Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Part 2

The following is the second part of a talk I gave at the APA’s Don’t Stet: Thinking About Tomorrow panel session on the future of the editor. You can find the first part here.

So, things are changing. But there are a lot of things we as editors can do to prepare ourselves.

We need to move away from the mental definition of a book being a printed object. Books are going to be different. Nobody knows exactly in what way, but the only way we can know what is going to work and what isn’t is to try new things. We need to experiment with publishing things that are probably not going to make much money, in the same way that we buy authors who aren’t going to make money because in three books’ time they might write a bestseller.

We also have to experiment with different kinds of reading. Below is a comment on a blog post I read recently about why someone would never want to start reading electronic books.

There is something about folding a paperback to snuggle down into the covers of a night. There’s something about being able to underline and use a highlighter for parts that stand out to you when reading and being able to put a date next to those. About being able to write notes with thoughts that have occurred when reading passages …

ALL this will no longer be possible if we lose the traditional book.

Books are my friends. Have been ever since I was young. They are an escape from life for a few hours to a distant land. A chance to grieve and mourn with others of a time long past when we read history …

Books in their printed hard or soft cover form also have something over the Kindle and other electronic forms of ‘books’. They will never run out of battery right in the middle of a really captivating part of the story, they can be read by anyone who can read the written language, so you don’t have to be up on the latest electronic gadgets. There is also the cost of a book compared to these newer readers.

Libraries also are WONDERFUL places to visit. The smells of the old books and the newer books as well.

I SO HOPE the paperbacks and hard covered books NEVER get taken away.

When I read this, I thought – what an idiot. And it’s not just because you can use a Kindle to write notes and highlight passages, or even that nobody is going to try and take printed books away  from anyone. It’s not even that line about books being the commenter’s friends. It’s because this kind of thinking is really common in the publishing industry, especially among editors.

And it is hubris to think that there is a right way and a wrong way to read books. Especially if you’re in the publishing industry. We are not passive consumers of books. Our choices help to define what a book is.

I know a whole lot of editors have ereaders already. But if you’re like the editors I know, you only use them so you don’t have to carry manuscripts around. When you want to relax with a book, you still curl up with the paper version.

Now there’s nothing wrong with having a preference for paper. There’s nothing wrong with this nostalgic, rosy-tinted view of books and reading. There’s also nothing wrong with thinking that books are your friends, either. But if you’re in the publishing industry, especially if you’re an editor, and you think of books in this protective ‘from my cold dead hands’ kind of way, then in less than five years time you’ll be ignoring the experience of a third of readers. And editors are supposed to be the reader’s advocate.

If we want to remain relevant, we need to innovate faster than our readers. We need to understand what readers want before they want it. Part of that is working out what kind of stories and content people want to read, and that’s something editors and publishers are already pretty good at. But another part of it is understanding how people want to read, and that’s not something we’ve had to think about for a long time. And if we start letting Amazon and Apple work that out for us, then we are going to end up working for Amazon and Apple. So we need to seek out new reading experiences, and try to understand them before they overtake us.

In our roles as author wranglers, we’re going to have to become, for some of our authors at least, the technology interpeter. If you’re not already familiar with the way Facebook and Twitter work, then it’s worth playing around with them. You can’t break the internet. Most authors in the next few years are going to have to develop a deep social networking presence, and if we want to remain relevant to them we have to know the answers before they start asking the questions.

Most of all, we need to learn to look past the limitations of technology and embrace the benefits. We no longer have the luxury of being precious about technology. It’s not worth focusing on the fact that you can’t read an ebook in the bath, or that you prefer the smell of paper books. The readers of the next ten years aren’t going to care about that. And if we want to publish books for those readers we need to know what they do care about.

And so to finish in the spirit of the structural edit, I just want to remind you that this is just my opinion – this is your industry. I eagerly anticipate your revisions.

Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Pt 1

The following is the first part of a talk I gave at the APA’s Don’t Stet: Thinking About Tomorrow panel session on the future of the editor.

In a room full of editors I thought it would be appropriate to take the approach of a structural edit for this talk. You know the one: open with a few flattering remarks before saying what you really think.

So … I love books and publishing, and I think books and publishing are still relevant. And I believe editorial is one of the most important parts of the publishing industry. I also think that so long as we are willing to change, we will all find a place in the editorial department of the future.

