you can stop holding your stomach in, no one will ever pay attention to you

Carl: Your books are safe. While you’re reading them, you get to become Tarzan, or Robinson Crusoe.

Bastian: But that’s what I like about them.

Carl: Mm hmm. But afterwards, you get to be a little boy again.”

The Neverending Story (1984)

It’s 2016 and the attention economy has officially collapsed.

My sense is that most of you are professional attention-grabbers, aspiring pros, or in the attention-grabber “helping professions”—editor, agent, barista—so I figured I’d let you know: It’s Over.

We had a good run, you know, writing stuff down, getting other people to read it, let alone movies, music, video games, etc. but now that we’ve reached Peak Content, well, your best friend in the world couldn’t give two shits about your latest HuffPo thought piece, let alone the AAA sports franchise video game your company spent millions of dollars developing over the last three years.

All of it, everything anyone would ever have paid to read or watch or suffered through an ad to enjoy, has gone into the dustbin of history along with stone tablet chiselers, snuff box enamelers, and the company that specialized in making the big front wheel on old-timey bicycles.

Not long ago, an art critic could expense a lavish four-star meal to his magazine to impress an exotic beauty, but today pretty much the only word of that sentence that’s still in the OED is “expense,” which is what retired parents of middle-aged writers now secretly nickname their children.

In the words of Kevin Anderson at The Media Briefing:

I think that we’ve already reached Peak Content, the point at which this glut of things to read, watch and listen to becomes completely unsustainable. There hasn’t been enough ad revenue to sustain it for years and, with 2015 ending with a rush of acquisitions, consolidations and funding rounds with eye-watering valuations, 2016 will mark the beginning of a shake out.

So put the pencil down and step away from the iPad Pro. Your services as an artist are no longer needed. (In fact, science shows that our civilization could get along just fine with the right proportion of nurses, hedge fund managers, and Uber drivers per capita. The rest of us would be better off just sitting still.)

One of the few workable business models in this age of digital disruption has been to produce as much content as cheaply as possible. But flooding a glutted market only leads to a deflationary spiral until it becomes completely uneconomic to produce that commodity. It is a simple matter of economics, and it doesn’t matter whether that commodity is maize or media.

Every time someone with a shaky understanding of economics employs the phrase “it’s a simple matter of economics” to describe a situation that is vastly more complicated than a textbook supply-and-demand scenario, an angel doesn’t get its wings because of global goose feather shortages.

Anderson goes on to offer some helpful advice for media companies:

  • Improve strategic focus. This is consultant-speak for “figure out something that will work.”
  • Iterative agility. This took me a second (on account of English), but I believe it’s consultant-speak for “spend less money while you figure out what will work.”
  • Decide what you stop doing. I’m going to guess based on the first two tips that we’re supposed to stop doing whatever we were doing while not spending money on what we’re going to do instead.
  • Invest in media revenue innovation. Here, Anderson advocates for graduate school programs to train “publishers, chief revenue officers, circulation directors, and sales chiefs” to help us innovate our way into relevance. (You can check the link if you don’t believe me. It’s not a rick-roll.)

More grad school will definitely fix the problem.

“Hey Mom, I’ve decided to go back to Columbia to get my master’s degree in circulation directing. Yeah, like magazine circulation. Mom? Are you there? Did you just mutter ‘Expense’ under your breath? I knew that was your secret nickname for me!”

I’m going to say it again: people will pay for content they like, whether with money or attention to ads and often with both—the value is there, on account of all the eyeballs. There are 15 billion eyeballs on earth. Let alone ear holes. That’s 30 billion media orifices and counting!

It may not be your content, but somebody’s going to continue to get rich off words and sounds and images and stories till long after we’re dead.

But how? Like the man says: figure it out.

Take a look at this Japanese bookstore for example. Morioka Shoten in Tokyo only stocks one book at a time. Each book essentially gets a one-week exhibition. And it works.

Is there any way you can take your media company, your agency, your own writing, and shift your approach from “inventory” to “exhibition”?

ad hoc: algorithm-defiant human-only curation

Last year, I’d seriously considered partnering with various trusted peers in the creation of a new, “hybrid” publisher. It was clear as Gorilla Glass what traditional publishers were doing wrong so I figured I’d start my own.

Then I realized I had no idea what to do instead. Not fundamentally, anyway. Certainly there are surface details I’d change. Me being the publisher, for one. But with a stronger jaw, and fuller hair. But without a clear vision for how a New Publisher should operate in 2015, it just didn’t make sense to proceed.

I’m still thinking about it though. One of the books on my “reading clump” next to the bed is The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso. Calasso is the longtime publisher of Adelphi Edizioni, the prestigious Milanese, um, publisher. (Excuse the synecdoche.)

