When customers love the product, but hate your mission, it’s time to change publishing

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a vision for the future of publishing to a group of publishing professionals in New York. Can’t say where it was, yet, but suffice to say it was worth saying and that the message was well received by the thoughtful, albeit skeptical, audience.

Despite the increasingly rapid changes in reading due to technological evolution, the folks with whom I was talking rightly believe that they should not revolutionize their business simply for the sake of revolution, and I was perceived, unfortunately, as a revolutionary. They represented publishers, distributors, supply-chain enablers and book retailers, all of whom need to embrace changing roles as they constantly refine those roles in response to greater information about what is in a book, how books are used and what readers think about the books they purchase, borrow or steal. Having worked in publishing—in many forms and markets—for 25 years, and for several huge publishing companies destroyed by the failure to change, I think my perspective is one of pragmatic realism. Certainly, the publishing industry I arrived in as a newspaper/magazine reporter is largely gone, victim of its failure to evolve with the times, with the reader’s habits.

Darnton 2So, it was ironic, I thought, that my opening remark, that the future has never been brighter for publishing (in this, I completely agree with Seth Godin’s remarks about the future of publishing here—I only wish I was a good a presenter at Seth), was greeted with a sense that I was trying to paint my revolution the color of the audience’s fears about the future of their individual business models. Sure, they were thinking, it’s bright if you don’t have to fire people, change the workflows at publishing houses, in composition and printing shops, and so forth.

Books are healthier than ever, really. According to Bowker, publisher of Books In Print, more than 900,000 books will be published worldwide this year. The United States produces more than five times as many titles as only a decade ago. Moreover, the breadth of the titles has never been greater, with genres and subjects exploding in their complexity. Just as the desktop publishing revolution produced an explosion of magazines and newsletters that transformed the periodical business in the late 1980s, print-on-demand and Web technology, including e-books, have multiplied the number of books, about every conceivable topic. Worldwide, the growth of titles published is growing faster than in the U.S., as it becomes infinitely more efficient to address language and geographically specific marketplaces with printed or electronic books.

Moreover, with more than $100 billion in local U.S. media spending in play because of the fall of the local newspaper, the opportunity to connect revenue with books that engage and sustain hyper-local communities, has never been greater. Succeeding in this market, however, means changing the entire book value chain, eliminating the value chain’s focus on distributors and retailers, turning it instead to models predicated on what the reader wants and values. Reader-centrism is the only viable basis for revivifying existing publishing companies, because every new player in the publishing market is starting their business based on close identification with their customer, the reader.

Now, I want to keep this short, and go on in future postings with more detail. But let’s look at the most recent description of what a publisher does that I was able to find, in Robert Darnton’s new book, The Case for Books. Darnton, the chief librarian at Harvard and an accomplished author captures what the publisher does as completely as possible:

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

This is the mission of publishing from the time of the scriptoria until the turn of the 21st century, a risk-defined mission based on the high cost of making information available. It is not what readers want today, even though they do still count on many filters to help them choose what to read. The financial risk of publishing today is perceived as minimal, even though it is still quite risky because publishers are clinging to the hit-driven model that requires a book to sell tens of thousands of copies to be a “success.” Let’s consider Darnton’s definition of publishing through the eyes of a reader who can browse the Web, Google Books and myriad other sources of textual, audio and visual information. These people still love books, but they no longer honor the mission that produces many books, as evidenced by widespread dislike of the ideas highlighted in the following version of the quote:
“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”
Let’s break that down in terms of the networked marketplace.

Gatekeepers are no longer valued, they are despised by people who feel they have the ability to judge information and ideas for themselves. As Jacques Rancière puts it in his latest book, The Emancipated Spectator, “There are not two sorts of intelligence separated by a gulf” in a truly democratic marketplace of ideas, there are different perspectives that demand free rein and resent gatekeepers.

No one entity or person can/needs to control the flow of knowledge when everyone can do their little part by tagging, rating, reviewing and commenting on parts of the data flow; this is “crowdsourcing” in the fully positive sense, free from the stain of mob mentality, which can play an important role in an unbridled cataract of information.

Customers, not sellers, decide what will sell—they always have, but industrial production tended to limit the choices and create the appearance of successful planning, which in many cases is exactly what produced bestsellers, though at the cost of diversity, which people value, too.

