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Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century

by Richard Curtis

(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 procedure.

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 experiences.

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 experience itself.

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 imagination.
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 proposals.

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 it.

Enter Blogs

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 traditional ways.

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 money.”

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 opportunities.

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.

Goodbye, Gatekeepers

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 readers themselves.

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,

Richard Curtis

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