There are more bears in publishing than there are on Wall St. This isn’t new to the current recession; as Ken Auletta recently noted in the New Yorker, “publishing exists in a continual state of forecasting its own demise.”
Now add to that traditional gloomy propensity today’s market conditions – a period when most industries are wrestling with digital disintermediation and even wholesale redefinitions of function. You get a complete meltdown.
There has been a lot of considered thought about corporations of the future and the challenge of constant restructuring which certainly takes its toll on relationship building. In fact, you could write a manifesto about the twin challenges of our time – balancing constant change with the need to connect ever more deeply.
But the book business is struggling as much with imagination as it is with restructuring. In Auletta’s New Yorker piece about the economics of hardcovers and e-books, he quotes Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti: “The real competition here is not, in our view, between the hardcover book and the e-book. TV, movies, Web browsing, video games are all competing for people’s valuable time. And if the book doesn’t compete we think that over time the industry will suffer.”
Grandinetti goes on to compare publishing execs to railroad companies who believed they were in the train business, not the transportation business. For Grandinetti, it’s a question of re-imagining the book, as well as reinventing the business.
I like the transportation metaphor because, at the root of things, we say to entertainment and the arts: Transport me. And the book itself – not the content, but the book – is not keeping pace.
Richard Nash recently gave a talk at the Publishing 3.0 symposium which Chris Anderson of Wired reviewed like this:
In his talk, Nash uses this quote from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End: “Only Connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exulted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect….”
Nash is talking about the social nature of books, of reading, when he says, “Content isn’t king. Culture is.”
Books are a way of connecting. They provide a shared experience for those who read them.
And how do we connect now? Recently I read a book by a famous literary figure while I was on the beach. At the end, I found I had some unresolved questions. I grabbed my iPad and went to the link on the back cover searching for the reader’s guide. 30 frustrated minutes later I finished navigating a terrible user interface to find the equivalent of a paltry PDF. Really? Does the industry understand how unsatisfying – how divorced from the rest of life – that experience is?
How interesting that an industry which peddles the fruits of imagination should suffer such a failure of imagination when looking at its future.
And yet, while the publishers in the ivory towers wring their hands about the business as it has always been done and plan more layoffs, others who support writers are, happily, in the business of imagination.
Alice in Wonderland in iPadland is a stunning example of what can be done with form. It still feels like a book – it certainly reads like a book – but it’s not a hardbook and it’s not an e-book. Much like the iPad, it reimagines the experience and creates something new.
In Germany a newspaper publisher is experimenting with new capabilities of augmented reality to add value to what the paper publishes.
Nash has started Cursor – a publishing community.
And in textbooks, check out startup Inkling, which is focused on reimagining the textbook.
Readers deserve publishers who are as creative as the writers they support.
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