Experimenting with form and structure in ebooks is a recipe for confusion

 

[NB: This blog post was originally posted on the Momentum Blog]

I’ve been reading ebooks for a long time. People complain nowadays about quality control in ebooks, but when I started reading them there was no quality assurance whatsoever. Books were all over the place. Most books were pirated or typed out from classic editions of the text by enterprising amateurs. There were random line and page breaks scattered throughout most books, and you can forget about footnotes. The most memorable example of my confusion was when I tried to read a (most probably pirated) version of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace*, which is full of footnotes, and even contains footnotes based on footnotes**. It was baffling to me. The book itself is a little baffling anyway, but it wasn’t until I got my hands on my Kindle and read the rest of the book digitally that I felt like it made more sense.

All of this is leading to a chance conversation with a few people on Twitter the other day, who were talking about the possibility of converting Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves to an ebook. And also to a conversation with my mother. To start from the end, she (my mother) was talking about reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the book by Jonathan Safran Foer that has recently been made into an Oscar-nominated film. She is currently attempting to read the book on her Kindle. Having not read it myself, I couldn’t tell her that the book wasn’t an experimental journey into the nature of books and the structure of stories. I just said, “Maybe there’s something wrong with the ebook.” And she said, “That’s what I thought.”

And that got me to thinking. We (as in literate human beings) have been reading from paper books for hundreds of years. We’re pretty comfortable with the form of a paper book, so when an author decides to mess around with it, for artistic purposes or even for shits and giggles, we get it. In ebooks, however, most readers don’t know the capabilities or the limitations of the form. Every quirk (which is most likely an error) may just be the author playing with our minds.

So this brings me back to my conversation on Twitter. I implore you, Mr Franklin – and anyone else considering it – please don’t ever try to convert House of Leaves to an ebook. You’ll just confuse my mother.

 

*Appropriately enough, this is a footnote. I would like to point out that the only reason I was using a pirated version of a book is because I knew that my first-gen Kindle was in the post from the US and had already bought an electronic copy for the reader but couldn’t read it anywhere.

**This is another footnote. Just because.

Franzen Knows a Lot about Writing but Less About Publishing

I’m a fan of Jonathan Franzen’s books. I read The Corrections voraciously when it was released and did the same (in digital format) with Freedom. He’s a witty, insightful writer and essayist and is rightfully spoken about as one of the greatest living American literary talents. This is why it disappoints me so much that he engages in arch-snobbery of the kind quoted virtually everywhere on the web this morning. I haven’t seen anything like it since the last time Franzen got his snob on. He was wrong about Oprah’s book club and he’s wrong about ebooks. Let’s start with a quote:

Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

He’s confessing right here from the get-go that this entire argument is based on a ‘feeling’. Specifically that screens feel less permanent than paper. This in itself is intellectually weak (and quite unlike Franzen when speaking about other less emotional topics). But it’s also wrong. Let us interrogate the term ‘permanence’ here. Franzen is talking about the specific physical permanence of paper and ink. Paper books last pretty well, but on the continuum of physical permanence, they don’t last nearly as well as, say, stone tablets (stone tablets, for example, don’t burn). But stone tablets are inconvenient to create, to sell and to move about. Even Franzen would probably agree with that (though I may be underestimating his emotional rigour). On the scale of difficulty, we can say that the paper book is to digital books what stone tablets are to paper books. The sheer physicality of the dead tree format means that it is an effort (an economic effort) to make (and keep) available to readers. A digital book, once published, will never go out of print. It is virtually free to distribute. You can burn an e-reader, but the ebook still exists out there in the ether and can be re-acquired, usually for free. Digital information is almost impossible to destroy.

But this brings me to Franzen’s other point, and I suspect it’s his main one. Digital books are easy to change. This is what he means by impermanence – and he probably should have started with that instead of his whole paper-and-ink metaphorical fuckwittery:

For serious readers, Franzen said, “a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience”. “Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change,” he continued. “Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

For serious readers. Have you ever read anything so laced with smug self-satisfaction? But I digress. Digital books are easy to change. This is Franzen’s main point. And he’s right, on a number of levels. For the same reason that digital books are cheap and easy to produce and distribute, it is commensurately easy to make a change to a digital book and then make that change available to readers. But does this automatically mean that digital books will be endlessly fiddled with? This was the same argument made by Nicholas Carr on the Wall Street Journal last year and it’s been comprehensively disemboweled by many responders – including Bethanie Blanchard at Crikey.

