The new face of the publishing industry

Richard Nash weighs in on publishing’s identity, Part 2 of 2

OK, so it wasn’t in fact tomorrow when I supplied my discussion of what a two-sided marketplace entails. As we all know, executing plans takes priority over talking about them, so some plans had to be executed, sorry for the hold-up!

It in fact proved to be a useful little gap, in that during the intervening time, two very interesting items appeared on the Internets. The first exemplifies the problem of obsessing over the superficial digital vs. print issue, this nonsense (and this) in The Atlantic. I won’t belabor this except to note that the App Store does not magically suspend the laws of supply and demand. What we see in the App Store is a brief period when something new arrives and there are temporary barriers to entry because of high initial costs and learning curves. Supply takes a little while to catch up with demand.  The reality however is all the folks who figured out Quark, and all the folks who figured out Dreamweaver and all the folks who figured out Wordpress will figure this out too, and everyone with a website have an app, assuming folks haven’t already moved onto the next thing, and Walter Isaacson will move onto the next nebulous notion permitting him to this the status quo ante will be restored. IN other words, there isn’t a digital solution to your problem, because your problem isn’t just digital.

The second item, however, “The Spectrum Of Change When Media Shifts From Scarcity to Surplus”is describing at far greater length than I can why the paradigm I described in Part One of this is, well, true. The supply of information and entertainment is asymptotic; the demand is not. But the demand remains big enough for there to be a marketplace, simply one is which the supplier, rather than being one hundred publishers or record labels, is them, plus a whole lot more. And while digital did enable this, digital can’t disable it. Once we discovered nuclear fission, we couldn’t undiscover it.  We simply learned new ways to manage a world in which we knew what it could do.

And that world, to depart my apocalyptic metaphor, is a two-sided marketplace. That link is to the Wikipedia entry, this is to the summary of a Harvard Business Review article on “Strategies for Two-Sided Marketplaces.” Yes, I said, Harvard Business Review. What radical leftie countercultural indie publisher is quoting Harvard Business Review articles? Answer: the one that’s trying to pull his head out of the sand. By any means necessary.

Now, I’m not about to list all the damn “strategies for two-sided marketplaces” I can think of. For one, I need some to try out myself, with Cursor. For another, no really innovative idea ever came from listening to some guy yakking—it comes from within, from within you. But I’ll offer a couple thought experiments to help prod the creative process.  The first is to forget what you think you know of the marketplace, whatever number of sides it might be. We have thought of ourselves as being in the marketplace for books. That’s done. Or rather, it’s not done, but it’s only a facet of the marketplace, like the marketplace for hammers is a facet of the home improvement business. Think about the needs and desires you satisfy and think about the marketplaces they represent.  The second is, Don’t do lots of little experiments. I know that’s the wisdom these days, right? Try out lots of little things, see what works? Wrong. We’re doing that already, it’s failed. The business that succeed are going to do things in a profoundly contrarian fashion.  In Bizarroworld fashion. Think of everything you think you know about video games. You sit down, stationary. Yet with the Wii, you stand up, and move. When you hire someone, you offer a bonus to stay. But with Zappos, they pay you a bonus to leave after four months. These aren’t little experiments; these are things that get you told you’re crazy. That get you fired. But look around you. Can you be sure this company will even exist to fire you?

To address Brett’s formulation then.  The crisis is not digital. The crisis is that we’re not thinking the unthinkable.

Declaration of rights: The author lays his cards on the table for a new kind of contract by Brian Joseph Davis

Publishing is the last genteel media business. How can you tell? It’s in the contracts.

Outside of adaptation sales, most authors will never see a half-inch thick set of the onerous, even punitive, terms that are the norm in film or music production. My first contract with a small Canadian press was three pages. One day, not long after signing, my dog literally ate it. The publisher gladly sent me a new copy. The contracts for my next two books, with a mid-sized North American press, were 10 pages. Even then, I was able to negotiate without an agent* though I’ve learned not to tack contracts to the fridge where a dog can snatch them.

That said, several habits of book contracts are growing more incompatible with present realities. At the Publishr project we’ve agreed to a deadline to come up with, if not a contract, then a business agreement and that while we’re making shit up as we go along, it’s probably for the best that we at least come up with some different shit than usual.

Boilerplate book contracts tend to be rights hungry. World rights, film, television, radio, performance, translation—many publishers prefer to have them all, despite an inability to work them all. Agents chip away at those but it’s a delicate operation. And then there are rights reversion clauses. A sensible publisher will offer rights back to an author inside of 7 to 10 years if sales dip below a certain number. The big houses want the properties for life.

