Is Salman Rushdie’s decision to publish on Substack the death of the novel?


Julian Novitz, Swinburne University of Technology

Email newsletters might be associated with the ghost towns of old personal email addresses for many: relentlessly accumulating unopened updates from organisations, stores and services signed up to and forgotten in the distant past. But over the last few years they have experienced a revival, with an increasing number of writers supplementing their income with paid newsletter subscriptions.

Most recently, Salman Rushdie’s decision to use the newsletter subscription service Substack to circulate his latest book has sparked conversation around this platform and its impact on the world of publishing.

What is Substack?

Launched in 2017, Substack allows writers to create newsletters and set up paid subscription tiers for them, offering readers a mixture of free and paywalled content in each edition.

Substack has thus encroached on the traditional territories of newspapers, magazines, the blogosphere – and now trade publishing. Though it is worth noting that until now it has been most enthusiastically adopted by journalists rather than authors.

Rather than monetising the service via advertising, Substack’s profits come from a percentage of paid subscriptions. Substack’s founders see the platform as a way of breaking from the ‘attention economy’ promoted by social media, allowing a space for more thoughtful and substantial writing that is funded directly by readers.

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Not a radical disruption

Rushdie’s decision to publish via Substack signals a surprising inroad into one of the areas associated with trade publishing – literary fiction – and certainly makes for a good news story. He is the first significant literary novelist to publish a substantial work of fiction via the platform and Rushdie himself talks jokingly about helping to kill off the print book with this move.

However, the novella that Rushdie is intending to serialise will almost certainly be available in a more conventional format at some point in the future, given all Substack writers retain full rights to their intellectual property.

Other experiments with digital self-publication by prominent fiction authors, such as Stephen King’s novella Riding the Bullet (first published independently as an eBook), and the fiction first generated on Twitter by writers like David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman, have made their way to traditional publishers.

Neil Gaiman has also experimented with digitally distributed fiction.

While this movement provides excellent publicity for Rushdie and the Substack service, it’s perhaps better understood as a limited term platform exclusivity deal than as a radical disruption of the literary publishing ecosystem.

Potentially more interesting is what the “acquisition” of Rushdie by Substack illustrates about their operation as a digital service. Throughout its history, Substack has offered advances to promising writers to support them while they cultivate a subscriber base.

This practice has now been formalised as Substack Pro, where selected writers, like Rushdie himself, are paid a substantial upfront fee to produce content, which Substack recoups by taking a higher percentage of their subscription fees for their first year of writing.

The exact sums paid vary between writers, but it is not dissimilar to a traditional advance on royalties. When coupled with some of the other services that are available to writers with paid subscriptions – like a legal fund and financial support for the editing, design, and production of newsletters – Substack can be seen as operating in a grey area between publisher and platform.

They pursue promising and high-profile writers, generate income, and provide services in ways that parallel the operations of trade publishers, but do not claim rights or responsibilities in relation to the content that is produced.

Although Substack do not see themselves as commissioning writers it could be argued they do play an editorial role in curating content on their platform through not terribly transparent Substack Pro deals and incentives.

The evolution of Substack

Recently Jude Doyle, a trans critic and novelist, has abandoned the platform. They note the irony of how profits generated by the often marginalised or subcultural writers who built paid subscriber bases in the early days of Substack are now being used to fund the much more lucrative deals offered to high-profile right-wing writers, who have in some cases exploited Substack’s weak moderation policy to spread anti-trans rhetoric and encourage harassment.

It could be argued Substack Pro is evolving into an inversion of the traditional (if somewhat idealised) publishing model, where a small number of profitable authors would subsidise the emergence of new writers. Instead, on Substack, profits generated from the work of large numbers of side-hustling writers are used to draw more established voices to the platform.

The founders of Substack have been unapologetic about their policies, considering the “unsubscribe” button to be the ultimate moderation tool for their users. They do, however, acknowledge Substack’s free-market approach may not appeal to all and anticipate competition from alternatives.

Ghost already exists as a non-profit newsletter platform with a more active approach to moderation, and Facebook’s Bulletin provides a carefully curated newsletter service from commissioned writers.

At this stage, the use of newsletters for literary fiction is an experiment, and it remains to be seen if it will be sustainable. As Rushdie puts it: “It will either turn out to be something wonderful and enjoyable, or it won’t.”The Conversation

Julian Novitz, Lecturer, Writing, School of Media and Communication, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book publishing sidelined in the game of university measurement and rankings


Agata Mrva-Montoya, University of Sydney and Edward Luca, University of Sydney

Academic book publishing is under threat. Global university rankings and competition for funding and international student enrolments are reshaping the research landscape. Academics are under more pressure to win grant funding and publish journal articles, rather than books, and be more strategic in their publishing.

