I continue to wonder, like the rest of the world, whether books will go the way of music. Is the whole author/agent/publisher/bookstore industry really just like the music industry before Napster and the iPod changed the way we buy and listen to music forever? A lot of people seem to want to focus on whether or not the Kindle, or various other electronic readers, are better than paper books. But I keep pulling back from that narrow question to ask the broader question about the industry as a whole and how books are written, published, and sold. The juxtaposition of two recent events opened my eyes to 21st century media in general and books as a case in point.
First, I was nominated by my college (I won't tell you which one, but you can figure out easily enough) to herd a group of quite famous authors onto a panel to talk about something to do with writing and publishing. Every single one of these award-winning authors returned my emails immediately, which told me something about how desperate they are for promotion. Then I tried to convince the assembled group that the subject of our illustrious panel should be about the impact of the changing technological landscape on writing itself. I might as well have uttered a dirty word. The emails back and forth flew like some Facebook chain run amuck. It turns out that at least this group of novelists and non-fiction book writers of note, not unlike many others, demand to keep their heads placed firmly in the sand. The are purists. Artist of a certain type who refuse to soil their craft with commerce.
Then I went to the U2 concert.
The contrast could not have been any starker. It was perhaps the best concert I had been to, not because of the music (which, let's be honest, is amazing ... thanks to the Edge) but because of how it was presented. We know the songs because they have been played on apple commercials over and over again. We care because Bono makes the music relevant. He has volunteers on stage and gives away the revenue from the most expensive tickets to his Foundation. We go crazy because of the wildly cool high tech stage, the strength of the music itself, and the added meaning of feeling like we are all part of a movement towards doing good.
Which brings me back to books, or rather what used to be called books. I am sure electronic readers will get better and better and we will all read on them more. But that isn't the real point. The way we write and think about writing books has to change for them to remain relevant in the 21st century. The head-in-the-sand-I-am-an-artist-don't-bother-me attitude won't work.
The books of the 21st century will no longer be sold by an agent to a publishing house who tries to sell them to chain bookstores on consignment at a tiny margin. That was a broken system decades ago and is now officially dead.
The most successful books of the future will look more like the U2 concert. At the core will be great writing on a topic of interest.
But the book will be published by the author, or an investor group, who assembles a team of professionals -- editor, book designer, brand marketer, social media guru, event planner, web master, film maker, even charitable foundation -- to create a multi-media experience around the book and sells them directly to consumers without all the intermediaries taking their cut. The most successful will, like Bono, attach themselves to a cause that resonates with readers. The book may be paper or electronic, but everything else about the process will look more like the release of an independent film or a new album. Writers, and the cogs in the old school publishing machine, may be the most resistant to the 21st century media world. But they will have to accept the future or get run over like so many vinyl LPs.
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