At a recent lunch with Kate Rados, we were talking about publishers’ tendency to experiment with predetermined results in mind. While “failing fast forward” and trying out new things is essential, too often we narrow the chances of success by imposing an hypothesis. If my hazy memory of ninth grade science is correct, that’s called “bad science making” (or something).
I’m also thinking about the Times article “With Kindle, The Best Sellers Don’t Need to Sell.” What goes unmentioned is the incredible lack of transparency – Amazon, like Apple’s App Store doesn’t release how many unit sales make up a #1 bestseller – or how weighted the free titles are toward genre books. (Without giving away any of our corporate secrets, let’s just say people would be shocked by how few units it takes to hit the top paid apps list in the Books category.)
Which brings us to Digital Blind Spots. More than piracy fear-mongering (shame, Attributor!), more than mistaking the exception-for-the-rule, I see this as the biggest threat to publishers and authors finding online success. I’m still ruminating on this concept, but here’s what I’ve come up with:
- “Publishing” is incredibly multifaceted. You have poetry. You have technical manuals. College textbooks. Literary debuts. Prolific genre fiction. Historical biography. YA fiction. Don’t tell me what works for a how-to guide on installing Windows 7 will work for a novelist producing a book every five years. An analogy: Avatar and Nights and Weekends are both films. But in terms of production, distribution, audience and viewing platforms they have nothing in common. If you don’t believe me, just look at the Most Pirated Books of 2009. Does this track with all the sturm und drang in the industry to you?
- We’ve done this before. The more I read about the history of publishing, the more precedents for shifting audience habits and evolving formats. I would hate to witness the incredible irony of myopic publishers repeating history’s mistakes because they didn’t, you know, read their own history books.
- Change is disruptive. This sounds simple, but I’m amazed how often people don’t get this. If you’re going to try something new, you’re going to piss someone off. There will never be a solution that keeps everyone (authors, editors, agents, publishers, stockholders, interns) happy. Except maybe one that sacrifices long-term gain for short-term health. This is also called institutional denial.