Richard Nash has gone into detail about why rights hoarding is as damaging as market hoarding in any other business. His solution is a three-year renewal contract. It’s brilliant and bold and I hope it becomes an industry standard, but since the Publishng project exists more in the world of R&D, I’d like to suggest something even more shocking: Think licensing. Not selling.

Selling a property and licensing a property are very different things. In licensing you’re exploiting a company’s edge in a certain territory or medium. With the Publishr project I think a licensing agreement will not only be the simplest structure it will also be an interesting negotiation of increased author control.

So, here are my bargaining points for the Publishr project…

Rights I want to license the world English digital publishing rights for the property known as The Incompetents/The Millionaire (hereafter referred to as “the work”) to the ad hoc entity known as Publishr for 18 months starting on the day of publication. After which, the agreement may be renewed by both parties. If either party does not agree to renewal the agreement is void and world English digital rights for the work revert to the author.

The world English digital rights to sell the work during any contract period may not be sub-licensed or sold to another publisher or entity. If at anytime Publishr dissolves, is sold, frozen, jailed, or enters bankruptcy, the world English digital rights revert to the author.

Freely available cross-platform presentations of short selections from the work in text, sound, or video form, are considered promotional and both Publishr and the author have the right to develop them in tandem.

All rights to characters and the right to adapt the work as a whole, for translation, film, television, radio, theatre, or web, remain with the author, until the end of time, including but not limited to, societal breakdown, apocalypse, and rise of marauding leather clad warriors fighting for dwindling resources.

The author has the right to serialize the hell out of the work for journals and magazines. No matter the platform of the journal, all monies from serialization will go directly to the author.

The author maintains ownership of the work and all rights to sell or license, personally or through agents, the rights to publish a print edition of the work.

The author agrees that no print edition be released until after 6 months of the release of the e-book. (This is, I’d like to point out, a complete reversal of current industry habits in regards to print versus e-editions. Kind of cool, huh?)


Okay, now the headache part and, quite frankly, where my cockiness runs out. As the e-book market is currently a volatile market it has been difficult to come up with a pricing plan. Until the market is settled by governments, consumer demand, or act of god (lightning bolt hitting a CEO as he holds aloft a new overpriced e-reader?) we have to start with a fixed price to develop royalty rates and profit sharing.

For sanity’s sake, let’s combine our variables. Let’s assume an Amazon-style $9.99 for an e-book price and an Apple-style 30% middleman cut. That leaves a net of $6 for each unit sold. I’d like a 20% royalty on net. That gives me roughly $1.20 per sale and leaves $4.80 to divvy up for payment to editorial, production, design, and marketing participants.

(The purely Amazon version of the above, and correct me if I’m wrong, would be .70 for me, $2.79 for participants)

Just what kind of money is involved? Most literary fiction authors that are considered to “sell well,” sell roughly 4,000 print books. I’d like to put forth the optimistic estimate of 2,000 units selling in the first six months. That would give everyone involved a healthy freelance project-sized check.

As to how to break that down specifically, well, that’s where I ask the Brett and the team to step in. Keep it clean, and please, don’t make anyone do the worm.

* Caveat. Budding authors tend to see agents as only the gatekeepers who get your manuscript read by publishers. That’s true but agents provide a far more valuable service down the line. They protect you at every step of the way. Not every author has work experience creating contracts or developing cost-volume-profit, as I do, so an agent is more than likely a must. As for agents and me, if you’re asking, I have said “No thanks” to two different agents who kind of scared me when they came soliciting—one actually had a pinky ring—and I have been turned down by an agency I approached, who were nice and said, “I’ve never read anything like it. I see it at Soft Skull.” (Richard, I thought you would enjoy that.)

My path to being published has always been to get publishers blind drunk so they promise things. It’s the personal touch, something that will never go out of fashion.

Richard Nash weighs in on publishing’s identity, Part 1 of 2

Odd as it sounds, let’s perhaps avoid making this print vs digital conversation. Though the transition to digital methods of creation, transformation, distribution and consumption of media is not at all a red herring, it is also not always the best lens through which to look at the changes in producer and consumer behavior. For one, the digital transformation of publishing is now already twenty-five years old, commencing with the publication of Aldus Pagemaker in 1985; for another, we’ll be selling analog reproductions of our created and licensed intellectual property for decades to come. 

