Category Archives: crowdsourcing

Self-publishing has its risks

I began representing authors late in 2008, shortly after self-publishing suddenly had become incredibly easy and no longer required an up-front contribution of cash. Optional, carefully considered investments in the editing, design, and marketing of a self-published book were likely to improve its popularity with readers and increase sales, but at the time, few eager self-publishers were thinking that far ahead. There were no barriers to entry and no obligations to understand the market’s demands. Making a book available to readers was thought to be, by definition, the only truly necessary element of publishing. The outcome was up to consumers, who would decide what they liked best. And they did.

For about a decade, self-publishing expanded exponentially and matured. Successful, entrepreneurial indie authors generously began to share their expertise online. Self-published and reissued out-of-print titles flooded the market, which, as expected, had unfortunate economic consequences for individual authors attempting to profit from their written works.

In 2008, plenty of aspiring authors believed that digital self-publishing, which sometimes incorporated a crowdsourcing component, would destroy the traditional, established trade book publishing industry. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the acquiring editors with whom I discussed technological innovation back then weren’t feeling threatened or concerned. Today, the predominantly East Coast trade book publishing industry has adapted to the extent it was forced to, mass market paperback editions face extinction, and crowdsourcing has been usurped by crowdfunding—or, put your money where your mouth is.

The past decade began with writers asserting they no longer needed literary agents or traditional publishers and is ending with some of the same writers searching for literary agents or publishers who they hope might be persuaded to help reissue their self-published titles so the books can find a much larger readership. Of course, I don’t hear from the self-published authors who apprehend the demands of the market or the ones who are satisfied with the results of their efforts. A self-published author who had mastered entrepreneurship would realize she’d be asking me and a potential publisher to invest thousands of dollars worth of labor and capital in a market-tested book that had already publicly proven its value as an investment, and she wouldn’t waste her time trying to interest me in a book if it hadn’t sold phenomenally well. I can’t champion an author whose past performance doesn’t meet the expectations of the publishers with whom we’d be trying to collaborate. Doing so would benefit no one.

Queries from self-published authors are trending now in a sudden, stark shift. As a literary agent, I’m invisible and, nevertheless, a convenient bullseye. I understand how unfulfilled dreams can turn certain writers bitterly indignant. No one enjoys being judged when the standards are severely high. Fortunately, the ill-mannered are serendipitously counterbalanced by unrewarded yet still gracious writers who I know will continue reading, researching, practicing, experimenting, and improving in order to progress as far their talents and skills can take them on their chosen paths.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As ever, regardless of how much variety they are offered, consumers gravitate en masse to read, discuss, recommend, and eagerly anticipate the screen adaptations of books written by a tiny fraction of a percentage of authors—the ones all authors would like to be and all agents would like to represent.

Book and target concept

Doing business in the public eye

business in the public eye

  Image courtesy of Mompes

Most of a literary agency’s business is conducted quietly, behind the scenes. Attempting to bring any of it to light is difficult, because significant context often is missing. Every profession shares this quandary. Looking in from the outside, observers are forced to oversimplify and stereotype other occupations and businesses, because it’s impossible to experience all of them firsthand.

My work as an agent is neither routine nor boring, which makes it fun. After five years, I no longer feel like a novice, but that doesn’t mean I can ever stop learning. Most knowledge workers recognize that continually educating ourselves and monitoring industry intelligence are necessary aspects of our jobs; otherwise, we’d consign ourselves rapidly to obsolescence.

Many of us have been watching and commenting on the latest machinations of big corporations. Because of their size and reach, the largest companies involved in publishing and bookselling must contend with heightened public scrutiny. That’s good, because we need to be reminded that these big corporations establish de facto standards for balancing competition and cooperation, which other businesses in the industry then will emulate. If the biggest companies succeed by dodging taxes, being aggressively adversarial, poaching talent, emphasizing volume over quality, crowdsourcing free content, eschewing customer service, and exploiting their employees, then every other businessperson within the book publishing industry’s entrepreneurial ecosystem will begin to see value in those strategies. Ruthless tactics can appear much less unethical when they’re necessary for survival.

