Posts about books


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.

Writing naked

Bob Garfield — he of On the Media and Ad Age — is writing his book on his blog.

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, 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.

(Terre) Haute Culture

The Times today had a quite predictable piece wringing hands over local newspapers getting rid of book critics and editors. A few things they didn’t say:

Most times, when I read local book reviews, I end up unimpressed. The Times tried to sniff at book bloggers, but lots of them are well written, considered, and passionate, and the lot of them together is more comprehensive. I’d say a paper would do well to link to the best of them.

And what makes book reviews necessarily local, unless the books are local? Do we need a review of Harry Potter from that unique Cleveland perspective? No. Just as movies and TV shows are not local, neither are most books.

Finally, the story goes after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which “has recently eliminated the job of its book editor, leading many fans to worry that book coverage will soon be provided mostly by wire services and reprints from national papers.” But let me ask: In a time of shrinking newspaper revenue and budgets, which would you rather keep: a book editor or a local reporter or editor? You can now link to lots of book reviews — more than ever — but if the AJC doesn’t give you local reporting, who will? If it doesn’t give its readers local news and reporting, then what is its real value?

You have to love the open-minded curiosity of novelist Richard Ford, quoted at the end:

Mr. Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. “Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership,” Mr. Ford said, “in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”