Our Jobs Have Nothing in Common

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?

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4 Comments

Filed under ebooks, industry

4 responses to “Our Jobs Have Nothing in Common

  1. Pingback: Belligerent Writers and Deaf Publishers: The Stalemate « Pens With Cojones

  2. Absolutely agree.

    No matter what the media or delivery channel, it’s all about understanding your target reader’s book buying behaviors, listening well to identify their conversations, and then engaging appropriately with content designed to convert them to a paying customer. It doesn’t matter so much if you choose the side of a bus, a trade placement or a blog post.

    It makes little difference where you shelf/store the [paper or digital] book, getting readers to the altar is simpler than ever if they consume their content online.

  3. You just nailed the problem with most publishing punditry: everyone believes they’re the benchmark.

    Great post!

  4. Don Linn

    Yes, quite.

    Nice post, Ryan.

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