Containers

I was just reading this summation of the Nick Carr-Clay Shirky battle royale over whether the book is a valuable cultural artifact or simply a container for content that, in its physical limitations, shaped the forms of that content and could be dying out for good, digital or otherwise. To be honest, I was actually glazing over a bit reading it. It’s fascinating, don’t get me wrong, in a high-minded philosophical way, but I think I’ve intellectually moved past all these discussions of form and transition. Why are we still arguing any of this?

Anyway, one particular comment attributed to Carr temporarily pulled me out of my glazed meanderings:

“In response to an email from Wired magazine founder and author Kevin Kelly on the subject, Carr gives some examples of valuable forms of media that he believes have been lost or diminished: namely, “the oral epic poem, the symphony, the silent film with live musician accompaniment, the dramatic play, the short-form cartoon, the map [and] the LP.” And he argues that the book, the movie and the video game could also fall into this category.”

I think Carr has a fundamental misunderstanding about how, exactly, each of these forms of creative effort reached a point of widespread acceptance and popularity. He’s got something of a cart before the horse kinda argument, seemingly implying that media companies arbitrarily decided one day, possibly for higher profit, that CDs were better than LPs, and stopped making LPs. It was the people buying CDs en mass that made that decision for them.

Nothing, not one thing is stopping anyone from making LPs today. In fact, they’ve become quite the successful boutique business for some artists, Jack White comes to mind. But in doing so, you have to either admit that you’re creating a form with a notably smaller market to sell to or you also have to undertake efforts to build a market to go along with the product. The form isn’t obsolete or diminished in any qualitative sense (other than the strictly cumulative monetary decline from the height of the wax album era. But surely, Carr’s discussing high-minded art here, so simple free market economics can’t be what he’s referring to, can it?). The only problem the LP has is that most of its paying market has moved on to other content forms more convenient to their lives.

It’s not up to me as a writer to decide what the optimum forms of creative expression are, nor is it up to Carr, Shirky or any of thousands of other media industry pundits. Even publishers, movie studios and music companies (who have discovered this truth sooner and far more harshly than the others so far) despite their capital reservoirs and strengths of distribution and marketing, have only a limited, minuscule ability to direct those choices.

In fact, there is no one person who can make this decision. The forms of content that reach any level of social application do so beneath a critical mass of regular people deciding in unison what they’d like to spend their money on. CDs overtook LPs because the buying public wanted it so, because CDs had advantages that fit more cleanly into the conditions of their lives at the time. For that same reason, CDs have been usurped by almost totally ethereal electronic forms. Books, print or digital, will live or die by the same hand and there’s nothing Carr, Shirky or anyone else can do about it.

It seems more and more like the publishing industry is missing a very essential point of its existence: we all live at the whims of the people who buy the product. They seem to be forgetting that we in the creative fields of endeavor have to produce both content and form that large numbers of people value enough to pay for. Not just enough to want to watch, listen to or read, mind you, but actually lay down hard cash for. That decision is, has been, and will forever remain in the hands of our audience. The creative forms that service their needs, and most ably makes the case for that aforementioned exchange of currency, will win out. The ones that don’t will end up tacked on to Carr’s list of lost art forms. 

Frankly, I’ve always believed culture belongs to the people. If large enough numbers want print, there’ll be a market for it. The same for digital. And if a super-majority develops that wants some form of the written word that hasn’t been invented yet, usurping both print and ebooks, that’s as it should be.

Every new form that comes along adds new possibilities for the artist. Every old form pushed aside becomes part of a rich tapestry of history and experience that helps shape the use of new forms. LPs didn’t die, they become a foundation upon which mp3 players were eventually built.

If art is your only intent, the old forms still exist, have at it! But if you’re also trying to pay the bills, you’ve got to go where the money is. And that money is scattered about in the pockets of every person out there who’s looking for something to read. Nothing else really matters.

Reading (In) The Future: Does Clay Shirky have a point when he says publishing is going away?

