To publish is to make something public. Before the internet and personal computers, most publications were in print, which required a lot of capital, distribution, and expert market analysis. To justify the cost of production, publishers needed to print large volumes with certainty they could sell. The product was typically a book, newspaper, or anything that could hold enough interesting content for consumers to justify a purchase.
There was no market for a 140-character note, but the internet changed everything by allowing anyone to self-publish at near-zero costs. To distance themselves from intimidating print media, Old Social Media companies like Facebook and Twitter updated their language from “publish” to “post” or “tweet.”
Biograph began as a service to help people tell their stories, many of which were told in book form. Since many wanted to publish their books, we created our own Biograph imprint. We believe that everyone has a story, but traditional books are too big a barrier for most folks.
To make our offering accessible to everyone, we’ve since created a platform that enables people to autonomously record their stories in 60-second narrations. In this article, we share a brief history of book publishing, Old Social Media posting, and Biograph’s vision for the future of self-publishing.
SELF-PUBLISHING BOOKS: A BRIEF HISTORY
Publishing used to be a closed-off world. Unless you knew the right people in New York, you’d never publish your book with a major press. Sure, you could pay a bundle to publish with a vanity press—but didn’t that say it all? Weren’t you admitting that your book was just that: a vanity project? The results were predictable, but dismal all the same. Most writers were cut off, unable to get their work published. And power in the industry rested in the hands of a few big-name authors and presses.
Historically, though, self-publishing has been one of the key routes for authors to start publishing and building a readership. Jane Austen, William Blake, and Walt Whitman all self-published. Jay-Z, shut out of a major label record deal in the 1990s, sold CDs out of his car. For early career authors, without name recognition or a wide readership, self-publishing has been a way to get your foot in the door. Without it, we wouldn’t have some of the most beloved and innovative works of literature. So, the stigma around self-publishing didn’t just prevent new authors from sharing their stuff—it also stifled creativity and innovation.
About ten years ago, the power dynamics shifted dramatically and, perhaps, permanently. On the Internet, people could publish whatever they wanted. Since Gutenberg invented moveable type 600 hundred years earlier, publishing had been an exclusive business. You had to have expertise, special machines, and a trained workforce to release a book. But with tools like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing—not to mention the aptly named WordPress plug in, Gutenberg—you didn’t need capital or expertise. You could upload your book and, 24 hours later, it would be available for sale.
Soon, self-published authors were capturing both sales and prestige. Two famous examples. In 2008, Sergio De La Pava self-published his novel A Naked Singularity through the print-on-demand company Xlibris. After a positive review, the book began to be widely discussed online. It was eventually republished by the University of Chicago Press and, in 2013, won a $25,000 prize from the PEN American Center. In 2011, the British writer E.L. James took her Twilight fan fiction and rewrote it as an erotic romance novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. The book topped world-wide best-seller lists; it was acquired by Vintage Books in March 2012.
These examples testify to the power of self-publishing. Books that come from disdained genres, like fan fiction, can vault onto the best-seller lists; books that agents and publishers have ignored can find their audience and develop passionate, dedicated readerships. They also testify to the difficulties of self-publishing. As Fifty Shades of Gray and A Naked Singularity became successful, their authors realized that they needed the support of traditional publishers.
And for all that they do wrong, traditional publishers do a lot right. They have dedicated teams of designers, editors, and publicists who can help you develop and promote your book. Self-published authors must handle editing, design, and marketing on their own—or pay experts like Biograph to guide them.
So, let’s say you’re an author and you’re considering self-publishing a book. What should you look for? What should you watch out for? We’ve broken down the various kinds of self-publishing to show you the virtues (and vices) of each. There are three models of self-publishing you should consider:
HOW TO PUBLISH OLD-FASHIONED BOOKS
• DIY. You don’t—technically—need anything but a book to publish a book. You can upload your manuscript to Kindle Direct Publishing and have a book in your hands as soon as the UPS driver can get to your door. But: if you want to sell copies, you’ll need a good-looking cover, a publicist, and (let’s be real) an editor to help you hone your writing. Some authors like to handle that themselves, hiring freelancers to help them edit, design, and publicize their books. Maybe they already have publicity and design experience, so they just need to hire an editor. This option works well for authors who are already experienced in publishing and want to limit their out-of-pocket expenses. We don’t recommend it for first-time authors, though. To make sure your book reaches people, you need a strong publicity campaign—not to mention excellent design and editing. It pays to pay a bit more and have people who know the business help you.
