on the basis of brand recognition.  I courageously bucked the trend, going with the machine that enabled one to learn BASIC instead of MS-DOS and then maybe basic.  I looked foolish in the end for making too knowledgeable a decision and it still rankles. 

I'll probably vote third party next presidential election, for similar reasons and with similar results.

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Tobias Buckell answers ...

BruceMcF's picture

Do we need to reinvent pulp? I’m not so sure

Go over to his site and read it (he links over to VotSquare, after all), but my take is that he ia addressing the place that Pulp had in the 1930's-1950's media market ecosystem ~ a place that was largely taken by TV by the 1960's, which is a large part of why the original Pulp industry faded away.

That's not the aspect of the Pulp system that I was addressing, though. I was addressing the different between the current market facing authors who use ebook self-publishing as a way to sidestep the current "traditional" book publishing system and a system in which there are self-sustaining organizations that recruit and foster new authors and give them a natural incubator in which they can both develop their writing skills and build their audience.

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SF & Fantasy writer Phillip Brewer also replies ...

BruceMcF's picture

The win of pulp

Tobias Buckell takes issue with this, but I think he’s missed the point. The key feature of the pulps (and McFarling does say this, although he mixes in other issues as well) is not that pulps ran serials. What pulps had was an editor, who provided additional content that fit in well with the anchor story

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