My latest Guardian column is all about the technology industry’s often-warranted pride, which tends to become arrogance. The gap between rich and poor in the Valley has never been greater. Nor has the gap between conscience and possibility.
In 2008 Kevin Kelly, author and former editor of Wired magazine, posted an incisive and influential essay, “1,000 True Fans.” He noted that the “long tail” in media is great for the aggregators (Google, Amazon, etc.) and the general public, but a problem for artists who weren’t stars. He wrote:
A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.
A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.
I’d experienced this several decades earlier, when I spent seven years playing music for a living. My band had the kinds of fans Kevin describes here. We played mostly around New England, and almost no matter where we appeared, at least a few of them would show up. They were, for us, much more than a friendly audience. They were friends, and part of a community.
Later, as a journalist practicing my trade relatively early in in the digital age, I discovered something else: My readers knew more than I did. This was blindingly obvious in retrospect, if not at the time. Not only did they know things I didn’t, but they could easily let me know via online communications.
When a blog software pioneer, Dave Winer, launched one of the first blogging platforms in 1999, I jumped aboard. It became essentially part of my newspaper column at Silicon Valley’s San Jose Mercury News, and the comments became a vital part of the conversations I was having with my readers.
As noted elsewhere in this ebook, I used the blog to post chapter drafts of my first book. The suggestions from readers were amazingly helpful, and the book was vastly better as a result.
Since then, our ability as authors to interact with our audiences has only grown — and I’m more convinced than ever that we need to move past the word “audience” and think about “users” and “community” in this context.
My more recent book, Mediactive, isn’t just a book. It’s also a toolkit for modern media literacy. I offer blog-based lesson plans for teachers, and make everything available under a Creative Commons license to help spread my ideas on what I believe is an essential skill for the 21st Century. I also have great conversations in email, on Google+ an Twitter, and of course on my blogs, with people who want to talk about this.
Creating users and communities has meaning for an author’s bottom line as well. As crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and self-publishing tools of various kinds give artists ways to go around the traditional publishing industry cartel, authors can leverage their communities into support. We can reach our 1,000 fans much more easily, with less and less conversational and financial friction, than we ever could before.
A caution: Community development and management skills don’t come naturally to everyone. I failed badly at this in a digital news startup some years back, and I don’t claim to be an expert now. But having a conversation isn’t a chore for me, and what I gain from it is more than worth the effort.
Where can we take conversation and community? For one thing, we can recognize that a single price point — a book’s list or street price — is an absurdly limited view of the emerging book ecosystem. Some authors are experimenting with higher-priced special editions for what we might call their 250 Super Fans who not only buy everything but are happy to spend more for a special version. Or maybe there’s a premium-priced “dinner with the author” when he or she is visiting a new city.
One more caution: Conversations and communities take time. Authors have to ask themselves how much time they can afford to divert from their most essential job: writing and re-writing. If they neglect that, the rest won’t matter.
In the news sphere, there can be endless arguments over whether this person or that person is a journalist. It’s a pointless conversation, because the real question is: What is journalism? Edge cases are easy. The New York Times is journalism. The “BlahBlahBlog” isn’t. But it gets blurry fast, and that’s where the conversation gets interesting.
We’re starting to have the same discussion in the book world. Again, the edge cases are easy. Here’s a book:
Charlie Stross’ novel comes in print — bound pages — and in several ebook formats. It’s a book, period.
Not all books in the traditional realm are based on text, of course, though I’m hard-pressed to name a book that doesn’t include at least some text. Graphic novels and the heavy oversized volumes of photography we put on our coffee tables are just as much books as Charlie’s novel or Moby Dick. But just as a collection of blog posts isn’t a book, the latest installment in some comic series isn’t either (though we do call them comic books).
This is also a collection of bound pages. It’s not a book, at least not in the context I want to use here:
The little notebooks I carry around, and into which I write notes of various kinds based on ideas and conversations, isn’t meant to be seen by others. It doesn’t start here and end there. It’s random. Book? Nope.
What about this volume, called Between Page and Screen:
Is this really a book? Or is it something else, even if part of it fits between two covers?
Now check out “The Elements” on the iPad:
I love it. Is it a book? Probably, but I’m not sure what I’d say if I had to give a yes or no answer.
Welcome to the blurry world of tomorrow’s books — blurry in precisely the same way that some other media forms have become. It’s all about digital technology, of course, which subsumes everything that existed before, and then extends it into new realms. things bleed into each other: The New York Times posts excellently produced video online, and the BBC publishes text-based articles.
