- Mass Authorship and the Rise of Self-Publishing
In Richard Russo's satirical Straight Man the narrator, a tenured English professor in a small town in Pennsylvania, contemplates Off the Road—a slender novel and the only one he's written in twenty years. The author's campus bookstore purchased copies remaindered by the publisher, of which a few hundred copies never sold. After the narrator's office assistant attempts to assuage his ego by telling him he'll "write another book someday," he contemplates his one-book project and asks himself "Ours is a fragmented culture. If I wrote another book, who would read it?" (Russo 177). But does an abundance of books justify abstinence from writing? Timothy Laquintano's Mass Authorship and the Rise of Self-Publishing indirectly answers with a resounding no.
Book publishing in the twenty-first century is becoming more accessible and writing-based literacies more common as platforms such a Wattpad have emerged to offer writers a platform for ebooks that is similar to that which YouTube offers video makers. Laquintano notes that collaboration and the circulation of writing through new platforms are often steeped in "practices of individual ownership and secrecy" due to the fact these communities tend to be built on both a gift economy and a reputation economy wherein fans await "next installments" from individuals with established reputations (154–55). Ever mindful of technological determinism and claims that Web 2.0 is democratizing publishing, Laquintano takes a more nuanced approach to explore how networked writers on user-generated sites "develop social media practices that preserve a strong notion of the author and resist technological affordances that threaten it" (124–25). One ebook author Laquintano interviews exploits "the stream of attention" that was focused on her writing when one of her stories was plagiarized (139). She then used this disorienting experience to market her work. The momentum from the plagiarism controversy enabled her to build relationships with readers through sharing "creative writing tutorials she ran from her website" and posting links to her stories and books (139). She could have sued the young person who stole her work, but instead took the moral high ground through contributing educational resources and advising aspiring writers to support authentic forms of user-generated writing and to reinforce the belief that "falsely claimed texts" have no value for members of the online self-publishing community (136). [End Page 100]
My enjoyment reading Mass Authorship, recipient of the Computers and Composition Distinguished Book Award in 2016, arose from the ease with which I could see connections in Laquintano's work with my teaching and pleasure reading. How come my composition students were familiar with indie music and movies, but not indie publishing? How could it be possible that every student in my Composition II classes has spent countless hours on YouTube, but only one student out of thirty-five had read an ebook on Wattpad, FictionPress, or Scribophile? I also observed connections between Laquintano's interviews and the experiences social work scholar and public speaker Brené Brown recounted. As a new faculty member Brown self-published her first book, had a colleague praise its content, and then was ridiculed for "vanity publishing" (206). Laquintano, in fact, argues that digital self-publishing is not synonymous with vanity publishing because the latter has historically been notorious for exploiting and financially deceiving novice and dependent authors, whereas self-published authors often become "small independent publishers" and advance their fields of inquiry (35). Further, Brown's critical reflection on her knee-jerk perception that authors are required to distance themselves from the "unsavory ordeal of promoting and selling" books has resonance with at least two of the publishing professionals Laquintano interviews in Mass Authorship (Brown 209). One of Laquintano's interviewees, Hannah Leed, a romance writer, demonstrates that marketing and promoting one's writing, as a self-publishing author, "can encroach so deeply on the writer's experience that it not only diverts time from one's craft, it also initiates a kind of writer's block caused by the disruptive ping of mobile technologies" (72). Likewise, professional poker player...