Posts about Book

Wishful thinking

I was shocked by the willful naivete of yesterday’s New York Times editorial decrying media deregulation. Engrave this line on their tombstone:

The strategic challenge for newspapers is not cutting costs, but how to attract a larger share of online advertising and make money off the millions of people who read them free online.

They wish.

That has long been the cry of editors of papers including the Times: preserving their newsrooms as they operate now, protecting their ways. But they keep ignoring the obvious fact that most newspapers operated as uniquely profitable media monopolies but those days are clearly over. The internet is a highly competitive market where prices and margins simply will not match print — though audience size is greater. They also keep ignoring the obvious opportunities presented by the networked internet to operate more efficiently and also more broadly (start here and here as well as here). Finally, they keep ignoring the opportunities of crossing media, which leads to the next red herring from the Times as it argues against merging local newspapers and broadcasters:

For all the technological advances that have shaken American media over the last 30 years, remarkably little has changed about who produces the local news. Internet outlets repurpose and comment on the news. A few cable channels provide national news. But in many small and even medium-sized cities there are only two entities that put money into local news-gathering: the local newspapers and the TV stations.

Oh, come on. Local TV stations may put money into local news — and pull money out of it — but they don’t put real reporting into it. Newspapers like the Times used to sniff at local TV news the way they sniff today at blogs: They have long been repurposers, recyclers; they’re not even commenters. Imagine the possibilities of a print newsroom that follows the Rosenblum method of empowering every reporter to shoot video stories — and shoot them in new ways. What if that became the basis of the local TV news? What if instead of four crews on the ground in with expensive satellite trucks you had the hundred reporters of a formerly print newsroom all gathering news across media with small and inexpensive cameras? What if you had real reporting, real stories, not just reading out loud on cold streetcorners (‘police this morning are….’)? I’d start watching local TV news again (oh, it’s on in my house, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything to watch). There’s a benefit of combining, of finding new ways to do things, a benefit for the newspaper, the broadcaster, and the public. Oh, yes, and they can do all these things on the internet, too, proving that it is more than a place to repurpose and comment.

Here’s another herring in this barrel:

But you don’t get one healthy media company by combining two sick ones.

Really? Mergers are, of course, a way to create stronger companies out of weaker ones, otherwise no one would merge or acquire; old companies would just die. Certainly adding a healthy P&L to a struggling one is one way to help the struggling company. Why else did the Times buy About.com, which is just about the only bright spot in its P&L. (Disclosure: I used to consult at About.) But I guess the Times knows what it’s talking about here: It’ learned from the company’s purchase of the ever-sicklier Boston Globe. Not all acquisitions need to be so dumb, though.

One more bullet, one more fish:

Mr. Martin’s plan, moreover, could dangerously reduce media diversity. Not only would the mergers allowed under the rule change eliminate independent voices, but they also might crowd rivals out of the news business. A study of F.C.C. data by consumer groups indicated that less news is broadcast in cities where companies have been granted waivers to the rules to allow them to own both newspapers and broadcasters.

Diversity of voices? What, happy talk voices? There’s no perspective from the community on the 5 p.m. news; the people reading it all came from elsewhere on their way to elsewhere. I could well imagine how that show could have more voices — start with giving some of those cheap cameras out to people in that community. But today, there’s no media diversity because media are homogenized, purposely bland, cherishing sameness, dreading change. You want diversity? Go to that dreaded internet thing, there you’ll find more diversity than the Times can bear.

Oh, and by the way, does New York have less news because it has cross-ownership (and doesn’t the Times Company have a dog in that fight, one it doesn’t mention in the editorial: The NY Post and its WYNY, not to mention the Times’ WQXR)? Does Chicago? Did San Francisco?

Now I happen to agree with the Times about the point of its editorial: FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s plans for media consolidation are half-assed. We just disagree about what should be done about it. I say he should open up the media marketplace. But, of course, the Times doesn’t want that. It wants protection. It wants sameness. It wants to preserve its ways.

Remember that the editorial page at the Times reports not to the newsroom but to the publisher’s office and then consider this a window onto its strategy or lack thereof. If I owned Times stock and if I hadn’t sold ages ago, I’d be selling now.

LATER: I’ve thought better of that last night. It was wrong and unproductive — to much the old us-v-them mindset. So I retract and apologize for it. Journalism and Times journalism are worth investment. I hope the investment is spent wisely. We need that.