The experimentation in book publishing today is great to see. People are using technology to push out the boundaries. At some point, though, what they create no longer seems to fit into any category with historical antecedents.
I’ve asked any number of people in recent months what a book is. The answers have ranged about as widely as you’d expect. Several zeroed in on a fairly simple but powerful notion: a book starts here, holds your attention for a non-trivial period of time, and ends there. Then again, so does a walk in the woods, or a film.
I suspect a book will be anything we decide to call one. Words take on new meanings. When was the last time you dialed a phone number by turning a little wheel on a landline with a wire connected to a wall plug? But you knew what I meant by dialing.
I worry that our shrinking attention spans will make traditional reading less and less relevant. But, ever optimistic, I’ll predict that books — whatever that means — do have a future, because we need them.
A new production and financial ecosystem is emerging in book publishing, and it’s no longer centered around the publisher. The new ecosystem, more than ever, is author-centric.
Consider the people and institutions involved in a nonfiction author’s career. They include a literary agent, editor, publisher, publicist, speaking agent, and more. They work to help create and promote various products that derive from the author’s ideas and writing: books, speaking/consulting gigs, websites, and consulting, among other things. These produce different revenue streams, in distinct silos, and they oblige the author to make a variety of separate deals.
What realities? For one thing, most authors should regard their books as elements of a larger career. For me, books are at least as much about promoting ideas that have made me more interesting, hence more valuable, as a speaker, teacher and short-form writer. Speaking/consulting agents and managers regard books as excellent calling cards for their clients.
How can we align these interests more efficiently? Other creative businesses have tried, with varying success. The music industry’s “360” deals of recent years have been one of the more notable attempts. In this model, a company (usually a record label) provides all management — including booking and promoting tours, not just recording and selling music — in return for percentage of all revenues the artist generates in record sales, live shows and ancillary sales. As the New York Times reported in 2007:
Like many innovations, these deals were born of desperation; after experiencing the financial havoc unleashed by years of slipping CD sales, music companies started viewing the ancillary income from artists as a potential new source of cash. After all, the thinking went, labels invest the most in the risky and expensive process of developing talent, so why shouldn’t they get a bigger share of the talent’s success?
Critics of this approach called the advantages for musicians dubious at best. Why cede even more control to an industry that has demonstrated vastly more concern for its own bottom line than its artists?
What should the new ecosystem look like? It’s not this:
The publishing industry has made forays into this field in small ways. Many publishers have in-house speakers bureaus for their authors, but this isn’t the publishers’ speciality, raising questions about the value of the exercise.
I’m proposing new kinds of business arrangements where everyone involved in this collaborates, and takes risks. Everyone needs an incentive to make overall project a success. Each party should get a cut of all revenues, but at a lower percentage than they do today for their single slice. Done right, if everyone’s helping promote the author’s career, there should be a bigger pie.
Authors may decide to take more control themselves. They may farm out the overall management to a single person or firm. (Agencies will have to rethink what they do, and how.)
We’ll see new kinds of business arrangements and contracts, where all participants see value in helping the other parts of the project. (If some of them say, “Aha, free money,” this won’t work.) We’ll need to see lots of experiments, many different kinds of deals. Some will fail despite the best efforts of all concerned, but that’s the nature of trying new things.
Above all, changing the ecosystem will require a willingness to experiment — and a decision by authors to take more control of their own lives.
Most of the smartest people don’t work in journalism.
There’s an enormous amount of R&D going on in digital media. Most of it isn’t happening inside the news industry.
As Clay Shirky and others have pointed out, the low barrier to entry is fueling an enormous amount of experimentation. Most projects fail, but that’s a good thing, because when so many are being tried the small percentage that work will be a relatively big number.
Where is all this happening? Everywhere: universities, corporate labs, open-source repositories, startups, basements. The experiments are taking place inside and outside of companies, inside and outside the news industry (mostly outside), in Silicon Valley and out in the larger world. Many if not most of the valuable ideas, technologies and techniques are coming from projects whose creators have no journalistic intent — but whose work could and should be used in the journalism ecosystem.
There’s a need for a new kind of initiative to help sort things out. It’s not a traditional Center or Institute.
