Creating a World That Works for All
Last Sunday, I visited the Berkeley Public Library with Holly and Emily to see David Marshall speak at "E-Books, Apps, and Clouds" lectures hosted by ASJA, the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
The presentations began with ASJA member Gini Graham Scott, who gave a quick review of some of the things that self-published authors need to consider when they publish on the ebook medium. The talks moved on to a rallying speech by Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords.com, a distribution site for self-published ebooks, who encouraged authors to shrug off the yoke of traditional publishing.
David Marshall was the final presenter and gave an inspiring overview of Berret-Koehler's current initiative towards creating enhanced ebooks that enrich the reader's relationship with the work by using interactive infographics, social net interaction, embedded video, and self-assessment quizzes. David presented an exciting, hopeful vision of the possibilities inherent in the enriched ebook medium.
David also covered the concept of cloud publishing, which was entirely foreign to me, in which books are published to a network of computers en masse, and are kept, like computer applications, in a constant state of flux, and possibility of revision, allowing texts to stay current in high change disciplines like political analysis and technology. This way, organizations and individuals can subscribe to the cloud, and purchase only the information that they need when they need it. This seems to be a fantastic method for accessing training texts, and other works that address imminent, specific needs.
I enjoyed how vociferous the crowd was at the library. The Berkeley self-published/independent author community is definitely a hardened bunch. For good reason it seems. Smashwords founder Mark Coker fired an eloquent barrage of charges against the publishing industry. Coker's presentation encapsulated perfectly the frustration authors feel when the success and failure of the books so closely bound with their creative energy and self-worth, pivots upon an opaque, distant, and somewhat callous industry.
Mark railed against the large publishers for, amongst other sins, selecting marketability over quality, squandering resources on high-rise office rents and things that add no value to the book, and failing to support the authors adequately with marketing. He posits that the net effect of publishing's sins was to restrict free speech and damage the overall quality of discourse. Now that brick and mortar bookstores are declining in favor of electronic distribution, authors no longer need traditional publishers to get their books to readers, ushering in a renaissance of free expression spearheaded by open-door e-book distribution venues like Smashwords.
It may be that Mark is right to a certain extent. The large publishing houses' fiscal interests are opposed to some degree to unfettered speech, and quality, niche books – in favor of quick sellers, contorted for market advantage. However, I am not convinced yet that the rise to prominence of e-books and open-door publishing will be as entirely beneficial of a renaissance as Mark foretells.
The immediate concern that comes to mind is the increasing pressure from the tides of junk information: Is it better to have free speech curtailed to a certain extent by publishers, or by a glut of competing information?
People say that the internet trends towards free information, and with that it also trends toward disturbing amounts of Harry Potter fan-fiction. Mark Coker hinted at it himself when he mentioned that the single greatest predictor of success on Smashwords was the presence of zombies. (Not that Zombies are bad, just numerous)
I have a feeling that, just as it is sometimes fashionable in bullish times to write off the complexities and dangers of the fiscal world by "letting the markets regulate themselves" and letting free market forces reign, that sometimes the most attractive ideas are those that require the least amount of effort. Just as the faith in an unfettered Wall Street allowed the birth of CDO's and other cryptic,value-inflated financial products that critically damaged the the US economy, a faith in the power of the web's mob-mind, "crowd-sourcing" and search algorithms to curate its content might create vulnerabilities in the way society acquires information that we do not understand yet. At least to me, there seem to be too many inscrutable feedback loops knotted around each other to trust the mob-mind completely with valuing content.
And the publishing model isn't all bad, either. It is hard to imagine that a production process without designers, managers, or editors, and the insight, guidance, and perspective distance that they provide, would produce better work. There are doubtlessly many books that have gained much from their tailoring at the hands of publishing personnel, and personally, I fear for the quality of texts as these levels of scrutiny and thought are removed, especially in the realms of fact-checking and citing sources.
As a side note: One interesting venture that I stumbled upon the other day that is trying to address the problem of the quality of the oncoming tide of self-published ebooks is BookOven.com. http://bookoven.com/faq/ Book Oven is trying to become a web-based social platform for volunteer editors to work on independent projects. I hope someday they allow projects to pay their editors, or allocate a percentage of the sales as payment. Just how many professions can internet make untenable by flooding the market with volunteers anyway?
Book Oven is also experimenting with a crowd-sourced proofreading method called Bite-Size Edits in which an authors manuscript is fragmented into sentences, and sent into a game-ified interface where volunteers try to fix errors. Once the process is finished, the book is put back together, "humpty-dumpty" style, and ostensibly, this process has reduced the amount of errors in the text. Personally, this seems like a very difficult operation if you want to avoid ending up with a incoherent, stylistic frankenstein of a book.
But, getting back to the ASJA talks, and Mark Coker's prediction that the traditional publishing industry will become mostly irrelevant. I find it hard to believe that the traditional publishing industry will fall into disuse. At the most, It will have to change the way that it approaches the market, and become more of a brand focal point, a marketing resource, an innovator in the types of products offered, and a rigorous quality control gauntlet. Even though the self-publish market will probably be a threat, I think Berrett-Koehler is well prepared to weather the storm of readily available self-published works that Coker predicts. BK has a firmly coalesced and attractive brand with a profoundly positive message, creates lovely, elegant books, and is in the process of expanding the value and marketing possibilities of their products with new media and expanded ebooks.