The future of publishing is and has been a hot topic of discussion ever since the first weblog went live. There are many people lined up on opposite sides of the debate and, as is typical in most things, many more scattered amongst the vast middleground. Over the past few years, I’ve been rather unabashed in expressing my opinions that the legacy institutions that have dominated all sides of publishing for so long are now living on borrowed time. Nothing I have seen or any recent developments have changed my opinions in the slightest. In fact, legacy’s continued resistance to needed change have only further emboldened my beliefs. Unlike some, however, I don’t believe the fall of these long-standing organizations is a bad development. In fact, I’ve come to believe that it is a necessary step in the evolution of communication and will only help to usher in a new era of growth for the written word and, most especially, for those who practice it.

Earlier today, I read an interview with internet scholar Clay Shirky. He detailed many aspects of the emergence and value of social reading that makes it well worth a look, but I was particularly struck by his comments on the publishing industry itself. I had thought my opinions were strong in the matter, but Shirky takes things one step further. While I think some of the formerly great and powerful entities may crumble in the digital upheaval, I never considered that “publishing” itself may cease to exist. But after reading Shirky’s opinions and, specifically, how he defines things, I am starting to see his point.

The word publishing means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty, complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button.

Many people, myself included, have always considered publishing an act. But Shirky paints an interesting portrayal of publishing as the entities that engage in disseminating written works. From that perspective, I can see his point about publishing no longer being a job at all. Perhaps what we need here is a different term for the industry at large. Maybe we’re not simply shifting the players and tasks within the industry, but the entire industry itself. What we may be looking at is, in fact, the death of the publishing industry and, rising from it, the birth of the writing industry. (Actual future industry name may vary.)

The question isn’t what happens to publishing. The question is what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them.

If publishing and publishers are no longer necessary, as Shirky claims, then it really does make little sense to refer to the entire industry by a term of description for a soon-to-be obsolete element of the past. Recently, there has been an increasing number of defenses of publishers springing up all over the place. What I’ve found intriguing is that all of these defenses rest essentially on the same points–editing, marketing and some mythical notion of quality. Editing and marketing are tasks that can easily be farmed out, for much less than the cut a publisher will take of your proceeds.

Quality, on the other hand, I’ve found to be a bit of a disingenuous defense. Publishers and their advocates always spring this one to support the gatekeeper role they’ve occupied for so long. But the physical necessity of limited offerings no longer makes much sense in the online retail environment, and it’s this very gatekeeper position, one that has served to cement publisher’s control and position atop the literary food chain, that has directly led to so much resentment amongst writers and helped expedite the robust environment that new technologies have created to circumvent exactly that practice. It’s always seemed not quite right to me for publishers to use actions that have alienated and, to be blunt, oppressed so many writers to justify their continued existence. If we truly found value in publishers’ narrow windows of opportunity, why would we have ever embraced self publishing in droves, as we have?

Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution.

This is, perhaps, one of the clearest and most reasonable points Shirky makes on publishing and publishers’ efforts to retain power over readers and writers. There can be little doubt that practices like overpriced ebooks, windowing of releases, restrictive DRM, resistance to libraries, etc, all display a pattern of publishers’ intentionally hampering ebook growth in favor of print, an area in which they still maintain a modicum of their former control. Some publishers have even openly advocated increasing friction on the customer experience, ostensibly to undermine the advantages of digital over print.

In these instances, publishers are almost certainly trying to protect the problems they have long been the only answer to. Unfortunately for them, by handicapping what we all know is possible and, increasingly, preferred by the customer, they themselves have become more of an obstacle to digital growth and consumer desire than a solution to it. This is not a good place to inhabit if you’re taking the long view of the future.

The more I thought about Shirky’s point, the more I found myself agreeing with it. Remove print books and the physical bookstore chain out of the loop, and publishers bring absolutely nothing to the table for writers that can’t be acquired cheaper and more efficiently on our own. Certainly, print still maintains a majority of the industry, but can anyone honestly claim they believe it’s going to stay that way very much longer? Typically, those that do so fall back on nostalgia and some vague notions of tradition, but those elements play very little role when competing directly with the real, tangible benefits to readers that digital possesses.