So, to arrive at a conception of what added value publishers can offer, I’d instead like to look at changes in the shape of the marketplace.  Historically, the market for books has been effectively single-sided: few producers, many consumers.  The “fewness” of the producers was partially ordained by society (low literacy, few leisure hours, endemic racism and sexism), and partially by industry strategy (remember that “copyright” began as a privately-enforced cartel run by printers who were sick of competing against one another to drive prices down). The “manyness” of the consumers was in spite of society (since lack of literacy and time would hurt book sales) and producers, frankly, weren’t in much of a position to act to increase the size of the marketplace since the tools for producing and distributing media other than books were not more advanced than the tools for producing books themselves, so any increase in demand for books was as a result of the book itself (up until at least the late 18th century, when newspapers, pamphlets etc. developed broader and speedier distribution…).

The Industrial Revolution dramatically increased the “manyness” of the consumers as the cost of producing media declined relative to income. Although initially it did little more than that, in its latter stages, it permitted such efficiencies that leisure hours increased and the sophistication of the technology required better-educated persons, meaning far greater literacy and less intolerance.

Initially, at least, the Industrial Revolution did nothing to increase the number of producers. Its technology favored the production of few things, many, many, many times. So while its latter stages permitted and necessitated greater literacy and social tolerance which would in theory cause more production of culture as well as more consumption of culture, the scope for the increase in production was stymied by the very steep returns to scale. It also is worth bearing in mind that while consumers benefited enormously, the benefits lay more in the area of price (orders of magnitude lower) than choice (only somewhat greater). 

Here I introduce the digital transition only to say this—the power of scale becomes less significant because the marginal cost of reproduction is zero, lower than even the additional cost of printing the 10 million-and-one-th copy of a massmarket paperback. It’s zero for everybody.

So, suddenly, all the growth in consumption our society has enabled is now also available to the production side. What was once a one-sided marketplace now becomes a two-sided marketplace. And tomorrow, I’ll discuss what that entails…

Publishng: Thoughts on Transparency, Accessibility, and Putting the Public back in Publicity by Jim Hanas

During the team’s last conference call, we were talking about transparency—about how much of the backstage business of our publishing venture should be carried out in public. Should the process of this book coming together be, in effect, a reality show? At some point I blurted out, “I mean, does anybody really give a shit about this stuff?”

This got a laugh, but I should confess I was expressing an anxiety, not a conviction. There’s a lot of evidence that people do give a shit about this stuff and that (from a business perspective) they appreciate and reward enterprises and individuals that make themselves—let’s not say transparent, it’s so overused. Let’s say accessible.

Twenty years ago, box office returns weren’t news. Nobody cared. TV ratings? Same deal. People watched movies and TV shows, not the business of making movies and TV shows. Not so today. From DVD extras to The Apprentice, the cords and wires of entertainment (and marketing) are everywhere flying loose. Part of this has to do with new bandwidth media companies have to fill. They’ve got to put something there. Why not B-roll and byproduct?

It also has to do with the fact that we are all now, in some sense, producers. Everyone is in the media business, whether it’s via blogging, posting videos to YouTube, posting pictures online, or whatever. In what Henry Jenkins describes as"convergence culture," the line between consumer and producer is eroding. It is very tempting—and exceedingly easy—to wring your hands about this. Everyone wants to be famous. No one wants to do anything useful. Oh my lord, all this content is of such terrible quality. Everyone wants to write a novel, but who wants to read one? I can go down this road and worry that media inequality is like financial inequality. The haves get the have-nots to support the rights of the haves by persuading them to believe that they will one day be haves too, even though the vast majority of them will not be. But I also have thispopulist bent that I can’t fully explain—life has not done me dirt—and I’m naturally suspicious of prior restraint, as it were, when it comes to access to the tools of creation. People have always created, long before the mass media, it’s just that until recently you had to “make it” to become visible. That whole layer of avocational creativity was out of sight and out of mind, and—most importantly—it did not compete with the sanctioned cultural entertainments.

Now it does. This, not piracy or anything else, is what really keeps media executives up at night. What if they just entertain themselves? And we will and we have. It’s just that it used to require a lot of cash to broadcast these entertainments to one another and now it doesn’t. The best possible interpretation of this sort of accessibility is that it’s totally fucking punk rock. No limos. No stages. The performer stands inches from the audience with nothing to hide and no privileges to protect.

 Of course, shedding the stage is bound to cause anxiety and even backlash. Jason Pinter wonders if social networking kills the author mystique. Michael Tully recently created a stir by issuing the "Take-Back Manifesto," calling for indie filmmakers to stop talking about the process of getting their movies made. “We believe in the mystery, the power, and magic of cinema, and we feel strongly that the more one reveals about one’s production—at least when it comes to this recent phenomenon of obsessive reporting and documenting of every step of the filmmaking process—the less powerful the impact will be,” the manifesto reads.