The outrage and dissent, even when inarticulately expressed in debates riddled with inaccuracies, help to reassure me that we haven’t completely lost our ethical sensibilities. And by the way, in the grand scheme, I really enjoy being in a position to advocate for the artist.

Exactly when did kindness and courtesy became unbusinesslike and unsexy? Certain old-fashioned business practices are worth reinstating.

Make me laugh…

Add your ironic specimens to my two all-time favorites:

All hat and no cattle.

All leather and no bike.


Where are the most lively literary communities?

Every community should be lucky enough to have someone who pulls together a comprehensive calendar of regional literary events. Please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks these sites are useful:

It takes a lot of work to maintain an events calendar, which is why some sites attempt to crowdsource the effort by enabling user-generated event listings:

More commonly, the calendar for a single organization, special event, or venue is available online. These are great resources, but their necessary limitations make them less efficient for users than the broader regional literary event calendars:

Does your community have a lively literary scene? Central Connecticut State University ranked 75 cities with populations of 250,000 or more for America’s Most Literate Cities 2009. Landing in the top spots were:

  1. Seattle, Washington
  2. Washington, DC
  3. Minneapolis, Minnesota
  4. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  5. Atlanta, Georgia
  6. Portland, Oregon
  7. St. Paul, Minnesota
  8. Boston, Massachusetts
  9. Cincinnati, Ohio
  10. Denver, Colorado

beach reading

  Photo courtesy of Simona Barbu

Why aren’t cities in warmer climates, many of which have large populations of retirees, represented on the list? Is Atlanta the only Southern city with a literary scene? Don’t surfers like poetry? C’mon.

Nice interface for book reviewers seeking ARCs

BookExpo America always renews my interest in the ways publishers are marketing and publicizing their books. Simon & Schuster has a new user interface designed for booksellers, librarians, and book reviewers who won’t be attending BEA but would like to request advance reading copies (ARCs) of forthcoming titles at no charge while supplies last. The invitation to the Atria Books Galley Grab comes from Judith Curr, Atria’s executive vice president and publisher. It’s a terrific idea, because the website is so easy to use. The Galley Grab also introduces Atria’s publicists to new contacts who can help with promotion, as bookstore employees, librarians, and book critics in all media opt in through the Web interface. If the reviewers register to receive galleys, maybe they’ll also begin a productive dialogue with Atria.

I’m looking forward to the reviews of God Sleeps in Rwanda. Fifteen additional titles are included in the Atria Books Galley Grab while supplies last.

A new form of self-publishing: manuscript sharing sites

Self-publishing takes many forms, but most people think of the print-on-demand (POD) version of self-publishing first. They look to Lulu, BookSurge, CreateSpace, Blurb, or a similar service that permits writers to upload their manuscripts to a website that provides template formatting, sells ISBNs, and has an online storefront through which the books can be sold or sometimes, if the author prefers, downloaded as an ebook at no charge. When someone orders and pays online for a bound book, a single copy is printed by the publishing service in response to the demand and shipped directly to the customer. Authors can order their own books from the service in bulk and fulfill orders from customers, but doing so isn’t always economically feasible. POD self-publishing services on the Web have been successful because there is relatively little up-front cost to the author. However, it doesn’t take long to discover the downside of self-publishing: the author takes full responsibility for marketing and advertising.

For writers who simply want to share their creations with readers at no cost to either party, the Web is the place. Some writers quickly discover how to put up websites, others launch blogs, quite a large number gather in forums online, and now a new hybrid is emerging as a place for them to post their manuscripts. As far as I can tell, there’s no commonly recognized name for these sites. For the moment, I’ll refer to them as manuscript sharing sites or online slushpiles. They are sources of free ebooks as well as social networks. Anyone willing to experiment and unconcerned about giving work away for free might be intrigued.

