Defining the Field of Battle

We don't publish holistically, so why approach the future that way?

I’ve experienced a future fatigue of late. So much prognosticating in so many blogs and industry newsletters and daily emails and conferences and tweet-ups and webinars and… you get the idea. For a couple weeks I thought I had lost the faith. But when I pinpointed the source, I found what had stuck in my craw was the all-over nature of the conversation.

What I mean is:

When I talk about “the future of books” (which extends from April 2010 to about… August), I don’t think I’m talking about the same books you are. This industry is incredibly fragmented across multiple audiences, multiple formats, and multiple business models. Celebrity tell-alls. Young adult genre titles. How-to manuals from work-for-hire writers. Coding books for advanced PERL.

I’m talking about literature.

Now, I don’t intend any value statement here. How one approaches online marketing for a debut short fiction collection is different from how one would approach online marketing for O’Reilly books; neither campaign is categorically “better.”

Let’s look at the film industry. If, in 1995, you were to talk about “the future of film,” you could never anticipate Netflix, with its long-tail enabling subscription business; a $100M grossing documentary (Fahrenheit 9/11) was even possible; DIY distribution models, successfully employed by the “mumblecore” circle; or that the three highest-grossing films of all time were on their way (Avatar, Titanic, The Dark Knight) to shatter box office records while fears of “piracy” spooked the fence-sitters.

Back to publishing. FSG books may end up in the mumblecore route, or the Netflix route. (Hey, if Chris Nolan wants to pen a novel, shoot me an email.)

But I don’t need the IMAX 3D, if you’ll let me stretch the metaphor a little more. And I think our conversations would be better served if we identified as such: when you talk about ebooks, do you mean genre titles? YA? Historical nonfiction? Academic? Reference? Children’s popup books?

Just because it’s digital doesn’t mean it’s one size fits all. If you think it does, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. (Or, worse, you do, and you just want the blog traffic as a contrarian.)

Rant over!

p.s. Speaking of odd inroads, can we stop for a second and note that The Lost Books of the Odyssey debuted on the New York Times extended bestseller list?!

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Filed under farrar straus and giroux, industry, writing

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