In a nutshell – just because you can do something doesn’t mean people will. The threat to justice and responsible self-government is more than compensated for by the benefits of the format. There are plenty of very good reasons why publishers don’t endlessly fiddle with books, but if we want to take up Franzen’s capitalist ball and run with it then a very good reason is that it makes no economic sense. It costs money to change a book, even a digital book, because editors need to check and re-check everything and further mistakes can be introduced. There is virtually no economic benefit to significantly changing a fiction title from its original form. We’re better off just starting from scratch with a new book.

More importantly, for Franzen’s argument in particular, is that no printed book is completely permanent either. I’ve never seen a book published that didn’t have a few errors that weren’t corrected in a subsequent edition. Plenty of non-fiction titles are re-issued frequently to take in new information, and this is generally seen as a valuable addition for readers. Franzen himself has benefited from this, after famously refusing to continue at a reading for Freedom because the publisher had messed up some of the last minute corrections. To correct these errors thousands of books needed to be pulped and the book was reprinted. Do we really believe that the original version of Freedom – errors and all – is helping prop up justice and responsible self-government?

The threat of disruption to our lives by technology is a valid concern for any modern thinker. But I would have thought that someone who put a bit of thought to the issue would realise that digitising books is not the best example of this. Specious arguments like Franzen’s hold back the reasonable inclusion of digital formats in ‘serious’ literary discussions – endlessly miring us in pointless witterings about the smell of books instead of discussing the content, which is ultimately why we read (and why we should read) in the first place.

It’s About the Content, Stupid

Most people will agree these days that when it comes to ebooks, what’s important isn’t the format, but the content. People don’t buy ebooks because they like ePub files, they buy them because they want to read the book inside it. This is less true for some dead tree books, but it’s certainly true for the majority of disposable paperback reads. I’ve found that the increasingly shrill choir of people telling me they’d never read a book on screen simply haven’t ever tried using an e-ink reading device.

However, despite this, most publishing houses and the editors who work for them still see the page as the smallest unit of the book. The physical representation of that page is what the book is – even before it is typeset. The page is the end point – it is the reason to edit a book and perhaps even the reason to write the book in the first place. But, increasingly, it isn’t really what a book actually is.

That might sound like a whole lot of nonsense words strung together (not particularly unusual for this blog), but what I’m getting at is that while we might philosophically understand that a book is not the pages it is printed on, most of us in the industry don’t behave as if this is true.

Even our language is tainted by the page paradigm. Every time a digital book is created (no matter how it is created) it is a ‘conversion’ (from a ‘proper’ paper book format – even if that proper paper book doesn’t yet exist in real life). Most editors I know still genuinely believe that a proofread that takes place on screen is inherently inferior to one done on paper. They believe this despite any evidence other than anecdotal, and will probably take this belief to their graves, long after the majority of reading is done on-screen.

Having spent the last couple of weeks working at Faber and Faber and seeing a truly ‘media neutral’ workflow in action, I am now beginning to understand what a massive shift needs to take place if the publishing industry really is looking down the barrel of a books market where more than 50% of the books published are digital. That shift isn’t necessarily about learning new technologies or coding languages – though it’s likely that both will be true – it’s about shifting our perspective away from the page and towards the structure of the content we publish.

David Watkins, once the Managing Editor at Faber, and now the ‘Head of Editorial Text Management’, says that there is a kind of ‘occult mysticism’ surrounding the conventions of print. He describes his exposure to the code that underpins Faber’s format neutral workflow as – initially, at least, ‘forbidding.’

It’s what most of us [editors] have spent our entire careers avoiding … But actually it’s very straightforward when you get to grips with it. In a way it’s quite old school. [Old school] editors think in terms of content, not in terms of appearance. If there’s a hierarchy of headings, they aren’t thinking that’s an 18 point or 14 point, they’re thinking that’s an A heading or that’s a B heading. That distinction between content and appearance got lost a little bit [with the introduction of easy-to-use publishing packages like inDesign]. Thinking of work independently of format, once you get over the stumbling block of the language in which you describe the work, you’re just back to first principles really.

Seeing a room full of editors talking about XML and CSS is certainly a novel experience, but I suspect it’s one we’re going to be seeing a lot more of in the next few years. And when you get down to it, it’s not all that more arcane than editorial mark-up or the ins and outs of Microsoft Word’s Find and Replace feature.

