Web Publishing:

What It Is and What It Isn't

By Ken Ficara
March 18, 1997

This document is a response to science fiction writer Victor Koman's campaign to have his novel, Kings of the High Frontier, considered for SF's Nebula award. The novel is available only online.

Despite the fact that I make my living publishing on the web, I think this novel should be rejected out of hand for a Nebula for the simple reason that it has not been published.

Web publishing, like every other form of publishing, is going to be driven by editors. All this "way-new journalism" and other nonsense aside, people want to read things that are well-written and make sense, and they want an editorial voice. And like it or not, being "published" means that you have made it past a group of editors whose job is picking things that are well-written, make sense, and have at least some chance of making money for their publishing house. Granted, that has not always ended up with the best work being published, but publication is an accepted requirement for things like literary awards.

But I don't want to frame this discussion in terms of the literary value of Koman's novel. I haven't read it and don't plan to, and its quality has no relation to this discussion. I don't believe that placing a novel on the web constitutes "web publishing" no matter how good the novel is.

No one will read a whole book (a 228,000-word book, no less!) on a computer screen. Nearly everyone will order the MS Word copy and print it out on their laser printers, and the only difference between this guy and every other mimeograph author back to the invention of smelly purple ink will be that HE forces you to use your own paper and ink.

Unless he's asking that the Nebulae be opened up to anyone with a photocopier, what this amounts to is a request that self-publishers who have the skills and access to place things on the web be considered differently from self-publishers who only have typewriters. How that constitutes more than simple technological discrimination is a mystery to me.

There is a significant debate brewing in journalism now about what constitutes "published" for the purposes of prizes like the Pulitzers. It won't be long before some web newspaper publishes something and submits it to the committee, and then the debate will begin. The Pulitzer committee may decide that articles published on the web are eligible for the prize just like articles published in a newspaper, or they may decide that the Pulitzers are a prize for print journalism.

Either way, whenever they do start giving awards to web journalists, I suspect that in order to be eligible, your piece will have to have been published in a recognized web news publication. And certainly there'll be some debates over what's a recognized web news publication and what isn't -- just as there are debates now over what's a recognized newspaper and what isn't (seen any Pulitzers go to the Globe lately?). I'm sure there will be web awards for pages produced independently (there already are, in fact, too many of them) but journalists won't compete for them. Does CNN compete for public-access cable awards?

Personally, I think the web ultimately will be its own medium, with its own awards. After all, they don't give Pulitzers to TV reporters -- there are separate prizes for that. Web journalists are already doing things in their articles that could not be done in print (hyperlinks, graphics, etc.) and that will continue to grow until the product of a web journalist will not really be an "article" at all, in the traditional sense of the word.

Web publishing exists right now, and it's not dumping a book (a linear collection of text stored in a single file that must be at least 1.4mb in size, probably larger) onto a web server. That's like bolting a stationary camera down in front of a stage play, letting it run for two hours, and calling the resulting videotape television. I cannot imagine sitting through the videotape or reading the novel on screen. Hell, if that was all it took to be interactive publishers, newspapers could just post scanned-in images of their print papers on their web sites.

I hope that in a few years there will be a Nebula for interactive fiction published on the web or whatever the web has evolved to. I sure hope there is. And I am certain that when that prize shows up, a gigantic hunk of linear text won't be nominated. The winners will be writers who take advantage of a new medium to do things that could not be done on paper. They'll be people who cite Myst and Doom as early influences and who spent their childhoods immersed in cyberspace just as a previous generation spent its childhood immersed in the pulps.

Finally, this offends me as a web publisher. This whole thing implies a certain contempt for the medium; it says that all the people who really are trying to create something new are wasting their time, that anyone who can write a novel can create interactive fiction and publish on the web. That's not true. Every good novelist is not necessarily a good screenwriter, and it would be an insult to screenwriters to suggest that all they do is throw novels up on the screen.

This is indeed about the battle of new ideas versus the old. Unfortunately, this novel isn't one of the new ideas. It sounds to me like something that couldn't quite cut it as an old idea, and is trying to masquerade as a new one in the hopes of achieving more recognition. Someone should point this author to whatever awards they give out to self-published novels and vanity press issues, because that's where this work belongs.