Is Free, “Ravenously Referential” Fiction the Future of Publishing?

A lot of folks have sent me a link to Lev Grossman's essay in Time Magazine that proclaims that:

Saying you were a self-published author used to be like saying you were a self-taught brain surgeon. But over the past couple of years, vanity publishing has becoming practically respectable.

He's the only person, besides a vanity press huckster, I have ever heard voice that opinion. He tries to back it up by citing a couple of the extraordinarily rare examples of self-publishing success. He neglects to mention, just like the vanity-press hucksters do, that these are extremely rare cases that represent a miniscule percentage of the self-published books printed every year.

But I'm not surprised he neglects that fact…and so many others in his essay. He's the same guy who thought Lori Jareo, the dimwit who self-published her STARS WARS fanfic and sold it as a novel on Amazon, was some kind of "unsung hero." He's also notorious for trying to jack up the rankings of his novel on Amazon by posting scores of fake, five-star reviews.

He believes that publishing books on paper, paying authors advances and giving booksellers the opportunity to return unsold books are old-fashioned practices that are so "20th century" and will soon become extinct in favor of  – drumroll please — fanfic.

Put these pieces together, and the picture begins to resolve itself: more books, written and read by more people, often for little or no money, circulating in a wild diversity of forms, both physical and electronic, far outside the charmed circle of New York City's entrenched publishing culture.

[…]Not that Old Publishing will disappear–for now, at least, it's certainly the best way for authors to get the money and status they need to survive–but it will live on in a radically altered, symbiotic form as the small, pointy peak of a mighty pyramid.
[…]The wide bottom of the pyramid will consist of a vast loamy layer of free, unedited, Web-only fiction, rated and ranked YouTube-style by the anonymous reading masses.

And what will that fiction look like? Like fan fiction, it will be ravenously referential and intertextual in ways that will strain copyright law to the breaking point.

Only someone who thinks Lori Jareo is a pioneer, and who wrote a novel about a "Boston slacker who has trouble distinquishing between reality and Star Trek," could make that prediction with a straight face. 

He's looking at publishing from within the insular world of science fiction and fantasy fandom, which bears little resemblance to reality. I don't think the majority of book-readers today– the millions who can't speak Klingon and never heard of Joss Whedon — would embrace the "ravenously referential" and poorly-written world of free literature that he desperately hopes the future of publishing will become.   

I agree with him that publishing is changing, and I suspect that ebooks and print-on-demand will be a big part of the future of the industry, but I doubt that wide popular and critical acceptance of self-publishing and fanfiction will be the ultimate result. To put it in terms Grossman would understand, I think commercial publishing, brick-and-mortar bookstores, and authors being paid for their work are practices that will "live long and prosper" in the face of new technology and new means of communication.

13 thoughts on “Is Free, “Ravenously Referential” Fiction the Future of Publishing?”

  1. Sadly, the fact that the article was published by TIME (or at least is associated with TIME online) gives the appearance that this guy has some kind of credibility. Thanks for giving us more background on where (and why) he personally stands on the subject of self-publishing.

  2. Can self-publishing pave the way to success? Sure. One can also be struck by lightning, stalked by a serial killer, win the lottery, and break the bank in Vegas.
    CAN it happen? Sure. The actual odds of ANY of them are so astronomical the computers at MIT will choke calculating them, but sure it CAN happen….

  3. “it’s certainly the best way for authors to get the money and status they need to survive-”
    You can survive on advance checks??? Sweet!
    I’ll pass this amazing news on to all my writer friends so they can quit their day jobs.
    Someone send this joker to my signing table at the next S.F. convention. There’s a couple of Klingons I know who have a wood chipper and owe me a favor….

  4. Not only do I not agree with “ravenously referential,” I’m not sure I even know what it means, despite being written in my first language.
    As a previous commenter said, the fact that Time put its stamp on this will make it all that much more difficult to explain the flaws to writers desperate to be published.

  5. It’s a wonder that Lev Grossman is employed. He was, after all, the writer who called Harriet Klausner “…one of the world’s most prolific and influential book reviewers.” in Time (Dec. 16, 2006). This is the woman who has the most reviews posted to Amazon, claims to read more books than is humanly possible, never says a bad thing about a book, and for the most part rewords jacket-copy descriptions of books
    and passes them off as reviews. Perhaps a key to understanding Grossman is in his bio on his website: “I worked for a string of dot-coms….” Here is a shining example of what happens when the Internet barbarians infiltrate traditional media.

  6. I know it’s not politically correct in the writing community to defend Harriet Klausner, but from the reviews she’s given my books it’s clear that she’s read them and hasn’t just been rewording jacket-copy. And hell, from Sarah Weinman’s own admission (is reading over a book a day something to be guilty about???) she probably even reads more books a year than Harriet, so for that reason should we dismiss her reviews??

  7. It’s actually an interesting article and I think Lev Grossman makes some good points, although he’s being a bit dishonest to take the 5 or so success stories from self-publishing and ignore the 100s of thousands of self-published books that nobody will ever read. But the general point he’s making that technology advances are shifting the way novels can be distributed and accessed is valid. Scott Siglar and Seth Harwood both developed legions of fans (100s??) through their free podcasting of their books, which led to deals with Random House for both of them. David Wellington freely serialized his books on a blog, and likewise ended up with a book deal. As Grossman’s numbers show their is a large community of people on the internet who read/write/trade fanfic. These changes are happening and sure seem to be having an effect already on traditional publishers.

  8. The whole point of fanfic is that it’s based on books written and published the old 20th century way. If traditional books disappear, what will fanficcers plagiarize in the ravenously referential world of theirs?


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