‘writers will move online’
A story in the Financial Times about the Writers Guild of America strike talks about the possibility that film and television writers will begin bypassing working with the film and television studios and go straight to their audiences via the web. Here’s the link to the complete story. FT
And here is the core of the piece:
"But with the strike in its second month, Patric Verrone, president of the WGA West, said the dispute was creating “entrepreneurial possibilities for the talent community to go directly into production and distribution”. He added: “With every day that goes by, our members are exploring internet TV. The ability to explore this business without media conglomerates is becoming a real possibility.”
Some writers have already enjoyed success with web-only content. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay have attracted millions of internet users to their Funny or Die comedy site, where original comedy sketches and short films are available."
I have heard some people in the business side of film and television write this off as posturing. And certainly there are many writers who have neither the inclination nor the business mindset to become web content entrepreneurs. But it seems to me there are plenty who do, and since writers are on the whole perhaps the most disaffected of all who work in creative businesses, whether it’s television, film, magazines or books, this possibility is not so far fetched.
The tools to make film and video, books and all the emerging new forms of content creation like blogs are readily available. The traditional businesses have money to invest,, but no particular knowledge of what new business models will work, and perhaps if writers do put their creativity to work on the web new business and investment sources will arise as a result. Money will follow success.
Novelists and nonfiction authors who have seen their advances disappear and sales decline and who now cannot be published at all may in fact have no choice to but to explore new business models. If the WGA strike does spawn some new writer generated entertainment on the web, book publishers and authors should be watching.
Posted by David Wilk on 12/17 at 07:38 AM
What Would Jesus Buy
Produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, What Would Jesus Buy is a hilarious and sneakily penetrating portrait of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. I’m pleased to be working with Morgan and Rob to help promote their film, together with the book Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough (from the wonderful Simple Living America, published by Easton Studio Press.) The website for the movie is well worth a visit: http://wwjbmovie.com. Make sure you watch the trailer. The film opens in selected theaters around the country November 30.
Here is the review from the NY Times.
The Gospel of Stop Shopping
For some of the parents interviewed in Rob VanAlkemade’s fast and funny documentary “What Would Jesus Buy?” the answer to the question posed by the title is simple: whatever gadget of the moment their spoiled-rotten kids are craving.
According to the film’s subject, Reverend Billy, the charismatic bleached-blond performance artist and mock evangelist whose real name is Bill Talen, this is part of a larger problem. His get-up may be for show, but his activism is the real deal, and his mission is to fight what he calls the “shopocalypse,” the buying frenzy Americans indulge in every holiday season.
The film takes us on a 2005 cross-country tour with Reverend Billy; Savitri D, his wife and organizer of his Church of Stop Shopping; and the church’s gospel choir. Along the way they deliver their message — that peace and love, not spending, are the true backbone of holiday spirit — through witty speeches and songs to unsuspecting patrons at assorted problem spots like Wal-Mart, the Mall of America and Disneyland.
Reverend Billy is zany and energetic enough to hold the attention of those he’s preaching to — average to extreme shoppers, many clueless as to what globalization means — long enough for them to consider his crusade. At the very least, the film might make a viewer think twice about that next purchase at the Gap.
And for the antidote to the American Church of Material Things, take a look at Get Satisfied (proudly a Booktrix project produced for SLA) at http://www.getsatisfied.org. You can purchase the book there or at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Get-Satisfied-Twenty-People-Satis faction/dp/0974380687/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&am p;qid=1196232092&sr=8-1
Posted by David Wilk on 11/28 at 07:28 AM
Publishing, the Future, and Market Research
In most industries, market research is considered crucial. In the book business, it seems as if it is considered antithetical to good publishing. I do not believe that publishers should choose which books to publish based simply on research about what people want to read, as that would produce a market that looks like television (but hey, isn’t that what a lot of people complain we already have? Hmmm…).
But of course some books might well be published (and published well) based on research about what the market needs. But it seems rather that the book industry as a whole needs to know much more about its readers (current and future) and therefore about the kinds of delivery mechanisms that will appeal to them in a digital universe.
Back to the comparison with the record business….which is by all measures, the closest in nature and behavior to the book business….consumers of music have increasingly made clear that they are not that interested in traditional containers (CD’s being traditional in that they are a physical collection of songs - even though they are only twenty five years old as a specific physical format). Record companies need to redefine themselves as content businesses, primarily.
