So far, in the various sessions here at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, two messages about publishing in the digital age are coming through loud and clear. The first is that publishers need to reconsider exactly what it is they’re selling, the second is that going forward, the most successful books will be as much about community as about content. While these concepts are new and difficult for large, mainstream publishers, indie authors and small imprints have embraced them from the start without even realizing we were doing something revolutionary. It seems big publishers now have a thing or two to learn from us.
In the first two keynote speeches of the morning, Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book and Peter Brantley of the Digital Library Federation gave complementary talks about the very nature of that thing we call “book” and commonly think of as pages bound between covers. The upshot was that this is far too narrow a definition in today’s world, to say nothing of the future. Audiobooks and ebooks have been around for some time, and they’ve stretched the definition to some degree.
However, the digital age has ushered in entirely unexpected new forms of media which are book-like, but are not books in the traditional sense. For example, blogs, wikis, online comment forms, Japanese novels being composed and distributed entirely on cell phones, in-progress manuscripts being workshopped online, and even Twitter messages are all forms of written communication, and they blur the line between what is book and what is not. They also blur the line between who is considered a “legitimate” author and who is not. More importantly, they are all collaborative and social in nature.
Today, media consumers expect a conversation, not a one-way infodump. Mr. Stein remarked on the desire of today’s media consumer to be involved in the creative process, and went so far as to say that when players log on to World of Warcraft, they’re essentially paying to be involved in a collaborative process of creating a narrative.
In his session on Extending the Publishing Ecosystem, Dan Gillmor of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship emphasized the need to build an online community around your content. Laurel Touby of Mediabistro gave a talk on Bringing Sexy Back to the Book Party, and guess what? It was all about online book launch parties and leveraging social media such as Facebook and Twitter to promote those parties. The panel presenting a session entitled Smart Women Read Ebooks hammered away on the necessity of engaging with your readers to learn their wants and needs. The Long Tail Needs Community was another very popular session here.
In all these sessions, mainstream publishing attendees furiously scribbled notes, leaving me with the impression that a lot of this stuff is entirely new to them.
The closing keynotes by Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan, Jason Fried of 37 Signals and Jason Epstein of On Demand Books (the company behind the Espresso Book Machine) again underscored the same two messages conference attendees had been hearing all day: if you want to survive, you must expand your definition of the book and focus on building communities around your content.
These two directives are incredibly challenging for big, mainstream publishers. Rethinking the definition of the book demands that they rethink virtually everything about their way of doing business. Either that, or that they create entirely new, ancillary businesses to handle non-traditional forms of bookish content. The possibility of allowing consumers to play a significant role in the creation of mainstream-published content seems like a minefield of legal issues and rights management on the face of it. For big publishers, fully investing in ebook production and distribution begins with six months to a year of strategizing, budgeting, forecasting and running ideas up the chain of command. Building communities for the primary purpose of promoting content is a mighty tall order as well once you realize how jaded and marketing-averse today’s average web surfer tends to be.
For savvy indies, on the other hand, doing these things has become second nature, born of necessity. We leverage the internet and social media for all they’re worth because it’s the most cost-effective way to reach a global audience. We throw virtual (online) book launch parties because we don’t typically have the resources to throw traditional book parties nor the media connections to widely publicize them, and because we realize virtual book parties can offer numerous advantages over the traditional type: wider reach, longer duration, and the ability to offer attendees a fully interactive experience in a controlled way, for example. We blog and engage with blog commentators because we are passionate about what we’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve. We’re quick to adopt new forms of media such as podcasts, ebooks and wikis because we want to reach the widest possible audience, via every device possible, and on the audience’s own terms.
Even if we don’t think we know much about “viral marketing”, the fact is that we’ve been engaged in one long viral marketing campaign from the time we began our journey down the road of indie publishing. Newly-minted indie authors and small presses not already engaged in these activities can easily undertake them, because they’re independent and nimble. Being small-time operators enables indies to quickly change gears as needed, and our relative ‘outsider’ status confers a degree of street cred not accessible to faceless, corporate publishers. We can afford to take risks on new ideas and technologies because we don’t answer to shareholders, thousands of employees or even an industry. If we decide to release our work in ebook form, we can do it the same day we make the decision via Smashwords or Amazon DTP—and we can do it for free.
We can relate to the community of media consumers in a genuine and meaningful way because we are still very much a part of that community; to big publishers, media consumers are the “them” in an “us and them” equation. Moreover, however hard they try big publishers will have a hard time concealing the fact that their community-building initiatives are fundamentally about selling more books, whereas ours are fundamentally about connecting with people who are interested in what we’re doing. For us, increased book sales are a nice, but entirely optional, byproduct of the activity.
Congratulations, savvy indies. You’re already doing the right things and are ideally positioned to meet the current challenges of multi-format publishing and building readership through building community. Where big publishers see little but expense, risk, a nightmare of change management and major, possibly painful shifts in their corporate cultures, we can look forward to another few years of business as usual.