Part of me cringes when I think of manuscript sharing sites as forms of crowdsourcing. Another part senses the beginning of a transformation in the way some intrepid readers search for new and entertaining authors. It’s fascinating to observe as these self-published ebook sites multiply, evolve, and attract either criticism or acclaim. If you’re watching or exploring them too, what do you think?


Author Salon [Added on February 15, 2012]

Book Country [Added on April 26, 2011]

BookieJar [Added on July 10, 2010]



FanFiction.Net [Added on June 2, 2010]

FanStory [Added on July 25, 2012]

Feedbooks [Added on April 20, 2009]

Figment [Added on June 2, 2010]

inkpop (managed by Figment) [Added on February 16, 2010]

Issuu (ebooks are also sold on this site) [Added on March 17, 2011]

Jottify [Added on February 17, 2015]

JukePop [Added on October 23, 2014]

Lebrary [Added on July 1, 2010]

Liboo [Added on September 24, 2012]

Mam Talent [Added on September 16, 2013] [Added on July 11, 2012]

Myebook (ebooks are also sold on this site)

obooko [Added on February 11, 2010]

PostPoems [Added on February 22, 2017] [Added on June 18, 2014]

Recanto das Letras [Added on July 7, 2013]

Red Lemonade (utilizing the Cursor platform) [Added on May 9, 2011]

Scribd (ebooks are also sold on this site)


Share Your Book [Added on April 24, 2013]

Smashwords (ebooks are also sold on this site)

Storiad [Added on July 28, 2011]

Sweek [Added on March 23, 2017]

Swoon Reads [Added on September 30, 2013]

Tablo [Added on July 31, 2014]

Taylz [Added on August 29, 2015]

Textnovel (cellphone novels)

TheWriteDeal [Added on November 8, 2011] (still in private beta, so I’m not sure yet what it is)


Widbook [Added on February 18, 2015]

Write On by Kindle [Added on October 2, 2014] [Added on April 20, 2009] (WDC) [Added on July 16, 2012]


I’ve certainly overlooked sites similar to these, although I deliberately omitted a variation that’s more of an online manuscript critique group. Feel free to clue me in, if you’ve found a site you like that’s not listed.

[Added on June 18, 2010:] In its Digital Writer Spotlight, the GalleyCat blog features nominated authors who are members of manuscript sharing sites.

[Added on May 17, 2014:] In “Posting your work for online crits?” Literary agent Janet Reid encourages writers to find critique partners who are more skilled than the novices found on a particular manuscript sharing site.

How next-generation schools and news media might be funded

As I write this, Kelly Centolella is only $200 short of the goal described by last week’s guest blogger, which is the purchase of a document camera she can use as a teaching aid in her Los Angeles charter school classroom. Fundraising on the Web is efficient. I’m happy for Kelly and her students, and I’m pleased that as a byproduct, I witnessed the impressive effect of grassroots participation. I appreciate the lesson.

Lately, I’ve been receiving enthusiastic promotional email messages from David Cohn, who recently launched Spot.Us, a nonprofit online venture supporting grassroots-funded journalism in the Bay Area of California. David was among the few identifiable talents involved in the (disastrous, let’s be honest) online journalism experiment that 900 unwitting volunteers, including me, participated in almost two years ago. He struggled tirelessly to keep that sinking ship afloat in 2007, before most traditional news media organizations looked up to see there was a storm on the horizon. Now David is the wiser, though not wizened, and ever optimistic commander of a new vessel. (T.T., if you’re reading, I hope you appreciate the resuscitation of the naval metaphors.)

Spot.Us, David’s latest endeavor, is the result of a healthy Knight Foundation grant that is allowing him to conduct a journalism experiment of his own. Spot.Us permits any donor to select a story of interest to Bay Area residents and then contribute to a fund that will pay a reporter to cover the subject. The public can suggest stories that should be reported, and journalists can post online pitches requesting funding for stories they claim to be willing and qualified to report. Donors consider the essential value of covering the story, as well as the skill of the reporter offering to investigate and write about or broadcast it. The story pitches and assignments occur on the Spot.Us website for all to see, as though it were a transparent newsroom.

