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Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century
by Richard Curtis
ON THE ROAD TO VIRTUAL
(first published in Backspace
Will that be Paper or Pixels?
In the winter of 2003, I became aware of a significant shift
in the way editors responded to agents pitching book projects
at them: they invited them to submit the documents by email
as file attachments.
As long as anyone in our industry could remember, printed
manuscripts had been mailed or hand-delivered to publishers.
But to the savvy young people who entered publishing’s
ranks at the end of the 20th century – Publishers
Weekly described them as “the first generation
to harvest the benefits of a robust digital culture”
– it made no sense to print and transport all those
reams of paper when the means for instant delivery was literally
at their fingertips. Online submission was the only logical
Even older hands, who, only a few years earlier had been
terrified of computers, are now completely comfortable with
them. Email has all but replaced the telephone as their communications
mode of choice. They are constantly visiting amazon.com to
check out competitive books or the BookScan website to evaluate
the performance of their own or competitors’ books.
Text-editing software has reached a level of sophistication
that enables them to “blue pencil” drafts on their
monitor screens and transmit revision instructions to authors
without ever having to resort to a sheet of paper or travel
to the post office.
Increasingly, agents pitching projects over the telephone
can hear the editor’s fingernails clicking on a computer
keyboard as they converse. The editor is googling the author,
checking out his or her photo, web site, amazon.com ranking,
reviews and publication history, forming impressions (and
perhaps even reaching conclusions) before reading a word of
the author’s text.
Although this shift occurred without fanfare, it was an
important marker on the road from a tangible publishing model
to a virtual one. So delighted was the publishing community
with the convenience of these innovations that the larger
significance – a fundamental change in the publishing
culture – was largely overlooked. For many of us who
had puzzled over Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, “The
medium is the message,” the clouds parted and the meaning
shimmered through: printed and electronic communications are
not merely different media; they are fundamentally different
Many such indicators confirm that the shift to a new publishing
paradigm has progressed much further than some publishing
professionals, preoccupied as they are with content –
with words – think. This article attempts to
fix our location today on the trajectory of the book from
one medium to another.
Dog and Pony Shows
If form follows function – if the experience of reading
on screen is different from that of reading on paper –
it follows that the nature of the book itself will be transformed
by the way it is transmitted from author to reader. In fact,
that is just what is happening.
Before we examine how, it might help to look at the reading
A generation that defines books as material objects is giving
way to one that regards them as quanta of digitized information.
This new culture thrives on the vivid colors of television
and videos, the frenetic interactivity of email and messaging,
the emotional stimulation of video games and of channel- and
web-surfing, and the instant gratification of cell phones
and googling. Hyper-exposed to audial and visual media, the
new breed of publishing animal seems to exhibit diminished
confidence in the power of words alone to stimulate the imagination.
For many jittery young people, printed texts on a stack of
paper are, as one editor said, “kind of boring.”
“If all it is, is a book, merely words” he elaborated,
“it’s hard to get excited. I ask myself, ‘What
else is it besides a book? Is it a video game? A movie? A
web site?’ It’s got to be more than a
book to turn me on.”
In order to reinforce the impact of “mere” words,
authors and agents are being forced to package their projects
more vividly and interactively, loading them with every imaginable
bell and whistle to get attention and stimulate jaded editorial
Whether we like it or not, appearances have become a factor
in the process of evaluating writers and writing, and authors
utilizing design, programming and media savvy have a distinct
advantage in this emerging multimedia avatar of the book.
A cool web site has become de rigueur for authors,
preferably one festooned with hot links to their book jackets,
photo albums, amazon.com review frames and other relevant
web sites, even videos, cartoons, and music. These eye- and
ear-arresting displays are more akin to commercials than book
But aren’t we simply talking about jazzy new ways to
sell the good old book, to get buyers to travel to brick-and-mortar
stores to purchase those familiar manufactured objects called
hardcovers and paperbacks? For now, yes, because printed books
are still the reading devices of choice. But for each generation
that succeeds ours, the definition will continue to shift
to the virtual spectrum.
This is not some futuristic reverie. The medium exists now.
It’s called blogging, and writers are making money from
A blog (contraction of “weblog”) is an online
chronicle or scrapbook of a person’s thoughts, views,
experiences and passions, enhanced by an almost limitless
variety of computer-imported text and graphic material ranging
from quotations to pictures to lists to hot links connecting
viewers to the blogger’s favorite web sites. The currency
of bloggers is called “memes,” bits of cultural,
factual or news content that define the personality of the
blogger and the shared interests of his or her community whether
it be politics, sports, entertainment, or hobby. The transmission
of memes in the “blogosphere” is exponential and
almost instantaneous. The term used to describe it is “viral.”
One source defines memes as “the cultural counterpart
of genes.” Many visitors to blogs use them as a primary
source of hard news.
Unlike conventional diaries, blogs are dynamic, multimedia,
and public. Indeed, it is their public aspect that provokes
fascinating speculation about their potential to become the
21st century’s answer to the book. They satisfy the
classic criteria for books: they are printed, distributed,
and publicized. But they are not printed on paper, they are
not distributed in stores, and they are not publicized in
Blogs in one form or another have been with us for as long
as the Internet, but until recently were associated with geeky
information-sharing web sites belonging to special user groups.