I look at book publishers in some of the same ways I look at print newspapers. It is patently obvious that newspapers in their traditional form have little or no future at all if, for no other reason than digital alternatives do every last thing they do better, quicker, cheaper, more efficiently and more conveniently for readers. Newspapers still exist, of course, but who can say for how long? Two years? Five? A decade at the most? Given the advancements of the past 10 years, can we even imagine the means by which we’ll be consuming news by 2022? The only thing I can safely say is that ink on paper will look even more obsolete than it already does. And to an increasing number of people, it looks pretty damned obsolete already.

Book publishers have the same root problem. Digital alternatives are quickly reshaping the environment into one where every last aspect of what they do can be done better, cheaper, more efficiently, etc., etc. Shirky has a strong point, I think; publishing isn’t dying, it’s already dead and just lingering around waiting to be buried.

Which brings me to another point. About a month ago, the New York Times ran this piece on how publishers have begun to sour on multi-purpose tablets over dedicated ereaders because, they believe, tablets provide too many distractions for readers. This, to me, is yet another example of industry people refusing to see the forest for the trees.

Firstly, what leads any of them to believe that distractions for readers are some new development brought about by tablets? I can be distracted while reading a print book every bit as easily as I can a digital version. If I want to read, and what I’m reading is engrossing, I’ll stick with it. And if not, I can always pick up where I left off later, same as I always could. Why else would they have invented book markers in the first place if not to allow readers to easily walk away from what they were reading, for whatever reason, and come back to the same place at a more opportune time?

Secondly, and most importantly, what about our society leads any of these folks to believe readers want to plunk down money on a device that intentionally limits its possible utility? I have a nice HTC smartphone that is capable of all sorts of nifty tasks, from checking email, Twitter, Facebook, web surfing, playing music, games, watching videos and, lo and behold, reading books. Hell, I’m even writing this blog post right now on it. I’m gonna post to the site with it when I’m done, too. All of this utility is the reason I bought it in the first place. It would have been somewhat shortsighted of me to buy a basic cell phone because all these other things might distract me from my phone calls. I wanted all of these capabilities when I went shopping for one, I bought it because of them. On purpose, no less.

I even have the Kindle app, and I frequently read ebooks with it, and am a regular Amazon customer. Sometimes, I do get distracted while reading when a text message comes through, or I get a notification from email or Facebook or Words With Friends. You know what I do then? I either keep reading, ignoring the notification, temporarily stop and check on whatever it was that wanted my attention then go back to reading, or I close it and come back to the exact same place I left off sometime later. Pretty simple. Never once have I thought, “Wow, I need a device just like this one but that’s purposefully limited to only read books so the rest of my life doesn’t intrude.”

Most disturbingly, there was a poll of publishers referenced in the article stating that only 31% believed tablets are the future. Well, tablets, smartphones and other similar multipurpose devices are the future. Anyone who’s really ever used one for an extended time can tell you that. It’s disturbing that almost 70% of publishers surveyed don’t believe that. But again, this is an opinion rooted more in what they want to believe rather than what is the reality.

If publishers are so afraid of competing for readers’ attention that they think widespread adoption of intentionally limited devices is a viable possibility, then they should just close up shop now. Besides, even if every customer had a dedicated ereader; hell, even if they only read print books; distractions in our lives would still abound. That’s the nature of the world we live in, and it’s the reality of the marketplace we have to compete in. I can buy one device that does many things, including reading ebooks or I can buy numerous task-specific devices to avoid distractions. Which option do you think most people will choose?

Of course, if Shirky is correct in his assessments, what publishers believe really isn’t going to matter in the long run, anyway. The publishing industry is dead! Long live the writing industry!

An Easter Roundup

So, after another week of soul-searching, career re-invention tinkering on my part, I’ve started to develop my plans for what’s next.  Don’t expect me to detail it at this point, just suffice it to say that before much longer, I’ll have something up and coming, something not currently being done by any of our  local media in, hopefully, a new,  and infinitely more useful way than the old days of what we had become accustomed to (or more accurately, settled for) before technology and the economy combined to lay its death blow on tradition and paying exorbitant prices for hard copy material that has lost both so much market share and effectiveness in the past decade.  I’m excited, and with any luck, you will be too, businesses and readers alike.  But for now, it’s hush, hush.  Competition, you know.  And to all of you who have replied to my previous call to action, thank you.  It’s very encouraging to know that there are so many of you out there who are as fed up with the status quo as I am.

