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Rock, Paper, Stone: The Biz Stone Guide to Independent Publishing

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In: Articles

By Biz Stone

Published on May 22, 2002

People have things to say. Maybe you're one of them, struggling to get a voice through the bottleneck that is big publishing. Maybe you're a talented individual who would write more if you had a forum. Maybe you're an expert in certain areas but all that insightful content stays trapped within you because you don't have an outlet.

Oh, but you do.

Today's Web is fertile soil for independent publishing. Not only is it easy to get your voice out there, but your voice is also heard, acknowledged, and in many cases responded to by interested, intelligent readers who have discovered your work because they sought it out and are happy to have found it. This low barrier to publishing gets you writing, and that's important.

Blogging: Get Into It

The quickest and easiest way to jump into independent publishing is to start a blog. Daily journals of links and commentary that bring the soul and character of their authors out from "behind the screen" are the new home pages and they're shaping the Web. Text-centric and powered by one of several microcontent management systems available, weblogs are enhancing the Web while providing an outlet and community for those who publish them. They're easy to maintain, simple to update, and addictive if you let them get their hooks into you.

Don't wait around for someone to invite you to be published-use the Web. And don't dance around trying to decide if you want to buy a URL, WYSIWYG HTML editing software, and hosting-just surf over to one of the major weblog providers and sign up for your free blog. You'll be publishing to the Web instantly. The easiest free weblog providers for people new to Web publishing are:

Blogger
The free version of Blogger gets you up and running with predesigned (or do it yourself) pages, optional free blog hosting, and an easy to navigate publishing interface.

Xanga
Xanga.com's free weblog offering includes built-in user comments, predesigned (or do it yourself) pages, free blog hosting, and also sports a very user friendly publishing environment.

Diaryland
Diaryland has a kid-like appearance but is another easy way to go when you just want to get going right away. Your blog is hosted at Diaryland for free, and you can create your own design or use one of theirs. No frills, just easy and free.

GrokSoup
GrokSoup offers free blogging with a writing environment similar to your usual word processing application. They too feature a place to host your blog, the ability to choose from predesigned pages, and user comments.

Both Blogger and Xanga offer paid versions with a more sophisticated feature set which includes the ability to use a favorite email application for posting to your Web page. The above mentioned providers have other unique features besides the few I mentioned so be sure to check them out for yourself to find out which one is right for you. While you're at it, have a look at other, more advanced blogging services that are out there as well. MoveableType, Greymatter, Radio Userland, and LiveJournal are some of the more widely used platforms.

Side Effects (Good Ones) of Blogging

Once you sign up with a weblog service provider, blogging is so easy that you'll have no excuse not to write every day-and as I mentioned above, you can even blog via email with some services. Writing every day helps you develop your talent. You will stare less at a blank page and wonder what to fill it with because you are so familiar with the process of translating your thoughts to text. And because blog entries tend to be short bursts or paragraphs, you will develop an ability to say more with less clutter.

Even if you have no idea what to write about when you first start your blog, you'll discover that the daily exercise can help you cultivate a voice. I set up a blog for my friend Lisa Lutz and after a few weeks she decided to turn her blog into an advice column. Now she offers highly unprofessional advice to anyone who wanders her way. Got a question? Ask Lutz.

Your signature style will evolve as you build a relationship with your readers. You may even find out that you have opinions and interests on subjects you ordinarily wouldn't have thought about. Blogging helps you find your place in the never-ending flow if information and news. Finding your voice is an important step in your career as a published writer.

Branch Out

After you've got the hang of it and you're blogging away, building an audience, finding your voice, and honing your skills, you may want to spread your wings a bit. Six paragraphs into a post, you may discover that you have enough information (and enough interest) to write a longer piece such as an essay-but you're not sure what to do because it doesn't fit with the format of your blog page.

Write the essay. Post it somewhere else and link to it from your blog. Now might be a good time to consider Web hosting so you'll have a place for these longer pieces. If you'd like the same kind of control over you essays as you do with your blog, then you might also want to consider some of the more advanced offerings created for just that kind of control. WebCrimson, and MoveableType come to mind.

Build a Contributing Staff

With blogging and other microcontent management software, you can often add team members and allow others to post to your site. Adding the team members makes for a more diverse coverage of whatever topic your group blog is focused on. The seven person strong blog The End of Free is a great example of a team blog that works. TEOF chronicles the changing landscape of the Web as it pertains to formally free services or content.

Make It Legit

If you publish a weblog, whether it's a solo project or a group gig, then you qualify for an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN). That's right, you are a legitimate publication like any magazine or newspaper according to the National Serials Data Program, Library of Congress:

"In the case of electronic serials--especially those available online, such as on the Internet--the most significant criterion is that the publication must be divided into parts or issues which carry unique, numerical designations by which the individual issues may be identified, checked in, etc. Electronic serials that are issued as individual articles meet this criterion as long as the articles carry a unique designation."

Blogs are published to the Internet in unique individual post so they qualify. In many cases you can apply for your number over the Web. I've seen several blogs proudly displaying an ISSN. Currently, the Library of Congress is making changes to their application form and software for processing ISSN requests of online serials so their Web application is temporarily down, but when it comes back up, go for it! Here are the links for registering in Canada and the United States for starters.

Beyond Blogging

Okay, you've mastered blogging. You've been blogging for a while and it's great but you're interested in taking your talent into new areas of independent publishing. What do you do now?

Write an article. One of the greatest things about blogging is that many people who do it are expert (or at least very interested) in a particular field. Like Andy Crewdson with typography or Peter Merholz on good user experience. If you've got strong opinions and ideas on a topic that you have been blogging about for a while, developing a readership, and showing up in Google results related to your topic, then there may be an online publication or Web 'zine somewhere that would love to work with you. Seek them out and suggest an article. But don't be surprised if they find you first!

The Great Frantic Novel

Publishing on the Web is all about "Just doing it." And NaNoWriMo is all about just getting your 50,000 word novel written in a hurry:

"National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 200-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30."

Yes, they value enthusiasm and perseverance over talent and craft but hey, it's all about actually writing something with a group of peers cheering you on. So what if it's rough, wouldn't it be cool if you had your manuscript done right now? NaNoWriMo takes you out of the "I have an idea for a novel" world and plants you firmly in the "have you read my novel?" crowd. It's a whole different ball game.

Your Work In Print

If you've got a novel or a short story already written and you've been getting some positive feedback on it, then what are you waiting for? If you align yourself with Web savvy folks who want to bridge the gap between digital content and print, you can circumvent the elaborate dance of book agents and slush piles. Your ally in this endeavor is So New Media, "an independent publisher and distributor who's goal it is to publish the new, innovative voices that are currently limited to online publication."

So New Media is a group of publishers and writers who have joined forces to bring the undiscovered talent on the Web to bookshelves all over the world. SNM's print publications include the magazine Words!Words!Words! currently available here, as well as a selection of minibooks that are also available online. I have a short story I've been meaning to submit to them myself. They are a cool, connected bunch of futuristic new media tycoons-to-be waiting for you to send them your proposals. Go check'em out.

Independent publishing browserware has opened up the possibility of being read by a wide audience significantly over the last two years. If you've ever fantasized about having your work published, now is the time to make it a reality. Go to Blogger.com, create an account, and start broadcasting. From there you can cultivate your talent and reach out to other venues. There are forward thinking first-movers building partnerships and methods of carrying your words to the Web and beyond even as you finish reading this piece. I look forward to reading your work!

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Biz Stone is a graphic designer and writer currently working on his first book Blogging: Genius Strategies for Instant Web Content to be published in fall 2002 by New Riders.

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