Is this true of publishers? I think so, many others do as well. How would we find out?
Wouldn’t we be able to ask readers questions about books, reading, digital delivery systems, pricing, etc., and imperfect as the answers might be, learn something meaningful that we could use to help reconfigure how books are made, marketed, sold and delivered?
Does the Book Industry Study Group(BISG) have this responsibility? Does AAP? Does the NEA? Are individual publishers doing this kind of research? Maybe Amazon or Barnes & Noble is most likely to be working on these issues.
I think the Radiohead experiment ought to be replicated many times over in different variations, for both music and writing. Regardless of the future delivery shape of the book, I think the configuration of the world of retail and the way the Web works makes it imperative for authors and publishers to begin to build different sorts of relationships with consumers.
The only way we will learn what works and how what works may vary across different types of books and authors, is to experiment, and then study the results.
If anyone reading this has information about studies in reading and technology, new media publishing, consumer thinking about digital books, pricing models, etc., I’d be grateful to learn about them.
Posted by David Wilk on 11/19 at 04:04 AM
The Radiohead Experiment
Recently Radiohead offered their new CD "In Rainbows" to consumers (http://www.inrainbows.com/) with the choice to download the entire album and pay whatever the individual feels is fair. Authors and book publishers certainly should be interested in this project and the results. While there are clear differences between the music business and the book business, there are also many similarities, particularly in the way that retail has evolved. For example, the decline in the amount of shelf space available for new titles and backlist against the number of titles produced annually is strikingly similar between the two industries.
The structure of each industry is very much the same. In each there has been a decline of independent outlets, rise of mass marketers and big box stores, and the prevalence of large active used resale marketplaces is common to both music and books. Additionally, on the production side, there are great similarities - with a small number of large publishers or labels, a huge number of independents, and now too, a rise in self produced products.
Differences of course abound; there is no radio or anything like it to promote books. Musicians make money performing in ways that most authors can only admire from afar. No one pays $40 for an author tour t-shirt either (well maybe once in a while).
Music can be consumed while doing other things and is almost ubiquitous, and the internet has broadened its reach wildly, while reading requires attention and focus. Certainly there will never be as many people interested in reading or buying books as there are who listen to music. But then again, books are used for many purposes, with academic, professional and science categories that have no equivalent in music either.
Regardless, the idea of that both businesses are going through some serious changes now would be difficult to dispute. So the Radiohead project is interesting to publishers and authors in the same way that Seth Godin’s work is illuminating for musicians and record labels.
Here is a report on the first three weeks of the Radiohead experience: http://blogs.mediapost.com/online_minute/?p=1601.
Posted November 6th, 2007 by Wendy Davis
It’s no exaggeration to say the music industry is eagerly awaiting the results of Radiohead’s decision to let consumers decide how much, if anything, to pay for the group’s latest album.
And it’s probably fair to speculate that many executives are hoping that the group finds it can’t make as much money with their pay-what-you-choose pricing plan as it could have, had it sold “In Rainbows” through a record label.
Now, preliminary results in from comScore show that about six in 10 downloaders didn’t pay anything for the album since it was made available online on Oct. 10. Worldwide, 1.2 million people visited the album’s Web site last month, with a “significant percentage” downloading the record, according to comScore estimates.
Thirty-eight percent of downloaders worldwide paid something for the album, while 62% downloaded it for free. Paying downloaders forked over an average of $6, with U.S. consumers paying almost twice as much ($8.05) as those from other countries ($4.64).
Between the “freeloaders” and paying downloaders, overall revenue came to an average $2.26 per album.
But many questions need to be answered before any conclusions can be drawn from that figure. Among the most significant is, how many of those early downloaders only did so because the tracks were free? If the freeloaders wouldn’t have purchased the record under any circumstances, it doesn’t bode poorly for musicians that they chose not to pay here.
Consider also, bands typically receive only a small portion of the purchase price when their record labels sell the albums. While precise details of arrangement between Radiohead and its label aren’t known, music attorney and record exec Chris Castle
estimated to CNET that the group saw between $3 and $5 per album sold by their label and tended to sell 3 million to 4 million copies of each album.
Meantime, before anyone deems Radiohead’s initiative an economic failure based on just three weeks worth of data, the industry should consider the intangible factors — including goodwill from consumers — that could translate into ticket sales or other revenue down the line.