I, for one, welcome our new coding and tagging overlords. But what about you? I know a few editors and authors read this blog. What do you think of working on-screen? And what do you think of your future job as code monkey? Does it terrify you? Or is it all a part of the new world? Sound off in the comments.

Out of Print, Out of Sight: Resurrecting the Dead in Digital

Is this the most literal book cover of all time?

As some of you may know, I’ve spent the last month or so in London for the Unwin Fellowship. I spent my first two weeks with Pan Macmillan UK helping them out with their brand new imprint, Macmillan Bello, which has partnered with Curtis Brown UK to bring out-of-print titles back from the dead in digital and print-on-demand format.

The imprint joins other publishing ventures such as Bloomsbury Reader and others by agents such as Ereads, founded by prominent New York literary agent Richard Curtis way back in 1999, and Bedford Square Books, by agent Ed Victor.

Bello plans to launch several hundred titles over the next eighteen months, including those by author (and famous gardener, apparently) Vita Sackville-West, conservationist Gerald Durrell, Francis Durbridge and DJ Taylor. If you haven’t heard of any of these authors, I wouldn’t hold it against them (and you can check out a blurb about each of them below). Having now spent a fair bit of time fondling the curling, age-spotted covers of some of these books (knowing they were off to be euthanised), I can assure you that when they emerge blinking into their second lives they will be read fondly by many.

I confess to being a convert to this kind of ‘resurrectionist’ publishing. And it makes good sense for publishers to get on board with. Most big publishers have invested to some extent in digitising their own backlist titles – though some are better at it than others. The best of them can leverage this capability to digitise large numbers of these out-of-print titles. There are a lot of them to get through if we want to digitise it all (and we do). Few will do so many as Bello in such an ambitious time frame, but it’s a worthy goal. Seeing tottering piles of books that would otherwise have only been available to a handful of people who paid for second-hand copies is quite heartening. As much as it pains me to think of them all being shredded into tiny little pieces (not really) it’s nice to think that they will likely now be available for any reader for all time – not just digitally, but back in paper. How much more retro can you get?

There are those who argue that bringing back these titles adds to the flood of unfiltered information already available on ebook vendors’ stores, but it’s worth keeping in mind that all of these titles were vetted by publishers years ago. Many are sought after by current digital readers who can’t otherwise access them. And let’s face it, some of these books are only going to be available second-hand for a limited time before they disappear forever.

Vita Sackville-West: A famous author and gardener. Seriously, a gardener. Check this out. She’s the author of many books, including All Passion Spent (1931) and The Edwardians (1930). Aside from her gardening and writing, Ms Sackville-West is a famous bisexual, who had an affair with Virginia Woolf.

Gerald Durrell: Conservationist who founded the Jersey Zoo and spent his life trying to preserve rare wildlife. He wrote a number of portraits of his work and family, as well as a handful of fiction titles. For some reason his Wikipedia photo reminds me of Brian Cox. Do you see what I mean?

Francis Durbridge: Playwright, author and television writer. Created the character Paul Temple, who solved mysteries and wrote crime novels and spanned every entertainment medium imaginable between the years 1938 (when the character first appeared in a novel) until 1971 in a television series.

DJ Taylor: Critic, novelist and biographer. His latest novel, Derby Day, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and he received the Whitbread Biography Prize for his biography of George Orwell.

 

 

The Challenges of Training Publishers to use Social Media


The Tools of Change social media conference was another mixed bag – but it got me thinking about exactly what it means to be trained to use social media. The problem – and I suspect it’s something digital marketing shares with traditional marketing  – is that it’s difficult to train people to communicate well, and good communication skills are at the heart of effective digital marketing. There were a lot of “well, d’uh” moments during the conference today, but that’s not because what they were saying wasn’t true (or wasn’t useful). It’s just that it is nearly impossible to distil knowledge of social media and digital marketing strategy without stating the bleeding obvious.

Aliza Sherman kicked off the sessions with a high-energy overview of her seven steps to an effective social media campaign. They boil down to having a clear objective and audience, effectively marshalling the assets at your disposal, having a robust (but flexible) plan and measuring the results as effectively as possible.