Having said that, the publishing industry has been predicting its own demise since the printing press. So, in the spirit of pessimism, here are the reasons why I think we might all be unemployed in ten years.

The publishing industry hasn’t had to change for a very long time, and the changes we do make are usually slow. This has two effects: one is that we’re really bad at dealing with change, and the other is that people who don’t like change like to join the publishing industry.

Editors and publishers are probably the worst of the lot. I’ve spoken to editors with a fetish for particular brands of pencils from the 1970s. Some of us go weak at the knees for a nicely bound B-format hardback. Editors wear their disdain for technology like a badge of honour.

When I first started in the industry, we still relied entirely on a fax machine to send corrections to second pages to the typesetter. I mean, I’d read about fax machines on blogs and stuff, but I’d never actually used one until I became an editor. Until a few months ago, we still had to physically print out the 400-odd final pages of a book on our horrible and prone-to-breaking-down photocopier, then pay a courier to take it interstate to the printer where they would compare our print out with the version they had printed out from the same file on thousands of dollars worth of printing equipment. Just to see if there were any errors.

Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that publishers and editors like to do things in a certain way, and they usually don’t like experimenting.

So we’re not very good at changing, and we don’t like it when we have to do it. On top of that, the industry is run – let me say this delicately – by really really old people. And I don’t mean just in age. I’ve met some very old 25-year-olds since becoming an editor; it’s a cultural gulf. This isn’t just a problem because you have to talk to a lot of people who ask what a Facebook is, or constantly try to explain why anybody would ever in their right minds want to use Twitter, or even those people who still think the biggest roadblock to ereader adoption is that you can’t take a Kindle in the bath with you. No. The biggest problem with the generation gap in the publishing industry is that for all the sound and fury about the digital revolution, the people empowered to save the industry still seem to be playing the wait and see game, hedging their bets until the definitive digital model emerges.

Which leads me to my final reason for why I think we might all be unemployed in ten years. Those people are wrong. The industry is changing really fast. Or rather, people’s reading habits are changing fast and the industry is not keeping up with them. I’m sure you’ve probably heard the statistics. In the US the latest I’ve read is that 9% of the trade is now ebooks, which is up from about 3% the year before. We’re looking very realistically at a third of the industry being digital in the next five years. And after that the predictions are all over the place, because our business model is dependent on paper books. The long and short of it is is that we’re probably going to have to find other ways to make money. And if we don’t, somebody else will. And those people are going to take our jobs.

Stay tuned next time, folks, for the thrilling conclusion to this depressing topic!

Interview with Author Tony Park Pt 1

Tony Park is an author, adventurer and reader of digital books, so I thought I’d interview him to get his unique point of view on the experience. Tony’s currently hooning around somewhere in Africa in his Land Rover, writing his next book and doing the occasional safari, but he was kind enough to take some time out to talk to The Smell of Books.

What was it that convinced you to finally go digital for reading?

My wife, Nicola, and I had been talking about ebook readers for a while, after seeing a Sony that a friend of ours from the UK was using. We travel in Africa for six months of every year in a Land Rover that we leave with friends in South Africa. As avid readers one of the biggest logistical challenges for us has always been having enough to read while we’re on the road. We read a lot while travelling (more so than at home), and it’s not unusual for us to be out in the African bush away from shops for weeks on end. Outside of South Africa it’s also hard to find decent bookshops on this continent. So we would carry a hell of a lot of books with us. To put it into perspective, we had four large plastic storage boxes in the back of the Land Rover for all our gear and one of these was devoted entirely to books. We thought that an ebook reader would be the ideal way to cut down on weight and bulk while travelling, and, as we tend to move in and out of internet reception, we liked the idea of shopping online or wirelessly for books.

Are you a digital convert for music, movies or TV? Or just books?

Books and music so far. I like the idea of downloading movies, and maybe TV series, but I haven’t cracked the code on how to do that yet. Our internet connection while travelling in Africa is getting better each year (we connect using a mobile phone connected to the laptop), and while it’s no problem to download books to the Kindle and songs to the computer, the speeds we get are not good enough to download movies. I’m evolving, though, and might look at downloading some movies before our next trip.

Why did you decide to go with Amazon’s Kindle?