This may not mean that authors will be racing to replicate this idea with their books, but some will, perhaps with variations on the theme. The truly excellent music and culture magazine from Georgia, Paste Magazine (http://www.pastemagazine.com/) is currently offering subscriptions for any price you want to pay them. Why not sell books online the same way? If you have a platform and an audience that will pay attention, it might just work well enough to provide authors with enough income to allow them to do what they need to do - which is write for a living.
Posted by David Wilk on 11/07 at 06:45 AM
New Book Biz Survey Reported
–Publishers Weekly, 10/8/2007
With the Frankfurt Book Fair starting later this week, show organizers have released results of a survey that asked publishing professionals worldwide their views on the biggest challenges and threats facing the industry as well as predictions on the future. More than half of the 1,324 respondents called digitalization the biggest challenge facing the industry, while competition from other media was picked as the major threat to the health of book publishing. The three other major industry threats were overpublishing, piracy and illiteracy.
Following the issues represented by digitalization, the survey found the other major industry challenges to be increased globalization, more user-generated content and the battle over territorial rights.
Not that I disagree that these are issues facing the book and the book industry, but I am surprised that there was obviously no significant concern expressed about the inevitable rise in the cost of energy affecting books both directly and indirectly (for example as the cost of production and delivery increases, printed book prices rise, sales of printed books may decline, sales of digital and audio books increase, creating a price spiral that eventually tips the scales against printed books).
Competition from other media is certainly valid but aren’t quality of education and literacy also significant issues for books, authors and publishers? And in a marketplace characterized as top heavy, with the disparity between the very top sellers and the rest of the market increasing, should we worry about the future of writing as a viable profession?
And just to continue in the contrarian mode, isn’t digitalization (or is it digitization?) as much the great opportunity for the publishing industry as it is the challenge of the future?
Does anyone know of a recent survey that tried to determine the opportunities that publishing professionals see ahead?
The Future of Publishing?
I picked this article up in yesterday’s Publishers Lunch (subscribe at http://www.publishersmarketplace.com). It really struck me as an important indicator of impending change in the way that publishing will work. Would love to hear if those reading this agree.
Chronicle to Profit from Blurb Referrals
We’ve always wondered when traditional publishers would start to actually capitalize on the fast-growing market for self-published books, and now Newsweek has a web-only story that says Chronicle Books will use their slush pile to do just that in conjunction with Bay Area-based Blurb.com.
Newsweek says that in October the publisher will announce “a pioneering ‘mutual referral’ deal” under which “Chronicle will refer unwanted authors to Blurb, who will return an undisclosed cut of the earnings generated from the new accounts.”
Chronicle’s executive director of business development Sarah Williams indicates the deal is “primarily designed to help writers.” She says: “It’s an opportunity for writers to test their product in a digital marketplace where success might bring them back to us.”
So do I have this right? Chronicle is going to take a commission from Blurb.com for sending them customers. OK. Chronicle can certainly recommend them over the 100 or so other sites that offer online self publishing tools to authors, amateur and otherwise. But check me on this and tell me what I am missing:
Chronicle is telling authors they do not want to publish their books, but if the author pays Blurb to publish the book and if the book sells well (enough), Chronicle will now be happy to consider publishing the author’s book.
So if I am an author Chronicle sent to Blurb and I pay to publish my own book and then I expend the energy (and cost) to market it, and then I succeed in building an audience, why exactly would I want to reward Chronicle by offering them my book? And if I do all of this, don’t I deserve a bigger royalty from the publisher?
And maybe Chronicle by doing this starts me the author thinking that this publishing business needs to be redefined. Once upon a time, publishers nurtured authors, built their careers, invested in their work, taking the long view that writers and audiences need to be cultivated. That rarely, if ever, happens today – mostly publishers that answer to quarterly profit requirements cannot afford long term investments in authors (who after all, may not stick around to reward their original publishers with their long term success.)
So now the model is different. Publishers don’t “grow” author careers. For that matter, as Chronicle so plainly now makes clear, publishers don’t want to have much risk at all when it comes to authors.
For years independent and nonprofit publishers have served as “farm teams” for the publishing industry, regularly losing authors they discovered to the better paying and stronger marketing corporate publishing houses. And certainly seeing mainstream publishers discover hot selling books from the ranks of the self publishers is nothing new. But there is something striking about this Chronicle alliance. It tells authors to “go away and come back only once you have proved you can sell.” I am sure many will make the effort. But doesn’t this just tell authors what they have suspected for a long time, that publishers really don’t know what is good, or what will sell, and if they don’t, then what is so special about the editorial function? What defines a publisher other than a bankroll and a distribution system? And then why shouldn’t the economics of publishing change?