While I understand this point of view, my unaccounted for populism is irritated bydefenses of mystery and mystique. They sounds like scams. And while, yes, I probably set out to write in the first place in the hopes of getting some author mystique of my own, I think writing and writers will be better off without it. Already this seems to be the case from a practical point of view. J.A. Konrath? Never heard of him—until he made a big splash blogging about this self-publishing exploits.

All of these thoughts came to a head for me after reading Ami Greko’s thoughts on re-thinking book publicity a few weeks ago. She asked a series of questions, and I wondered whether I should answer them publicly or privately. Ami told me team members should decide for themselves. Now, the questions Ami asks—creating a list of potential partners or media outlets to target, for example—have traditionally been backroom stuff. Strategy. Secrecy. But why? Most of the contacts I’ve made in the last ten years have all grown from blog links or Twitter references. That’s how people communicate now. By talking to each other in public.

So, to answer Ami’s questionnaire: I think the New York art world satire of Brian’s book is priceless and the most accessible angle for introducing the book to a wider audience. I think we should seek out serialization opportunities. The Awl or The Rumpus would be ideal. I think their audiences would love Brian’s book. I can also imagine Electric Literature wanting to experiment with some sort of pre-release serialization. Even without partners, I think we should consider serializing the book on our own, running up to its release. (Or it could even be released midway through the serial for those who cannot wait to read the end.) I amconvinced that blogging has changed the way people read, and even become fans. Rather than punctuated releases every few years, blogs (or serialization) offer an extended experience and relationship with a writer or idea. Fortunately (for us) I think Brian’s book lends itself perfectly to this sort of treatment.

This sort of talk, out here in public, will no doubt offend more purely literary sensibilities. Some might think it is an example of, say, replacing "artistry with publicity." That’s okay with me. We always minimize the publicity behind the art of the past, after all, because only the art survives. Plus, I think banging art into media and marketing and publicity presents the best chance we have at generating new forms that will keep artistry alive. Art with no audience is dead.

Is this a crisis of identity or an identity crisis? (Part I)

The three most significant conversations that I had during and/or leading up to BEA this year were:

  • First, about strategy. And, more specifically, about the gaming industry and how they’ve moved (or are in the process of shifting) from charging everyone for software to giving out software for free, then using their now wired consoles to glean data about usage. As people try out a new game, many will trail off and not continue to play. But, those who do, those identified as “super users” will, when they reach a certain point in the game, be prompted to purchase a serial number to unlock the rest of the game. This system is based on building up engaged users of digital content and then asking them to pay for something they’ve in which they’ve already made a significant time investment. Also, it promotes discovering new games by users who would normally have been deterred by the cost of entry.

  • Second, about content. And, more specifically, about paying for content. The comment I heard was this: “No one wants to pay for content. No one has ever wanted to pay for content. People will pay for access to content. Not for the content itself.”

  • Third, about value. And, more specifically, about how to create and add value with regards to content. Brian O’Leary was kind enough to relate to me his thoughts on content value as it pertains to blogging. 

All of these conversations made me think: How is publishing creating a content strategy that brings added value to the customer? Currently, with regards to digital offerings, I would argue that we are not. In fact, I would argue that as we shift into a digital universe we have yet to discover our value proposition. With retailers publishing (Amazon), eBook self-pub systems in place, authors going it alone, and piracy, I wonder how we fit into the equation.

Many arguments are made daily about how to rectify this. From publishers tightening their grip on content, to editors becoming brands, to publishers taking steps toward becoming content curators, to strategies about how and when to withhold digital formats to ‘stick it to the man,’ many ‘solutions’ have been offered, but none touch on the real problem at hand: What is the value proposition of a publishing house in a digital world?

With social media, access to online marketing tools, and low cost of entry into sales channels, what does the publishing house bring to the equation? Are we merely a pusher that moves a pile of papers from one space to another? Are we actually effective in what we say we are effective in doing? And, perhaps most importantly, do we serve our readers as best we can with the current state of affairs?

In the end, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and ask what we are bringing to the table. There are many new models to explore, and many new ways to provide content to readers. Perhaps we would be best served by letting go of our print mindset and heritage and allowing exploration to happen naturally.


Publishng: Ami Greko on PR and Marketing

PR campaigns for books are getting complicated.

The main goal is the same as it ever was: to sell books. What’s becoming painfully clear is that we don’t exactly know what coverage it is that does that. 