Born into the Tuscan upper class, Calasso has worked for Adelphi since 1962. (Class is a significant thread in the traditional publishing ecosystem, even in the U.S., and one of the many reasons publishers are finding the 21st century an awkward fit. Also why salt-of-the-earth fishmonger types like myself find traditional publishing an awkward fit.)

Calasso is erudite and sophisticated. If you looked up “publisher” in an Italian dictionary, well, you wouldn’t find anything because that’s not the word.

Regardless, he writes:

We might wonder why the role of the publisher has attracted so many people over the centuries—and continues to be regarded as fascinating, and in some ways mysterious, even today…Apart from being one branch of business, publishing has always involved prestige, if only because it is a kind of business that is also an art. An art in every sense, and certainly a dangerous art since, in order to practice it, money is an essential element. From this point of view it can be argued that very little has changed since Gutenberg’s time.

This certainly captures the essence of the publishing mystique for me. Calasso’s wrong about the money angle though—you can perform the role of publisher for very little bitcoin nowadays.

That said, publishing remains dangerous. It’s one thing to be attacked (figuratively or literally) on the basis of your own deeply cherished beliefs. It’s a very different thing to be attacked for publishing someone else’s beliefs. I’ve worked at two organizations (off the top of my head) with bulletproof windows erected because of threats spurred by one specific creative work. Each work angered members of a different religion, but a bomb is a bomb.

Putting controversial books aside, what exactly is the role of a book publisher today…

  • …as the infrastructure (big publishing conglomerates, national book chains, BEA, etc.) continues to wobble and degrade?
  • …as new technology combined with a robust freelance talent network allows anyone to create and sell books that are difficult to distinguish from traditionally published ones, even for pros?
  • …as mysterious algorithms increasingly decide which books readers even see, let alone buy?

Today, algorithms even decide which of your friends’ heartfelt book recommendations actually appear in your feed. We can’t even recommend books to each other without algorithmic distortion.

As the realization that social media is poisoning our brains and destroying our civilization the same way lead pipes toppled the Roman Empire continues to dawn on us, the value of Algorithm-Defiant Human-Only Curation (AD HOC) becomes irrefutable.

Perhaps the role of a book publisher today, above and beyond any other function, is to convince readers of the value of this type of curation, to prove incontrovertibly that AD HOC is worthy of their attention.

In my experience, once you have the attention of readers, the rest of the supposedly difficult parts of making a book (editorial, marketing, design, finance, operations, elbow patches) tend to fall into place. In the words of Saul Bellow (or was it Milan Kundera?): “Enough interested readers and any idiot can run a publishing house.”

If you too are interested in the idea of ad hoc publishing, shoot me an email. We should start a conference. Or a bootcamp. Or a mastermind. A summit?

On a related note (related to the culture of publishers), I read this fascinating post  by Martin Sústrik, a Google software engineer. Sústrik is talking about a dispute over how to manage software projects but (to me) it applies to making books as well:

I guess it boils down to the difference in personalities, with Pieter, being an extrovert advocating the idea of a software project publisher treated as a social club, place where people with similar interests get together, feel at home, have a good time and eventually do some good work. Me, being reclusive to the point of misanthropy, I see a software project publisher as purely technical endeavor, an exercise of craftsmanship, without caring too much about its social aspects.

So short it makes no sense to summarize further. It’s an interesting read even if you (as I) know nothing about open-source software communities. In just a few words it touches on several aspects of the “community” that makes the books, and made me wonder whether there might not be a better organizational design for New Publishers.

Publishing “imprints” within massive international publishing conglomerates often started as discrete entities that were eventually subsumed and mushed together for financial reasons of scale. Sort of how the mitochondria in our cells started out as separate organisms but eventually become the internal machinery of other living cells.

Does it still make sense in 2015 to have all these distinct-but-similar identities/brands/teams floating around within larger generic publishing companies that float around within even larger, even more generic transnational media corporations, island-in-a-lake-on-an-island-in-a-lake-on-an-island-style?

Especially when the vast majority of these imprints don’t really focus on a particular kind of book or on a particular audience, and the same bunch of (lovely, good) editors tend to move fluidly between them? I mean, what’s the point of all that structure?

The whole thing reminds me of Apple right before Steve Jobs returned. I worked in a Mac repair shop around that time. Apple had about a million different products and they all kind of sucked. But people still really, really wanted to like them. (Remind you of traditional book publishing’s current situation at all?)

Steve came back and pared the offering way down: pro desktop, consumer desktop, pro laptop, consumer laptop. Even the digital camera had to go! Let alone the Newton.

Maybe publishing companies and their multitudinous imprints are ready for a Steve Jobs moment?

digital everything is terrible, so put down the internet once you’ve read this

In response to my article on how to package your book so that people will pick it up off the shelf, Josh Bernoff wrote:

Isn’t it more important what browsers on Amazon.com see than bookstore browsers?

I responded:

Talking about browsing for books on Amazon is like worrying about graphic design in an ebook. The control you have over the reader’s experience is so stunted by the stagnant technology that it isn’t worth polluting the discussion of the physical experience.

