spacer image
spacer image

Welcome! You're looking at an archived Snarkmarket entry. We've got a fresh look—and more new ideas every day—on the front page.

June 17, 2009

<< Strategic Nonviolence | EPIC 1960 >>

Four New Roles for Publishers

Nice post over at O’Reilly TOC. I like Andy Oram’s forthrightness here:

The bedrock principle in [the new media] environment is that the publisher is no longer a gatekeeper. Anything can go online to be linked to, rated, berated, or anything else people want to do with it. Since we are no longer gatekeepers, publishers have to focus on how we add quality.

Sounds nice—but that puts us in a real quandary, because the elements of quality we have seized on so proudly over the decades no longer matter as much. We have to recognize the new environment we’re in and find new meaning for ourselves.

(Emphasis mine.)

My favorite of his four new proposed roles is the last one, “integrating facets of a large-scale text,” which is, besides being a useful service, also just a nice-sounding phrase.

Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:55 | Comments (8) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


Here's a question. Why aren't more publishers trying to get out in front of online publication by hosting blogs, forums, or other online-originated writing on their web sites? This would seem like a great thing for university presses to do; I bet FSG could probably field a great roster of bloggers too. Any kind of nonfiction, really.

If I were an enterprising press right now, I'd make this a REQUIREMENT for new authors. We'll give you a book contract, but you've got to blog for our site first.

In spirit I agree, of course. What would the objective of the online stuff be, though? To ultimately sell more physical books? And what happens when somebody makes the argument: "Listen, I can spend $50K on cool web stuff. Or I can spend it on better shelf placement at Borders -- get on that table out front for a week. If I do the latter, I *know* my sales will go up 15%. Can you guarantee me 15% with your blogging?"

And of course you can't. This was my question about the (awesome) Penguin UK stuff: Did it actually sell books?

Now, maybe selling more books isn't the objective. But if it's not, then what is?

Well, it'd be about generating revenue -- whether through increased book sales, selling books by other authors, selling other products by the parent company, maybe some general ad money on the sites, getting better research on the number and kind of readers that a book would have, help your authors promote other kind of book tour-y stuff... Lots of ways to monetize that. And especially with a new author, who I'm getting cheap, alt ways to market the book can be really valuable. The stuff that's probably never going to get on the front table by itself.

When you're talking university presses, though, the calculus changes a little bit, because the companies are independent, and directly increasing sales isn't the sum of your concerns.

Where's the $50K figure coming from? I mean, publishers got journalists to write extra content for the web without radically altering their compensation, didn't they? It's part of the overall promotional costs.

One of the problems is that the publishers don't generally have the right kind of sites; so you'll need people to develop & run new a new platform. Most of the software is open source & free, but even so, you need somebody to put it all together. That's all before you can even post your first blog entry.

It's the increased book sales I'm skeptical of. I mean, not skeptical exactly... I do think you could make a difference. It's just that the vast, VAST majority of sales come through Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble. So it's just a matter of efficacy -- should I focus on building web traffic, promoting books to that audience, taking them through the payment process, etc. ... or just pay Amazon to give my book some promotional love this week?

Another data point: The really plugged-in, webby authors -- think Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky -- aren't best-sellers. Their huge, loyal online following don't translate into blockbuster book sales. Why is that?

Now, the truth is, smart authors ARE doing what you suggest already -- they're just doing it independently of the publisher. I feel like this is the new truism of book publishing: You'd better be prepared to start a site, start blogging, and market the hell out of your book every way you know how -- b/c the publisher isn't going to do it for you.

Robin, isn't that the truism for nearly all digital/digitizeable units of creative work these days? And much of the reason 'marketing' is a NLA? I just worry about those who can't handle the marketing for whatever reason.

Tim, the point about integrating facets is indeed a nice turn of phrase, but I've read it twice over, followed Oram's links, and I'm not sure I get it. Does this have any use beyond collaborative technical documentation or (presently) experimental wiki-based projects (ie, Lessig's Code)? Is it like a review article? A prob-ed or Wikipedia article? Or is it some sort of enhanced (link)blogging or social bookmarking? Either way, I wouldn't bet on hooking the the TLDR crowd without free Adderall.

Posted by: Jake on June 18, 2009 at 08:01 PM

But I guess this is my point. Clay Shirky isn't Michael Pollan or Malcolm Gladwell. He's a teacher at NYU, writing (I'd argue) books with a much smaller scope, of high interest to a smaller # of people. If he didn't have his web following, I doubt he'd be writing for a big trade press like Penguin at all. Nor would he be getting keynote invitations, lectures, usw.

So the question is, can writing for the internet turn a tiny book into a small one, or a small one into one that buzzes, or a buzzy book into a notable one? Writing for a magazine can do it; getting excerpted in the NYT can do it; getting on TV can do it. Can a blog do it, AND, who should be working to make that happen?

Newspapers and magazines have been reasonably nimble at incorporating online content into their overall publication strategies. The Chronicle hosts Arts and Letters Daily; George Mason hosts a bunch of academic blogs. Why couldn't an academic press, or a brainy trade, pull it off, to lend their legitimacy to a writer and to benefit from the extra traffic and publicity that the writings might bring in? We're talking drops in a bucket, but when you're already dealing with drops and buckets to begin with, it doesn't seem like it should be so tough.

Haha, fair point: It wouldn't take a lot of traffic to double or quadruple a small press's audience!

Great post. I wondered if you are aware of Narrative Magazine (, one of my favorite new media organizations and a successful one at that. They are a nonprofit whose mission is to bring great literature to the world, free - and they publish tons of great new voices in the process.

Elly D

Posted by: Elly Double on June 29, 2009 at 09:12 AM
spacer image
spacer image