However, the medium got a big boost after a team of San Francisco
programmers, Blogger.com (now a division of Google), simplified
and commercialized the process for creating one’s own
blog – “organizing the world's information from
the personal perspective,” as Blogger.com’s web
site puts it.
Blogs exploded into our consciousness during the 2004 national
elections when the web sites of strongly opinionated writers
attracted large numbers of visitors. The bloggers’ popularity
came to the attention of magazine and book publishers, who
offered contracts to some of them for articles, columns and
books. This wasn’t just a trendy tie-in to the transient
event of an election: publishers found the writers’
voices fresh and entertaining, their looks appealing and their
web sites stimulating.
Best of all, these bloggers come with two guarantees that
publishers crave: built-in sales numbers and built-in platforms.
Their popularity is not a matter of speculation. It is a function
of virally infectious appreciation, an audience voting with
clicks of its mouse. It can be measured precisely and analyzed
by the number, concentration, and demographics of “hits”
on their sites.
Even with advances in market analysis such as BookScan, traditional
book publishing is at best a speculative venture. Publishers
can compile information about readers ‘til the cows
come home, but when the time comes to decide how many copies
of a book to print, the best they can do is an educated guess.
By the very nature of blogs, however, precise and real-time
market research is embedded in the medium, research that can
be used to create pinpoint-targeted advertising campaigns.
And therein lies the answer to the question of how writers
can make a living writing in the new paradigm.
The New Commercial Model of the Book
AdSense, a service created by Google, is one of a growing
number of marketing service companies that access personal
web sites, instantly analyze their content, then (in the words
of AdSense’s own site) automatically deliver “text
and image ads that are precisely targeted, on a page-by-page
basis, to your site’s content—ads so well-matched,
in fact, that your readers will actually find them useful.
And that means more clicks. And every click earns you more
Steven Johnson, writing in the January, 2005 issue of Discover,
described blogs as “a global platform for personal wisdom.”
“Most of us,” Johnson says, “…have
a passion about something.” By creating a blog around
that passion, a writer can locate a community of like-minded
souls that advertisers are able to quantify.
And to quantify is to monetize. Google tabulates a fee every
time a viewer visiting an author’s site clicks on an
ad, and sends the author checks on a regular basis. A growing
number of bloggers who have signed with AdSense and similar
services are not only receiving compensation, but are extending
the use of their blogs to develop related business and promotional
One such business is branding, and new firms are emerging
to help promote books and authors utilizing the full range
of media resources – text, video, voice, and music.
A flash-animated, interactive multimedia “trailer”
produced by a company called VidLit was employed to hype Little,
Brown’s “Yiddish with Dick and Jane,” sparking
what Publishers Weekly described as “a viral
marketing campaign” that materially contributed to the
book’s success. PW cited VidLit as “one of the
few companies to grasp the significance of pure entertainment
value in marketing books online.” The firm’s founder,
Liz Dubelman, produced her own commercial, “A Blog Apart,”
that exemplifies the multi-dimensionality of blogs: “It
starts with the written word,” she says in her narrative,
but “transforms the words on the page into a compelling
form of entertainment.”
How will we “read” this new type of “book”?
Though the technology for on-screen text display has vastly
improved, the original vision of e-book pioneers – a
dedicated reader like the Rocket Book – has yielded
to the reality that most consumers want their portable devices
to incorporate a multiplicity of functions of which reading
is only a minor component. In the next decade or two we will
see a convergence of such tasks as pager, text messenger,
book reader, cell phone, Global Positioning System, music
player, writing tablet, laptop computer, digital organizer,
radio, television, camera and game player. The all-in-one
device about which futurists have speculated, the “Personal
Media Player,” is rapidly becoming a reality. Perhaps
our children will continue to call it a book, but the PMP
will not be Grandpa Guttenberg’s book.
When traditional publishers talk about author platforms,
they often refer to circumstances that have little to do with
whether or not the author is a good writer – indeed,
with whether he or she is a writer at all. Does he own a chain
of fitness salons? Does she have a hit television series?
The appeal of blogs from a literary viewpoint, however, is
that many of them feature interesting thinking, entertaining
writing and other literary values intrinsic to authorship.
Theoretically, at least, in a blog universe interesting writers
will be better rewarded than uninteresting ones because more
readers will click on their web sites. For this reason, it’s
not fanciful to predict that the next generation of bestselling
authors will come not from Big Publishing but rather out of
the turbulent processes in the blogosphere, which, like superheated
gases in distant galaxies, produce young stars.
But wait! This sounds great for writers, but where do publishers
fit into this new world?
It’s a good question. As authors assume the roles traditionally
performed by publishers such as distribution and publicity,
the laws of disintermediation – the elimination of middlemen
or agencies of any kind – render publishers less and
less relevant. And that goes for editors, reviewers, critics,
bookstores and libraries. “Gatekeepers” –
the priestly class that tends the holy flame of literary taste
and tells us what is gold and what is dross – may have
little place in a world where the best judges of taste are
And agents? (A question close to my heart.) Agents are no
more exempt from these forces than anybody else. Indeed, it’s
hard to find better candidates for disintermediation.
As Big Publishing becomes more and more dysfunctional and
authors grasp the capabilities of the new paradigm, the transformation
of the book from a three-dimensional object to a dematerialized
but richly sensory experience will accelerate. And so will
the redefinition, the reinvention, the repurposing of the
author, as we progress – reluctantly but inexorably
– on the road to virtual.
All the best,
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