So publishers, I ask this question of you: If you show authors the door, and offer them the tools they need to publish themselves, and then they somehow manage to succeed on their own, which some will certainly do (i.e. create a paying audience for their books), what does this mean for publishers?
Are you ready for the next stage in the evolution of publishing?
Blog Theory and Practice
My good friend Fred Seibert, who runs both Frederator Studios producing the best cartoons on TV, as well as Next New Networks, producing the next new wave of cartoons on the web, gave me some excellent blogging advice recently. Blog often, blog short. And blog with pictures. I am working on the first two now. The third will follow soon.
I have noticed that Carl Lennertz’ excellent book business blog “Publishing Insider” (http://publishinginsider.typepad.com/) follows (the first two of) these rules as well. Consider me a convert, at least for now.
Posted by David Wilk on 09/15 at 10:15 PM
Publishing and business in general
Book distribution remains one of my favorite topics. When I was working as a book distributor, I spoke to literally hundreds, if not thousands of publishers, many of them new or relatively new to the business. Almost all of them had misconceptions or misunderstandings about how the distribution business works. Distribution and book distributors of all types continue to play a critical role for publishers, especially if they want to reach the core retail book marketplace. Certainly, specialty publishers, with very focused programs continue to find better alternatives for reaching their markets. And online direct to consumer and other alternative distribution channels continue to grow.
But the distribution function remains critical, and over the next few weeks and months I will do more posts here about this subject and working with Publishers Lunch and Publishers Marketplace, will try to lay out a pretty comprehensive dataset and description of all of the distribution options available to publishers (and authors who publish), along with a running commentary and some predictions about the future of book distribution and retailing.
Booktrix is about to enter a new stage of life. Within a few weeks, this site will be transformed from a blog based platform to a website that includes a blog. With the new site we will be better able to define the Booktrix business. In the meantime, I will be posting some thoughts toward defining “the brand.”
Simplest: Booktrix provides services and tools for making books, marketing books, and selling books.
Posted by David Wilk on 09/07 at 09:53 PM
Marketing, PR and advertising
Book Business and Environmental Economics: Belated Post #2
Right on target to one of the main points raised in my earlier post, Publishers Weekly featured an article this week entitled “Publishers Getting Serious About the Environment Can global warming help reduce returns?” (by Staff — Publishers Weekly, 7/16/2007). Here is an excerpt:
“Last week, Hachette announced that it will form an environmental board of senior executives to determine ways the company can reduce its environmental impact. An environmental committee will also be created that will include employees who want to be involved in making the company a greener workplace.
Random formed its green committee this spring; it’s chaired by company chairman Peter Olson, with Van Der Laan as deputy chair. The committee has already come up with some day-to-day ways it can contribute to a greener planet, like providing “techno trash” bins on each floor so employees can dispose of cell phones, discs and other digital refuse. Random is also conducting a carbon audit that should be completed by the fall, Van Der Laan said. The audit will help Random better understand the overall impact its business has on the environment and areas where improvements can be made quickly.
Pearson, parent company of Penguin, has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2009, while HarperCollins’s parent company, News Corp., has said it will be carbon neutral by 2010. Penguin chairman John Makinson said the publisher’s contribution to reaching carbon neutrality includes finding ways to lessen its paper consumption through the use of more recycled and other Forest Stewardship (FSC) certified paper and changing work practices by examining such areas as how, and how much, employees travel. To that end, HC, which has its own HarperGreen team, said it is transitioning its sales fleet to hybrid cars when leases expire.
Although the use of more recycled paper can make a significant improvement in the environment, Makinson said lowering returns would also make a huge impact on the planet. Makinson supports the idea of selling certain categories, particularly backlist, nonreturnable, and noted that Penguin has worked out discounting-on-site programs with Barnes & Noble as one way to cut returns. (Amazon already buys many of its titles nonreturnable.)
One company that has already developed an extensive nonreturnable option is Chelsea Green. Eighteen major independent booksellers have signed on to the Chelsea Green Partnership Program, introduced at BookExpo America this year, reports company president Margo Baldwin, and she hopes to interest the chains in the program as well. Under the program, retailers receive a base discount of 50% on all orders and an additional annual credit based upon the amount of business completed during the previous calendar year. Credits can be applied to open or future invoices and to co-op advertising. Baldwin said booksellers like the program not only because of the greater discount, but because they see it can make on impact on reducing waste.”
While there is no question that publishers can make relatively large contributions simply by printing on recycled paper, and adopting energy efficient and green office and warehouse programs (including switching over to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, turning off computers at the end of every workday, encouraging telecommuting, mass transit subsidies for employees, reducing paper waste, using recycled cartons, eliminating plastic tape, etc.)
But overall the largest change that can be implemented will be to change the book economy to reduce or eliminate the inefficiency and waste created by returns. Remember that 30% of all new books are printed, shipped to a warehouse, then shipped to a store, or to a wholesaler, and then returned to the publisher or distributor warehouse and finally shipped out again to a remainder wholesaler or retailer, or shipped to a recycler or landfill. Think of the amount of energy that has been wasted in this process. This does not even count the energy cost of forklifts and pallet jacks within the various warehouses in which returned books are moved around to no good end or purpose.
My next task is to calculate the energy value of returned books. But even without knowing the true energy cost of returns, everyone in the book business knows it is time for change. In the end this change will be driven not by publishers, but by retailers and wholesalers. As the article quoted above notes, nonreturnability is beginning to infiltrate publisher, retailer and wholesaler practices. And we do have successful models for how bookselling could become a nonreturnable business - calendars are currently sold under “shared markdown” terms with “remainder in place terms for liquidation at the end of their effective lives. Books could certainly be sold under similar terms.
The biggest concern in imagining a nonreturnable business for publishers, authors and retailers is how to make carrying new and unproven authors worth the risk for retailers of taking them into their stores in the first place. But this risk exists now in the returnable market. With nonreturnable terms including shared markdown and remainder in place, books that do not succeed will actually be less risky and less expensive to carry than they are now with returnability. The benefits of good data and reporting overwhelm the now obsolete returnable terms invented by Simon & Schuster during the Depression. Contrary to many, I do not think backlist is the place to start. We need to implement new business practices that are environmentally and socially responsible, that also increase the selection of titles that can be found on bookstore shelves. Nonreturnable programs, properly designed, will enable better distribution and more titles available to consumers.
It’s time to change!
Posted by David Wilk on 07/20 at 10:22 PM
Publishing and business in general
Book Business and Environmental Economics: Change is Needed
Busy as we all are it is very difficult to pay attention to the many serious issues facing our world. The problems created by our industrialized economy are of such magnitude as to make it seem almost impossible to make significant changes quickly enough to make a difference. And what the Bush administration has done to block, undo or undermine longstanding laws and regulations to protect our natural environment is simply criminal.
Things have gotten bad enough that it’s just impossible for us to continue to go about our daily business without taking some meaningful action to make positive change.
Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the environmental impact of the book business. I read somewhere once that taken as a whole, the printing industry is one of the largest causes of industrial pollution in the United States, even with all the changes in monitoring and controlling environmental effects of industry. And of course books are made of paper, and paper is made from trees. We like to think that the trees used for manufacturing paper are all environmentally stewarded tree farms and managed forests, but that is, of course, not the case.
I would like to commend and recommend The Green Press Initiative (http://www.greenpressinitiative.org/) for their work in addressing issues relating to production and paper use in the book industry. What they are doing is hugely important and can and should have a truly significant impact on downstream environmental effects of the book industry. From their website:
The mission of the Green Press Initiative is to work with publishers, industry stakeholders and authors to create paper-use transformations that will conserve natural resources and preserve endangered forests.
Additionally, North American Publishing Company (NAPCO) has created a website devoted to environmental issues in the printing and book industries called Environmental Sustainability in Print and Publishing (http://www.sustainprint.com/), which is described as “a central source for information and resources for publishers and printers across all segments of the industry.”
What I have been thinking most about is the waste that is built into the publishing and distribution system. More books are printed annually than can possibly be absorbed by the retail stores that account for the bulk of trade book sales. And of the books that are “placed” in stores by publishers and distributors, at least 30% of them or more are returned unsold by retailers. What happens to them after they are returned? Some of the largest publishers do not bother sorting or putting any returned books back into new inventory; it’s less expensive for them to sell them as remainders into the secondary market, where they are redistributed at lower prices. For most smaller and medium sized publishers, and their distributors, systems have been developed to sort through returns. Some are discarded or sold as “hurts” because they have become too damaged or shopworn to be sold at retail as new. The rest are returned to new inventory to be re-sold and shipped to buyers unless or until demand subsides, at which point they will be sold off as remainders or recycled or dumped into landfills if, as often is the case, the secondary channel is too full and these books are deemed as completely unsalable.
For years, many in the book business have questioned whether this system is efficient or effective, and there have been endless discussions about how to limit returns, or eliminate them altogether. This is not something that publishers can initiate by themselves. Since retailers ultimately control the distribution channel, it will be up to them to determine whether the traditional returns system can and should be changed.
I would argue that reducing or even eliminating waste in the book business is not simply a matter of measuring the direct costs to the enterprise, although direct costs must be a primary element in any business decision, but that all of our actions and decisions must include a measurement of environmental and social costs. This is not a form of soft economics, but rather a correction in the way traditional economic analysis has been applied to business decision making. Environmental costs are not directly on the balance sheet, but they are always there indirectly and they are a real cost to any enterprise.
My next post will explore both direct and indirect costs and environmental impacts of book business practices, focusing on returns, and will explore simple systematic changes that can make a positive difference to publishers, distributors, retailers and the natural world we all inhabit.
In the meantime, I would welcome input, especially by those who have been actively trying to make environmental and ecological analysis a part of everyday business thinking, planning and decision making.
Writing, books and the future of writing, Part 5 of a long essay
Jason Epstein: Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future
Claudia Suzanne: This Business of Books: A Complete Overview of the Industry from Concept Through Sales
John B. Thompson: Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States
Chris Anderson: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More
James Surowiecki: The Wisdom of Crowds
end of essay
Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 4 of a long essay
(Parts One, Two and Three of this essay appear under the category of the same name to the left of this post or below this latest section of it)
A recent and important phenomenon is the proliferation of online game “worlds” that have grown to massive proportions over the past several years. In these worlds hundreds of thousands of “real” humans take on avatars or online identities and simulate economies that include all forms of human creation and interaction. Outside of the strictly gaming world, and attractive to many who would never play video games, “Second Life” has literally created a new virtual universe where “real” people inhabit and participate in a figurative universe.
These worlds are certainly “real” in an experienced sense, and are not lived in solely for entertainment, but for the experience of interaction that is so often not available in the daily experience of our fully alienated culture. Why should this not be a precursor of what is to come for art and culture? Why should art and culture not migrate to an online space for those people whose lives take place mostly online anyway?
This does not mean the death of the book. It may be part of “the end of the world as we know it” (as my favorite REM song reminds us.) Personally, I do not feel sadness about this, only curiosity. After all, these are all human endeavors created and experienced by human beings. Online art and culture is simply artifactual of another cultural language and cultural landscape. As any anthropologist knows, every culture creates its art forms from the landscape it inhabits. However influenced by the sensory input of these landscapes, cultural creativity is always human in shape and form.
So we will recognize this new world of art and culture even if we do not always understand its language.
The pace of technology and business change is so rapid that very few business managers, analysts, creative thinkers or other observers and participants with an interest in these matters are able to understand what is happening as it is happening. We are all now put in the position of surfing the world we live in, riding waves of change with as much finesse and grace as we can muster, knowing that like all surfers, we will eventually wipe out. Then we must go to shore, take a deep breath and paddle back into the ocean to ride again.
Even so, we are able to see the effects of changes that have already occurred and from what we know, make generalizations about what will happen to and through the cultural milieu of writing, ideas, knowledge, books and publishing.
The central fact of change driven by the distribution of ideas on the internet is the destruction of the authority model.
All we have known is a world in which knowledge and ideas are passed from one creative thinker, artist or writer to many consumers, as well as other artists and writers. This is how most modern cultures have worked for as long as we have known them. It is central to our (capitalist) production system as well.
In the new online world this is no longer the predominant model. A new paradigm has emerged, which is characterized by much more complicated lines of communication and creativity. In this model, that has developed most fully and powerfully in the community of computer programming and is called “open source,” a single creator may take an idea he or she has developed and make it public in such a way that many other creators or users can contribute to the ongoing developmental and creative process – this deconstructs the notion of a product, as there is never a final product, but rather a never ending product development process. As a model applied to literature, a novel might have multiple endings, or be rewritten endlessly by hundreds of editors and readers.
There are many famous examples of open source computer development, the most famous being the Linux operating system, as well as GNU, Basecamp, Joomla and a development platform called Ruby on Rails that has quickly attracted legions of programmers. And of course the now famous “Wikipedia” has more or less replaced the notion of an authority driven encyclopedia with one that is more accurate and up to date by harnessing the power and creativity of users.
The rules and social interaction systems of the “open source community” deserve careful study insofar as they can be used as models for many other forms of human social interaction, especially as humanity must face and conquer so many looming challenges.
In the world of literature we can imagine a future where writers might post an entire book, whose readers then create an intelligent index to it, enabling other readers to pick and choose to read only what they need or want from the experience of the work. Allowing others to filter the vast streams of knowledge and information that we are faced with in the modern world seems rational and completely in keeping with our current environment.
What this means is that there may never be another “great” writer or thinker as we have known them in the authority model of western culture. It has been almost 300 years since it was possible for an educated person to have read every meaningful book in print in the world. With such incredible amounts of art, culture, knowledge and ideas for us to choose from, and a growth in creativity that is expanding at geometric rates (seemingly growing faster than our population — though logically this cannot be true!), it is virtually impossible for any single human being to be able to synthesize a broad enough experience to create a message or medium that would appeal to enough people to gain one the stature of greatness equivalent to a Shakespeare or an Einstein or a Picasso or even a Joyce or a TS Eliot
While we may have lost the power of such authority figures to transfigure an entire cultural moment, we have gained the power of the many to create and propagate ideas in smaller channels within the culture. We may even have created a new diversity of culture – ironically returning us to a form of tribalism that Western culture diligently attempted to expunge from the planet for the past several hundred years. That may indeed be the greatest triumph of the new digital era – perhaps arriving at just the right moment, a time when we are faced with the critical need to harness all human energy and attention to the critical matters in the natural world, and to the disparities of human wealth and opportunity that mark our current environment of mass globalization.
Individuals and small groups may now emerge as the new units of culture as humankind returns to its tribal cultural roots in the vast cycle of change we both engender and experience within our worlds - the physical, spiritual and now the virtual spaces that we inhabit and that make us who we are.
Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 3 of a long essay
(Parts One and Two of this essay appear under the category of the same name to the left of this post)
For those interested in the actual technologies on the near horizon, and who are willing to experience science fiction first hand, a little research will turn up much that portends the future of the book. We will soon see digital paper with miniaturized power and memory enabling a single electronic sheet to carry hundreds or thousands of pages of information and all the navigational tools needed for readers to carry weightlessly in their pockets. Holographic projection technology enables the invention of a holographic book, where we could be “holding” a virtual book and turning virtual pages anywhere and anytime we wish to see them – or share them with a room full of colleagues (pocket projectors are on the market already and can do the presentation element quite well).
Computer memory growth is so rapid that it will be possible to store and rapidly access an entire personalized library with almost all the world’s knowledge in every home, homes that will be thoroughly networked so that written information, untethered from the physical container of the traditional book, will be available to every one of us at home or at work (and we shall see completely new tools to enable us to read and absorb this information as well). How our brains and psyches will adapt to these changes remains to be seen. But the technology that will enable such changes is no longer science fiction or futurist fancy.
Books, or more properly the book business, while slower to experience the disruption of digital technology than for example the music business, must face a myriad of challenges to the way business has been done in the 20th century. Now in the 21st century, we are seeing only the very beginnings of the many major disruptions to come. These are based on ownership of rights, availability of information, the new technology of book creation and reading which will be followed by inevitable changes in distribution models derived from the new digital models.
Business is also faced with the inevitable effects of energy and natural resource costs and changes in patterns of human living. Printed books are heavily energy intensive to create as well as to ship. The current inefficiencies in the distribution system are simply unsustainable. And the interesting rise of the used book market demonstrates that readers desire to de-commoditize book, to treat them as cultural artifacts to be shared and traded socially in a new model of consumption. Online social networking has already created new economies of trading in CDs, with books doubtless to follow, as resourceful human beings realize the power of shared goods as well as shared knowledge and creativity.
This will be a continuing trend that no modern publisher has yet to recognize constructively in its business model.
(There is both beauty and danger in removing all the rules!)
In addition, the World Wide Web has significantly altered the way ideas ebb and flow, as well as how they are consumed. This is true of all cultural activities insofar as electronic technology applies to them (music, television, film and writing, more so than plastic arts). Younger readers and consumers of digital information are commonly observed to be voracious multi-taskers. They can be talking on the telephone, instant messaging to and from large groups online, playing video games and watching cartoons on game consoles, all simultaneously. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant, as it is so pervasive.
Children and now many younger adults have grown up consuming and interacting with culture in an online environment. They read and write constantly, but never in a quiet environment and almost never without interruption.
Their thought patterns and processes are being programmed in ways human cultures have never experienced before the present period, and we simply have no way to predict the ways, hows and whats they are learning will be applied once they become mature adults acting economically within the cultural marketplace. But we do know for certain that they have learned to consume and act upon knowledge and ideas differently from anyone’s experience before today, that when they read or write books, it will be done differently than any previous cultural experience, and it is also more likely that the containerized form of the book will be seen as obsolete by many if not most of the children and young adults living today.
The “virtual” world is the “real” world for those who live in it.
Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 2 of a long essay
(part one appears under category of the same name to the left of this post)
The Internet and other new technologies will have far deeper and broader effects than simply enabling the broad availability of books in online bookstores.
Disruptive technologies will change the way books are created, marketed and consumed. Widespread availability of information will change the way we interact with information and each other. Some of them include:
Digital Printing – on demand and short run create a new production and consumption system – which I call “publish global print local” and that can also be described as “any book any time.” Furthermore, you (as writer or reader) are now able to create any book you might want to design for yourself from a menu of book components and at any time you want them: i.e., the ability to “make your own book”
This enables a new concept of community based books – where there is interactivity between authors and readers, thus engendering changes in the definition of who has authorial voice and who is the consumer. Then where does a publisher or editor fit in to this process - there is no doubt that the flood of unedited, unprocessed thoughts and ideas cries out for the editorial hand. But in a new book economy, how and by whom this critical function is performed and perhaps more importantly, paid for, is yet to be determined.
Digital technology and electronic books – we are at the cusp of significant changes in technology that will alter the way books are conceived and distributed for millions of readers. It is just a matter of time. Until the Ipod and Itunes came into being as if delivered from on high (no, just Steve Jobs at work) no one had solved or could solve the riddle of digital music. At some point in the very near future, some one (not likely to be a company we know today) will deliver the perfect device with an equally compelling distribution platform, and the world will be forever changed. It does not matter how soon this will occur, although it will be sooner rather than later. When it does, the traditional print book business will be in disarray, and the publishing landscape will never be the same. Readers who want traditional books in traditional containers will always be able to get them (even so - we have printed so many books in the past twenty years that we could stop printing books tomorrow and no living reader would run out of great books to read between printed covers!).
Once the definitive and truly “e”-book does arrive, millions of us will want one, and millions of us will be happy to make the switch from reading books in traditional bound books made of expensive paper to reading in purely digital forms. Or we may simply be driven to it by the new economics of a carbon neutral economy. Our brave new electronic world awaits.
Buzz, Balls & Hype
MJ Rose’s excellent blog
Where I podcast interviews with writers and thinkers about books, publishing and the future of culture.
Ron Silliman’s Blog
one of my favorite and most regular visits
Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers
Incisive, intelligent blog well worth bookmarking!
The renowned Carl Lennertz covers the book business and more
Fresh Eyes Now
Robert Gray’s consistently interesting bookseller’s journal
The Long Tail
Chris Anderson’s ongoing exploration of how the web and human behavior creat new opportunities for information to be distributed (my words)
Blog about the bookbusiness
Conversations in the Book Trade
Chelsea Green Press’ ongoing blog
Publishing 2.0: the (r)Evolution of Media
A blog about the (r)evolution of media, driven by the migration of media to the Web and new digital technologies by Scott Karp. Highly recommended.
An e-book business site, but their blog covers book business stories as well.
"The Digitalist was originally conceived as an internal sounding board, discussion forum and blog for the publisher Pan Macmillan to start thinking about a range of digital issues it faced. It still is. Only now it’s open for everyone to join the debate about books, publishing, the web, and the future." Highly Recommended reading for anyone interested in the future of publishing.
Teleread "Bring the E-books Home"
David Rothman’s outstanding blog covering all things related to e-books, now with the assistance of Paul Biba.
Really smart people thinking hard about books, publishing and the emerging social conversation. Creators of Aerbook: an author platform service for the social web. Highly recommended.