One slightly more specific point Aliza raised that seemed to make an impact, and was echoed later by Sam Missingham from Futurebook and Julia Lampam from Wiley: email is still a very effective medium to get people to act. Although it is only one part of a social media strategy, email newsletters are still one of the most effective ways to drive traffic, and engage with an online community.

Arne Klempert from Fleishman Hillard spoke about (amongst many other things) the importance of building a community and maintaining an audience. As he said, “a community is not a community just because you want to market to them.” He also underlined the importance of ensuring social capital isn’t squandered in community building that is subsequently abandoned after a project is completed. Digital ghost towns don’t build loyalty to a brand.

Following on from this were a number of case studies and a session on how to prepare authors for social media involvement. There were some great takeaways from all the sessions, but for me the most salient point was that good people will make or break the publishing industry’s ability to effectively market their content online. There are a thousand potential skills to learn, but learning them requires a basic level of communication skill, sheer bloody-mindedness and hard work. Software tools were born and died in the time it took to attend this conference, but the skills to those tools effectively carry across platforms and technologies and time. There’s no point waiting for the right moment – you just have to do it – and be sure to share your results.

 

 

 

Tools of Change for Publishers

Day one of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference was yesterday. It’s was a mixed bag, with a lot of very strong speakers and some that seemed to be struggling to make an impact (or struggling for something relevant to say). All in all the audience is pretty receptive – they want every one of the speakers to succeed, but this is a very tech-savvy crowd and there isn’t much tolerance for glossing over or, god forbid, patronising.

There were three keynotes to open the conference, and it seems the first – by blogger and marketing entrepreneur Mitch Joel – was the biggest hit with the audience. Joel’s talk wasn’t specific, but it was inspirational, exploring the paradigm of the new consumer and urging publishers to hit “ctrl-alt-delete” and make a fresh start in the way they see consumers in the digital age. The concept that seems to have struck the biggest chord is his not necessarily revolutionary, but it is timely –  a reminder that publishers need to stop thinking of their readers as a broadcast audience. ‘“Like our Facebook page!” he said, “why don’t you try liking their Facebook page, and following your loyal consumers’ social media.”’ He told an anecdote of a friend of his utilising Amazon Prime to act on a purchase recommendation instantaneously. This is how the consumer of the future will buy – immediately, or not at all. Recommendations are everything. He and a couple of Twitter friends began recommending a particular brand of luggage – whenever they mention it now they’re capable of getting a number of online retailers to sell out within hours. It seems trivial, but connecting to influential readers (and book recommenders) is, I think, really going to be the future of book marketing.

I saw David Gosen speak next, from Nielsen, who peppered the audience with some fantastic statistics about the penetration of devices, especially tablets, in the UK, US and European markets. None of the information was necessarily game changing, but having it all in one place and from one engaging speaker was incredibly useful. Some of the topics he covered included the tendency of tablet readers to dual screen – 69% of tablet owners watch their TV while using their devices, and the majority of the information they’re looking up is unrelated to what they’re watching. Gosen urged the publishers in the room to get rid of the idea of ‘downtime’ – downtime no longer exists. Following neatly from Mitch Joel’s speed to purchase anecdote, Gosen said consumers want to fill all their time quickly and efficiently, and if you can’t do that then you will lose their loyalty.

This ties in quite interestingly with something the keynote speaker Bob Stein from the morning session said regarding social reading. Stein – the creator of the Criterion Collections – is launching a social reading platform called SocialBook. SocialBook will allow readers to share annotations, comment on each others’ annotations and buy special add-on content.  Contrary to expectations, however, this kind of social reading isn’t just for the time rich. The ‘glosses’ that Stein is selling as add-ons to books through SocialBook allow readers to get the annotations from an expert reading of a longer text – and therefore skim information intelligently. On the flip side, SocialBook allows deep analysis of individual pages or annotations for a book that a reader has a genuine connection to. These tools allow readers to connect with each other and connect to texts on multiple levels depending on the desired level of interaction.

There were plenty of speakers and a lot of interesting information to cover, but I’d like to end this post with the phenomenal talk given by Elizabeth Wood from Worldreader. Worldreader is working to give ereaders (at the moment they’re using Kindles) to kids and schools in sub-Saharan Africa. Wood reminded me how radically e-reading technology is going to change things. As she said, Kindles (and other e-readers) are approaching a zero price point. Imagine a world in which 200 million readers in sub-Saharan Africa get access to instantaneous (largely English) reading. They might not pay $8 for a book – but as Wood pointed out, they will pay something. This has a tremendous potential impact on world democracy and literacy and on the longevity of the book as a cultural object. It’s an optimistic time – and a great time to be involved in books.

