Kevin Kelly’s recent New York Times article, “Scan This” (link via the Updike article below), really struck a nerve. While the publishing industry has dismissed most of the article in public — the dismissal that both rallied the industry and showed its naivete was John Updike’s BEA speech, the literary equivalent of “bring ’em on” — behind the scenes, there’s been a lot of soul-searching and slow, literary-style reaction.
Ah, the publishing industry. Even its outrage comes at its own pace.
Though the New York Times has arguably been lax on the investigative reporting front for the past several years, they have been remarkably on top of new media, remaking their website to better accommodate the 2.0 changes that we know about while trying to position the paper to move into a 3.0 world. And they’ve decided to keep the heat on the publishing industry, stirring the pot just often enough to keep nerves simmering. Hence “Digital Publishing Is Scrambling The Industry’s Rules” — an article that every blogger worth his or her keyboard linked to in some way yesterday (yeah, yeah, I know. Lazy and old. What can I say?).
What was most intriguing about the NYT was the fact that it said absolutely nothing new. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. It talked about authors writing their books in public — this has been going on for some time. It talked about authors who are giving their work away for free online — something Cory Doctorow has been doing for years. It even talked about moving beyond the physical book — I could spend hours tracking down the first hypertext novel, or I could simply note that this article is circa 1998, proving that moving beyond the physical book is not a new idea.
So why the sudden online buzz about “Digital Publishing”? My guess is that it’s suddenly realer than real to the publishing industry. Despite being best-positioned to offer online content, the industry has, interestingly, been reticent to offer new products to consumers. There are lots of reasons, but the one that scares me the most is encapsulated in this attitude:
What writers think about technological developments in the literary world has a lot to do with where they are sitting at the moment. As a researcher and scholar, Anne Fadiman, author of “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” and “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader,” thinks a digital library of all books would be a “godsend” during research, allowing her to “sniff out all the paragraphs” on a given topic. But, she said: “That’s not reading. For reading, you have to read a book in its entirety and I think there’s no substitute for the look and feel and smell of a real book the magic of the paper and thread and glue.”
Uh huh. The magic of glue. I have a lot of magic on my desk right now. It is one thing to get gooey-eyed romantic about objects — I personally cannot write longhand unless I have my very special Lett’s of London journals, which they no longer make, forcing me to buy a company’s entire stock to ensure that I have sufficient journals for the rest of my natural life; I, of course, do not let those moments when I’m separated from my journal stop me from writing — but publishing, the business, cannot afford to indulge in emotional reactions. Publishing must go where the readers are, and there’s a generation of digital readers.
Harlequin’s Isabel Swift has recently moved into the New Business group and is blogging about her experiences. As a publishing house, Harlequin has made a lot of right moves online. And a lot of wrong moves. I could write a white paper on the topic. Swift is rapidly catching up (sorry, couldn’t resist) with the changes in the online world, and attended the same sessions that I did at BEA. The difference in our experience? I was adding to what I already know and understand. She, not unlike her counterparts at other houses, felt
Yes, there were moments when I felt that the 21st century was afloat with countless spermatozoa searching for “I’d better stop now! I’ve gone on long enough and your attention span is flagging.
Rule One about new business: it’s all about the customer’s experience. Swift references Don Tapscott’s presentation. One thing I’d suggest is that she focus as much on the ideas of context and personalization as she does collaboration. Harlequin is moving into mobile markets, like all publishers should. Their real challenge will be to provide content — and they have plenty of that — in ways that new media users want it.
(Also, it’s just fine to write articles that encompass more than one screen. I promise.)