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.

Read more:
Substack isn’t a new model for journalism – it’s a very old one

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.

If you want to publish a truly subversive novel, have a main character who’s fat

Beth Younger, Drake University

Banned Books Week, held this year from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, is an annual event designed to draw national attention to the harms of censorship. Created in 1982 by the American Library Association in response to a growing number of “challenged” books in schools and libraries, the week is really about celebrating the freedom to read.

Much of the practice of book banning takes the form of challenging a book deemed subversive and objectionable, with profanity or sexual content often the book challengers’ source of ire.

These days, such campaigns can elicit an eye roll: everyone knows that teens are regularly exposed to profanity and sex online and on TV. (Rather than try to ban books, a better approach is to instead teach media literacy so young people are better able to contextualize what they’re exposed to.)

The problem is that when you go after books for swears or sex, you might also be threatening books that are truly subversive: the ones that confront our unconscious biases, whether it’s weight or race, and question the way we tend to think about ourselves and others. One frequently challenged book – Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 young adult novel “Eleanor & Park” – does just that.

Challenged in Minnesota

“Eleanor & Park” is a romance novel about two misfits who become friends, fall in love and endure the cruelties of the world: abusive parents, poverty and bullying.

The same year it was published, a parent group in the Anoka-Hennipin school district in Minnesota tried (and failed) to get the book removed from the curriculum and school libraries. But they did manage to get the author’s visit to Anoka High School canceled.

Citing 227 instances of profanity, the parents alleged that “Eleanor & Park” was “littered with extreme profanity and age inappropriate subject matter that should never be put into the hands and minds of minor children, much less promoted by the educational institutions and staff we entrust to teach and protect our children.”

What are we afraid of?

Banning books in the United States is nothing new, and there’s a long history of trying to prevent people (mostly kids and teens) from reading things some think they shouldn’t read.

It seems that the only thing worse than sex or the “f word” in young adult literature is being a lesbian. Depicting a gay couple got copies of Nancy Garden’s 1982 lesbian romance novel “Annie on My Mind” burned on the steps of the Kansas City School District headquarters in 1993.

Young adult author Judy Blume.
Carl Lender/flickr, CC BY

Judy Blume’s books are famous for pushing the “decency” envelope. Her 1972 novel “Forever…” is also frequently banned for sexual content and for profanity. (Pretty much yearly since its publication, “Forever…” has been challenged by Focus on the Family or The Christian Coalition.)

But there’s another aspect to “Forever…” that’s rarely discussed: It has a fat character who has lots of sex. Sybil is often seen as a foil to the main character Katherine, a rail-thin control freak who loses her virginity deliberately and with purpose.

Sybil is the other side of the body image spectrum: She’s fat and “has been laid” by six guys. At least she gets to have sex, which is pretty uncommon for a fat girl in 1972 young adult fiction. (And there’s a penis named Ralph in the book, yet another reason to read this classic.)

But “Forever…” is an extreme outlier. The way the media depicts fat characters – and fat people – has been a problem for generations. In 2011 NPR aired a piece on fat stereotypes in pop culture. The report dissected the typical fat character in TV shows and films: someone “self-loathing” and “desperate to be loved.”

Of course, the lives of fat people aren’t much different from those of thin people. But you wouldn’t know that from the way fat bodies are portrayed on TV and in film. Research on “weight bias in the media” suggests that most representations of fat people in media are stigmatizing. More research suggests that shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “More to Love” reinforce anti-fat bias rather than fat acceptance.

We were all teenagers once

This is why “Eleanor & Park” is so refreshingly different.

Like many protagonists in young adult novels, Eleanor is a teenager who’s desperate to be an adult so she can escape her awful circumstances. But while the parents trying to ban the book pounced on the profanity, they ignored one of the novel’s biggest triumphs: Eleanor is fat. Yes, Eleanor is a fat female protagonist in a young adult romance novel and she’s in love – she even has a cute boyfriend named Park.

The cover art for Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Eleanor & Park.’

As author John Green wrote in a review of the novel, “…the obstacle in ‘Eleanor & Park’ is simply the world. The world cannot stomach a relationship between a good-looking Korean kid and Big Red.” (Big Red is Eleanor’s nickname.)

Last year, Buzzfeed writer Kaye Toal penned a beautiful personal essay about discovering Eleanor in an airport bookstore. Part of what struck Toal as significant about Eleanor is that she is fat yet is not required to become thin or change in order to be loved. Despite the recent increase in fat characters appearing on television and in movies, many of them are required to change in order to be accepted. Not surprisingly, another study published in 2013 connects the prevalence of the “thin ideal” in popular literature to low self-esteem in female readers.

