Sunday, June 04, 2006

Up a Dike, with Carly's Paddle

At Book Expo America, 2006, I had the opportunity to attend only a few select speaking events. As an exhibitor, my time out of the booth was fairly limited.

What time I could find was carefully allocated. I did make time to attend at least two interesting events.

Carly Fiorina gave a speech entitled, “The Future of Publishing in the Digital Age”. Carly carefully crafted her speech on what was guaranteed to be a nerve wrecking topic for some in the publishing industry.

A few days later I found myself facing Mr. John Updike at a un-breakfast (little food was harmed in the making of the event) in one of the grand ballrooms. I listened to him lazily reminisce about a boyhood where he found his love for books, and bookstores….the smell, the people, the ambience, but most importantly, the books. I felt almost like an intruder in his reverie of days long past. I willingly indulged him as he slung 50 cent words out at the audience almost like an episode of “Says You,” on NPR challenging us all to understand, requiring a stretch even for people who spend their lives, and their careers, with words. He was silently proclaiming, “I am better, smarter, more important.” I agreed. I have not had an illustrious writing career. I’m just a snot nosed kid. I’ve known Mr. Updike’s name and fame since I was barely pubescent. I listened with rapt attention (even over the lonely grumbles of the coffee and mini muffin in my stomach)

Back to Carly … she stood in a room full of publishing industry professionals and talked about … music, and photography. Odd choice you might think, but the important parallels became apparent quickly. She also talked about overarching themes of the technological, social and cultural changes that our society is enduring. She talked about a world that is fast becoming; “digital, mobile, personal, virtual.” The needs of consumers are changing, the masses want more. They want more intimacy, more specificity, more of what they want … because now, they can get it. This was also touched on at the Chris Anderson event that preceded Carly’s talk.

Chris talked about, “The Long Tail,” or in a nutshell…selling less of more. This is the very paradigm shift that the music industry is now adjusting to, just in time to keep from becoming utterly obsolete. I’ll fall down this rabbit hole another day.

Carly told us that the music industry came to the party just a little late… the booze of revenue could’ve disappeared all together. The digitization of huge catalogues of music, the i-pod, cell phones equipped to listen to music, the opening up of innumerable channels for distribution of that music - via the internet, are all pieces of this industry’s effort to turn water into wine. It may even work if they can be nimble enough and remember the simple and basic rule that, “The customer is always right.” If you don’t give them what they want, someone else will.

Back to you John, can I call you John? O.k., Mr. Updike… you lost me when you shared your nightmarish interpretation of Kevin Kelly’s NY Times Article, “Scan This Book.” Kevin, like Carly and Chris, was trying to talk to an attention deficit publishing industry about the good news / bad news reality check that is needed to revamp the business models that are no longer conscious of the market they operate in. Frankly, I think you read the article and got scared of what this might mean for you. The interesting bit that you told us was how you abhorred the idea of contact with the unclean masses who are foolish enough to buy and read your books. I have these na├»ve ideas that writing was meant to be a form of communication – that people, even authors, write because they have something to say. Maybe, for you, writing is just an erudite, secluded and abstract event … shared only begrudgingly to make a buck. For some people, the opportunity to communicate further with their readers would be a great value-add for writer and reader, both.

Value-add was a business term that Carly threw around quite a bit. This term means defining what makes your product unique and more valuable to the customer. She also talked about the constant need to update a business model to adapt to the changing marketplace. Carly comes from a technology based business model, where vicissitude (yes, at least I know when I’m dropping the 50 cent, but I do love words … vicissitude = change, but more than that… the inevitability of change, the natural order of the universe is flux) is the accepted way of life. The organizers of this year’s BEA seemed to realize the fact that as the use of the internet becomes more and more a fact of everyday life … no industry will be untouched by the technology model. Carly also talked about the cautionary tale of Kodak and the advent of digital photography.

The long and short of this story is that Kodak did not take the move to digital photography seriously and they waited too long to join in the digital age, suffering huge and unnecessary losses. The Kodak experience is a story of holding on to old ideas, cleaving to the past and avoiding the future.

John took a large portion of his time to read the words of Kevin Kelly. I wasn’t sure for a long time what he wanted us to take from this audio book version of the prior week’s NY Times. Most everyone in the room could read for ourselves. Was he vying for a position as a voice professional? He does have a lovely, radio quality baritone. Then, he finally reached the end of his excerpts and delivered his point. He described the difference between “Books” of his definition and his time… and the (said in a sneering tone) “authorship in snippets” that supposedly will dominate the digital book model. He used almost three minutes of purple prose to decry the advent of an additional medium for dissemination of ideas and words as an affront to the tree swallowing, bound up, static editions of collections of words that he deems fit to call, “Books”.

He finished by calling his troops into battle, like Custer at his last stand, “So booksellers, defend your lonely forts, keep your edges dry… your edges are our edges. For some us, books are intrinsic to our human identity.” For all of us in that audience, books are intrinsic to our identity…we are in the book industry. Mr. Updike, whether you like it or not, the definition of the book itself can be expanded to include more than just what feels safe and familiar to you.

Carly wrapped up her session with a gentle prod, a challenge to adapt or be left behind. Her final note was one of hope, it’s not too late. The consumers don’t realize what’s possible yet. Our industry still has time to redefine itself before the consumers do it for us. This is the window of opportunity that some will hurl themselves through in order to find the future… the expansive future of the publishing industry.

Beyond delivering a product that sells well, why are some in this industry obsessed by their proprietary skill for discerning value? Collectively, we put out more drivel than divinity. So what! Is it our job to be the arbiters of the value of ideas, words, meaning? Or is it simply, pragmatically, our job to run in the black making a nickel or two and giving consumers access to what they really want? Well, maybe a bit of both.

The murmur amongst the consuming public is that they would like the option to read eBooks, along side their hardcover and paperback choices. Shouldn’t we consider getting products ready in this form before their murmur turns to a shout?

Isin’t the very act of, “Defending those lonely forts,” best achieved by making them less lonely? If the consumers aren’t coming to you, the internet is a tool by which you can come to the consumer. You can be in the comfort of their living room with them, quietly displaying your wares. The imaginative author can build a following without accruing vast supplies of frequent flyer miles. You can make your book personal to them without so many personal appearances…take heart John.

One example of a brilliant parlaying of the internet into community, and thereby, revenue was Orson Scott Card’s use of his Hatarack River Community at America Online. I first discovered this advent in 1993. Card was then effectively using this online tool to bring his readers the value-add that would make us all life long devotees. I will buy every Card book from now until the end of time…but these days, I want them delivered digitally. This way, I can read them wherever I go without carting a hard bound copy along with me. I can have all ten of the books that I am currently reading in my purse, on one small device.

Sadly, many of the titles I want are still not available as eBooks. So I still plunk down my money and walk off with paperbacks and hardbound books. I often wonder why the publisher would not want to take advantage of the increased profit margins on delivering that same sale with no printing, warehousing, shipping, freight, or delivery charges. Sure some people want paper. But why not augment your sales by making an additional product available?

So John, let the elite hide in their ivory towers and snicker at the expansive human discourse and creative output … sneering at the idea that a book is still a book whether read on screen or paper. For us on the ground, the foot soldiers in the war for the continuation of the existence of literary ideals, the means of delivery - stone tablet, scroll, hand written sewn artistry, hard back, trade paperback, or eBook - should mean far less than the fact that literature and literacy itself continues to flourish.

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