According to Spot.Us, the reporting funded by the public through its site is normally licensed under Creative Commons, which means it can be reprinted for free with proper attribution. However, if a news organization partners with Spot.Us and contributes at least half of the funds required to cover a story, then the news agency can claim first rights to publish the resulting report. If a news organization purchases exclusive rights, then the donations from the public are refunded by Spot.Us, as I understand it.

My generation needs to heed the online networking of the succeeding generation. Having observed the outcome of Kelly Centolella’s project to raise funds for classroom equipment online, through, I believe David Cohn’s concept of community-funded reporting, Spot.Us, might just float.

Help Kelly teach her students

This is a perfect opportunity to welcome Diane Centolella as a guest blogger at Treated & Released. Diane and I became acquainted in the spectator stands during athletic competitions when our daughters attended Columbus School for Girls. We’ve remained friends, because somehow, as a retired psychotherapist and a retired cop, we seem to have an awful lot in common. Diane is also a writer who devotes time to her congregation and to tutoring youngsters who have difficulty learning to read.

I hope you’ll take a little of your time today to think about Diane’s request and send some encouraging wishes to her daughter, Kelly Centolella, who’s helping to improve the lives of young people in Los Angeles. If you leave a comment here, I’ll make sure they know about it.


Guest blogger: Diane Centolella

Kelly and Diane Centolella

Our daughter, Kelly, has a project she needs help with at her low-income charter school in Los Angeles. Some of you may have watched Kelly grow up in Rush Creek Village in Worthington, Ohio; or maybe she babysat for your kids when they were younger; or maybe you know her from Columbus School for Girls; or maybe you are related to her; or maybe you have heard her proud parents talk (endlessly!) about her. If so, then you know she is a hard worker and dedicated.

Here’s the scoop on her project:

After teaching seventh-grade math for two years in Teach For America at a low-income public school in Los Angeles, Kelly now teaches seventh-grade math and science in a low-income charter school in Los Angeles. She has 56 students, including several that have auditory learning disabilities—they can’t process information if they only hear it; they have to see it too. She wants to buy a document camera, which is a fancy overhead projector she can use to project anything. With a regular overhead projector she can only project stuff that is on transparency paper, but with a document camera she can do so much more. For example, if she wants to demonstrate dissecting a frog (ugh!), she can aim her camera at the frog, and the dissection will be projected and enlarged on the screen, so everyone in the classroom can see exactly what she’s doing. Kelly is asking for donations to help buy this camera, which will help all of her students learn better.

I know these are tough economic times for everyone, and it seems we are being asked for donations every time we turn around. But I personally believe that improving educational opportunities for our children and grandchildren is crucial to improving America (and the rest of the world). So, please consider making a contribution to Kelly’s class. This year, it will help 56 seventh-graders learn better, and next year it will help 56 more seventh-graders learn better, and on and on and on… Besides, it will make you feel better. I find I feel a little more hopeful about the state of the world if I actually do something to make it a little better. So, here’s your chance…

You can read more about Kelly Centolella’s project and make a donation by going to

Thanks for considering making a contribution to Kelly’s purchase of a document camera.

UPDATE: Document camera now fully funded

(posted December 10, 2008)

Kelly’s project is now fully funded. She will be able to purchase the special camera for her classroom.

If you participated in this project, thanks a lot. Kelly and her kids very much appreciate it for two reasons. First is the obvious one. They will have the new equipment that will make their learning (and teaching) a little easier. The other reason is a little less obvious but equally important. Kelly and the kids will feel the love and support of our community.

I often wonder how kids feel when they are in a school that lacks equipment and books. I imagine that must be demoralizing, and they must at least sometimes wonder if others think they aren’t very important. But today we made a difference, and the seventh-grade math and science classes at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles will go a little better than they did before, and the students will learn just a little more than they would have otherwise. So, thank you.

If you participated in this project, you will receive a letter from Kelly and/or the project people. If you meant to but you never quite got around to it, I am sure you know that there are many, many other projects in the schools, food pantries, hospitals, and places that also could use a little help.