Strategies for a discontinuous future.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Publishing 2.0 - Responses

"...Print is hard to kill. The printed book is especially hard to kill. Why is that? Because it embodies its technology. It needs no device to make it work. What musical reproduction technology is comparable? The music box? The player piano? Books are relatively inexpensive, quite portable, very durable, and easy to use. Good luck trying to replace it."

I get a lot of flak like this, so I'd like to clear it up.

I am not arguing that books will die. I agree, books (and other embodied technologies) are here to stay. What's going to die is the current industry structure, value chain, and economics.

To use one example from the trends outlined before: it's now becoming economical for micropublishers to print books just-in-time - that leaves room for a couple of outsourced printers (a la Flextronics). Carried to it's logical conclusion, it eviscerates the way we publish books.

We rarely argue at the technology level here at bubblegen, because we think it's the implicit economics of technologies that count.

I think the far more interesting argument is that human capital counts for a lot in the publishing industry - that editors select books for the market efficiently. The point is that this equation has changed.

Before, the market couldn't select it's own books - it couldn't coordinate. Those few mechanisms which did coordinate consumers (ie, the NYT bestseller list) soon turned into strategic tools (ie, publishers game the bestseller lists regularly.

But now, the market can coordinate. That is, mechanisms like Amazon's reviews and author rank have reduced search costs for consumers in finding the best books (even within a given segment). Here's another nice example - bookswelike.

So the argument now has to be that editors can choose books for the market more efficiently than the market can choose books for itself. The second half of this equation is necessarily bounded by the efficiency of information mechanissm - if Amazon reviews are bs, then the equation doesn't work.

I think it's a tough sell to argue the above equation in favor of editors (or record label execs, movie producers, network execs, etc). If we simply look at the blogosphere, Technorati's done almost as good a job in predicting book deals/tv/print exposure/etc as people have.

But that's only because Technorati is people - it's the market's aggregate preferences made visible. Which is a fairly incredible thing - it's rarely happened in history before.

So, I think now that we can choose what we want, we won't need editors so much - their choices will, in general, be worse than the aggregated market choice. I think we will see them moving to a new, much more interesting role - one where the market chooses it's own winners, and editors/human capital are like John Peel - they're not so much talent-spotters as experimenters.

Which is what they should have been in the first place maybe.

-- umair // 1:17 PM //


Funny, the first time I heard that books would disappear was when I was 5 and my mother was studying at the London College of Prining in the early 70's. One of her lecturers held the firm belief that books would be a redundant form of content distribution by the turn of the century. Although that hasn't happened, and likely won't in the near future either, everyone (until recently) seems to have missed the real endangered species - editors, music industry execs, etc.

Can't agree more with you Umair that efficient access to information should make these professions extinct. Unfortunately, like stockbrokers, they are likely to survive but the pressure will cull their ranks and hopefully improve the quality of information available in the market.

Oh, my mother ended up becoming a book restorer, deciding that if books wouldn't exist in the future someone should at least know how to fix the ancient tomes that were instrumental in transferring human knowledge from generation to generation and thus allowing the acceleration of technological development to where we are now.
// battleaxe // 10:51 AM

The biggest flaw of your argument is that you only focus on ONE aspect of what editors do (at least the good ones). Editors not only select the books, they assists authors in honing them. There are a lot of good blogs out there, but almost all of them can benefit from having a second reader refining what they say (see your own entry for proof of this). A good editor doesn't just take an author's work and shove it through the publishing house machine to create a book. They challenge the author and make the book better. Editors are necessary. They're vital. Nobody creates works of gold alone. Lots of work is unsuitable for the marketplace without another pair of eyes and hands in it, whether authors like it or not.

Working on making books better, also makes editors good talent spotters. Could they be better? Of course they could. But the blogosphere, though vital and interesting, is not the representation of what the market wants. It's a segment. It's a market sample. It's not the market. It still takes people to interpret the data and buy accordingly... editors. To do it well requires talent, verve and discipline. All of which a good editor has in spades.

By the way, Technorati is people, but what are editors... aliens?
// Todd Jackson // 7:37 AM
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