Letting Eleanor be fat and be loved is much needed in today’s climate of “the obesity epidemic” and misplaced concerns with fatness. Park loves Eleanor; she loves him back. A simple story, but with a difference. Eleanor’s fat is not really a crucial aspect of her being. She doesn’t need to be fixed.

That’s what makes this lovely and painful novel subversive – and what makes efforts to ban it all the more misguided.

The Conversation

Beth Younger, Associate Professor of English & Women’s and Gender Studies, Drake University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Shift away from ‘publish or perish’ puts the public back into publication

Andrew Walker, Australian National University

Earlier this year, I visited the library at the Australian National University with my son so he could borrow some books for an essay on Chinese history. Wandering past shelf after shelf, he asked me, “How does it feel to be writing another book that no-one will read?”

It was just another teenage jibe, but in policy terms it was a prescient analysis.

In recent weeks there have been reports that the government is considering making publication output much less important in the formulae that allocate research funding to universities.

Prime Minister Turnbull has signalled a desire to move away from a “publish or perish” culture to a new set of academic incentives that prioritises engagement and impact.

With more than A$1 billion per year in research grants on the table, even a marginal change in allocation methods could see big changes in the dollars flowing to some fields of study.

There is real concern among some academics that the changes will be unfair: scientists will be able to demonstrate impact in the form of patents, commercial spin-offs and industry engagement much more readily than their colleagues in the social sciences or humanities.

When the new Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, talks about the importance of demonstrating “a measurable return on investment,” historians, anthropologists, philosophers and linguists are understandably anxious.

But is a defensive reaction necessary?

Change on the way

Those of us who work in the social sciences and humanities place a great value on the persuasiveness of our words. We can write; not perfectly, but better than most. New and genuinely public forms of publication, rather than the semi-private domain of journals and monographs, provide us with powerful platforms for our academic passions.

We don’t need to be afraid of funding formulae that focus on the quality of societal engagement rather than the quantity of journal articles or monographs.

But it will take a change of attitude and of academic practice.

If we continue to shape our careers around the twice-weekly lecture (to a diminishing class of students) and two journal articles per year (in good quality journals, so our peers can praise them without reading them) our future will be much narrower than it could be.

Academic websites would be a good place for reform to start. Most departmental webpages are online ghost towns, attracting negligible traffic despite the effort and angst put into producing and, intermittently, maintaining them. They do very little to generate broader societal impact via outreach or engagement.

Rather, they exist primarily to reassure academic units of their own existence. They are like sacred totemic objects that symbolise the unity of the academic clan – they are brought out from seclusion in times of social crisis (such as a managerial attempt to rationalise unread online content), briefly venerated, and then forgotten. And one of the ironies of university life is that the managers of websites regularly complain that they struggle to receive content.

Effective engagement and outreach will require a much more nimble academic posture. We need to diversify the way we write. It’s time to stop looking down our nose at public commentary as a second rate form of academic communication. We can rediscover the power of images and sounds.

An ability to operate effectively in the online world should gradually become a baseline academic selection criteria; just as important as the ability to give a lecture or write a chapter.

Rising to the challenge

In no way should this diminish the importance of basic, speculative and even eccentric research. I am an anthropologist and, as my son kindly pointed out, I know what it’s like to write books and articles that don’t exactly fly off the shelves. But I have spent the past decade combining formal promotion-friendly publication with blogging, opinion pieces and media interviews.

The ideas, inspiration and energy flow two ways: from formal research to public outreach and back again. Some of my research has been rather esoteric (spirit beliefs in northern Thailand, anyone?) but I have always enjoyed using insights from that work in public discussions about power, politics and democracy.

Have I been able to demonstrate, or even measure, the impact of my public outreach? To some extent, but certainly not perfectly. Working on this will be challenging and, at times, frustrating.

But engaging in the debate will be more productive than retreating behind a “nobody understands our worth” barricade. There are many qualitative and quantitative tools that we can use to demonstrate our engagement and impact. It will seem like sacrilege to many, but perhaps re-tweets could become an academic metric that sits alongside citation rates?

The challenge laid down by the government is not to abandon pure research or scholarly writing, but to put the public back into publication.

It’s a challenge we should embrace.

The Conversation

Andrew Walker, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Article: PapyrusEditor

The link below is to an article that looks at PapyrusEditor, an online web application that allows you to create, design, publish and sell your ebook.

For more visit:

Article: How To Make Your Own eBooks And Publish Them On Amazon

The link below is to an article which acts as a tutorial on how to create your own ebooks and publish them on Amazon.

For more visit: