Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Future of Book Publishing, Part 3

Part 3 of my discussion with business guru David Maister about the future of book publishing, which orginally appeared as a comment on David's blog. Part 1 of may be found here and Part 2 here. And yes, I have written Part 3 all by myself.  [Full disclosure: David Maister is a client of my employer, stresslimitdesign.]

David Maister's post Writers and Peformers is right on the money—but I’m still disturbed by the cynical postmodern fatalism here.

The growing trend towards trained monkeys and dancing bears worries me (cf Kaavya Viswanathan, the plagiarizing Harvard undergraduate novelist and the Spice Girl-ification of the publishing industry), and I don’t want to go gently into that slick, infomercial-populated night. I don’t know if this generation would recognize a Shakespeare unless he got a hair piece, received a thorough Queer-Eye treatment, and was willing to shake his booty on Americon Idol. Surely the end results is we wind up with more pap culture (sic) idols, and less qualified content producers. Quel dommage. How many Shakespeares, Momma Casses, even Peter Druckers might we be losing in the current system? I’ll take talent and ability over photogenics any day.

Putting aside my high culture snobbery and conservative, meritocratic ideals to turn pragmatic again, I agree of course that most people who want to succeed today as professional content providers will have to promote themselves incredibly agressively (unless sheer dumb luck and good timing comes through for them – not wise to bank on). But I find we’re back at the Catch-22 David described in his recent Marketing Complexity. If you haven’t already made a name for yourself, how on earth do you break into the other marketing channels and capture a critical mass of attention?

At this point, one so-far undiscussed piece of the puzzle is The Long Tail idea that thanks to the power of Internet search tools, it is possible to deliver highly-specialized products to niche markets at a profit. Guy Kawasaki has an excellent post on the tactical items behind Long Tail success stories – which most people forget about. One of the critical factors he cites is “a sustainable population of low-cost producers” – meaning the Long Tail game is about making money as a distributor, or middle man, not as a producer. You aren’t going to make money as Jane or John Q. Author – but Amazon is going to make money off of you.

I may be wrong, but I perceive the loudest evangelists behind the promote-your-way-to-create-success school to be the gatekeepers or service providers behind the “collateral revenue” channels cited above—the A-listers of PR, publishing, blogging, etc—who are A-listers and gatekeepers in some cases because of merit, wisdom, and ability, but very often because of first-mover advantages or the power, money, and reach of the institutions behind them. The gatekeepers behind for-profit promotional channels are going to be the real commercial winners in the Long Tail, celebrity-creator game – the people who are really making money in all of those “collateral revenue streams” they recommend.

This means, of course, that the people who make money telling content-producers how to succeed…are in the business of making money promoting content-producers, but not necessarily in the business of making money for content producers. I don’t know about you, but I am generally wary of taking advice from someone whose financial interests conflict with my own.

Methinks there’s something rotten in the state of iDenmark.

The real corporate excitement around The Long Tail and consumer-generated-content (CGC) seems to be “look, we can get all of these patsy consumers to create content for us for free – the ultimate low-cost production – and then turn around and make a profit off other people’s work.” Referencing back to David's training article (“Why (Most) Training is Useless” ), I feel like we are creating a cultural system that highly rewards distributors but decreases incentives for content producers. How long will creators continue to contribute content for free or for little gain? And how does that system bode for the quality of the content we collectively produce? Somehow, this all strikes me as shades of the fall of the Roman Empire.

I would like to think in the midst of this cynical, postmodern mess there is still room for quality writing, specialized artists, and big, crunchy ideas that don’t always pitch to the groundlings or encapsulate in a CNN soundbyte, that there are alternate paths to success than solely being an entertainer.

Of course, that may make me a premature anachronism and perhaps I should throw it all in and get my hair bleached and my teeth capped.

The Complete Future of Book Publishing Series

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3