Professional expertise is, unfortunately, despised because of knavery on the part of pundits, who claim expertise without the hard self-criticism that is applied by professionals. We do need people to help us select what to pay attention to, just as we have always relied on guidance from others when coming into a new environment. That advice can come from friends. However, it often comes from the loudest knaves in the mediasphere.

What reaches readers in a connected networked world is everything and anything that can be transmitted, but few would surrender their opportunity to think for themselves in exchange for a truncated view of reality—let us remain optimistic about people’s judgment and intentions here—but readers don’t want to admit they rely more on experts today than ever before, because they don’t see the world as information overload, rather they perceive they are seeing it all for the first time without restrictions, which is exhilarating, the very source of growth, egalitarian opportunity and the unexpected. That sudden sense of having options is why more books than ever are being produced and sold.

Given that readers today still love books, in more forms than ever, what is a publisher to do? That’s the subject of the next couple postings in this series.

Cross-posted to ZD Net.

The Bookends, Pt. IV

….continued from previous entry

In this maddened and maddening stream of real-time communication, from which occasional works of startlingly genuine value do surface, are authors required to engage a community? Is this community-building a keystone service for publishers seeking to survive by adding real value for authors? Can publishers thrive by providing community-like engagement with the book, even if the author moves on to other works? The answer to all these questions is that there is no single approach to writing a book, marketing a book or building an enthusiastic word-of-mouth community. Many authors and publishers will find the investment in engagement pays dividends, perhaps with increasing returns for each title that builds on initial success. Publishers can offer to take up the technical and financial burden of these communities, which can be slight when aggregating dozens or hundreds of audiences, as part of the new service they provide authors, who naturally want to focus on the books they write (books, however, will not be just text, as we’ll see later).

To our peril, we live in the golden age Erasmus described as he joined Aldus’ Academie and reveled in the revival of culture and humanist debate of the early decades of the 16th century: He felt world peace and prosperity was at hand because of the energetic dialogue erupting all around him, very much like techno-utopians see the Internet-connected world in 10 to 20 years. As Erasmus found out by the 1520s, when the Reformation had wrenched his world apart, launching the schism that would kill millions during the 30 Years War, freedom was a messy and dangerous business. After learning that his friend Thomas More, the progenitor of the concept of “utopia” latter canonized a Catholic saint for his refusal to declare Henry VIII the head of the newly formed Church of England, had been beheaded, Erasmus lamented that his times had become “the very worst century” ever, a declaration that anticipated the ironic critique offered up for contemporary contestants for pop cultural supremacy by Matt Groening’s The Simpsons.

The Shack may be the last of a new incunabula, print books that succeed wildly based on online word-of-mouth without providing its own branded online experience. Publishers have discovered how to market with the Web, but not how to extend the experience of reading on the Web. This time around, because technology has distributed opportunities to innovate in authorship, publishing and marketing, there will not be one Aldus, there will be many Aldi.

Even though William P. Young had built many Web sites as a part-time developer, his personal engagement with community once the The Shack hit the best-seller lists has been cursory at best. Yes, his book rocketed up bestseller lists on the tidal wave of emails sent by readers, but the greatest contribution to the word-of-mouth phenomenon was the more than 3,200 customer reviews on Amazon.com, and comments posted on his blog and at the book’s Web site, which is primarily a place to order The Shack with a forum where approximately 9,000 readers have posted 135,000 times about more than 5,300 topics related to The Shack, individual chapters and personal testimonies. Even the 500+ bad reviews on Amazon seem to have helped propel the book forward, because they are cast as polarizing responses to the 2,500 or so positive reviews that a browser must test by reading The Shack themselves. And it doesn’t hurt that, as Motoko Rich of The New York Times put it, “Sales have been fueled by a whiff of controversy.”[i] Young is surprisingly quiet online, investing much more of his time Continue reading

Amazon strikes UofMichigan reprints deal

Amazon’s BookSurge print-on-demand (POD) service has agreed to make up to 400,000 out-of-copyright titles in the University of Michigan library system available for sale as reprinted POD books.

“This agreement means that titles that have been generally unavailable for a century or more will be able to go back into print, one copy at a time,” Paul N. Courant, U-M librarian and dean of libraries said in a statement. Books will be produced in softcover and delivered directly to buyers by BookSurge. Interestingly, books scanned as part of the library’s Google Book partnership will be made available through the Amazon service—the “war” anticipated by so many is merely an early skirmish to establish the terms of partnership in different fulfillment settings, if you ask me.