Amazon Just Made Ads in Books Work – Whether We Like it or Not

So I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen that this year, Amazon will release a standard Kindle for $99 or less, making the prospect of buying a device like an e-reader that much more palatable (and possible) for ebook readers. What I didn’t really think about – but Amazon’s announcements overnight made clear – is that for the first time we’re going to see ad-supported Kindles hit the mainstream and make the awkward marriage between advertising and book reading an inescapable reality.

Amazon has been hawking its “Kindle With Special Offers” for nigh on six months now, so the ad-supported model is not something new. Many people complained, when they launched the new line, that the ad-supported Kindle wasn’t worth the $30 saving and made cheap and nasty the very idea of a book. I argued both.

The ad-supported Kindle has been selling relatively well, by all reports, but not shockingly well. This morning Amazon announced four new Kindle models (actually only three): the Kindle Fire (a tablet for $US199), the Kindle Touch with 3G ($149), the Kindle Touch ($99) and an updated standard Kindle ($79). Holy crap, that’s $79.

But the reported price points are all for the ad-supported version of the Kindle:

All three new Kindle e-readers also come with special offers and sponsored screensavers that appear when you’re not reading. Customers enjoy special money-saving offers delivered wirelessly sponsored by AT&T, the Dove beauty brand and Amazon.com Rewards Visa Card by Chase.

There will be an option to pay more for no ads, but it’ll cost $30. Ask yourself whether you’re willing to pay $30 to remove ads from your book. Then remind yourself that you’re reading a blog dedicated to ebook reading that you probably came across on Twitter. Then pretend you’re an ordinary consumer, the kind of person Amazon has always appealed to. The kind of consumer who feels like Amazon is doing them a solid when they undercut all the competition and sell books for less than what they’re worth.

The new line of Kindles is the first time that a brand new shiny has been released that will cost you more to buy if you don’t want ads. The previous ad-supported models were released mid-cycle (a very clever move in hindsight). Nothing about those “Kindle with Special Offers” was new, and so it was easy to ignore what was happening. But these new Kindles are. And Amazon’s customers are very price conscious. Are they going to be bothered by a few screensaver ads if it means they can get a $30 saving? And when Amazon have a couple of hundred million devices floating out there with the in-built ability to display advertising – what do you think those ads will be worth?

They’ll certainly be worth a lot to publishers. Publishers have always wanted an avenue to advertise books that specifically reached book readers. They’ve paid millions in dollars in co-op payments to Amazon and many other stores to promote their books at the front of store (or on the front page of a web store). How much do you think they’ll pay to have (virtually) every Kindle reader in the world looking at the cover of a book they’re selling?

As I said in the headline, Amazon just made ads work in books, whether we like it or not.

Kindle Library Lending – What You Need to Know

Amazon announced this morning that they are rolling out their support for library lending to 11,000 libraries (read: 11,000 libraries in the United States). This has been a long time coming, and the deal and technology has so many moving parts I wasn’t sure if it ever would. But are libraries a part of our digital book future? And should they be?

First of all: the history. Amazon hasn’t made connections with all of those 11,000 libraries all alone. To access the libraries they went through Overdrive. Overdrive is an ebook distributor/wholesaler, who has primarily been concentrating on the library market for the last few years. They’ve done well – almost every library ebook lending service is powered by Overdrive. However, Overdrive’s service has previously only supported ePub and Adobe’s DRM scheme. That means that it only worked with devices that support Adobe’s DRM – for example the Sony eReader, Nook, Kobo, iPad (via Overdrive’s app) and other less successful devices. The partnership with Amazon opens up Amazon’s entire platform to library lending.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a one-way street. Amazon’s major strength as a platform has always been its range of ebooks. The Kindle’s range is by far the biggest of the ebook vendors. This range of ebooks is not suddenly going to be available for lending now that Amazon has joined up with Overdrive for library lending. All it means is that the same ebooks that are currently available to Overdrive’s customers via their local library will now also be available to Kindle owners (or owners of iPads, iPhones or Android devices who use the Kindle app).