To all of the talented publicists out there who just yelled, NPR! The New York Times! Good Morning America!, and all the authors who started yelling, Oprah!—I know. These are outlets that move books. Most of the time. 

I mean, let’s be honest here. Everyone has that story of the author who showed up on a morning show, even after media training, and it didn’t move the needle at all. Or the excellent off-the-book-page features in major media across the country that absolutely should have sold books, but somehow just never translated. 

And let’s discuss that other hard question: how do you even get your author considered for one of these outlets? Assuming his last name is not Sulzberger (Brian, if you took your wife’s name, call me ASAP). The answer to this varies, depending on your size and your muscle, but for a group like us—or any smaller author—I don’t think it’s one really excellent pitch, even if that pitch goes directly into the inbox or ear canal of a major journalist.

So in a landscape where securing a major media outlet always made a difference, it made a lot of sense to throw all of your weight behind that sort of outreach, even for a tiny, scrappy outlet like us. But now? To borrow a metaphor from Cory Doctorow (who I think stole it from nature, so no worries), I want our PR to be like dandelion seeds. I want us to go as many places as possible, and see if we can put down roots.

Which is why you’re hearing from the publicist so early in the game. Experimentation takes time, and once you’re successful, word-of-mouth needs a chance to accumulate before it makes an impact. I’d like for our outreach to start early.

So, Publishng team, since we’re all working together to put this ebook out there, get ready for a modified author questionnaire, which I’ve decided to call the Partner Questionnaire. There are just three questions on it: 

1) Where would you like to see coverage for this project, in your most hopeful moments? What angle of the project do you think that outlet would be of the most interest to them? 

2) Which outlets do you think are especially vital or good for this project? What partnerships? 

3) What outreach can you personally contribute to our PR efforts? For example, are you willing to write guest posts about your role in the project? Broker introductions? 

And readers: if you’re an outlet that would be hospitable to a dandelion seed, you can always reach me via email.

Experiential Reading by Sarah Jae-Jones

I may or may not be one of the few optimistic people left in the industry who is optimistic about the future of publishing. Perhaps this is a function of someone green enough to be hopeful or perhaps it’s the function of being incredibly shortsighted. Regardless, I’m someone who believes that the general desire for long-form fiction and nonfiction will overcome whatever format (e, print, some combination of both) hiccoughs may arise.

I am not someone who believes that ebooks will cannibalize print sales. But JJ, you may cry, you are old-fashioned and fetishize the physical object. Well and true, but there are many sorts of readers in the world, and I’m but one type.

Based on my own experiences with several different types of readers (both human and machine), I’ve laid down the how I see the various types interact with both print and digital.

1. The Casual Buyer: The person who usually reads the latest NYT bestseller because they’ve heard of it through conventional means: print, TV, media, digital, what-have-you. These people buy, at most, 3 or 4 books a year, often to see what the “fuss” is about. (I was raised in a family of Casual Buyers.)

  • The Casual Buyer and Print: These people have no problems forking over $25+ when they walk into a bookstore because they don’t do it often. They are also readers who buy mass market paperbacks at the airport for vacation reading. 
  • The Casual Buyer and Ebooks: Physical book not avaible? They probably won’t read it. These readers don’t (and probably won’t) read enough to justify buying a dedicated ereader. However, they may or may not download a digital book for their smartphones while waiting in line for coffee, depending on whether or not they’re bored of playing Tap Tap Revenge.

2. The General Reader: A person who enjoys reading, who is often asking for and giving recommendations, and who may or may not be deciding whether or not $60 at the bookstore is worth the $299 (and then some) for an ereader. 

  • The General Reader and Print: Because of the amount of reading this person does, s/he is most likely a buyer of trade paperbacks, with maybe a hardcover or two if s/he can’t wait. 
  • The General and Ebooks: If this person hasn’t already, s/he will probably eventually transition into buying a dedicated ereader or perhaps the iPad, once the price of the device is low enough to justify the price.

3. The Genre Consumer: This person most likely reads mass market or category books in romance or mysteries/thrillers. They may or may not belong to book-of-the-month clubs and often buy 3 or 4 books on impulse. 

  • The Genre Consumer and Ebooks: This reader probably already owns a dedicated ereading device. This is for practical reasons as they buy so many books they either don’t have the space, and the cost of a device is more than justified by the number of books they read. 
  • The Genre Consumer and Print: Print? What print? This type of reader is probably ahead of the general public in terms digital publishing and will only occasionally buy a hardcover if they really, really need to. (And grumble about it all the way to the bank.)