I used to try to think about the thumbnail when evaluating cover designs but at the end of the day there’s pretty much nothing you can do that’s useful there. So I ignore it.

This interchange reminded me of this article at Aeon pointing out that, as a medium, ebooks are in a serious rut.

To me, the whole book + digital kit and caboodle, from browsing to buying to reading to sharing, is in shambles.

(Kit and Caboodle was actually the name of my folk music duo, back before I got into book publishing. Naturally, I was Caboodle. We knocked out some killer vinyl EPs before Kit got ambitious and went out on his own as a solo act under the name Shambles.)

Anyway, here’s a disclaimer: You know how I also used to work at Amazon? Well, nothing I’m going to say here has anything to do with that experience.

Here’s the situation: Amazon sits on a geyser of cash from Kindle romance and erotica readers who consume absurd—literally absurd—quantities of (mostly low-priced, mostly self-published) novels every week.

Quality doesn’t enter into it. These readers want an escape, they want it now, and they want it cheap.

Think cheap oil. When gas is $2 a gallon, it’s next to impossible to drive the adoption of (initially) costly green technologies. Without wide adoption, you can’t manufacture at scale, bring costs down, and increase the pace of innovation.

As long as indiscriminate genre readers scarf down 5 or more books a week (!) with no particular regard to quality or provenance, Amazon has no incentive to innovate in the areas that other readers care about.

It’s not just Amazon, either, although thanks to their corporate culture they may embrace this dystopian situation a bit more enthusiastically than strictly necessary (kidding…?). When you talk to someone at an online content channel of any stripe, you’ll hear the same story. Metrics show that the audience wants cheap, fun crap, and if you put anything but cheap, fun crap in front of your audience, the numbers go down.

Yes, of course, put $1.00 escape in my way and I’ll eat it up with a spoon. It’s like a fridge full of donuts. I’ll be back at that fridge every 5-10 minutes until I’ve passed out on the floor in a sugar coma. Hide the donuts behind some kale…and I’ll dig for those donuts in a kale-flecked frenzy. What I’m suggesting is, make something nice out of the kale. Plain kale is boring, especially if it’s stuffed next to some donuts.

Teach me about the kale. Tell me about all the good things kale will do for my pasty, corpse-like pallor. Use stories to make the kale appealing. And burn those donuts.

It all goes back to Richard Thaler’s Nudge. A little careful “choice architecture” can drive better decision-making and better results.

Sure, Amazon wants to sell books. But do they also support connecting readers with authors and publishers that will change their life? Do they support the idea of skilled and hard-working authors making a good living? Do they support the idea of a healthy, vibrant book publishing ecosystem? Do they want books to get better?

Please, can another major player enter the room (without immediately getting acquired by Amazon and shut down)? Ideally, one without a vested interest in a particular device. Let’s accept that we’re going to be reading on our phones or, gasp, iWatches. Where’s the killer reading app, and where’s the store to support that reading app? Cross-platform, beautiful/legible typography, compatible with all ebook formats, thoughtful tools for searching, browsing, annotating, and sharing?

Authors, publishers, investors, and technologists are going to have to get together to make this happen. Who can unite them? Oprah can’t even get people to watch her own cable channel, so we need a new hero, someone relatable and mainstream but still bookish. My vote is for Karl Ove Knaussgard, but that could be the cold medicine talking.

Here’s an example of the kind of innovation I’m talking about: Motherboard’s recent decision to replace comments with a dedicated letters to the editor page, a change intended to encourage civil discourse. Klint Finley at Wired followed that up with “A Brief History of the End of Comments” at Wired.

Comments have been an enormous problem since the dawn of the Web, and yet most of us content creators have dutifully continued to include them on our websites. Alternate approaches for online audience participation exist but have yet to find widespread adoption.

Isn’t it weird how a problem can simmer and simmer and become background noise and then suddenly frustration boils over and solutions like this arise? And it’s like, why didn’t this happen sooner?

(In a similar vein, Ian Bogost at The Atlantic tackles another related pet peeve, the greatly diminished fidelity of telephone calls, and what that does to how we communicate. That’s another problem that’s going to drive us all crazy until somebody suddenly fixes it.)

Whether you’re an author, editor, or publisher, wherever your work intersects with digital, ask yourself: where are your assumptions? What’s your cargo cult—what are you doing because everyone else is doing it, or because the “successful” competitor appears to be doing it? Where is there room for a completely different approach, maybe even an old solution to a new problem? Right now, books are a Gordian knot.

Sure, we have to throw our ebooks up on Amazon if we want to reach the widest audience possible. But how can we offer a different, new, improved experience for our online readers elsewhere? I’m not talking multimedia a la 90s-era CD-ROMs. I’m talking plain old books that are a pleasure to find, read, discuss, and share online.