Tuesday, May 25, 2010


If you're like me, you don't notice the things people put in their blog margins much, and often don't even see them because of reading indirectly, through JacketFlap or the reader on your blog server or whatever. But you can always click the link to look at the site (and a lot of readers have line limits and will cut off my ridiculously long posts mid-word anyway), and I just added a couple of things, so I thought I'd go over what I've put around my edges, and why. If you read to the end, you might learn something relevant to your interests.

The "about me" and "If you want to know more" links are self-explanatory. The primary reason I have a blog is so that agents, editors, and research contacts will have something dynamic to see when they google my name (I know I do it to them and assume they do it to me), so I want easy access to information about me for their convenience. And if somebody's come here casually by googling something else, or gets intrigued by some topic I'm nattering on about, it only seems polite to put in some links to areas of interest. I've found that arranging the blog list by "most recently updated" allows me to keep up with more blogs, as I can see which ones have updated since I last looked at them, so that one's primarily for my own use; but I try not to include blogs that don't discuss writing or research topics. This is the public face here; you don't need to know which of my personal friends have blogs.

"The Reciprocal List" is a recent addition I feel I should call attention to. Recently Katie Davis contacted her online writing communities with a cross-linking project: She would collect the names and URLs of volunteers, and we would all pledge to post the entire list on our sites. Some search engines still use programming that privileges sites with lots of links over sites with fewer links, and since we're all in the young people's literature industry people who were interested in one of our sites seemed likely to be interested in all of us, if they could only find us. So here it is. Some of these people I consider my friends, some I have met once or twice, and some I only know through the linking.

Everybody has the utility features, tags and archives and RSS feed. I added the Native Youth widget because the more people visit Cyn's site, the better for them. But scroll down past all that, all the way to the bottom. I've got another widget down there that was too wide to fit in the margin, soliciting subscribers to pledge money toward the publication of Skin Horse, Vol. II. You'll notice that the project is more than fully funded. It was fully funded within 24 hours of first solicitation. So what is the point of the widget?

Well - I like Skin Horse, for one thing. It's not a children's comic, though it references a lot of children's literature. The current storyline is "Brave Little Toasters" and yes, the strip's title is an allusion to The Velveteen Rabbit. But I like a lot of webcomics that aren't linked here because they're not relevant enough. You don't need me to help you find LOLcats. It's what the widget is for that I think a certain segment of the kidlit-blog-reading public might care about.

Skin Horse is published online through Web Comics Nation, one of several venues the artist, Shaenon Garrity, has used in the past. Web comics are typically free to the world, with donation buttons and merchandise (the creators hope) paying the bills and occasionally squeezing out a profit. Periodically, with her most popular strips (first Narbonic, now Skin Horse), she self-publishes a collection of a year's worth of strips, along with bonus material, and hopes she makes enough to turn a profit. Skin Horse is produced with a co-creator, Jeffery Channing Wells, so presumably they split the expenses and share the profits. This time they are using Kickstarter, a company which collects pre-orders from customers and prints the book if/when the expenses of doing so are met in this way. Credit card information is collected through Amazon (which already has most of the potential audience's credit card information anyway) and if the book never meets its expenses, the book is never printed, and the pledged amount is never charged. Different levels of pledges are allowed for; by promising to pay $20 I get a .pdf in case I ever get an e-reader and my dead-tree copy signed and sketched, but any fan rabid and fanatical enough to pay $500 also gets an unpublished prose story and original art.

This is a return to and an improvement on the old-fashioned subscription model of publishing. When John James Audubon wanted to publish Birds of America, with expensive color plates big enough to squeeze a whooping crane onto them life-sized, no regular publisher would touch such a risky money-pit of a project, so he went around to individuals and institutions collecting subscriptions from people - cash now, book later. Many scientific publications were published by subscription in the 19th century, and it was a risk for everybody because only cash transactions were possible. I have a lot of reservations about the way credit and capital are handled in the digital age, but the Kickstarter version of publication-by-subscription is a much better deal made possible by modern ways of handling money. The advantages accrue to everybody and the risks are much reduced.

Is this the future of self-publishing? I'm inclined to think it ought to be, at least for commercial projects, and it's a good alternative for niche publications like local history projects and fund-raising cookbooks. The lagniappe-for-big-spenders is obviously drawn from the world of charity premiums, where you can join NPR or the Universal Do-Gooder Society at different levels and receive different donated "pledge gifts," but original art and an exclusive prose story beat tote bags and coffee cups as incentives!

And whereas a naive person self-publishing in hopes of turning his unsaleable manuscript into a runaway bestseller is likely to lose a lot of money on his way to wisdom in traditional set-ups, the necessity of gathering pledges will provide a sobering lesson in the need to do good work, understand publicity, and build a fan-base at a relatively low cost.

Garrity and Wells have spent years putting in the labor of producing good comics - sound plots, funny gags, engaging characters, expressive art - and nurturing relationships with fans, and are rewarded by meeting their publishing costs within 24 hours of announcing the imminent publication of Vol. II. I don't know whether they've ever tried to interest a traditional publisher or a syndicate; I don't know if the fan base is large enough to make it worth a traditional publisher's while. I don't know what unrealistic daydreams they may have set aside, or how this model would work for anyone who reads this blog and is considering self-publishing as a career move. It's just one more element to the changing world of publishing, and I thought I'd draw attention to it.

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