4. The Bookworm: Me. And people like me. We’ll read anywhere, anytime. At the breakfast table. Walking home from the subway. In the shower. We also reread our favourite books over and over and over and over. We eat, sleep, and breathe books. 

  • The Bookworm and Print: We’re the suckers who’ll buy hardcover because we want the book as an object. And then later we buy the paperback because it’s more portable. For instance, I have both the hardcover and mass market paperback of JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL because carting around an 8000 page hardcover is stupid. 
  • The Bookworm and Ebooks: The Bookworm may or may not have an ereader. S/he may or may not use it. It all depends. 

A Bookworm is probably the most conscious about the experiential difference between print and digital because of the way s/he reads. Many Bookworms are “speed readers. Print allows for speed reading in a way that ereader simply cannot recreate. First, for someone like me, it’s essential to be able to see two pages at once. Second, the ability to flip back and forth a few pages (or more) is crucial, especially if I need reminding of a small detail I might have missed or haven’t fully processed.

Many Bookworms I know tend to read books multiple times: the first to devour the story, the subsequent reads to taken in small details.

The conclusion I’ve drawn from my observations is that print (especially the hardcover) isn’t going anywhere. What I do believe will have a limited shelf life is the paperback. Why? What people forget is that the paperback as we know it is also a relatively recent technological advance in the history of publishing.

The paperback was created to be portable, disposable, and cheap, which is why many children’s books and genre novels are published in mass market. My boss made quite a handsome living off Sweet Valley High. The point of the paperback is to produce a lot of them. What are ebooks but a better way to be portable, mass producable, and cheap?

Sarah Jae-Jones (who prefers to be called JJ) was born and raised in sunny southern California but has since transplanted herself to New York City. She cannot possibly tell you why she gave up gorgeous weather, serene beaches, and the smell of night-blooming jasmine for soul-sucking winters, unforgiving concrete, and all-night Ukranian diners, but she blames it all on Sesame Street. When she’s not ruthlessly editing books at St. Martin’s Press, she can be found jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.

Publishng: Meet our Author, Brian Joseph Davis

On Being Publishd by Brian Joseph Davis

When I first met Publishr team member Ami Greko, I had just finished doing a reading from the pastry counter of McNally Jackson in New York.  The reason I was perched above a Plexiglas display full of tarts was that my laptop’s audio-out line was not long enough to reach the bookstore’s PA system from the podium. The situation was kind of Kraftwerk meets Gordon Ramsey but in the end it worked. Why did my reading need a laptop? I was playing excerpts from radio play adaptations of short fiction from my newest book.  A couple of weeks later, Ami asked me to consider submitting a project to Publishr.

More than a good anecdote that introduces two of the people you’ll be hearing from over the next several months, the above serves to illustrate my unique career intersections and the halfway place publishing now finds itself in. While I’ve been damn lucky in having two relatively stable occupations in the last decade —one in media art and one as a published writer of fiction— my two careers have barely overlapped.

The distribution channels of digital art and music operate at global speed, but the apparatus that creates and markets literary fiction is only now stepping out of business models from the 1950s. That discrepancy has meant that the closest my careers have come to crossing over has been my involvement with Joyland, a short fiction website that I founded along with author Emily Schultz. Working with the Internet’s inherent nature—it’s internationally accessible but regional in content—Joyland is edited in 8 different regions and cities across North America. In our first two years we’ve posted some great work, toured a lot, and met incredibly talented and cool people, including a few now working on Publishr.  

Publishing is ready to embrace networked brainpower. Fiction writers, however, have been slow to warm to it. The reason may lie in the fact that writing is intensely asocial and reading is, likewise, a very isolated, meditative experience. Both states of being are massively rewarding in and of themselves but it takes publishing to connect the two. As editor Angus Cameron once had to admonish JD Salinger, “Do you want this book published or just printed?” 

Good publishing has always been a collaborative effort that readies the book for the public— from editors who love the work enough to change it, to bookstores that know their customers’ tastes. Publishr’s project represents a chance to toss some dice at new technology while at the same time working within the principles of classic publishing: smart people making a book as good as it can be. 

The goal is to create an e-publication that uses the best of current technology. Could this lead to a nicely made limited edition print book? The idea has been floated around, and I hope that is one of the results.

My instinct says that a digital-first book can prime demand for that most durable and perfect of analog storage mediums: the bound book. My experience backs this up. In working at a cooperative independent record label for two years I saw a similar upending of format economics when the compact disc turned into a coaster and vinyl came back as the archival format of choice for serious music lovers.