Post-text?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we’re headed for a post-text era, but here are some indications that — according to some — text will decline as we are able to talk instead: to cameras, to each other, and to machines.

I’ve been listening to Jeff Gomez’ Print is Dead (the fact that I’m listening instead of reading is not, itself, intended to be a commentary… but maybe it is…). When faced with fears that we are becoming a post-literate society of nonreaders (see below), Gomez makes the arguments I do: That we still do read, more than ever, it may just not be so much in the forms we used to; that is, reading online is still reading. But now I see two predictions that reading online will also decline.

Robert Feinman says in this comment that video is taking over:

I think this was the year where video replaced words as the most popular way for people to express themselves online. This fits with my feeling that we are entering the post-literate age. Youngsters have little interest in reading or writing, but understand all the nuances of the visual language used in TV and film. YouTube may be the next place to be.

Now add this prediction from today’s Times about the impact of much faster processing on our communication with machines:

Microsoft executives argue that such an advance would herald the advent of a class of consumer and office-oriented programs that could end the keyboard-and-mouse computing era by allowing even hand-held devices to see, listen, speak and make complex real-world decisions — in the process, transforming computers from tools into companions.

I’m not ready to declare text dead or our intelligence ruined because of it. I don’t see one medium as inherently inferior to another — that is, a movie can be a great way to tell a story and a book is not, our snobbishness about print aside, necessarily better. Still, I take the point that these changes do move us past text and that will have many reverberations, some good, some not.

Kindle?

I’m not getting Kindle in both senses of the verb — not buying and not understanding, both as a device and as a model.

I was approached to add BuzzMachine to the blog available for sale on the device but didn’t pursue it because I don’t see the sense in selling this blog when it’s available on the web for free. Oh, I’d love to think that I could sell it — nothing against money; though I’m often accused of it, I’m not arguing that content should be free but that it just is. But if this content is available here for free, why would and should someone buy it on a different device? Why shouldn’t that device just bring me the internet? The iPhone does.

Of course, that’s because the business model is different: Amazon created a device through which it could sell content; it is charging for the content instead of the access. But I have to believe that the Kindle will feel imprisoned when I want to get other content that I know is out there on the web. And I wonder about the economics of paying for all that access if people don’t buy enough content. The alternative to that is to sell a subscription to content but who wants another monthly bill? I do prefer the a la carte nature of iTunes over subscription movie services.

If the Kindle enabled me to pay for access so I could get the entire web, would I get it? I doubt it, because it appears to be a limited device. The iPhone is more powerful. It gives me the ability to both buy content and see the world of content. It’s a connected computer. Am I going to lug around a device just to read books and a limited set of blog and newspaper content without the ability to fully interact with it? No.

I’ve said often that I don’t believe re-creating an old media form electronically is the salvation of that form. The salvation of the content within that form is to take advantage of the new opportunities afforded by electronics and connectivity. I haven’t touched a Kindle yet, so I don’t know what it adds but those additions would be more valuable to me than its homage to the size and feel of the book.

(Disclosure: I own Amazon stock.)

: Update and correction: Tom Evslin and Aaron Pressman in the comments say that you can, indeed, surf the web from the Kindle, though with some limitations. So now I’m triply confused: Why try to charge for blogs? I’m also doubly glad I said no.

Saving books

At the annual American Book Expo, Mike Schatzkin delivered the wake-up call to the venerable paper-pushers there (the same annoying electronic buzzing sound I’ve been trying to make for sometime). It’s a helluva (long) speech but filled with good perspective, so I’ll quote lots of good bits. He leads off with an elegant summation of the strategic situation facing all media (my emphasis):

We can see that “format-specific”, as opposed to “audience-specific”, is not the right strategy for media going forward. And that leads us to conclude that the general trade publishing model — by which we mean publishing across subjects on very much a title-by-title basis and with the organizing principle being that books are produced for general audiences — will, mostly, not survive the changes of the next 15 or 20 years.

We are not saying that general trade bookstores will disappear, although we think there will be fewer of them and the consolidation in that sector will continue.

We are not saying that everybody will read on screens and paper books will disappear, although we already know that certain kinds of information formerly best housed in books is now better delivered through electronic media.

We are not saying that novels will be replaced by multi-media interactive adventures, although we think those will continue to grow and thrive. They are more likely to cut into movies and today’s games than they are into books.

