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Amplified Publishing Category

Is this really the future?

by Tom Abba

I’m Tom Abba, and I’m an Academic Research Fellow on the Amplified Publishing Pathfinder. I’ve worked at the intersection of academia and commercial publishing for fifteen years, developing relationships and networks with both larger organisations and smaller, independent publishers. This, alongside my work on the Ambient Literature project, and a body of practice-based and conventionally published enquiry, earned me a place in the Bookseller’s 40 Most Disruptive Innovators in Publishing (2018). I’m working with Rising Arts on the next stage of Ambient Literature, which will address our shortfall in engaging with artists and writers outside of our immediate, academic, circle. I have an established practice in book arts, collage, experimental and hybrid forms of literature built on a constant need to push at the boundaries of what I think I know.

So what is it about Amplified Publishing that’s interesting to me?

It’s this, and I’m an academic, so I use footnotes and references:

In 2021, we see published content made artificially scarce (low runs of physical objects, often by smaller imprints and publishers/creators), structurally scarce (Unbound, for example, embodies a Long Tail 1 principle, but rewards early adoption at the expense of more fundamentally Long Tail behaviour) and that content emerges in a commercial/cultural ecology dominated by multinationals with near blanket market share. From today, here’s an interesting observation by Craig Mod - one of the smartest thinkers about technology and publishing we have:

in a weird way, the amazon monopoly on ebooks has probably helped keep paper so attractive; there's no competition, amazon clearly doesn't care, and so the ecosystem is stalled around 2011

Amazon completely monopolises the eBook market. Nothing else really comes close, and that monopoly has only intensified in the last few years. It’s undoubtedly created a market for self-publishing outside of a mainstream, but that’s also locked in to Amazon’s hardware and software standards. Craig is right - and while fixing that is out of the remit of this Pathfinder, it’s a significant part of the landscape.

However, guerrilla activity works within these larger frameworks to subvert expectations and market activity - Matthew Burrows’ #artistssupportpledge (each time an artist makes £1,000 in sales, they, in turn, commit to using 20 per cent of those earnings to purchase another artist’s work) is a recent example of this - it acts as a catalyst for creators to share their influence whilst reminding them that they’re part of a wider network of practitioners. Think about how typing a hashtag into an Instagram post instantly brings up how often that tag has been used - this is key to the success of #artistssupportpledge - it’s achieved within the slender framework of a shared hashtag on a multinational platform that really doesn’t care about whether they can pay the rent each month, but it works because of how that platform is used.

In conventional (books!) publishing, it’s now an accepted fact that smaller presses take more risks than the big five. They are, in some ways, a pipeline for new, untested talent to be proven, and win awards, in order that those writers can be snapped up by a larger publisher. That might not be fair, or an equitable arrangement, or even sustainable, but it;’s what we have right now. In books, and in wider publishing (including the arts, theatre, games, podcasting and film), the independent publishing ecosystem has, I’d argue, never been more essential.

So that’s what we have - a mixed ecology of smaller, independent publishers in a variety of media seeking out difference and innovation as a business model to differentiate themselves from bigger houses. COVID has seen attention focused on independent retail over Amazon – bookshop.org supports small retailers, albeit at an additional cost (over Amazon’ discount) to the purchaser. We’re bad capitalists, but good ethical consumers. Furthermore, between 2005 and 2013 the number of writers making a living from their work fell from 40 to 11.5% (Literature in the 21st Century. Bhaskar et al. 2017), a sobering statistic alongside the fact that most of the major publishing conglomerates had healthy profit growth in 2015–2016 (ibid) and there has been an unprecedented boom in the UK in new independent publishers.

My interest extends beyond my primary practice too - I work with the book, and what the book can become when it meets digital technology and creation systems, but I teach artists and designers. The value of the Arts & Humanities has never really been in doubt - we offer a reflective opportunity to society, we allow it to see itself, and we contribute huge sums to the economies of all cultures - but nevertheless, the work we make is drowned out by mediocrity, by a race to the bottom of cultural significance. Real independence, I think, is a tenuous thing. It’s an ambition held by most artists as they emerge into their careers, and it’s a very difficult thing to maintain. It takes courage, and conviction, and we should do all we can to help.

So, simply put, the Long Tail is unevenly distributed. We have a future, but it’s not equitable, it’s not what was promised to anyone, and it’s in need of a fix.

My interest here, therefore, is in independent content creation, and how we curate it. How we can support innovative, independent behaviour and work to make that sustainable, across the broadest range of industries. How can we empower creators to grow their practice, and their audience? And finally, what is the R number for a creative project?

  1. The Long Tail – Chris Anderson’s (Wired, 2006) proposition that products that have a low sales volume can build a sustainable market over time – has in fact manifested unevenly in practice, and is tightly bound with principles of the Attention Economy and Scarcity. ↩︎