So, for a special Easter Sunday post, before I get to the ham, potato salad, deviled eggs and the butter pecan cake with coconut pecan frosting I made earlier this morning, here are a few links that I’ve been engrossed in reading during this long, holiday weekend.  And isn’t the weather just grand, by the way?  Can you believe that just 6 weeks or so ago, we were all armpit deep in snow?

I’ll begin with this one from a media-following pundit favorite of mine, Clay Shirky. This is an intriguing piece comparing the current disruption in long-standing publisher business models with a 1988 book by Joseph Tainter called the Collapse of Complex Societies.  Basically, the gist is that there are times when resources are plentiful enough that institutions grow ever-more complex and all involved benefit from that complexity.  But, eventually, the law of diminishing returns kicks in (this was a favorite phrase of an old boss of mine, by the way, when discussing circulation, print and distribution expenses and the quest for ever-larger advertiser pools) resources dwindle and those same complex institutions reach a point where their inflexibility causes them to collapse.  It’s a very interesting parallel, and a strongly recommended read.  I also happen to believe we’re at the starting point of that very collapse for publishers who’s vast, complex and expensive infrastructures make it all but impossible to downsize to a more manageable, digital age equivalent.

Here’s a brief snippet.  See if you think this sounds like any industry you know:

“Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.  The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change.  Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse.”

Which brings me to my next link.  This one is a round up a state-of-the-media conference recently held in Japan. Like many such events held around the world over the past few years, a stark disconnect between established old-media types and emerging new media supporters was evident.  Even in the face of direct statistics showing declining readership and advertising losses long before the current financial mess hit, the old-media folks still held to the belief that the problems currently be experienced are completely due to the economy and things will get back to normal when that finally turns around.  They say that denial is one of the stages of grief, followed soon there-after by bargaining, which in current publisher lingo means paywalls.  “If people will just pay for this stuff, then we don’t really need to change what we do or how we do it.”

These guys, like their American and British counterparts, also hold to the belief that charging for online access will solve the problems of the web for publishers despite the fact that there is almost no evidence to support that assertion, and ample evidence that directly contradicts it.  Shirky touched on this point in his piece, as well,  with guys like Rupert Murdoch, et al virtually begging people to pony up when the reality of the web is that they don’t have to because the information you’re hocking is available in many other places at no cost.  Their Japanese counterparts even exhibited the same dismissive attitude toward the new democratization of information on the internet, snidely commenting on key social networking elements like Twitter and Facebook.  What was that line I printed earlier about elites resisting change to the point of collapse?

And here’s another one. In this piece, the author details nicely how publishers sat on their hands and watched the strengths they had cultivated for decades subverted and outright swiped out from under them by elements of the internet culture.  He even has a nice little chart showing point for point how each of the formerly useful newspaper sections can now be more than adequately found online with much less hassle, cost and waste than buying the printed paper.  He even points out how the last bastion of usefulness for the newspaper, detailed local coverage, is quickly being eaten up by digital equivalents while they continue to cut corners and increasingly use much cheaper, canned material to fill the space between their dwindling number of ads.  Again, inflexibility and collapse.  Get it yet?

Even when publishers do try to adapt, they are still running into the same resistance from the reading (what they seem to irrationally believe are also the buying) public.  Just look at this. Apple’s new iPad sales have been off the charts thus far, but are the people buying them lining up for the new subscriber-based paid apps that media companies have been hailing as a potential savior?  Nope.  This shows pretty clearly that it’s the free apps that people are sucking up.  People will happily buy the new platforms, but if you don’t make the content compelling, they’re still not going to pay.  And adding some fancy graphical bells and whistles to dress up the same old stuff they didn’t want to pay for in the first place isn’t going to get it done.  Just how many times do publishers need to learn the same lessons before it sinks in?  Apparently, they haven’t reached that number yet.  Of course, when they do, there’s liable to be so many digital-native businesses out there who caught on long ago that reclaiming even a small portion of their former market share might just be impossible.

And that’s the one bright side of the collapse.  It opens up a much bigger field for the rest of us not hung up on yesterday.  Happy Easter!

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