Exploding books II: Person v. paper

Authors are breaking free of paper.

Note: Harper Collins started changing the book yesterday, announcing that it would now create and sell audio content with and around authors and books. The publisher is also making it possible to browse inside books on its own site and elsewhere. “We want to reach consumers wherever they are, however they wish to experience our authors and their words,” said Jane Friedman, President and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide. Now that’s the ticket. Next add to this New York Times story about publishers making videos — trailers — about books and authors to promote them. And we start to hear authors’ voices beyond print.

The audio deal is with iAmplify. Yesterday its cofounder, Jack Hidary, called to talk about it. He said this is not yet about audio books but instead about hearing the authors in new ways — and making money from it. So when an author gives a lecture, you can now buy it. Or they will have stars — Blythe Danner, Meryl Streep, Jeff Goldblum — reading bits of authors’ work. Some of it will be promotional and free but Hidary said the primary goal is new revenue.

Now this may start to look like what Kevin Kelly proposed in the New York Times magazine — to which John Updike so strenuously objected: the notion that authors may make their money from performance over print, that books become — like CDs for some acts — the value-added that sells the tickets. Now I do understand Updike’s objection from his perspective: He worked hard to write a book and now he still has to sing for his supper?

But look at all this instead from the audience’s perspective: What if I do want to hear the author and what the author says but don’t necessarily want to read the book? Isn’t it good to have options? And isn’t it good for the author to be heard by more people — and make money from it?

This is not really new. The real reason I read much of what I do in book reviews is not to decide to buy the books but instead to find out enough about them that I don’t have to buy them. No, I’m not using reviews as cocktail-party CliffsNotes, avoiding books I’d otherwise read — cheating, in short. There are plenty of books I don’t want to read but I do want to know what they say, hear some of the ideas in them. Book reviews help answer that need.

Lectures do, too, and thanks to podcasts, I now get to hear more authors. I listened to lectures at the Hay Festival in the UK on my iPod — bought a half a dozen of them, even. I just described to a series of talks at the National Constitution Center and heard the author of American Gospel, Jon Meacham, talk about his ideas. If I had time, I’d certainly like to read his book. But frankly, my backlog is too great; I won’t get around to it. At least I have heard some of what he has to say and I’m glad.

So why not give the audience these options? Buy the book in print, if you like. Buy the book on demand or online. Buy the audio book. Or don’t buy the book and hear the author. Go to a lecture. Buy the lecture online. Listen to a podcast talk with the author. Read the author’s blog. Subscribe to the author’s feed. Watch the video.

If the ideas get out there, isn’t that the goal, no matter the medium? I think in our worship of the book, we end up valuing the form over the substance, the page over the ideas on it. So I am glad to hear authors’ voices and ideas in new ways. It’s not about the book. It’s about the knowledge.

: AND: This advice from Seth Godin:

Understand that a non-fiction book is a souvenir, just a vessel for the ideas themselves. You don’t want the ideas to get stuck in the book… you want them to spread. Which means that you shouldn’t hoard the idea! The more you give away, the better you will do.

  • It seems a little like the circle turning here. Didn’t Dickens tour America and Europe meeting large crowds and (I think) profiting? And Twain surely toured England and America!
    Back to the future it seems on that point at least.


  • The thing is, authors who are NOT John Updike already have to sing for their supper. They have to tour the nation, hitting half-a-dozen or more bookstores a month, giving readings and connecting with existing and potential customers.

    An author who can give a convincing performance of his or her work has a powerful marketing tool at their disposal. A year or so ago, I saw Ayun Halliday read from her book JOBHOPPER, and was entranced. Halliday has a performance arts/acting background, and she uses every drop of that talent to sell her work through store appearances and stints on NPR. I imagine those performances do more for her sales than any other factor.

    For many authors, I think there’s a shyness factor involved. We love to write and to publish, but prefer to remain behind the printed word. It takes a lot of gumption and self-confidence to read one’s own work aloud. I’m about to podcast Chapter 3 of my book, and am only now becoming comfortable with the process. (I’ve found that having a bottle of wine next to you is a wonderful crutch.)

    Great series of posts, Jeff. Keep ’em comin’.

  • That’s a good point about the shyness factor–and also, not every author has access to the technology and equipment to do things like videos or podcasts. It’s getting easier all the time.

    I managed to put a video together for my last two books only because I have a brother in the film industry. One unindended benefit: it not only helps sell the book to readers, it also helps sell the book to sales reps and other people at the publishing house. A good three-minute video can help a sales force “get” a book better than the best-written catalog copy.

  • I don’t agree with any of your posts about books (today or previously), especially when it comes to fiction. I for one am frightened by your and Kevin Kelly’s “notion that authors may make their money from performance over print, that books become — like CDs for some acts — the value-added that sells the tickets.”

    I’m afraid that will just further reward the writers who are good at self-promotion over those who write well and beautifully. I value the work of a great writer, and happy to honor them with my dollars. This extra stuff is great, but it’s the extra stuff and it will never replace the work.

    That said, I did like your *gesture* for the Hays Festival. Great collection of audio downloads.

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  • “I’m afraid that will just further reward the writers who are good at self-promotion over those who write well and beautifully.”

    Why can’t writers have BOTH talents?

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  • Steve Lesak

    To the extent that the authors’ AV material mimics an interview on, say, the Bob Edwards Show on XM, or the interview w/ Mel Brooks on the ‘Blazing Saddles’ DVD I’m all for it.

    The radio interviews w/ the various authors are a handy way to hear about a book and it’s content. Also, even if one doesn’t buy and read the book, some of the info from the interview ‘sticks’ which is a nice side benefit.

    So now I’ll pop in a CD or go on the Internet and listen and perhaps look on my computer. This would be convenient, but is really a continuation of what we have now.

    The main problem could be that mediagenic attributes might become as important as writing acumen. I doubt that. Vana White, of Wheel of Fortune fame, fell flat in her movie debut. Talent matters IMO.

    Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have had a bad stutter so his promoting the ‘Jefferson Bible’ would be an uphill slog now-a-days though.

  • Manual trackback to my post HarperCollins are Cowardly Wusses
    Jeff Jarvis has a post where he praises Harper Collins for bravely copying a small part of amazon.com. The fact that Jeff (and others) are willing to praise such limited signs of adaptation to the internet age is a sing of how broken the publishing industry is. Thanks to Apple and lots of demand, the audio (and now video) publishers are relaizing that they can make decent money in online sales and many are offering entire songs for download free as a way to entice punters to buy the album (or see the band at a concert or…).

  • pdf

    >There are plenty of books I don’t want to read but I do want to know what they say, hear some of the ideas in them. Book reviews help answer that need.

    Unless the reviewer decides to completely misrepresent the author’s ideas in order to hammer him/her politically, which happens quite a bit.

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  • Andrew

    Another site giving us on-demand content from authors and devising new ways to promote titles is http://www.BookVideos.tv