Convergences, Real and Imagined: A Conclusion

Last year I concluded my contribution to the Frankfurt Book Fair’s website with an opinion piece on what I thought the Fair signified — a perhaps hubristic attempt to issue a personal, idiosyncratic, opinionated State of the Industry address. To add bloodymindness to hubris. I’m going to try this again, and again crosspost from the Fair itself. (Do please note that these are my opinions, not those of the Frankfurt Book Fair or anyone therewith associated and do also check out that blog in general, there’s a lot of really good stuff there)

So I was attending a party thrown by the good people at the Dutch Foundation for Literature (who are organizing a conference in which I’m participating in Amsterdam in January 2011) and was chatting with a US journalist, Boris Kachka, who is writing a history of Farrar Straus & Giroux, and a US technologist, Nick Ruffilo, Chief Information Officer at Bookswim, a Netflix for books. Nick was asking why there wasn’t better data about the size of the book industry. I began to bluster about Nielsen and the AAP and BISG, how the US Census included used books but excludes ecommerce, how the BISG thinks the AAP understates publishing revenue by 50%, and then it came to me — the data about the book business is poor because there is no such thing as the book business.

Yup. The book business doesn’t exist. There is no book business.

What we call the book business in fact an agglomeration of one or two components of lots of other industries–education, medical, scientific, entertainment, food–which all happen to at one point in the service offering or product cycle use the bound book. Now, this on its own isn’t a particularly new or useful observation–Mike Shatzkin most recently noted that even the consumer business is two different businesses–but I think we’ve often failed to push through the implications, or really recognized how extreme the gaps are between the actual businesses. While trade/consumer books seek (and often fail) to be desired by readers, readers of education textbooks are typically coerced into reading them. While the user desires a slow meditative encounter with a book of poems preferably rife with ambiguity, the reader of a medical reference work reference work requires fast, predictable, unambiguous information. A cook might indeed like relatively fast, predictable, unambiguous information in a cookbook but the sales channel through which it is obtained, as well as the user interface, the likelihood it might be a gift, the likelihood of its obsolescence as a product are so radically at odds with a medical reference work that to conjoin the two would be akin to lumping together the medical instrument business with the cutlery business because both involve knives. It’s not just that there is variance within the industry, then — all industries have variance — it is that the book business just ain’t a business. All these different businesses have in common is they print and bind things as a part of doing what they really do.

And they’ve one other thing in common, as the ex-Director of Singapore University Press noted to me when I marveled at this problem: they all go to the Frankfurt Book Fair. It could very well be that the actual definition of the book business is: it consists of those companies that go to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

What are the implications for the Book Fair, then, that it is a tautology? Well, a buzzword of this year’s Fair was convergence. One saw this in the title of the programming focused on the digital future: StoryDrive. Designed to appeal to TV, film, and video, it emphasized what we all (well, almost all) have in common: the story. Except of course back in the traditional publishing halls, there were an awful lot of publishers who don’t publish stories at all. Nevertheless it was a valiant effort and a useful one, in that the film and TV business not only are always looking for books to license, the reality is that many a writer makes a living directly or indirectly from the film and TV business. Luring videogames into the mix, as the Fair has shown some considerable success in doing not only helps draw their attention to books as a source of content, but also to writers and perhaps even editors as a source of talent.

Of course, there were a great many companies at Frankfurt trying to persuade traditional publishers that they too can incorporate video and interactivity into digital versions of their books and all they needed was our advice/our platform/our tools/our device. Many publishers were eager to hear this, especially those not operating in countries with fixed book pricing and therefore facing heavy retailer discounting. In these instances especially publishers believe that adding digital extras to conventional eBooks will allow them to resist perhaps reverse the downward pressure on pricing by creating value for customers — nevermind that there is little sign customers actually want these extras. Again and again, we were reminded, that films began with a single camera pointed at a stage set, that it took a while to really figure out what the true possibilities of the medium were. When we do, oh boy, the world better look out!

As this outburst of snark suggests, I’m skeptical about this kind of convergence. It is clear that there will be entire new mash-ups of text, image and sound–film created one, the mobile network will create another–but medium-based convergence is a dead-end. If adding video and audio to books were such a great idea, why didn’t publishers become movie studios in the 1940’s? The reality is that the lack of audio and video in book is a feature, not a bug. All art forms are defined as much by what they exclude as by what they include, by what is left out as much as what is put in, by performing addition by subtraction, by less being more. The rules of haiku, of villanelle, of science fiction all exist to describe what is disallowed so as to give the freedom of not-everything-being-possible to the artist.

Which, again, is not to say artists ought not create transmedia works. They should, and will. It is instead to say that when frightened publishers start scheming to create them in cahoots with third-party vendors we can safely say that this is a policy designed not to create desirable consumer products nor to create art but to create a survival pod for the publisher. What problem does the enhanced eBook solve? Not a consumer problem, it’s designed to solve a publishers’ business model problem, viz. how do we create a unit of something sold through a retailer for which we can charge $12-$20?

Again, of course, we have to re-remember. There is no such thing as the book business. So what of educational publishing, say? Enhanced eBooks for education seem to be a no-brainer. Except that what is a textbook other than just a tool for asynchronous learning. Which is also what a website is. And a cookbook is a tool for home cooking and entertaining, which a website, especially on a handheld device, is even better at doing. And the Physicians’ Desk Reference even more so.

This allows us to draw the next conclusion about convergence–what all the book businesses at the Frankfurt Book Fair had in common is that each is tending to try to use technology to create enhanced downloadable files of content formerly contained within a book in order to preserve a status quo ante business model, whether it’s selling through retailers as consumer publishers do, or selling direct to professionals, or professor-mandated coercive sales. In each case the enhancements are unnecessary, are enormously expensive requiring the skills and resources of a movie studio or large-scale video game developer, or are already offered more cheaply and conveniently by websites. So we have a kind of negative convergence, unfortunately.

Yet there was a lot to learn from the Fair about positive convergence–at the level of the business model, not at the level of the medium. There were many direct-to-consumer opportunities in evidence whether it was panels on social marketing, e-commerce solutions, mobile apps development and that is certainly a business model adjustment for consumer publishers unused to a direct relationship with readers. But the more radical opportunities for business model convergence were the numerous panels where one could begin to learn about virtual goods, monetizing communities, developing partnerships, employing subscriptions whether vertical, time-delimited, all-you-can-eat etc. The StoryDrive conference, although certainly full of gee-whiz tech, was equally replete with video game developers, music industry experts, and software companies describing not only how they’re moving on from selling physical products but also on how they’re moving on from selling digital downloads, and what the business models look like–two excellent examples of which I described in my opening post of this blog.

The capacity of the Frankfurt Book Fair, then, to draw not only those companies that can broadly be categorized as the book business (if for no other reason than that they in fact attend the Book Fair) but also other businesses engaged creating and disseminating “book-less” stories and information is perhaps its greatest utility, to point out, yes, where there might be technical convergences, but far more importantly where these tremendously divergent businesses can learn new economic models and converge on the business models of the future.