Publishing Eats the World

So I’d love to tell the assembled technorati at South by Southwest about all the great writing and publishing being done by non-publishers (or at least entities that are not [yet] aware they are, in fact, publishers.) Herewith my spiel and, if you think it worthy, give me a thumbs-up?

For centuries the world outsourced narrative and knowledge distribution to publishers—scientists, storytellers, doctors, chefs all. Now that “publish is a button,” content is abundant. But its abundance had been abused, like fossil fuels’ and foods’ abundance. Print is a button, but how can content be used effectively. Drawing on examples raging for the pervasive (Red Bull) to the unexpected (the personalized medicine start-up Cure Forward) we explore the world beyond content marketing, understanding where content transforms onboarding, creating all the motivations needed to discover, learn, and engage with any given product, as publishing becomes insourced.

Vote for me!



“But I’m actually optimistic, because the underlying power of the writing-reading economy is so, well, oceanic…”

The lovely folks at White Fox did a Q&A with me a little while ago. Here my tl;dr A to their first Q but do check out the whole thing on their site if you’re a freelancer…


 

As a serial entrepreneur you’ve been asked many times what the “future” of publishing will look like. Are there any trends or developments that haven’t received much attention that you think will have significant implications for the future? Is the publishing industry uniquely hostile to change? What do you think have been the major obstacles or reasons that the traditional publishing industry has been slow to change?

I’m going to roll my response to the first three questions up into a long single answer, I think. I’ve argued in the past that the book business’s greatest legacy, the trait that has defined it for five centuries is its radical disruptive nature. The business of literature, I once said, is “blowing shit up.” Ha! But publishing, like most humans, has a hard time really looking at the past, and tends to think of the present as being the way things have always been. Moreover, it was only ever a tiny handful of people in publishing (or in any other industry) that were ever blowing shit up. Whether that was Aldus Manutius or Barney Rosset or Allen Lane (and we forget how much they were vilified at the time…)

“The business of literature, I once said, is ‘blowing shit up’.”

However, especially in an industry that was, in a sense, the first industry of any sort, the first sentence of the industrial revolution, the first thing we were capable of mass reproducing, it is attached to its industrial self. (Another irony: we believe we’re nostalgic about things like culture, whereas in fact we’re nostalgic for habits and structures of a manufacturing supply chain.) So that’s hard to mess with, especially because we’re in denial about it—in many ways, the operational delusion of publishing was that it wasn’t quite a business, whereas that’s exactly what it has always been. So adjustment is hard because you have to confront self-deception first.

“Another irony: we believe we’re nostalgic about things like culture, whereas in fact we’re nostalgic for habits and structures of a manufacturing supply chain.”

But I’m actually optimistic, because the underlying power of the writing-reading economy is so, well, oceanic. It’ll so easily generate useful innovation, as it always has. But we should remember that change often occurs through random rather than purposeful mutation, and publishing in particular, because of its scale and the very basic way in which “story” and “word” are integral to our species, is almost evolutionary in scale. It operates over decades and centuries, not years. So it’s hard to point to particular micro trend or particular start-ups, as they tend to be subject to the noise of good and bad luck.

“We should remember that change often occurs through random rather than purposeful mutation.”

That said, I think there are two key things that will need to develop in the coming five years, though I’ll acknowledge that currently there are barely any glimmers of them.

The first is that we’re too focused on filter, and not enough on map. That’s my pet framework for talking about the ways in which we need to organize all our cultural information. We’re blessed (yes, blessed, despite what the panicked patricians say) with an ever growing abundance of cultural production, but we’re not developing tools for engaging with that production with anything like the necessary sophistication. Largely we’re using filter—reduce the number of objects for us to consider either through algorithmic filtering, or curation. The hassle is that it isn’t really “discovery.” Yes, that abused term, abused like curation. Discovery should elicit joy, wonder, ecstasy. Not some damn list of five books from which you can pick one. It’s supposed to be “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” seeing the Pacific, looking through a telescope, or a microscope. The “Holy Shit” of actual discovery. Filtering hides too much, both in terms of process, as it’s a black box, and in terms of outcome—if you can’t be lambently aware of how you get somewhere, you can’t spontaneously choose a sudden diversion. So, it kills serendipity.

“Discovery should elicit joy, wonder, ecstasy. Not some damn list of five books from which you can pick one. It’s supposed to be ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, seeing the Pacific, looking through a telescope, or a microscope. The ‘Holy Shit’ of actual discovery.”

Map, on the other hand, is about finding user-friendly ways to display all the information, not a tiny subset of it. It’s about saying, we’ll show you everything, and give you the means to navigate towards it. Bricks-and-mortar stores partake of map, by the way. You see everything, and you follow visual cues to orient yourself. Part of the power of map is scale. Start with a globe, go to London, go to Camden, go to the Electric Ballroom. Like the famous Charles & Ray Eames Powers of Ten movie. Or fractal geometry. The closest two things we’ve had to this is the world cloud and my failed start-up Small Demons. I suspect VR or, better put, augmented reality, may offer some opportunities in this regard, because it allows greater dimensionality (as does a store, or a city). The “flatness” of most web browsing experiences, currently, is crippling. Ironic, given that the very word browsing comes from three-dimension retail experience, that in turns originates with the book store. Effectively we’re way too focused on processing data, and not enough on how to effectively render data for the human brain to process it itself. Moreover, and I can’t emphasize the significance of this: maps are fun in themselves. Filters are not. Map is where the cultural action is.