Why is this so? There are a number of reasons. First of all, libraries still have to buy access for their patrons to individual titles. And they’re not all buying. Second of all, many publishers have not made their ebooks available to Overdrive for lending to libraries. Why? Because it’s still a model that has bugs.

Dead tree libraries are limited by what they can fit on their shelves, their budgets for purchasing and, in the end, that each book can only be borrowed by one person at a time for a certain amount of time. These are physical limitations that don’t apply to ebooks at all. At the moment, Overdrive imposes physical limitations on library lended ebooks – dependent on what the publisher has agreed to. For the most part it is two week lending, and only one person can borrow one ebook at a time. Some publishers (like HarperCollins) have imposed further limitations, allowing that each ebook a library makes available can only be borrowed 26 times before the library must buy anther copy of the book. As many have said, these limitations seem to be quite artificial in a digital world.

But what is the alternative? Books cost something. Libraries foot the bill for that cost in the dead tree model. It is difficult to evaluate how to make that cost work in a library environment for a book that will never wear out and could be copied by a thousand people at a time with no degradation of the original. All limitations in this model will have to be artificial, or else there will be no limitations. And that will inevitably undermine the business model for publishing books in the first place. I don’t have an answer for how to balance that equation, or indeed if libraries will even work as a repository for digital books in the future at all.

What do you think about digital libraries? Do you borrow ebooks from your local library? What kinds of limitations do they have? Why do you think publishers should support libraries (and how much should they charge?). Sound off in the comments below.

The Critic in a Digital Age

So I saw Jonathan Franzen in conversation with Geordie Williamson at the Opera House earlier this week. It was, as many people who saw it with me agreed, a complete train wreck. But it underlined a really interesting distinction between old and new media that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since.

Williamson is the chief literary critic of The Australian, and is obviously a very intelligent, thoughtful and interesting individual. However, when it came to interviewing someone like Franzen in front of an audience of fans in a venue like the Opera House, his questions went down like a lead balloon. They were heavy, dense and literary – focused on the social themes of the novel in general and not the novel in particular (in particular Freedom, Franzen’s latest tour-de-force). Franzen kept trying to steer Williamson on to gentler currents, but the critic either wouldn’t or couldn’t change tack.

It would be simple to dismiss this as nervousness, or just an unlucky, bad interview (particularly as Williamson managed to accidentally call the author ‘James’ Franzen during his minutes-long opening monologue). And I’m sure it was both of those things. But I also think there’s something else going on.

Literary criticism has been losing ground to the internet for years, along with the rest of the standard newspaper. And by ground I mean audience share. People are more willing to listen to each other through social media than they are to experts. They are more willing to engage with amateur critics through blogs. The tools that the web has made available turns anyone into a critic and gives anyone a voice that can be heard anywhere in the world. Literary criticism alone no longer has the audience share by dint of the standard newspaper’s distribution network.

I’m sure most critics would probably deride this as a loss of literary objectivity with an audible sniff. And to an extent, that’s true. The internet is a shallow place at times, and most armchair critics probably aren’t delving deeply into the social conscience of the novel. However, blogging and other social media gives something back to criticism that has always been lacking from the art form. Bloggers are forced to engage with their audience. The humble comment form is a feedback loop that is capable of creating the most banal stupidity on the internet (see just about any YouTube comment thread), as well as some of the most fascinating, engaged critical thought I’ve come across.

Watching Geordie Williamson dig himself deeper and deeper into a literary hole on Tuesday night, I could almost feel him losing the audience. Audiences raised in a digital age are used to being paid attention to. It was clear Franzen could see it. But Williamson either could see it and didn’t care or couldn’t see it at all. Either way, that’s not a good thing for us or for him.

My question for you all today, if you feel like chiming in, is about the role of the critic in a digital age. Are they entirely irrelevant? Do you trust online reviews? Are you interested in the reviews in mainstream newspapers, or do you seek out the niche online? Sound off below and let us know.

The Challenges and Benefits of Digital-only Publishing

Some rights reserved by donjd2

This article was adapted from a speech given at the National Editors’ Conference on 8 September, 2011.

I’m a fan of the dead tree book. Even though I call them dead tree books. Paper books are an amazing technology. There’s a reason they’ve lasted for five hundred years. They’re cheap to produce, durable, beautiful and they smell good. But even the best technology has its limitations. Compared to digital storage, paper is slow and expensive.