So what about that 360K chunk of data that I’ve offered up as a test subject for this project? It’s a novel called The Incompetents. The synopsis reads:

Dunning is an art school dropout and lifer intern who has $300,000 in stolen grant money in his hands and two choices. If he gives it back to the arts foundation he used to work for, he’ll implicate himself in a decades long fraud that goes back to the cold war. If Dunning redistributes the money to its rightful owners he’ll risk changing into one of the wealthy, paternalistic monsters he despises. Before he can decide, Dunning also has to survive his ex-boss, Kruger, who is cleaning up loose ends, any way he can. 

The Incompetents is part neo noir, part art essay, and a wholly original view of high culture from the bottom up. 

Harold Pinter wrote that one of his plays began in his mind with the word “Dark.” It was, he figured out, an answer to a question about a woman’s hair color. The Incompetents began last year when I saw the names Dunning and Kruger. 

They’re great names, and I knew instantly I wanted to write about them. The names are also attached to an interesting cognitive bias regarding one’s inflated estimation of abilities, which suggested a great dynamic for dramatic incidents. While I hope I don’t become an example of that bias, writing is still all about endless stages of risk. 

One of those risks is the moment of going public with your writing. In traditional publishing that wouldn’t be for sometime yet. This isn’t publishing, this is publshng, and while both words are a lot alike, one is a little quicker. 

Since now is as good a time as any to start, let me end this post with a work note to the Publishr team members.

I’ll be handing in a new draft by Friday. Major changes include strengthening Nila’s motivation for taking the job, and clarifying the jumps between the narrative and the intertexts. I’m also toying with giving the narrator a pet pig in the final section but maybe I’ll sleep on that. 

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Brian Joseph Davis is the author of Portable Altamont, a collection that garnered praise from Spin for its “elegant, wise-ass rush of truth, hiding riotous social commentary in slanderous jokes.”  Slate called his novel I, Tania, “The book of your fever dreams.” He’s the co-founder of Joyland, a hub for short fiction and his latest book, Ronald Reagan My Father, is longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction. 

Davis’ writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Ubu Web, Drunken Boat and The Utne.

His music and radio productions have been acclaimed by Wired, Pitchfork, Salon, and LA Weekly, which wrote, “Davis has an amazing head for aural experiments that are smart on paper and fascinating in execution.”

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What our team members have to say:

Ami Greko: Any manuscript that starts off with a lion mauling is okay by me. And good news for vegetarians, this one continues to get better after that point.

Babette Ross: An entertaining and suspenseful adventure where life meets art. I throughly enjoyed the manuscript.

Matthew Patin: A funny, entertaining look at high culture and the incompetents within its ranks, written by a talented, way-more-than-just-competent author.

Brett Sandusky: The more I read the manuscript, the more I talked to team members about it, and really, the more I communicated with Brian directly, I realized that this was indeed our project. Everything is right, here. We have an author-experimenter, a team that is behind a manuscript, and much enthusiasm all around. You can never downplay the importance of enthusiasm.

Matthew Diener: A Modest Proposal for … The Incompetents

I’ve been reading The Incompetents and am enjoying it immensely. Yes, it needs some editorial work, but it is a real page turner, fun to read, and a fascinating commentary on the art world, the grant process, and creativity vs. talent. Its weaknesses can surely be cleaned up, and I expect that readers are going to discover it and be happy they read it.

 In many ways this project is so “META” that it boggles the mind. A novel by an artist and published writer about the art world, the intricate processes involved in the grant writing and acceptance process, and fraudulent grants—including one about a novel about writing fraudulent grants—being published by a group of accomplished industry professionals who are banding together by choice and attempting to show the potential of their “art” while opening up the intricate processes involved in publication, all without the benefit of the grant money that is at the heart of the novel, which is titled, of course, The Incompetents.

Given all this, our project could easily become a case of taking ourselves too seriously, or become too arch as we attempt to replicate the humor so present in the manuscript and try to have “fun” with this project.

There is a third path, one that I hope we can embrace instead: This whole project is about art, and we, my friends and co-conspirators, we publishing professionals who are too often kept behind the scenes so the spotlight can shine on authors, we are the performance artists in this installation. Embrace the performance!

And one question: Why not The Millionaire? (If it worked for John Irving with The World According to Garp …)

Overlapping Blueprints: A multi-layered approach to metadata and SEO

In a recent webinar organized by OCLC, Laura Dawson presented a very simple, yet essential definition of metadata: “Metadata is data about data.” In this equation, the latter ‘data’ refers specifically to the content of a pBook or eBook. The former ‘data’ is a collection of certain pieces of information about the content that we use to categorize, place, shelve, describe, identify, locate, etc. 

