This month’s Wired features an article by Chris Anderson of TED (not to be confused with editor-in-chief Chris Anderson) on what he calls Crowd Accelerated Innovation. It follows Clay Shirky’s thesis that the massive increase in online access for communities of variant sizes brings changes in kind, not just degree. Anderson uses dance as an example, pointing to rapid advancement of style and new moves once online video became ubiquitous (in the first world, but still): thanks to YouTube, six year olds can memorize moves by bleeding-edge choreographers.
Here’s his own TED talk about it:
Now, he stresses the importance of online video to this development. He saw TED talks get better as speakers reviewed past highlights and worked to advance the format.
While this is all well and good, and overlaps plenty with Steven Johnson’s recent work, I’d like to investigate how Crowd Accelerated Innovation informs the ebook sector of trade publishing.
Filed under ebooks, industry
This was Jason Kottke’s quote in his roundup of Amazon and Microsoft’s holiday offerings. In short, it articulates perfectly the “good enough revolution” as coined by Wired last year: during a technological sea change, users’ values change with respect to the application of that technology. I.e. what we lose in audio fidelity with mp3s (versus CDs) is offset, happily, by instant and ubiquitous access.
So the question I’ve been thinking about it, What will the new values be for ebook reading?
Kottke seems to hit on this with Amazon’s cloud-based and device-agnostic approach:
“I never would have predicted it, but I am a firm convert to Kindle books…and I don’t even have a Kindle. The killer feature here is Amazon’s multi-platform support. I *love* reading books on the iPad at home but when I’m out and about, if I’ve got my iPhone in my pocket, I can read a book. The best book is the one that’s always with you.” -Jason Kottke
This quote will stay with me. At the risk of sounding naïve, it sheds light on an advantage to ebooks that’s not often discussed: you can take books everywhere. If you’re a mass market or trade paperback reader with a purse, this isn’t that revelatory. But if you’re like me, you leave books at home when going out on the weekend. Bars and restaurants are simply not conducive to schlepping books. In fact, I hate carrying anything when I go out. (I’m trying to figure out how I can combine my driver’s license, Visa, and subway card into one.)
Too often I’ve thought of ebooks as a complement to the print industry. But when I hear use cases like Kottke’s, it points to a new kind of reading experience, a greater engagement with books in one’s daily life. Again, I’m sure this has been obvious to others for a long time. I guess this was finally my lightbulb moment.
Richard Nash’s recent post from Frankfurt about the heterogeneity of the book “business” articulated many problems I’d been ruminating over lately. (Read it! Now!)
“A cook might indeed like relatively fast, predictable, unambiguous information in a cookbook but the sales channel through which it is obtained, as well as the user interface, the likelihood it might be a gift, the likelihood of its obsolescence as a product are so radically at odds with a medical reference work that to conjoin the two would be akin to lumping together the medical instrument business with the cutlery business because both involve knives.”
At a recent Publishing Point, Tim O’Reilly said something similar: O’Reilly Media was lucky that users looking for their technical manuals were forced to do so. His customers needed his product; conversely, people don’t need to read Franzen’s Freedom. (Just kidding, they do.) O’Reilly freely admitted that much of what worked for his customers wouldn’t work for most of the industry.
Related to this is the explosion of commentary in 2009 around the publishing industry’s future. Pundits bloviated over ebooks in post after post without definition or focus. They fell into one of the following categories:
- Outsider/Insider: I don’t work in the publishing industry, but I buy books, and I have a WordPress account. Therefore, everyone in the publishing industry is a moron. You want proof? This one book by this one publisher I was looking for on my two-month old ebook reader wasn’t available for the price I made up in my head. Me: 1, Publishing: 0.
- Après moi, le déluge: I’m an author. Here’s an article about how for three days I sold more ebooks than print books in one distribution channel. Ergo, print books are dead and ebooks are the future.
- The Dichotomy Addict: Unlike every other technological advancement in media formats in the past fifty years, the introduction of ebooks will spell absolute death for print books. I cannot conceive of a world in which different people prefer different reading environments and formats, despite evidence provided by audiobooks/trade paperback originals/mass-market books/websites/horseless carriages/steam-powered locomotives.
- The Cure-All: Did you hear about that cool iPad app? Why aren’t we doing that for kids picture books and romance novels and self-help books and celebrity tell-alls?
This is why I’ve reigned in my blog reading this past year. I felt there were a few cogent voices and a lot of useless chatter. It’s also become damned hard to find any commentary I feel is applicable to FSG‘s books. If anything, I’ve seen more innovation in practice than in theory: Stephen Elliott’s The Rumpus, the new Paris Review under Lorin Stein (formerly of FSG), and publishers like Phaidon and HarperCollins trying new ecommerce channels like Gilt. Yes, I could read about transmedia and adaptation-prone media properties all day (it’s exciting stuff). But what I really want to do is figure out how to get great debut literary novel X in front of new readers Y and Z.
Anyone else felt this way?
Filed under ebooks, industry
That’s an unfair title for the blog post, as obviously there’s isn’t one answer. But after reading the incredibly misleading “E-Books Make Readers Less Isolated,” I felt it necessary to weigh in.
Note the article appears in the Fashion & Style section, not Books or Tech. This is perhaps why there isn’t any distinction made between a dedicated e-reader like the Kindle and a multimedia device like the iPad. When strangers and friends ask to check out my iPad, almost none of them care about the ebook apps. I would argue they are distinctly different devices serving different audiences. One is a reading device, and the other is a media device.
“For many, e-readers are today’s must-have accessory, eroding old notions of what being bookish might have meant. ‘Buying literature has become cool again,’ [Dr. Levinson] said.” Setting aside how insulting this statement is, let’s take the high road: is the article saying ebooks and/or Kindles are cool? iPads? We know iPads are cool, and that has nothing to do with their ability to display ebooks. That’s like saying Solitaire is hip again because the new MacBooks hit the market.
I haven’t equated bookishness or reading literature with solitude since I was a teenager. Partly this is because I was a huge nerd with nobody to discuss Irvine Welsh with. Mostly it’s because these days I find reading literature an immensely social activity: book clubs, author readings, drunken debates about metadata (this happened on Friday, sadly), arguments over a New Yorker review… I feel privileged to live in an environment of like-minded readers. So is reading solitary because I prefer not to be bothered on my subway commute as I tear through a great novel?
I heartily endorse the oft-cited remarks by David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen about the purpose of reading: to pacify loneliness through communion between a writer and a reader. It’s uniquely solitary and social*:
*Yes, this is a video I produced for my job. But I love my job, so it’s all the same thing in the end.
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