Twittering about writing

I had a richly terse conversation about the future of writing last night on Twitter. It began with a tweet from Ron Hogan, the author of the always excellent Beatrice blog.

RT @RonHogan: RT @mdash "Publishing has never been in my lifetime in such a powerless state as it is now." @bruces #sxswbp

For the Twitter uninitiated, this was Hogan retweeting some words from a South By South West keynote by Bruce Sterling passed on by @mdash who, in real life, is Mark Bertils a Canadian blogger about books. Sterling's keynote at SXSW was anything but optimistic about the publishing business:

Americanpublishing is in distress. The book stores are going, the big centralised publishers are very heavily indebted and they are small sections of the centralised American media apparatus that have lost social credibility.... People don't pay attention to novels. The socially important parts of American communication are not taking part in novels. You can write them but they are not changing public discourse... You can also say that everybody in society has moved up a notch and everybody just wants the executive summary.

Refocusing Sterling's pessimistic take on the publishing industry onto writers, I then tweeted my new literary friends:

@RonHogan #sxswbp @bruces @mdash does it follow then that writers have never in our lifetime been in such a powerless state as they are now?

This, in turn, brought book distributor Don Linn (@donlinn) into the conversation. Linn believes that new media actually could empower today's writers:

All I'm saying is if authors relying on traditional publishing & distmodel, they are screwed. They can control their destinies.

With Linn's remark, we got to the heart of the matter. New media could allow authors to "control their destinies". Somebody, I think Ron Hogan, raised the example of Cory Doctorow, the science fiction novelist, as the paradigm of a writer who was controlling his destiny on the Internet. So how did Doctorow build his brand on the Internet? Richard Nash, ex editorial director at Soft Skull Press, then jumped into the conversation:

ajkeen Actually, other way around. He gave away the content in order to establish readership and name. A process that'll become harder now.

So I tweeted Nash back to learn more about this "process" through which writers can bypass publishers and establish themselves on the Internet:

Build readership 1 reader at a time through events and social media. Cultivate intensity in readers. Akin to religious conversion

To borrow from Clay Shirky's brilliant take on the public agonista of the newspaper industry, round-and-round we go when it comes it figuring out how new media can empower writers. It's the new literary Catch 22: To build online brand, writers need recognition; and to have recognition, writers need an online brand. Ultimately, I suspect, Richard Nash is right. The challenge is to build readers one-at-a-time through both "events" and "social media". But, as he so wisely says, cultivating intensity in readers is "akin to a religious conversion". The unpalatable truth is that, in both old and new media, many are called but few are chosen.