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russell smith

Every week, some U.S. writer publishes a new blog post about how s he doesn't need a publisher any more: She is self-publishing e-books and selling them by word of mouth, and they have all sold tens of thousands of copies and the last three were New York Times bestsellers. Interestingly, every single one of these is genre fiction of some kind – romance, paranormal romance, detective romance – and usually aimed at women. This is understandably preoccupying the publishing industry.

When literary analysts talk about the new self-publishing, they are generally referring to these full-length books. But there is an entire other new genre of publishing that has yet to be monetized. That is short fiction, poetry and memoir published on sites whose goal is more social than literary, whose role is to distribute short pieces by amateur writers among mobile phones and tablets and on social-media sites and to create communities of participants rather than hierarchical, one-way author-reader exchanges.

E.L. James, the author who is said to be earning $1.4-million a week from her Fifty Shades books, is famously the product of one of these communities – she began attracting followers for her unpaid blog entries on fan sites and a clever e-publisher noticed and approached her.

I want to describe two of these amateur literary publishing sites as, although there are dozens more with slight variations, these two are interesting examples of new ways of looking at writing.

The first is the teen-fiction site Wattpad. This is a place to upload your vampire fiction, your Harry Potter riffs, your high-school romance scenes, your diary entries, your sad poems. Then other people can comment on them and direct you to similar ones.

The twist with this site is that it is primarily designed for mobile devices – these are stories you can write, upload, download and read from your phone. Wattpad also made available more than 17,000 free uncopyrighted e-books from Project Gutenberg (and it has also been criticized for not preventing the uploading of pirated works, but that's another issue).

You can't make money directly from becoming popular on Wattpad, but a huge hit there can lead to more conventional publishing: One serialized YA novel about witches in a high school was read 13 million times. The author, an editor at American Cheerleader magazine (not an ironic art magazine), did then self-publish it as a book.

It's hard to penetrate the multiple communities of a system like Wattpad. Browsing stories at random will only lead to depression: Anything unedited and uncurated will be 99 per cent unreadable. Fans of particular writers come to them through referral, through following particular narrow genres and probably contributing to them themselves. It's a slow and closed process; no wonder adults have so far been excluded from it. If I were a publisher, though, I'd be thinking that the next Twilight series might sprout from a place like this.

Consider then a writing site aimed more squarely at grown-ups. Cowbird is a place where people post mostly true life stories, short reminiscences and descriptions. These are tagged and grouped by subject and theme and place and every other which way. Some are explicitly fiction; most are not. Most are like longer and more earnest Facebook updates.

An editor chooses a "story of the day," which can receive thousands of reads. Some people act as self-appointed curators, grouping their favourite stories or issuing challenges to write stories with certain elements or restrictions. Here again, the people doing the curating are unselected and unpaid; this is the most democratic form of editing.

Cowbird adds a multimedia twist: You can add large photos to illustrate your text, as well as an audio track. Some users will put a song over their text, some just some sound effects. I read one short description of a hot neighbourhood in Athens with a soundtrack that was just ambient street noise – a clever touch. Some writers are adding recordings of themselves reading their texts.

Cowbird's self-promotion relies heavily on the idea of "story," but strangely it doesn't use the word fiction. What it is encouraging is basically memoir. And so far its function – as a kind of Facebook without jokey comment threads – seems to be primarily social rather than artistic. But then attempting to make that distinction just shows my age, doesn't it?