Thankfully, there was no limit imposed on how much of this former ‘data’ there could be. And, while many publishers agree on set pieces of metadata, albeit in a de-facto manner, this need not be the case. Expanding on Laura’s definition, let’s look at some examples of items that could be used effectively within the metadata mix, creating a system of layered metadata from within. 

In-line code: Code within the XML structure of content is going to be a very important place to lace strategy into bookselling. The more online discoverability maintains and expands its role in sales of book products, the more publishers are going to have to get smart about the search game. Some publishers have begun to do this already, others are exploring their options, but ultimately, it will become essential for publishers to include advanced SEO techniques in both their content itself as well as the coded wrapper it resides in. From finding hiding places to secret keywords, to tagging content properly and effectively, to refining titles and subtitles outwardly, to changing how things are done on copyright pages and TOCs, in-line code for both pBooks and eBooks is perhaps the new marketing plan. If you are not doing this, start now.  

Descritive copy: While our conception of metadata has expanded to be included in what we consider ‘marketing,’ the reverse movement has happened less so. Descriptive copy, being actual marketing copy, which feeds out to online accounts, via ONIX or other delivery method, is indeed part of a book’s metadata proper. It describes the content in a longer form than tags and codes, provides an inticing snippet to the consumer, and represents the whole of the product. This copy, like in-line metadata, needs to be optimized for search, as it will appear many places across the internet driving up the book’s collective page rank. Descriptive copy, while having a duty of its own, also needs to play a role behind the scenes in improving discoverability through search. The more keywords a publisher can integrate and the more search-friendly a publisher can make this copy the greater the benefitw will be for our products in the long run. 

Website SEO: Any search optimization performed on web properties related to each book should be related and integrated with search optimization perfomed on the content itself. With the ability to load keywords into XML codes, and, eventually, into the text itself, a strong SEO strategy needs to move beyond the content that we have, beyond the descriptive copy, and onto the streets, so to speak. At the very least, the web team that is setting up websites, landing pages, author blogs, and eCommerce pages must converse with teams that are performing keyword development for editorial and marketing purposes.

Social media: Social media outlets are wonderful for interacting with customers and peers alike, but despite the dissemination of huge amounts of information online, few have begun talking about SEO as it realtes to social media. It is important to note that because social media outlets allow for us to talk about our books, they are additional areas for dessimination of metadata. On the various platforms used, user profiles are highly trafficked, bios are read by many, tweets, syndicated blog posts, messages, and answers to questions are spit out by the million every day. It’s time to get smart about these missives and start loading them with keywords, pushing our SEO strategy to the next level. If every book had, say, 50 keywords that must be included in as many places as possible, social media marketing teams would be hardpressed not to use them thus drawing more attention to a book’s presence. It will not be long before we start using ‘heavy tweets’ in our daily marketing activities. 

Paid Search/SEM: If you are engaging in SEM as well as SEO, it remains important to integrate any paid campaigns with the non-paid ones. Good paid search marketers can tell you exactly what people are typing into Google and how many of them are clicking on a link to your books. This information can and should be used by the rest of the team to develop keywords. Here, it is essential to remember that the conversation is two-way. Making sure all of these layers sync up is more important, I believe, than simply performing the tasks of implementing each. To simply make insular teams responsible for each of these items is to miss the point. There is more metadata than we think, beyond the ISBN, and the tags, and the copy, and the pub date, and the format, and the page count, and the price. There is a whole world of metadata out there that we can exploit. The nature of the internet today is that there is no ‘one-stop shop’. There is only multiplicity. 

There is one last piece of metadata that I wanted to mention, something that someone perhaps much smarter than I will figure out: 

User-gen: Perhaps the most difficult area to navigate, because we have little to no control, user generated content, like customer reviews, is also part of a product’s metadata. It is data about the data. Simply because we do not create it, nor what much control over it’s distribution, does not make it any less effective in describing, identifying, and categorizing our content. In fact, even the smallest items can be of important. Let’s say a certain user is highly active at leaving review on a certain site. Other users who may become familiar with these people may, eventually, begin looking for or even SEARCHING for specific user names in order to follow reviews from a trusted source. With sites like Shelfari, GoodReads, and other sharing sites and options being built into eBooks, user generated content and metadata is going to become perhaps more voluminous that publisher generated metadata. How, in the future, are we going to be able to leverage this data?