With universities losing billions in revenue due to the impacts of COVID-19, these pressures are only going to increase.

Traditionally, a monograph published with a prestigious publisher has been a key medium to create and disseminate research in the humanities and social sciences. It has also been important for building scholarly careers and reputations. However, our research shows publishing pressures, incentives and rewards are changing.

A shift from quantity to quality

The Australian government’s approach to funding research has had a strong impact on what types of publications have been encouraged.

Australian universities first began reporting details of academics’ research outputs to the government in the 1990s as part of the formula for distributing research funding. The funds allocated for publication were significant. By 2001, a peer-reviewed journal article was “worth” more than A$3,000 to the university. A book was “worth” $15,000.

These rewards applied regardless of where the research was published. “Publish or perish” had well and truly taken over. Without appropriate measures to account for quality and impact, the system had the unintended consequence of encouraging academics to publish low-quality research with low-quality journals and publishers just to meet performance targets. The use of quantitative measures alone also increases the possibility for gaming and manipulation.

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Publication data were eventually removed from the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) specifications in 2016. Since then, no government funding based on quantity (or quality) of research outputs has been distributed.

Australia’s current national research assessment exercise, Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), began in 2010. The ERA system is designed to identify and improve quality of research through international benchmarking.

As a result, all universities expect “quality” publications from their staff. This is invariably understood as publishing with international and prestigious publishers and in high-ranking journals.

As universities compete against each other, they have a strong incentive to lift their research profile and to design internal reward schemes based on how ERA defines quality.

Academics are now fundraisers

Our research project looked at the publishing strategies and behaviours of academics in the humanities and social sciences. We found the pressures for quantity appear to have subsided (for some at least). However, there is now a greater push for quality, competitive grant funding and real-world impact.

While universities are still interested in quality publications, the changing funding rules mean universities that receive competitive funding get additional research funds through HERDC. This translates to greater pressure on academics to apply for and secure funding. Academic production appears to have shifted from publication as an outcome in itself to funding as the main measure of performance.

women weighs up books in one hand against piggybank in the other
Academics must now weigh up the expectation that they attract funding against other performance criteria.

Funding bodies, in turn, are increasingly looking to researchers to show their research has quantifiable, real-world impacts. And ideally they should publish in open access publications.

Read more:
2020 locked in shift to open access publishing, but Australia is lagging

Juggling publication quality and research impact

Academics are caught in the middle between the pressure to publish in quality outlets versus the need to demonstrate impact in the broader society. This creates a conundrum for academics in the humanities and social sciences in particular.

A number of participants in our research described the ways in which their university’s performance evaluations are aligned to publishing practices in science, technology and medicine. Citation metrics are commonly used as a proxy for quality in these fields. Books are generally not available or poorly represented in citation databases.

Many respondents felt their institutions devalued book publishing in favour of journal articles and collaborative authorship.

The emphasis on international publication means some subject areas are rated higher than others. For example, academics in Australian studies told us they felt their institutions undervalued their work.

We also observed an increase in the number of journal ranking lists or recommended publisher lists, created internally by universities. These are intended to make “quality” explicit by identifying where academics are advised to publish.

However, these lists discourage academics from publishing with local, niche, emerging or open-access book publishers and journals. These outlets might actually be a better fit for their target audiences and so lead to greater impact.

Read more:
Who cares about university research? The answer depends on its impacts

Distorting the value of academic inquiry

The different expectations of various stakeholders mean academics receive conflicting advice about publishing strategically. Academics are encouraged to engage with the Australian context and communities. At the same time, they are told to produce research that prestigious international journals and publishers will accept.

These pressures lead researchers to publish in ways that reflect how they are being measured. This appears, in turn, to influence their research agendas. The current research landscape seems to be more a reflection of what is being measured, rather than what is needed by society or would advance knowledge.

Academics, especially early career researchers, have no choice but to remain open to changing priorities, be they institutional or governmental. They must balance the contradictions and tensions in academia. In spite of the rhetoric of academic freedom, university performance expectations mean academics are increasingly required to construct their research agendas and publishing strategies to be attractive to grant funders and international publishers.

Apart from affecting individual academics’ careers, these practices have broad social and intellectual costs. For the humanities and social sciences, in particular, these trends could affect the future and relevance of these disciplines in Australia.The Conversation

Agata Mrva-Montoya, Honorary Associate, Department of Media and Communication, University of Sydney and Edward Luca, Manager, Academic Services, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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