And we are definitely not saying that long form reading is doomed over the next two decades, although we don’t think anybody really knows how much it will be reduced by changes in attention spans and information absorption habits of the generations that are kids today and those that will follow them. We don’t see any indications that long form reading will increase, but, given the unpredictable ways that change works on the human psyche, we wouldn’t rule it out.

But we are definitely saying that every general trade publisher of 2007 must have a plan to change over the next decade or two if they want to survive.

Things moving slower in the book trade, they should consider a decade a great luxury. Other media do not have nearly that much time to act or die.

He goes on to summarize the state of technology and media — again, nothing new, but well-stated:

We all see what’s happening in today’s increasingly online an gadgetized world. People are spending more and more of their time interacting with the internet through more and more different means: desktops, laptops, cell phones, and PDAs. Internet 2.0 tools are making it easier and easier for each of us to contribute our experience and insight into collective knowledge. Things are easier to find, to tag, to collect in logical piles, to link. Nothing ever is truly “lost”, the relevant commentary for any subject is increasingly easy to both aggregate and to filter, and members of the community are increasingly able to stay in touch with each other.

The lines between author and editor and aggregator and audience are blurring, with people shifting roles as they like, or as is convenient or useful in any particular conversation. All sorts of formerly free-standing intellectual creations are now being wikied, sliced and diced, and mashed up with IP that came from somewhere else. It’s sometimes hard to tell who owns what or how people are getting paid. Rules about copyright and fair use that were formerly almost exclusively the province of professionals are now being flouted through ignorance or disdain by the masses. . . .
* There will be vast amounts of content available to everybody.
* It will be highly organized — tagged and rated — by communities that will form around it.
* The communities will self-create and mix and merge and re-form as people participate.
* And the mass media that has been competing with them that has been advertising supported and mass-audience supported will become progressively less competitive, as its economic base erodes.

When I filled in my Facebook profile, under “favorite books” I said simply, “the internet.”

Schatzkin scolds his industry, saying that “books will be among the last” media to be seen on screens, thanks to “a consumer-unfriendly combination of formats, proprietary offerings cut off from normal book retailing channels, klunky merchandising, and anti-viral DRM have prevented book reading from being among the first things besides email to be read on devices.” And he adds, “That’s not something for us to be proud of as an industry.”

When discussing the topic that always comes up in these discussions — the trust in established brands — Schatzkin has a different perspective because, I think, he is in an industry that is already used to individual brands adding up to a whole: a bunch of authors, a flock of bloggers, each with individual relationships and reputations (as opposed to newspapers, say, that were preeminently umbrella brands that rubbed off on all the bylines therein — a relationship that is flipping). Says Schatzkin:

We’re close to a tipping point, or maybe we’re past it — nichiest subjects first — where web-based branding will have more credibility than print, because print, needing more horizontal reach to be viable, won’t deliver the attention of the real experts and megaphones in each field.

Now to the future of book publishing:

The “publishers” in this niche will be members of the community. Marketing will be through them. In a digital world, much of the distribution will be through them. You either own the tollgate or you pay at it. That doesn’t leave no room for today’s general trade publisher, but it doesn’t leave much. . . .

You really won’t want to be a general trade publisher in the world we’re heading toward. Even if people are still reading long forms in book packages, it will no longer be possible to push book after book through a similar drill and achieve financial success. General trade publishers have to change.

They need to move from “general” to “niche”. Multiple niches, of course, but niche.

The need to stop thinking about publishing one book at a time and think about the aggregate value of their intellectual property to their niche audiences. . . .

Publishers will not be alone trying to grab brand share — by which we mean fame, credibility, and trust — within subject niches. Everybody will be there: magazines, manufacturers, service providers, radio and TV stations, entreprenurial bloggers.

It’s not all bad news for publishers, he contends:

Publishers also have a couple of softer advantages, based on the way they’re trained to think. Publishers instinctively understand the taxonomy of niches. They think about beginners and experts, geography-specific markets, and age- or wealth-driven distinctions in interest.

And successful trade publishers have always been spotters of trends, able to move fast on opportunities where they see public interest. Of course, the whole definition of “moving fast” is changed in a web world, but greater speed makes that skill set more valuable, not less.