Imagine the inverse of a big corporate R&D center, which tries to pick winners and makes relatively “safe” bets. Imagine, instead, a small team of, for lack of a better word, “connectors.” They identify interesting ideas, technologies and techniques — business models as well as editorial innovations — inside and outside the journalism sphere, but mostly outside. Then they connect these projects with people who can help make them part of tomorrow’s journalistic ecosystem.
Who are the connectors?
They understand technology at a reasonably deep level. It’s not necessary to be a programmer. But it’s vital to know how to a) ask the right questions of the right people; b) recognize innovative technology and business models when they see them; and c) have a sound sense of the difference between cool and useful.
They appreciate journalism’s essential role in society, and how the craft is changing.
They have a broad array of contacts in the technology, business, education, philanthropic, investor and other sectors; the ability to have an intelligent conversation with any of them; and the desire to follow the dots to wherever they lead.
They’re capable of being evangelists, selling all these people not just on the need to combine great ideas with journalism, but also to take risks in new areas.
Some principles of operation
- An open process. Honor requests for NDAs prior to product launches, but the bias should be toward making everything available to anyone who’s interested. This would run contrary in many ways to the news industry’s traditional approach, but the tide is turning in a lot of shops where openness is correctly seen as an advantage.
- Meet anyone, anywhere. Hold small news-focused workshops or mini-conferences to encourage more independent cross-fertilization. Might not be necessary given the explosion of startup camps, incubators, etc.
- Measurement: Get the data, publish it and explore it as you go, and work with academics who are (at long last) turning to the real world for a lot of their research.
Traditional news organizations could really use this. I’m not saying they should stop doing their own R&D, but this would provide some better leverage for those budgets, to the extent they still exist. Only a few major organizations have what it takes to do this in-house.
Who else could use this?
Investors outside the journalism business. Angel investors and venture capitalists think “entertainment” when they think about media. They may be willing to place some of their high-risk, high-reward bets on projects that meet community information needs if they can be persuaded that there are also serious business models.
Non-media enterprises. More and more corporations and nonprofits of all stripes are creating media. If they can help support innovations that also serve journalistic purposes, everyone wins. If they can be persuaded of the value of applying journalistic principles to what they produce, all the better. (If newspapers can sell advertorials, uh, native content, by the bushel, why can’t they — transparently — partner with some of these other entities?)
Individual (or small-team) media creators who can invest only their time. An essential part of the connectors’ role would be to identify open-source and other such projects that regular folks or small teams can put to good community-information use. (This includes communities of interest, not just geography, but if something useful for one it’ll almost certainly be useful to the other.)
The catalyzing opportunities here are fairly amazing. It is definitely worth the effort, because the payoff for journalism could easily dwarf the investment.
I recognize that those latter entities are competing with newspapers and traditional media. But my goal isn’t to see newspapers survive — much as I still love what they do when they do it well and hope they’ll survive in some form. It’s to see that whatever comes out of this messy period has value to communities, investors and everyone else in the emerging ecosystem.
I’ve just been interviewed by CCTV (China state media) for a series on the history and future of the Internet. The questions were about Silicon Valley’s 1990s Internet bubble, media developments, and where things may be going. I’m a lot better informed about the first two than the last of those…
This is a WordPress blog — created and maintained using the great open-source team at WordPress.org. I’m a huge fan both of the software and the people behind it.
In my latest Guardian column, pegging off the Yahoo buyout of Tumblr, I explain why WordPress matters so much, and why I hope its founders never sell out. Key quote (from Matt Mullenweg, a WordPress founder):
“We still need this platform for longer forms of self expression, and a place that people can have their own domain on the web, that really belongs to them, that they have complete control of it, all the way down to the software, the actual code executing on the server someplace in the cloud. You should be able to control every single line of that. And that’s the beauty of open source.”
This week’s visit to Vermont, where I spoke to classes at the University of Vermont and did a public talk at Champlain College (the latter to benefit the VTDigger journalism project), was great fun. Burlington’s local public access cable channel recorded the Champlain talk, and you can view it here:
I’ve launched a new blog for my next book/web/whatever project, called “Permission Taken” — helping you use the technology you buy the way you want to use it, and to be safe and secure in the process. We’re losing control to centralized entities from companies to governments, and losing our privacy and security in the process.
Aaron’s lawyers filed a letter alleging what looks like obvious prosecutorial misconduct in Aaron Swarz case, but the Department of Justice will surely concluded — after the attorney general said so publicly — that it did nothing wrong. Sad but this is how things work in the halls of power these days.