“We’re way too focused on processing data, and not enough on how to effectively render data for the human brain to process it itself.”

The second is the quantified reading self. We focus too much on data for producers, and not enough on data for the individual consumer. But it’s ALL the rage in health, with many different types of monitoring being used by people to improve their health and manage their illness—we need to offer the reader more awareness of their reading process as I believe most readers want to read better. But, as with so many different aspects of human life, when the benefits of an activity like exercise or serious reading are in the future, but the opportunity costs (I’d rather be eating ice cream or clicking on clickbait) are right now, people tend to defer what they know they should be doing. If we give readers more feedback, more visibility, I think we can grow the reading pie, and reduce the arguing over how to distribute it.

“If we give readers more feedback, more visibility, I think we can grow the reading pie, and reduce the arguing over how to distribute it.”



Map vs Filter, or “You’re not here to tell me about the short run Richard!”

A new interview up on this rather lovely indie/small press online book emporium 0s-01s. It provokes me into thinking about models for managing signal:noise ratios in a world of cultural abundance. And provokes me into extravagant metaphors, though that takes so little provocation. Seduces me, perhaps?

 

Your idea of leaving more rights on the side of the writer (or at least giving them the opportunity to reconsider) might imply a positive view of self-publishing, but I have the feeling your thoughts on the subject are more complex than that.

Yes! I’m rather hoping the term self-publishing disappears, in fact. Since the degree of internal variance in the different circumstances of different self-publishing scenarios is far greater than the variance between self-publishing and other-publishing.


That’s a great point.

Plus many indie presses began by publishing the founders’ first books. Or their friends.


Very true. Well, ignoring whether the name sticks around, what are your hopes for the concept moving forward?

I believe in more publishing, not less. The more tools for creations and dissemination, the better.


Which, in turn, puts more of a stress on curation, no?

I believe that culture is like democracy, that for all the problems of letting any old idiot vote, it’s better than not letting particular people vote because you don’t think they’re voting the right way, the best way, etc. Yeah, though the word “curation” is being asked to do way more than it can do.


How do you mean?

It’s a catch-all phrase, a sort of wand we wave over the chaos.


What’s a better phrase, or a statement for what’s needed?

I think of there being two models for organizing information (but I’m more than willing to entertain others!) One is filter. The other is map. I lean map, for the most part. Though filter can work, under the right circumstances. Map aids serendipity. Filter reduces serendipity.

Here’s the whole shebang. Make sure to browse the site after you’re done.



“It’s maybe not the first to succeed that matters, but the first one to attempt”

Would Amundsen, I wondered, have crossed by balloon if Andrée had not attempted it first? Was Amundsen doing anything but redeeming an earlier failure? Does his story exist as anything other than a shadow of that earlier failure? It’s maybe not the first to succeed that matters, but the first one to attempt—in whose imagination all subsequent attempts, failures and successes, are contained.

From a sublime essay by Colin Dickey “Above The Ice: Grief and Adventure on the Path to the North Pole” in The Paris Review. He’s speaking of polar adventurers, but he could also be speaking of writers, artists, and entrepreneurs.



“The Book” isn’t Going to Change, the Book is the Great Enabler of Change

Theater didn’t become something else when film came along (notwithstanding its use in, say, Piscator in the 20s or the Wooster Group in the 90s), so I’m not sure why we expect the book to change now, or then, or in any of the previous thens when we’ve announced the book must inevitably change in the face of X new sexy technology. When film technology arose, theater was a kind of scaffolding, or armature, upon which people could test out the possibilities of what film technology afforded. As the form matures, the scaffolding comes down. (Theater is also part of the scaffolding of role-playing games too, and therefore of MMPORGs, but we don’t claim Dungeons and Dragons is the harbinger of change for theater)

Computers and the network and mobile and 3D printing etc are all various technologies that we’ll use to make money and to make personal or cultural expression, and we’ll use various armatures too, like books and also movies and newspapers, to make new things. And then those scaffoldings come down.

If I were to use the metaphor catalyst, I might be making my point clearer. The book will enable the bringing into being of other forms, without it itself needing to change. That form may draw to a greater or lesser degree on the exact affordances of book, but to the extent that is less a book, that doesn’t mean that the book has changed more. Bookness is not a zero sum game. Some forms will have more book DNA in them than others, of course, and we can and will debate that, since that, clearly is what we humans like to do.

So you’ll see I get a bit mystified that we insist the book is changing, when what is happening mostly is that new things are growing, inspired by the things we have now. Perhaps the reason is that we’ve had the book longer than anything else, and so it has been used as a catalyst for so many things, for film, for TV, for computers (library), for the internet (browse, page)?

I’ve always felt we take the book too much for granted, and perhaps one of the ways in which we do that is by always anticipating its becoming-something-elseness, rather than enjoying its useful stability-as-metaphor-to-enable-other-thingsness.



The urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.

In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the coexistence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.
— D.W. Winnicott (Via Jen B. MacDonald.)

Donald Winnicott has always made my heart go pitterpat.

Let me be clear, in offering this quote, that I speak not of the notion that artists wish to create in splendid isolation in the attic. What Winnicott hits on here is the passionate ambivalence of creating the self. That that ambivalence might also play itself out in other aspects of the creator’s life should come as little surprise.