I was doing some freelance writing work for a PR company in Sydney and one of their American clients had a Kindle (this was before they were released in Australia). I really liked the look of it and the guy offered to get us one and bring it back to Australia on his next trip. Nicola and I decided to give it a test run. It was a bit of a dodgy deal, as we had to register it with a US address, and we couldn’t use the wireless download function in Australia, but we loved it, right from the start. While we were away travelling in Africa the Kindle was released in Australia so we immediately ordered a second ‘proper’ one, and got Nicola’s mum to bring it to us in South Africa when she came to visit us. Before the second one arrived we were fighting over who would use the Kindle next.

Is there anything about good old fashioned books that you (or your wife) miss? And are any of those things enough to drag you back to paper books?

No and no. The first thing people who have never used an ebook reader say when you try and tell them how good they are is, “Oh, but I just love the feel of a book, and the smell of the crisp new pages … blah blah blah.” That’s a load of crap. I don’t miss the paper or the smell or the weight of a book!

However, if I’m in Australia (not travelling) in a bookshop and I see a new release by a favourite author I’ll buy the paper book version if I know it hasn’t been released on Kindle yet. It’s all about the words and the writer, not the medium, so I’ll grab a paper version – even a hardback – if I can’t wait. I’ve also got a few signed copies of books, which I treasure.

Tune in next time, folks, for the final instalment of the interview. In the meantime, you can buy Tony’s latest book, The Delta, and/or visit Tony on the web here. Check out his blog: he’s a seriously funny bloke.

The Hedonism of the Digital

This is about the weirdest book trailer I’m come across in a while. For those without the patience or ability to view it, it is the trailer for a kids’ book – It’s A Book! by Lane Smith. The trailer presumably rehashes the story in the book; that is, a tech savvy donkey asking a series of questions of an increasingly frustrated chimp. “Can you scroll down?” asks the donkey. “Can you blog with it?” Inevitably, the donkey ends up playing with the book and is utterly sucked in, sitting and reading it for hours – promising to “charge the battery” when he is done.

Aside from the bizarre irony of a one minute internet book trailer about a book advocating reading paper over ephemeral electronic distractions it’s quite cute. And it underlines one of the things I’ve been banging on about over the last few weeks. The essential nature of reading. I’ve argued before that in order to leap into the digital age, publishers need to be prepared for new kinds of reading – the kind that people do while queueing up to buy a beer, while standing on public transport and while sitting on the toilet. It is a matter of debate whether this kind of reading privileges a certain kind of writing – the easy to pick up and put down, disposable experience. This is what dead tree enthusiasts fear will be lost if paper books go the way of the dinosaur.

These arguments, of course, are not without its advocates. I came across the video above last week, and again, aside from the irony of a TED talk about the perspective of time being summarised in an animated infographic to make it easier to concentrate on, it is fascinating viewing. The premise of the video is this: different people experience time in different ways. Some of us are future oriented, some past and some present. The current crop of electronic distractions, Professor Zimbardo argues, is turning us into a culture of present-oriented people – particularly young men. This has consequences for education, as in order to learn difficult things – like how to read – one must be able to delay gratification: do hard work now in order to fulfil the promise of greater things in the future.

While I disagree more specifically with some of Zimbardo’s points (like the fact that the average teen male has spent 10,000 hours playing video games and is therefore a hedonist without social skills), I find the overall point of this discussion comes with an in-built bias. Let me give you an example – reading. There’s no doubt that Professor Zimbardo has no problem with books and reading – these are part of traditional schooling and presumably all about delaying gratification. But my experience of the kind of wholly absorbing reading depicted in the It’s A Book! trailer above has nothing at all to do with delaying gratification. My most treasured and absorbing reading experiences are completely hedonistic. My experience of time vanishes, and hours go as if they were minutes. This experience has happened to me with reading on and off screen.

While I don’t pretend to know for certain that digital distractions aren’t transforming the newer generations into anti-social sybarites, my feeling is that these arguments come from fear rather than fact. They make emotional arguments using apparently self-evident truths that are anything but self-evident. “Digitally rewiring”, my ass. Just because the youngest generation is demanding that, for example, publishers give them the ability to read books when and where and how they want them does not, ipso facto, mean that they are incapable of being absorbed in the longform experience of reading. Digital is not a synonym for disposable. Sometimes you need to learn to read the signs in a different way.