I received the below email recently, from a French acquaintance J.R. Partel whom I remembered warmly from his year in New York in 2004 or so. He is also a literary translator, a superb one, who translated one of the finest books I ever published. He wrote me in response to seeing a talk I have on Publishing 3.0 but as readers of this blog can attest, it could have been in relation to most anything I’ve talked about! I was about to reply when I realized that it might be might useful to actually do so in public, since J.R.’s critique was probably the sensitive, most aware and most grounded in actual experience (as opposed to anticipatory anxiety) I’ve yet encountered. Well not necessarily critique, I suppose, he’s writing about what we’re starting to call The Age of Abundance, which J.R. knows is happening anyway, so let’s say a critique of the possibly blithely optimistic strategies some of us propose or are implementing, a call to be alert against insouciance or naiveté. I also feel that I should let his piece stand here for a while, unmolested by me, allow it to take one a life of its own here, be somewhat Slow Web about responding myself. Do feel free yourselves to comment in your own good time…
bq. Dear Richard,
bq. I’ve just watched your presentation at BookNet Canada. I found it enlightening and surprisingly captivating for a non-betablocked disquisition on fairly abstract matters in front of a trade audience, so thank you, thank you and well done.
bq. I’ve spent the last five years running an indie record label, trying to survive elegantly in the war of attrition that is the music business. I wanted to tell you about my experience, as some of the issues faced today by the publishing world, the music industry had to deal with years ago. No doubt you’ve thought about all this already, because you’re clearly on top of what you’re doing, so apologies if this is old-hat, depressingly-rehashed stuff:
bq. I admire the excitement you get from the state of the publishing industry and its impending changes. Now that we’ve seen how the music industry failed to change on time, when it could have co-written the terms of its surrender, it is reassuring to see that other fields might not make the same mistakes. For me, however, building on unstable grounds felt horrible. It forced us to invent a business model for each record we would release, because in the interval the business had changed: vinyls were no longer a viable promo tool, MySpace had fell into irrelevance, new formats, new outlets, our Canadian distributor had folded… I’m not talking about the constant flux of influential blogs, tastemakers and promoters. Tracking all these moving parts to get a feel for the general taste and notice shifts in pertinent communities, it’s what you do to chart the course of your forthcoming records. I’m talking about rethinking the building blocks of the landscape all the time. It can be discouraging. It means spending a disproportionate amount of time on marketing issues and feeling under the siege of newness. New is good, but when you spend so much energy dealing with structural newness, you have too little left to take stock of or encourage newness of content. Stability breeds confidence. (Overconfidence breeds contempt, yes, but that’s way down the line.)
bq. The idea that a publisher is not only a manufacturer of printed matter but also the provider of a human experience (of ways to connect, if I understand you correctly) is true. But what do you make of the shift it entails, from a reader-book connection to a reader-writer connection? When I read a book, the experience I love and treasure is with the book (and its characters, sentences and so forth), not with its author. You could even say that the only necessary part of my relationship with literature is the book (printed or not, of course). But if you want to move into the $200 to $10K price range, you have to sell something else, you have to make the author part of the book experience. On Kickstarter for instance, above a certain price point the project managers are really selling privileges (more access, more involvement, more ancillary information, etc.). I’m not a wuss nor do I believe in purity of intent but are you not scared you’ll have to deal with sad fetishistic behaviors? Crazy fans spending way more than they should on diners with authors they shouldn’t idolize? Is this a necessary shift (from book to author)? Has it happened ten centuries ago and I’m just late to the party?
bq. And what happens to writers who just can’t muster the charisma or aren’t interested in writing their personal legend alongside their books? And those that aren’t writing the kind of books you can build a community on? Many of my favorite books are books that tend to be read by loners who won’t advertise their reading and for each Vollmann that I can see people paying to meet, you have a Lutz. Do you think the “old model” will still be there for them?
bq. Lastly, strong peripheries tend to take over the center, paratext becomes text and side businesses crystalize into the actual thing. Look at what happened to music (certain genres) : participatory practices have cannibalized pop music, they are pop music now. Remixes, fixes, mash-ups, fan-made videos, leaks, in some case the record itself is difficult to locate. The conversation overwhelms the discourse and you scroll down to the comments before anything else. We have something mildly interesting going on in France as far as social publishing goes. You’ve probably heard of mymajorcompanybooks? It’s like they know that the center cannot hold and operate on the assumption that it’s already collapsed. So they’re focusing on everything but the books: what comes before, after, the writer, the strategy… And the communities they build, as strong as they are, are not interested in reading or whatever, they’re interested in gambling and winning, of course, and I knew it, but still, I was expecting to see something beyond the hustle. It’s weird how fans are no longer consumers, experts or activists but want to be VCs, shareholders, editors… The original site, focusing on music, was a big hit. I’m not sure there’s a clear point here, except maybe that I’m afraid of what the systematic harnessing of communities will result in.