The summary picture is that the ecosystem of “general trade books” — enabled by literary agents, general book review media, general trade bookstores, and widespread book distribution through public libraries — is disappearing. A world of niched internet communities is springing up. For today’s general trade publisher the question is: what’s the migration path? How can the business assets of today be turned into an organization that will succeed in the world of tomorrow? . . .

Every trade publisher who does this exercise will, we’re sure, find themselves spread too thin. They will find many niches for which they have two books or six across their backlist, or one on their current list. That’s not tenable. To succeed in the future, you will have to make commitments to communities: commitments to publish a critical mass of content and commitments to be a presence in the communities’ conversations. This will require choices that were never contemplated when the interested parties were PW, The New York Times, and the buyers at major trade customers. . . .

evenue and expense, particularly marketing expense, need now to be recognized by niche, not just by title. The niche must become the main unit of management attention.

Now here’s a new idea for publishers: not just trafficking in content and interest but owning both. Schatzkin suggests that publishers buy blogs:

The successful publisher’s base will be as a recognized community leader in a niche. . . .

There are many content creators out there who are not book publishers. Many high-profile web sites in niches can be extremely revenue-challenged operations, particularly now, before all the monetization opportunities of the net have been realized. We believe we’ll see niche plays by publishers bolstered by acquiring web sites in the niche; publishers would be wise to be pursuing that strategy to grab content and niche presence in the same motion.

Interesting. But I’m not sure what acquiring them means — the people, the content, employees? — and I’m not sure they will want to be acquired. I’d say the broader question is how you can make them not revenue-challenged through content, advertising, speaking, and other deals. I’m reminded of Dina Kaplan, head of Blip.tv, talking at VON about her role as a manager and nurturer of talent.

Schatzkin goes on to make a number of suggestions for publishers. His first starts with the wrong premise, I believe: “Ownership of content is a big advantage book publishers have moving into the digital future.” They never fully owned the content (including the conversation and reputation around it) and own it less now. Even so, he comes to the right end, I think, telling publishers to think of their books in chunks (or ideas … or posts, I’d say):

The most valuable chunks on the web are those that give real value as a stand-alone. Non-fiction books which are aggregates of information or advice are loaded with these.

When you feature a chunk on the web, on your site or somebody else’s, first highlight the utility of the information, not the book. Let the discovery that there is a book be a secondary element of the user experience. Most people encountering a chunk of content on the web were looking for that chunk, particularly if they found it through “search”. It is perfectly okay to reveal that it comes from a book and to offer a “buy the book” link, but it’s not the point to lead with.

Content can also attract audience and participation if it is “wiki’d.” I think we all know what that means: making the content open for addition, modification, or linking. This technique could add enormous value to lots of content: how-to or travel information or restaurant reviews could all benefit from additional perspectives and information.

Web sites run by other-than-publishers will often be content-starved. Participation in a community-of-the-interested can also result in opportunities to license content for other people’s web sites for the currency we all like best: “money”.

Chunking is actually very easily accomplished. Permalinks do it. If we can all link directly to ideas within books, which I’ve argued before, then the books will reach a wider public. This also assumes that they are digital, online, and searchable, too. And it would only help the author’s cause if the book were written online with a community of information and interest built around it. These are the things I think Schatzkin gives short shrift to: how a book should be published on the internet.

Still, it’s a helluva speech. [via Infotaining]

Book 1.1

At PDF, Tom Friedman says he’s about to come out with the 3.0 version of his Flat book. He says he carries the book around on a thumbdrive and just keeps updating it because that’s possible now. I wouldn’t call that 3.0, more like 1.1. No, 2.0 would bring the book online where it is constantly updated; you can always get the current Flat book and Friedman’s thoughts in it. And 3.0 would be opening the book up to the wisdom of others. Friedman says he is trying to figure out how to open-source the book. I’m sure there are plenty of people who could advise him.

Here are a few of the things that I’d like to see in his book 3.0:
* Links to sources and the things he’s talking about.
* Commentary on the book and links to commentary elsewhere reacting to and adding to what he has written.
* A history to show me what’s new in the book.
* The ability to subscribe to that history: What’s new on Flat.
* Original media: tapes of full interviews with the people Friedman talks with.
* Permalinks for the ideas — not pages (what’s a page?) — in the book, so I can link to them and see who else has linked to and talked about them.
* The ability to ask Friedman questions or challenge his conclusions and see him respond.
* The ability to do the same with the experts Friedman has found: a community around and through him.
What else?

More on the exploding of the book here.