Sunday, June 21, 2009


Ransom Stephens wrote about the death(?) of the book. at www.opendemocracy.The bold statments below are quotes from his article.

I sent the reference to several people and here’s a thoughtful response from
A friend who knows whereof he writes. Michael Kac is a linguist and musician, as well as a fine writer.

In 1977, Ken Olson, President of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) which, at the time, built the best computing hardware, said, "There is no need for any individual to have a computer in their home."

Interesting because it points to a widespread but false presumption, namely that the concept of need is absolute and clear-cut. I doubt very seriously that the personal computer arose because people were saying ‘You know what I need? I need to be able to have my own computer sitting on my desk at home.’ I bought my first desktop computer, an Apple II, not because I needed it but because I wanted to learn to program and felt it would be more convenient to be able to do so at home on my own schedule than through the University of Minnesota’s facilities. At the store where I bought it they made a big deal about the word-processing program, which was of no interest to me whatsoever (I felt that my trusty old Royal standard would do me just fine, thank you very much) and the Internet lay several years in the future. I didn’t even buy a printer — I didn’t think I’d ever need one. Well, times change. Today I couldn’t live without Microsoft Word, e-mail and the Web. But I didn’t start needing those things until they became available.

Publishers' role as the gatekeepers of quality has always been dubious. Do book buyers have brand loyalty? Do you check the publisher before buying a book?

Very interesting point. I never thought about that before. There is brand loyalty, but it’s to authors, not publishers.

Once we jump the low hurdle of spelling, grammar and minimal storytelling skill, literary merit is nearly as subjective as your favorite color.

Hmmmm … If my own experience is any guide, spelling and grammar are huge hurdles. (Indeed, the very article to which I’m responding has a number of mistakes — like whither for wither and wakeup for wake up.) But don’t get me started …

The publishing company that turns the corner, leaving the Six Sisters in the dust, will leave quality control to authors - even grammar and spelling.

The Six Sisters, along with everybody else, have already left grammar and spelling to authors. Copy editing is a thing of the past.

The obvious candidates include Yahoo and Amazon, but I think they are already too big and stodgy to make the move; Google has everything necessary on its place, but might be too fragmented to make the move; the big self-publishing companies Lulu and iUniverse are well positioned but might be too burdened by the "vanity press" label to emerge. Right now, I think the smart money is on

Why? Leave aside the fact that I never heard of them until just now (I freely admit to being out of so many loops that I don’t even know which ones I’m out of) — my perusal of the site revealed nothing that made me think ‘Oh, yeah, this guy’s obviously right.’ So where does his confidence come from? (Seriously, I’m genuinely curious! Someone please enlighten me.)

It turns out that the 80/20 rule is wrong. It's more of a 40/20 game.

What am I missing here? What happened to the other 40%?

Those who haven’t already heard me expound on the topic might be interested in comparing book publishing with recording. There are some interesting similarities and also some interesting — I would say fascinating — differences.

Perhaps the most striking difference is that there is, as far as I can discern, absolutely no stigma whatsoever associated with self-produced, self-released musical recordings. I’ve lived in both words, recording with a label back in the 1960’s, when there was really no alternative, and, more recently, going the do-it-yourself route (which I much prefer). Today nobody cares if you’re signed to a label or not; as someone with a big-selling self-produced CD once said ‘Nobody knows it’s not a real record.’ Will book publishing go this way as well? There are some signs that it’s already doing so, at least within niches whose occupants have a high degree of cohesion and talk to each other all the time. Sci-fi and fantasy writers are particularly favored in this regard, and my bet is that mystery writers are soon going to be (if they aren’t already).

Here’s a hypothesis about why, in the end, writers will — at least in the early going — become more like independent musicians. I’m convinced that in the statistical main most people who write books or play music do so not for the money but for the attention. Why is practically every male human on the planet in a band? Answer: so he can get laid! How much slaving at a day job is it worth for the chance to get up on a stage at night and hear applause? Answer: a lot. (Take it from one who knows.)

Few musicians are deterred by the low likelihood of ever really making a living, let alone getting rich, from what they do. And there’s always that chance, however small, of the Big Break that will change everything. I doubt that writers are much different. And as for having to continue to hold down a day job, well, Mussorgsky composed Boris Godunov and Pictures at an Exhibition while working as a petty government bureaucrat and Charles Ives made his living (and got rich) in the insurance business. Anthony Trollope and P.D. James are analogues on the literary side.

Perhaps the best part of the deal is that even small amounts of attention translate into great huge gobs of gratification. Half a dozen people in a coffeehouse can feel like an enormous crowd if they’re attentive and enthusiastic. And even a few buyers of an on-demand book can make you think that the effort of writing it was worthwhile.

There is, however, one major difference. Musicians are performers; writers are not. I reach many more people with the live shows I play every couple of weeks or so than I do via my Web site or Myspace page. (I know, I know, the Internet gives me access to a much greater audience, but that potential gets realized only at the point at which enough people acquire a reason to log on.) When I get on stage at a coffeehouse, everybody who’s there knows about me — whether or not I’m the reason they came in the first place. Writers don’t have that kind of a platform.

The main value that the Internet has for me right now is as a gig-generating machine. If I’m interested in playing somewhere I e-mail the establishment with a link to the audio samples on my Web site. The recipient can, with a click of the mouse, immediately hear what I sound like. Sometimes deafening silence is all I get in return, but often enough I get an answer within a few days saying ‘When can you come?’ I don’t know of anything comparable in the writing world, though who knows? Maybe some clever soul will figure something out. God knows, there are enough clever souls out there, and the really clever ones tend to make things happen. And when they do it’s often because they look outside the world they know into a different one and suddenly see possibilities never before considered.

1 comment:

  1. I'm just glad you didn't catch the truly embarrassing misspellling. In the Long tail graphic I typed SteVen King. Doubly ironic: a few lines later I had the comment about leaving proof reading to authors and my last name is Stephen - you know, the superior PH spelling. Duh.
    The 40/20 business refers to 20% of the work netting just 40% of the possible profit.
    As for why is the odds on bet to be the Next Publisher - this is part self-serving evil, I just posted my novel there (hit the URL linked to this comment to see it) and part inside information. I met the people behind scribd and they just radiate the forward thinking entrepreneurship of successful startups.
    Anyway, Thanks for the analysis. You mae excellent points. Keep ane eye out, I'm going to revise the article and do a youtube seminar in a few weeks.