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

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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.

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ad hoc: algorithm-defiant human-only curation

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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.

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

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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.

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