This is a phenomenally interesting announcement, since it anticipates a completely new market for out-of-copyright books and, potentially, library revenues. POD systems are, as I’ve explained elsewhere, more likely to be offsite services that fulfill orders than to be located at bookstores or libraries. The economics and the practicality of serving more than a few customers an hour in high-demand times make this clear.

With a library of 400,000 books, the typical sales for any given title will be ones and twos a year, but could, as U of Michigan director of scholarly publishing Maria Bonn said in the press release, reach 100 copies for “bestsellers.” The prospect of so many older books being available again makes my bibliophilic skin tingle and shows that digitization is also a path to increased paper-based reading.

UPDATE: In related news, Harvard University Press seems to be headed toward distributing e-books on Scribd.

Making a paper book e-lectric: Selected great histories of the book

Bill Hill, who has been part of the digital publishing world for decades now, tells about his reading of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, one of the definitive texts about the evolution of books. Throughout his studious reading, he turned to his computer to find more information:

In other words, my printed book became an interactive multimedia experience which was far bigger and richer than the original. It took me a lot longer to read – but it made the book come to life, and I learned a lot more.

This raises some interesting questions. For instance, I would have liked to have had Eisenstein as an eBook on my Kindle. It’s such a heavy, awkward monster to handle – especially when reading in bed.

However, on Kindle as it is today, that would have made for a much poorer experience – no Web browsing for links… And I’d have hated to see the mess that Kindle’s small screen and poor graphics would have made of the title page of De Fabrica…

Not only the small pages, but the lack of citable references within the book (word location is relative) and the poor graphics, among other features, would make the book less than it is in paper if forced into the Kindle. Yet, this is exactly what a great e-book will be, something that, while enclosed within the logical arrangement we call a “page” has pathways to deeper and contradictory studies, so that the book becomes an argument and extended discussion. Eisenstein’s challenge to traditional scholarship is vastly engaging and impressive, as Hill notes, but reading only within her perspective becomes, to paraphrase Albert Camus, a trip within the writer’s efforts to justify their limits.

Eisenstein’s book, particularly the two volume version, is excellent. Also consider these titles as must-reads for, combined with Eisenstein’s astute analysis, a fuller picture of the evolution of the book:

Excerpt from The Book Ends

Here is the first of a series of excerpts from my early drafts of a book I am writing about the future of books. Not the future of e-books, which we will eventually recognize as another dimension of recorded thought that lives within the continuity of the idea we call “books,” though outside the confines of what a book is today. These excerpts are my notes, at this point, useful for the final draft I will produce. I’d sure appreciate any thoughts you’d like to add in comments.

The concept of the book, a manifold notion of words or pictures between two covers, has come to the end of its useful life. In a digital world, the organizing principles that made a book the logical package for the ideas of a single author or collective act of authorship has come to a fork in its road. On the one hand the paper book will always be around, while perhaps not so commonplace as it is today, to be appreciated and enjoyed, passed from hand to hand by collectors and people who appreciate an object of beauty, whether that beauty comes from the packaging or the words within.

This book, however, is about the road beyond the other fork. It leads to the end of books defined by their pages and covers, it leads to communities of ideas built sometimes by one author, often by many, and always involving a conversation amongst the readers. Conceiving of something that isn’t just a book will allow humanity to begin the long experimentation with media that solves the problems of how to produce, deliver and pay for everything from the news to the next great novel. It will also lay down the highlights of a map of new regions of literature, research, poetry and more. When words on a page become exportable, can be shared and annotated by every reader, every title in the library becomes a portal to communities, discussion, argument, debate and differences of opinion. Something new is born when we stop thinking that the book or the newspaper or magazine or literary journal or poetry chapbook must start with the front cover, a single copyright date, and a static text followed by the back cover.

What is this new form of the book? Is it the e-book so many people have tried to bring to life during the past 20 years? It’s much more, because the e-book has always presumed that with digital technology behind the text nothing has changed about the text itself. It still belongs within the confines of its virtual covers. The text becomes a product, mere content that can be “perfectly copied” without any change in the quality of the experience of reading. Yet, reading is only the first step of the communication that takes place within societies and between generations. Where the author was the primary producer of the book the reader is the major contributor to the e-book, or whatever we choose to call the post-book text.

