Self-Publication without Tears? - Writers with their own websites

Originally published in the PN Review, May-June 2002

The Yahoo search-engine currently lists a total of 12505 authors with their own websites, 4039 of them in the "Literary Fiction" category, which is by far the most populous. Poetry sites are listed separately: there are 2272 of these, but no figures are available on how many are the personal sites of individual poets.

Writers' personal websites come in many different forms, and in some of them the emphasis on "personal" is just as heavy as the emphasis on writing. Erin Elizabeth - a well-published American poet, founder of the online literary magazine Stirring, and co-founder of the Sundress organisation, which hosts various other literary e-zines - is an example of this. Her site, which used to be called "Sick with the Hibiscus" and is now called "Hush", opens with a black-and-white image of two women making love, one of them presumably Ms Elizabeth herself. Elsewhere on the site are numerous head-and-shoulders photographs of the author (who is a very pretty girl). Many of these pictures are included in a "live journal" which also features new poems (presumably works in progress, or newly written) and some first-person reflections: "i fear that i am becoming everything i promised to not be. callous. unyielding. tight and tired. frigid and formidable. a woman with glasses, balancing a checkbook. not a girl with green gloves..." This mixture of more formal writing with very intimate material is not untypical of a certain type of writer's website: many of the ones listed by the Sundress organization are similar in tone, featuring photographs of their authors and "live" on-line journals. As well as wanting to make their work available to a wider public, some of these writers seem to have launched their websites as a means of keeping in touch with friends and family, which is a perfectly legitimate reason for going on-line. One wonders if running a website of this nature is likely to have a long-term effect on the creative output of the writers concerned, perhaps encouraging them to be more "confessional" in their writing than they would otherwise have been. To be fair, however, this does not seem to have happened to Erin Elizabeth.

Some writers' personal websites have strong academic connections. Stuart Moulthrop is one example: he is an experimental writer from America, but he earns his living as an academic, and the two activities obviously go hand in hand. Rather than having his own domain-name he uses an academic address, and says that his reasons for setting up the website were "(a) circulation of material not appropriate for academic journals, such as hypertext fiction and (b) opportunity to experiment with tools and forms. I do not regard my Web site," he adds, "as a business venture." He goes on to say that he makes no attempt to sell his work from his site, but "I've profited from free distribution of my work through professional advancement -- the quintessential academic/writer racket." In other words he set up his own site not only to experiment with new forms of writing, but to make these experiments publicly available: and the fact that he was known to be an experimental writer of this type has helped his academic career. In America, the development of hyperliterature has been much more strongly encouraged by the universities than here in the UK.

Adrienne Eisen, another experimental writer from America, describes how she came to set up her own website as follows: "I launched the web site because I was writing interactive stories for CD-Rom, before there was the Internet (outside of the university setting) and I saw the Web as a way to distribute my writing much more easily than on CD-Rom." It seems odd that having followed this course, she doesn't offer any of her work for sale on CD-Rom direct from the site; but this perhaps reflects the fact that writers seem to launch their own websites as a means of publicising their work, rather than selling it. Even Peter Finch, the author of How to Publish Yourself, admits that "My web site is first and foremost me in public", although he then adds "I sell from it - books, myself, my work." Jane Dorner, author of The Internet: A Writer's Guide, says that her personal website is for "PR essentially. And for getting work. Much easier than sending a brochure, CV, portfolio or whatever."

Dorner has another website apart from her personal one, designed specifically as an extension to her book: it carries more than a thousand links to other sites and online resources, organised in accordance with the book's chapter-headings. This reflects another noteworthy aspect of personal websites: that although writers set up their own sites in order to publicise their work, they very frequently end up devoting a great deal of time and energy to publicising work by other people. The experimental poet Peter Howard is typical: "I link to other sites if I think they're interesting," he modestly remarks. "I never demand a link back as a condition of putting up one of my own." In fact his list of links is almost as huge as Jane Dorner's.

These lists of links fulfill an extremely useful function. From the reader's point of view, the main problem with writing on the Web is that there is so much of it. Setting up a personal website is cheap and easy, and no editorial standards are involved. Any unpublished writers wishing to display their work on the Web can do so, and in recent years they have done so in great numbers. This means that if readers begin to look for web-published writing by going to one of the big search-engines and asking for "writing" or "poetry", they be will confronted by hundreds of links, the majority of which will yield fairly uninteresting results. But if they can find their way to one decent site which carries its own list of links, they can be relatively sure that they are being pointed in the direction of some worthwhile material. This is where editorial control, in a very loose form, begins to reassert itself.