And so is traditional print publishing. Think of big publishing companies as massive oceanliners. They haul a tremendous amount of baggage, they have a tremendous amount of power and it can take several crucial hours to turn away from the iceberg. Unlike the Titanic, though, I imagine that the band won’t be playing as the ship goes down – instead, editors will be arguing about whether it’s really a good idea to move the copyright page to the back of the book.

Momentum, on the other hand, has been set up from the beginning to be small, nimble and unencumbered by the traditional way of doing things.

And that, really, is the main reason why we set-up Momentum. To be an advance scout. To experiment and learn the lessons for the mothership before it’s too late to change course. I prefer to think of us as a tugboat rather than a life raft. It isn’t too late. We might take on some water, but we’re not all going to drown. But that isn’t the whole story. The story begins with the iceberg itself.

The iceberg represents the problems that are facing the publishing industry. The book isn’t dying, and it’s certainly not dead. But the printed book as it stands today is under threat. To even consider acquiring a book, a publisher has to think they have a reasonable chance of selling at least three thousand copies at upwards of twenty dollars each. That isn’t impossible, but it’s getting harder. And it’s new and developing authors who suffer. The print book is moving inexorably in two directions – at one end there is the beautifully designed, very expensive gift book. At the other end is a retail environment where it is only economical to sell blockbusters – a Top 40 business.

The problem with that is that it chokes off emerging talent and those authors who have a small but steady readership. New authors need guidance, development, care, attention and just a little bit of money if they’re going to hone their skills and build their audience.

We are in the unique position of helping authors develop. It’s quite a specific skill. Authors want their books to be as good as they can be. Readers want each book to be better than the last. The better books are in general, the more people will read.

Some of the world’s biggest authors were allowed to develop a readership over several books. Ian Rankin, famously, took nine books or more to get to international superstar level. Pan Macmillan’s own Di Morrissey had ten books before she really cracked the bestseller list. Even if we look closer to the midlist now you’ll find authors like Tony Park, who has successfully been building his sales book by book. But Tony started publishing seven books ago. Do publishers have deep enough pockets and enough patience to build that success with an author they sign up today?

Every new author is a potential bestseller, and bestsellers are what keep a traditional publishing company afloat. So that’s the iceberg in the distance. It isn’t in the immediate future, but it’s on the horizon.

At Momentum we are trying to get back to the roots of why most of us got into the book world to begin with – and that’s passion for stories. The biggest pressure on us as publishers and editors is that there are times when we find great stories that we simply can’t publish, and that’s a tragedy. At Momentum we think we’ve found a way of getting past that problem, and we do that by reaching out to a new and rapidly increasing audience of readers.

Momentum has flexibility. In print you can only publish books that are about 60,000 words up to about 200,000 words, and that’s being generous. Digital-only publishing isn’t limited by word length. Short stories, long-form journalism and essays may all find a place in the digital world.

Digital-only publishing is also very fast. We can get books on digital shelves much more quickly than a print publisher. And we’ll never run out of stock when a book goes viral. Digital books are not limited by shelf space – a digital bookseller will never tell you “sorry, there’s no market for that homoerotic science-fiction novel” even though you know it’s totally awesome. Digital books have global reach – a book published by Momentum from Sydney can be read by a Texan stay-at-home mum as easily as it can be read by a German university student.

Of course all of this wonderful accessibility opens up a whole new set of problems for publishers, which can loosely be grouped under “discoverability”. How do digital readers find digital books? Who, in fact, are these digital readers? We think they boil down to three broad categories. There is the rapidly expanding mainstream audience who have always bought paper books but are considering buying an e-reader, and probably will do so in the next 24 months. There are the early adopters, the people who’ve had a Kindle since 2007 or a Palm Pilot since 1997 and no longer buy paper books at all. And then there are the young people – kids and teenagers who have never bought a paper book and probably never will.

Traditional publishers have generally aimed the majority of their marketing efforts at booksellers and journalists. Even though every major publisher is putting a substantial amount of effort into digital marketing, it’s still something that’s seen as an adjunct to traditional publicity and marketing.

I think that to reach these new audiences without the benefit of a print book is going to require a very different kind of marketing. And to be brutally honest, it’s not the kind of marketing anyone is absolutely sure how to do just yet.