Books—for now, the word is necessary to comprehension—are being transformed from containers into conduits. Granted, they have been conduits before, but they were slow carriers of ideas. Today can convey messages that are not part of the original text instantly. An individual copy of an e-book is an end point of, a doorway to, a conversation that takes place in real-time or over years. That conversation will be richer than disconnected conversations about ideas, because the book itself will also be an evolving reference that augments the initial statements of members of a discussion by providing a direct link between text on the page and the readers, and collects the growing corpus of conversation and related information that modulate the original text. In the same way a salon develops Continue reading

Asking the wrong question about Kindle

The Salt Lake Tribune, with a Denver Post article by John Wenzel, asks the wrong question about Amazon’s Kindle (or any e-book reader device, including software readers): “Is Kindle the right device to put books behind us?” It’s the kind of provocative headline that gets readers, but it gets readers thinking the wrong way about the subject, which is a deeper problem than the question of replacing books with e-books. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, relies on this kind of bellicose statement to make headlines, too, but I expect better of newspaper editors.

Media succeed one another in importance, but a new medium does not wipe out previous generations of media in a zero-sum game. New media and old find roles that redefine the media environment. Books are so pervasive and serve a unique role with regard to authority in our society that e-books will never replace them entirely. Humans will always memorialize some things in books, just as we still occasionally produce scrolls, calligraphic invitations and diplomas on vellum, or produce music on vinyl records.

Book people must watch Sputnik Moment

David Hoffman, a filmmaker and friend of mine (he once followed me around with a camera for an AT&T “vision video”), has released on YouTube his new film, Sputnik Moment. Everyone should see this, but book lovers in particular, because books found a new vitality after the USSR launched the Sputnik satellite into space.

The film shows how competition from the Soviet Union, through that catalyzing moment of the Sputnik launch, stimulated the United States’ investment in itself through quality education. It’s a lesson we need to re-learn today. David has captured how the value of knowledge found new expressions and technologies evolved in response to an international challenge. The “egghead stigma” the film describes was the real challenge, an internal psychological barrier to success, that faced U.S. education in the 1950s. We’ve developed that same prejudice against education today.

David writes:

When I finished my 2008 feature documentary, Sputnik Mania, critics and allies said that I needed to tell the story of how America changed. On my own, I made this movie with the help of one terrific movie collector in Chicago who had the footage I needed to prove the case. I’m trying to make it available first to the schools of America.

Watch. Learn. Think. Discuss.

Surprisingly, I agree with Steve Ballmer

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, was speaking to the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival yesterday, when he said:

“There won’t be newspapers, magazines and TV programs. There won’t be personal, social communications offline and separate. In 10 years it will all be online. Static content won’t cut it in the future.”

That’s true, but what is missing from this analysis, albeit it is pruned to a sound bite of a thought, is that interaction will augment those “traditional” media rather than replace them. A book will be a discussion, but it will also be typical for a book to be sold in paper form, with new ways to enter the conversation promoted therein. E-books will be discussions and static texts, blending the authorial statement with the discourse about those ideas.

Media evolution isn’t a zero-sum game. Media flows together, with some channels rising to prominence while others take on new roles.

Author mills and first-time novelists

Ashlea Ramey writes about the risks of working with companies that promise to publish or sell your books. She suggest that some of these services can be helpful, but that many are running on empty promises.

Relates to my posting, A million little author presences, on the emerging class of services hoping to attract authors to their fee-based services that promise to promote sales of books and rights.

A million little author presences

As writers, we seek to develop a relationship with our readers. It can be a relationship of service, one that entertains, one that informs or that argues, among others. Without the relationship, there’s no next step, no story to be told. If you can’t keep the reader’s attention on the first page, they won’t get to the second. The same principle applies on the Web as you sell your book, e-book or site. Publishers share this burden and, if the wish to thrive in the post paper-centric world, will likely focus on this aspect of the reader-author relationship as a key value proposition.

In recent days, I’ve seen a half dozen new places for authors to sell books or list their work in some way in order to be found. Beyond the obvious search engine optimization (SEO) how-to business questions that are answered by other blogs, the proliferation of potential places of presence online confronts the author or publisher with critical questions about how to divide the time and financial resources they have available.

Early in the social media marketing discussion, there was an assumption that a brand had to be everywhere, on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, and a thousand other sites, but now we recognize that the “tradigital,” which mixes evangelical engagement with customers and judicious use of social networking where the return justifies Continue reading