Peter Howard's site lists Peter Finch's; Peter Finch lists Peter Howard and Jane Dorner; Jane Dorner lists Peter Finch and Peter Howard. In effect there is a loose community-within-a-community on the Web, of web-authors who refer their readers on to each other. How much they are influenced by one another remains to be seen, but certainly in the realm of experimental writing such as hyperliterature, the fact that these writers are all aware of each other's work and effectively looking over each other's shoulders must serve to encourage an interchange of creative ideas.

Writers may sometimes move onto the Web without really formulating their reasons for doing so. Peter Howard, for example, writes "I first launched my website when CompuServe first offered web space. I had no coherent idea at the time why I was doing it. Several frequenters of the CompuServe Poetry Workshop launched sites at the same time and we were just experimenting. I now regard my site as principally for publicising my work to a wider public." Certainly most writers who venture onto the Web must have at least a vague notion of bringing their work to the attention of a wider audience; but another factor, which is generally overlooked, is the sheer thrill of being able to create something from start to finish without any outside help. Anybody that learns how to design web-pages is bound enjoy seeing the end products displayed on the computer screen; but for writers, who are used to having to submit their work to editors, typesetters and printers before seeing it in print, this thrill is particularly intense. And although there are plenty of writers who allow someone else to set up their websites for them, there are also many who take a pride in looking after the whole thing themselves. John Tranter, the Australian poet and magazine-editor, says "I do it all myself, hand-coding using HomeSite." Peter Howard agrees: "My site is built and maintained in hand-coded HTML. The design and coding is all done by myself." Adrienne Eisen: "I hand code the HTML and it's a joke how long it takes. I can't believe I'm still doing that. It's like a language, and when I haven't done if for a year or so, I forget things, like, what's the tag for vertical space? And then I have to guess. On the other hand, my code is so clean, and I love that." Jane Dorner: "I use FrontPage because it's easy. I have Dreamweaver, but I can't get fond of it. I've tried various tricks and twiddles but have come back to plain, unfancy HTML." Stuart Moulthrop: "I write my own code and do my own visual design." And Peter Finch: "Most of the site was built by me hand-coded."

HTML is a surprisingly easy code to learn: it isn't really a programming language at all, just a series of markup tags which can be added to plain text to dictate how this text is displayed on-screen. The fact that so many writers are prepared to hand-code their own pages is a tribute to the work done by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), who oversee the code and try to keep it as simple as possible. It is also true that some of the writers I contacted were experimentalists, and therefore more likely by nature to be interested in the nitty-gritty of HTML and the new possibilities offered by the Web as a medium. "I enjoy HTML and web creative experiments," writes Peter Finch, for example. But the process may work both ways. Experimental writers are drawn to HTML: but equally a knowledge of HTML encourages writers to recognise the differences between the Web and print as media, and may therefore encourage experimentation.

Opinions are divided as to whether (or how) running a personal website influences the development of the writer. John Tranter answers this question with a flat "No"; but then Tranter has very stringent rules about website design. He doesn't use framesets, JavaScript, Java, Flash5, Quicktime, Shockwave or any other specialist software. "These clumsy, difficult and time-wasting programs," he writes, "were originally designed to waste the time of impressionable advertising agency executives, and have no place on a writer's website... The basic elements of good print typographic and book design apply to the Internet just as they do to magazines and books." Peter Finch has quite a different view: "Will sites influence the development of our literature? If others follow my own creative path then without a doubt." And Peter Howard agrees: "Publishing on the web is very different from publishing in print, and the audiences for the media are still pretty much separate... Having a website has affected my development as a writer in as much as I now spend much more of my time writing work for the web rather than for the printed page. I suspect writers' websites will influence the development of literature, by making it more interactive. It will also (is doing) change the way in which reputations are made, as there is much less dependence on the whims of print publishers."

