The Novel In The Digital Age
Why I’m Betting on Medium
Readers and authors deserve a great place to congregate online. Sure, the written word has many homes. But most fit poorly with the cadence of books. Authors write extremely long dispatches — so we’re mostly bad at Twitter. Facebook basically charges us to reach the readers who proactively seek us out and follow us, which is kind of evil (plus, we’re cheapskates). I love Goodreads and recommend it to everyone. But as its name avows, it’s geared more around readers than authors.
As for blogging, it’s more like an alternative to our main gig than a means to support it. Blog daily, and you’ll have no time to write books. Blog quarterly, and nobody — literally, nobody — will keep checking in to see if you have a pulse. Independent and emerging writers have many direct routes to readers (I’m especially enamored with WattPad). But publishers keep most of their output away from those channels. And so authors who work with publishers are still seeking a place to truly showcase our work and gather a following.
I think that place can be Medium.
So I’m delighted that Random House has licensed Medium a huge excerpt from my new novel, After On. It will be posted in a dozen installments leading up to the book’s August 1st release. The first installment is right here, and the homepage for the coming installments (plus over ten hours of special audio programming) is right here.
Here’s the homepage for After On’s 12-part serial, podcasts, and more.
Set in present-day San Francisco, After On is the tale of an imaginary social media startup. A rather diabolical one, which attains consciousness. Its personality then emerges from its roots as a social network. So rather than going all Terminator and killing everyone, it basically becomes a hyper-empowered, superintelligent, 14-year-old brat. Yes, it has playful aspects. But After On is also a serious rumination on super AI risk — as well as on the promises and perils of synthetic biology. It also looks at quantum computing, nihilistic terrorism, privacy & government intrusion, the roots of consciousness, Fermi’s paradox, simulation theory, plus sex & dating in the post-Tinder era.
The first three excerpts will be freely available to anyone on Medium (accessing the rest will require Medium membership). I’ll also be posting eight long audio episodes, which will examine the technological and social issues explored in After On. I have a terrific co-host for this in Tom Merritt, and our guests will include author Sam Harris, EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn, UCSF neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, and other brilliant folks. Medium’s members will start getting early access to these posts next Monday, then they’ll start going live to the rest of the world as podcasts on August 1st.
Although it was my idea, I’ll admit this is a true experiment. Random House has never licensed an excerpt this long from a front-line release, and this is very new turf for Medium as well. So why are we doing it?
I’ll start with my own motives, as I don’t speak for either company (although I will tell you how I pitched them). After On can be a challenge. There’s lots of science and tech in it, for one thing. And though it’s mostly a traditional novel, I also play with some odd narrative tools. The book includes eighteen Amazon reviews (yes, really). It features several excerpts from a mysterious second novel (quite possibly the single worst science fiction novel ever written! Though it will hopefully make you laugh as well as cringe). There are also blog posts under various pen names; articles I attribute to multiple newspapers; plus texts, tweets, and several intercepted government documents.
After putting 7,500 hours of my life into it, I want After On to reach lots of people. But I’m even more interested in reaching the people it will truly resonate with. It’s quirky, costs money, and entails a real time commitment. So if it’s not right for you, I’d rather not take your dollars or hours (which is arguably bad for business — but good businesspeople don’t write sprawling novels for a living). Whereas if it is right for you, I want you to discover it with as little friction as possible. Both goals made a big excerpt on Medium seem like a good idea.
My pitch to Random House evoked the largely bygone practice of US magazines excerpting new books. Licensing fees cost editors less than a major article, and publishers were pleased to generate income while promoting new titles. This practice is now rare. Reasons include the drop-off in print advertising, which has lowered magazine page counts, squeezing content. So why not transplant this pillar of the publishing ecosystem? Without trees to topple or ink to smear, we can release much longer excerpts online. Digital excerpts travel globally, and widespread excerpts will help books reach their most natural audiences. Better fits between books and readers will make reading more delightful, which means more books should sell — and hey, presto, everybody wins!
I should note here that I was a longtime entrepreneur (I founded the company that created the Rhapsody music service), and am known for confusing my books for startups. The folks at Random House are used to my manic pitches, and are usually kind enough to humor me.
I then went to Medium. Low on trolls, and high on serious readers, writers, and thought, it’s the best place I know for long-form writing online. My pitch was that while fewer people read them these days, books remain the fountainhead of so much cultural production. Movies, movements, trends, TV shows, video games, memes — hell, even religions! — often stem from books. And while we may not blog daily, authors do like to write — and Medium members sure like to read.
This means that in addition to being a great place to debut books with extensive excerpts, Medium is perfect for maintaining author/reader connections between book releases. Its follower/feed setup allows connections to persist. But the site doesn’t muzzle us after 140 characters, or charge us to reach folks who want to hear from us. So maybe Medium can become the online hub for authors — lots of authors — to connect with readers?
I urgently hope so. And if this idea intrigues you, I hope you’ll join me in what comes next (just click the Follow button, and my excerpts should appear in your feed).