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.