• One Stop Shop. If you’d like a little more help putting your book together—and promoting it—try a one-stop-shop. In exchange for an upfront fee, these publishers walk you through every step of the process: from editing your manuscript to setting the type to placing reviews. You can often negotiate with the publisher to include some services and not others, depending on your needs and expectations. For instance, you might ask to skip the editorial phase if you feel that your manuscript is ready to go. These publishers don’t own the rights to your book, giving you complete control over it. But they also don’t bank on making money from book sales. So, they don’t always have a strong incentive—like traditional publishers do—to get your book flying off the shelves. You may have to pay extra for a stronger publicity campaign; you’ll have to remain actively involved to ensure that your book gets the publicity it deserves. We recommend this option for most writers—and especially those who’ve been frustrated by the traditional publishing process. One stop shops give you the flexibility you need to get your book in the right hands.
• Hybrid Publishers. Hybrid publishers bring together the best of traditional and self-publishing. They charge a fee for their services but also make money from book sales. So, they have a strong incentive to make your book a success. However, like traditional publishers, they’re selective. They only publish books that align with their values and goals. If you have a project that doesn’t fit, they’ll likely turn the book down—no matter how good it is. And there are numerous so-called hybrid publishers that are scams. Be careful before you jump in bed with a publisher. Make sure they can demonstrate that they’re (1) selective about what they publish and (2) that they have successfully sold books in the past. Be sure they don’t (1) insist on a minimum number of copies to be sold or (2) give you less than a fair share of royalties.
Be skeptical of rosy promises and evasive salespeople. Any publisher who isn’t up front about what their services cost—and what services they provide—is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Take your book elsewhere. There are good options if you do your research.
FROM BOOKS TO BIOGRAPHS
In the landscape of self-publishing, Biograph stands out. Before we created the app, Biograph began by offering the services that a hybrid publisher or one stop shop might provide. We have nationally renowned writers on staff who can give you one-on-one feedback, helping you sculpt your language. We have designers who produce beautiful, distinctive designs for each of our books. And our books have sold. For instance, Darlena Burnett’s memoir, Living History, recently debuted at #8 on Amazon’s Best Sellers in Women in Politics list, just behind Elizabeth Warren’s memoir.
We believe in our company. So much so that co-founders AJ and Aaron Greenberg have published their own books through Biograph, using Biograph editors, designers, and publicists to promote their work. We have provided the best of self-publishing, tailored to authors’ needs. Biograph has evolved alongside the people we serve, and increasingly people have turned to us not to publish their books but to provide them tools to author their own lives in real time.
So we designed the Biograph App, a new social technology platform imbued with our experience as writers and publishers. Yes, the app is a great tool for creating content, including for book projects—especially if you agree with Jorge Luis Borges: “A book is not an isolated being; it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.”
Yet the app’s primary products are shared experiences and community, which harkens back to the early days of self-publishing. When self-publishing was just getting started on the Internet, there were no hybrid publishers to court or elaborate scams to avoid. There were just writers posting their work on message boards, connecting with other writers, sharing tips and ideas. Remember: Fifty Shades of Gray didn’t start as a best-selling BDSM romance. It began as Twilight fan fiction.
As the Internet has become a more corporate space, with algorithms monitoring every click, that organic community space has died off. The Biograph App creates a new space for writers to gather and collaborate. Working in the app—which represents Biograph’s evolution from a publisher to a platform for authors—you can connect with other writers, share work when you’re ready, and receive feedback. And you can do so knowing that your privacy is sacrosanct. Unlike Old Social Media platforms, we don’t sell your data. And we earn money by innovating valuable storytelling tools for your benefit, not by keeping you hooked with mindless or outraged scrolling.
On the Biograph App, you determine the shape and contours of your community. If you want to interact with other writers and curate a creative coterie, we empower you to do so. If you want to use the platform privately, you can do that too. If you want to use it with your siblings to create a memorable birthday card or make the perfect holiday present, just say the word. Biograph is your tool to wield as you wish. That’s the difference—and the advantage—of our approach.
On Old Social Media, everything’s public by default. If you didn’t want to share your most private thoughts with the entire world, that was on you. You had to dig through complicated privacy settings to configure your community. On the Biograph App, everything is private by default. You determine who reads and contributes to your story—and who doesn’t. You decide who can access your community and who can’t. No more trolls dive-bombing your conversations; no more randos yelling at each other in the comments. Just people you know and trust collaborating to build something of lasting value.
As we argue in our article on the controversial Section 230, Blockchain is the future of decentralized, democratic publishing on platforms that recognize the rights and responsibilities of authors to represent themselves, which includes self-publishing. Rather than trust a central authority like The New York Times to be the “Newspaper of Record,” or Twitter to adjudicate the facts, we envision a world with a distributed and decentralized ledger of truth, where authority is shared among everyone.
Biograph is an open yet private platform for self-recreation and self-publication. We hope it will nourish your creative and communal spirit. And we’re here to offer guidance and support if you decide to publish your stuff for the world beyond.