My hunch, though, is that it’s going to require a holistic approach. Long before acquisition right through to the end result, publishers will need to have a very good idea of who the audience is, what they want and how to reach them. Publishing will have to become laser-guided. I once heard someone say that the R&D department of a publishing company is the publishing department. In the digital-only world, however, we can be more deliberate. We can’t just throw books out there and hope they stick. Not when the internet gives us the tools to understand the audience for particular books in a way that we’ve never had access to before.

At Momentum we’re tackling this head on by ensuring the ratio between digital publicity and marketing and publishing is 2:1. There is a horde of books out there, but finding the right readers for those books takes time, dedication and skill. Publicity, marketing and publishing need to feed into each other and work together to bring books to publication.

Now this might sound suspiciously like we’re letting the market decide what books should get published. And you know what? That’s exactly what I’m saying. The audience should dictate what gets published. Not booksellers. Not book critics. Not even publishers. If there isn’t an audience for a book, we shouldn’t be publishing it. The publishing industry can no longer stay in an ivory tower. Authors can’t write into a void. The online world is connected, hungry and knows what it wants. The publisher’s role is to facilitate connecting that hungry audience to the author, and to help make the meal as delicious as possible.

That is the essence of curation in a global digital world. It isn’t about gatekeeping. It’s about understanding the community of readers and writers and building relationships between the two.

None of this is to say that good writing won’t find a home. In fact, I think good writing will find a home in the digital world more easily than in print. The audience for every single digital book is potentially global. And that means we can and should publish books that may not have ever been put into print before.

When Angela James came out from Harlequin US recently, she mentioned a title they’re launching this year that can loosely be described as paranormal, gay, erotic horror fiction. People have accused traditional publishers of racing to the bland middle ground to maximise their audience. Publishing digital-only books is all about racing to the edge. There’s an internet meme called Rule 34. Rule 34 states that if you can think of it, there is a fetish for it on the internet.

Of course, by edge I don’t just mean marginal or trivial. I also don’t mean they need to be weird, genre-bending books that only a niche would enjoy reading. However, the internet gives us access to specific readership numbers within niche communities – centred around unique pageviews, Twitter followers, Facebook connections and the like. We can use this information to justify publication of digital books in almost the same way that we use sales data of comparison titles to justify publication in the print world. A niche, in a global market, is not really that niche.

Which brings me to the literary market. The biggest niche of them all. In the print world, “literary” is a short hand word that means “not many people will read this book but it’s damn good”. In the digital world, a literary book that might not even get a print run up in a traditional publishing company can, at the right price, with the right team of people helping out, find an audience big enough to cover costs and earn a little bit extra.

There are lots of challenges facing Momentum and digital-only publishing in general. The selling periods that we’ve relied upon for years may no longer apply in a global sales environment. Fathers Day? Mothers Day? We share Mothers Day with the United States, but not the UK. We share Fathers Day with nobody, but it’s the same day in the UK and the US. Christmas is somewhat universal, but is there a gift market for ebooks anyway? What about summer holiday reading? When does summer holiday even start in the other English speaking territories? Who says books even have to be purchased during business hours? Early research seems to be suggesting that there’s a big spike in ebook sales after 10pm on a Sunday when people are preparing their reading for the commuting week. What else will we discover as we dig deeper into these patterns?

Rather than being the death knell of the book, digital publishing creates opportunities for new books and new audiences. And that inevitably means a new kind of editing. Editors will have to get used to work of drastically varying lengths and completely different idioms and dialects. There will be new skills to learn and new technologies to explore. Some editors are going to have to be as familiar with the quirks of XML and CSS as they are now with widows and orphans and typesetting mark-up. Editors will no longer have the luxury of being the authority on all things. There will be plenty of questions we don’t know the answer to before we ask them. There may well be no entirely accurate style guide.

But in comparison to the rest of the book trade editorial is going to be the calm centre of the storm. Editing is going nowhere. It is just as vital to digital books as it is to print. When the self-publishing phenomenon Amanda Hocking decided to take a multi-million dollar deal with St Martins Press one of the main reasons she did it was for the access to editorial support. She knew that her books were reaching an audience and that people were responding to her characters and stories. But she also knew that she could be a better writer and that she’d gone as far as she could on her own. Good editors are going to be a scarce resource. Well-edited books are going to do better than the cesspool that is the Kindle Direct Publishing program. We’re standing on the edge of a brave new frontier and all that is holding back linguistic oblivion is us.