Howard's comments point up the possibility that the Web may influence the development of new literature in two separate but interrelated ways: firstly, it may influence the way in which that literature is written; and secondly, it may "change the way in which reputations are made". Web-writing, in other words, may generate its own audience. Furthermore, this audience may have a much more direct relationship with the writers concerned than is the case in print, because writers on the Web will effectively be producing and distributing their own work without the involvement of agents, publishers or bookshops.

In the future, are the public going to go straight to writers for their new literature, via the Internet and personal websites? Probably not on a large scale. Web-based writing is a minority interest: it takes a certain amount of effort to find it at all, and a good deal more effort to sort the wheat from the chaff. Nevertheless, as Howard suggests, web-based writing is rapidly establishing its own audience, and that audience is starting to focus on certain writers. How are these reputations made? Partly by the writer's work appearing in e-zines or print-magazines and attracting attention there; partly by the writer accumulating links to his or her own website on the websites of others; and partly, I would suggest, by the writer building up a big list of e-mail contacts and regularly sending out information about updates to his or her site. Good organisation and a talent for self-promotion undoubtedly count for a great deal in a field as fragmented and dynamic as e-literature.

Establishing a reputation, and using a personal website as a vehicle for self-promotion, is one thing, but making money from self-publication on the Web is another. Readers will not pay money to view a site. What they may do, however, having seen the site-contents and enjoyed them, is pay money for more of the same. Two questions arise: if and when readers are prepared to part with their money, how should the transaction take place; and in what form should the material be sent out?

The answer to the first question, I believe, is that writers need to equip themselves to take credit-card payments over the Net, in a suitably secure environment. I am unaware of any individual writer who is able to do this at the moment, and the costs involved are deterring (there is an organisation called WorldPay which offers the service for about 200 per year); but the ability to take credit-card payments seems to be almost a precondition of selling via the Web on any scale. As for the second question, my personal belief is that the best way to send out web-based material to readers - especially full-blown hyperliterature - is on CD. This is the way it is done by Eastgate Systems, the only real publisher of hyperliterature currently in operation; but there is no reason why individual writers should not do it for themselves.

Any authors who have learnt how to set up their own websites will also be able to publish themselves on CD. No additional skills are necessary. Some extra hardware is required to "burn" the CDs, but a lot of new computers now have this additional hardware built-in, and if it needs to be bought separately it only costs about 150. The CDs themselves are about a pound apiece: "jewel-cases" to pack them in, jewel-case "inserts" and adhesive labels for the discs add about another pound per copy to the equasion; padded envelopes of the appropriate dimensions are cheap, and postage is cheap too, since CDs weigh much less than books. In other words, a work of fiction or a poetry-collection on CD can be produced, packaged and sent out for about 2.50. The great attraction of this form of self-publication is that the material concerned can be reproduced on demand, one copy at a time. No large print-run is required, and therefore no large financial outlay up front. Compared with self-publication on paper, self-publication on CD is a very low-risk venture.

Are we, then, entering an era in which new authors will self-publish on the Web rather than in print, supplying print-on-demand copies of their work, either on CD or some other medium, to members of the public in return for credit-card payments? In many ways it would be nice to think so, but the downside to any form of self-publication, of course, is that it takes a lot of time and effort, which makes it a distraction from the actual business of writing. Against this should be set the fact that working in a new medium - such as HTML - may actually stimulate the writer to produce work in a new form; but more mundane tasks, such as organising ISBN numbers, designing jewel-case inserts and setting up online credit-card facilities, are things which most writers would probably rather leave to somebody else. In any case, as soon as there are any signs that writers are making money from their activities online, commercial publishers are bound to move in and make offers for their work. Most writers will probably accept with a sigh of relief.

As things stand, however, personal websites are currently acting as vehicles for some of the most interesting new literature around. They are an important part of the literary explosion which is taking place online, and the best of them are well worth repeated visits.


Writers who helped me with this article:

Adrienne Eisen (aka Penelope Trunk)

Stuart Moulthrop

Jane Dorner

John Tranter

Peter Howard

Peter Finch


Erin Elizabeth

Eastgate Systems (publishers of hyperliterature)

WorldPay (online financial services)

Jane Dorner, The Internet: A Writer's Guide, A & C Black, 2000

Peter Finch, How to Publish Yourself, Allison & Busby, 1997 (2nd Edition)

©Edward Picot, 2002