July 12, 2012

White guilt: it’s not just for selling shoes anymore


We briefly mentioned new publishing startup site Pubslush back in December, and since then they’ve garnered a bit of press and a committed corps of users. Pubslush takes the normal self publishing model and adds a crowdfunding element. Authors submit ten pages of their manuscript and if it’s selected—in essence pre-ordered—by at least two thousand readers on the site, that book is chosen to be published. Pubslush pays royalties to those authors and distributes the book to those “slushers” who have chosen it. The entire model is meant as a workaround to the idea that authors are the new market for these self-publishing programs, rather than the producers of what is being marketed. Indeed, Pubslush is allergic to the language of self publishing, writing:

PUBSLUSH is the opposite of self publishing. Self publishing is exactly that: publishing by your “self.” With PUBSLUSH, we require 1000 people other than your “self” to publish a book. In self publishing, the author incurs all of the expenses associated with the publication of a book. Also, there is no selectivity and anyone can publish a book by simply paying a fee. At PUBSLUSH, authors incur no expenses and are provided with a full team of experts to facilitate the publishing process. Plus we ensure quality content and exclusivity by allowing the readers to decide what books we publish by pledging their support.

I might argue that their market is exactly the same as more traditional self publishing businesses, less a crowd of readers but more a community of authors, and that it is a bit self-contradictory to argue against the traditional gatekeepers of Big Bad Publishing while at the same time trumpeting your own system for promoting exclusivity, but I do think this to be a viable and even laudable alternative to options like Lulu.

However, Pubslush was also flagged back in September 2011 by Victoria Strauss on Writers Beware for some questionable phrasing about rights reversion as well as floating royalty rates in the contracts they offer their authors, concluding “PUBSLUSH’s willingness to respond to criticism, and to put changes in place, is welcome and commendable. But there’s still plenty here to suggest that writers should be cautious.”

Pubslush is a well-designed site, certainly, and not just another Kickstarter clone, which are a bit thick on the ground these days. All in all the reaction online seems to be favorable. The part of the Pubslush model that is most acclaimed, and the aspect that sets it apart from sites like Kickstarter, is that Pubslush partners with charities to promote literacy.

For every book sold, a book will be donated to a child in need. The PUBSLUSH Foundation targets specific projects in order to provide tangible updates and real time progress. We achieve our goals through our one for one program, as well as fundraising events throughout the year. The books we donate are selected in collaboration with our giving partners to meet the needs of the children they serve. Additionally, our work is punctuated by a focus on digital publishing technology, specifically through the distribution of ereaders and literacy related technology, when appropriate.

What this means in practice is that the Pubslush site is thick with images of grinning Kenyan orphans. A “child in need” in this case, means a photogenic child in need. Pubslush is, essentially, using philanthropy—and more importantly the carefully manicured imagery of philanthropy—to further their business goals. Pubslush is the Kony2012 of crowdfunding sites. Pubslush is the Nicholas Kristof of self publishing startups. Everyone involved with Pubslush, from the community to its creators, undoubtedly mean well, but more than helping to promote literacy what they are doing is fetishizing a sanitized version of exotic poverty and using it to promote, not even their authors, but the platform itself. Child literacy is an important cause; perhaps too important to be left to dilettante entrepreneurs.

Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.