Friday, October 17, 2014

Thoughts on innovation and Publishing from FutureChat

There are always interesting ideas that come up in #FutureChat (Porter Anderson's Friday morning Twitter chat - 11am eastern time).  But it's always a little frustrating because even with multi-part tweeting, it's hard to get complex ideas across.  (On the other hand, being forced to communicate 140 letters at a time, including hashtags and reply addresses, can focus the mind wonderfully.)

This week, there were a couple of issues I wanted to talk further about, even explain.  We were discussing innovation, and I tend hold a contrarian position from most publishing folks on just where the curve of innovation happens to be right now.

In particular, I think that publishing is so far behind the curve that they can't recognize it when they see it.  They're kind of like the line from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about humans, who are so backwards we still think digital watches are a keen idea.

This week, we were discussing the fact that ebooks were still basically plain "vanilla" ebooks -- just linear text.  And yes, basically the same format as oral storytelling.  It was noted that attempts to innovate -- particularly with interactive books -- have failed to catch fire. 

Some people see this as a sign that the reading public is behind the curve. I see it as the opposite: technology has so far bypassed the publishing industry that even the general public, and laggards, are ahead of the publishing industry.  Publishing's most bleeding edge thinkers are, thus, coming up with ideas that suit the technology and world of decades ago.

It's like communications: When I was young, the idea of a video phone seemed like the coolest thing.  We were sure that in the future, everybody would have them.  And yes, we do.  We can indeed make video calls on the internet. It doesn't cost anything. And yet, we don't use it much.  It's something for special situations, where seeing someone is as important as what is said.  Given all the ways we have to interact now, how do people routinely interact?

Texting and old-fashioned voice phone.

The more advanced and bleeding edge we get, it seems, the more the more useful we find to the simplest forms of communication.

Why is this?

Most technological innovation amounts to reinventing the wheel. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to invent new ways to enable the wheel.  The wheel itself is fine.

We also live at a time when everything is integrating. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. We can make use of wheels that are already out there... as long as we create things that are actually compatible with the wheels that ARE already out there.

What modern, up-to-date consumers need from publishers is flexibility.  We need to be able to consume our content in whatever way we currently like best.  And more importantly, we need to be able to consume it in whatever way we will like best next week.  Because that will be different.

So when it comes to delivering content digitally, SIMPLE is better. No fancy formatting (don't define the fonts and layout -- let the reader choose their own defaults) interactivity via links only.  The idea is that content creators should focus on content, and let the delivery be handled by the forms people are using.

Yes, people will buy great proprietary products -- that is, products that are locked in and too complex to be very flexible --,but only because that one specific product is cool.  We also liked Pet Rocks and Chia Pets.

For a product, that's fine.  For something as wide ranging as publishing, universality will always win out.

The real innovation comes from realizing we are a part of a hive.  Content flows throughout the wildly changing open-sourced world out there.

You want to include extra materials? Just include a link.  And Google and Twitter provide even faster, richer and more enhanced supplemental information.  The internet itself IS the enhanced edition.  Interactivity? More information?  Discussion?  Games and the internet do it better.  No matter how much work we do, we'll never provide an enhanced product better than what's out there.

And no matter how well designed, it will not beat the accessibility and ease of use of the internet.

The real, world-changing innovation in publishing is happening out there in the world.  We don't need to do it.  As I mentioned on #FutureChat a couple of weeks ago:  Amazon created WhisperSync, which connects the audio and text versions of Kindle books.  It's not a sexy new thing.  It happened almost invisibly.  It doesn't require a different edition of the book or the audiobook.  It just connects them up.

Heck the self-publishing platform -- for ebooks, print books and audiobooks -- is the real innovation.  Social media, podcasting. RSS. Blogging.

These are the real innovations that transform the book.

You could say that the things that really transform the book are not about transforming the book.  They're about taking advantage of other, already created resources.  It's about understanding the new paradigm -- which is about connection.  It's modular.

Publishing should be thinking about innovation in terms of content. About creating things that are worth connecting.  It's about creativity, not about technology.  Let tech innovators create the tech. Let the customers decide how they will use the tech. We make the content they consume through that tech.

And most importantly, remember that innovation isn't innovation unless is solves a problem of the user.  It's just novelty or niche products. Like video phones.

See you in the funny papers.


Dave Neal said...

i agree that simple is better Camille. i hate all these competing formats. And i think the web will eventually win out. the publishers and movie producers do not realize how good they have it. people are still willing to pay for ebooks and movies unlike music and TV. but once the readers discover self-publishers at $0.99 or free, the $15/hardcover 1st ed. ebook will be out the window.

The Daring Novelist said...

IMHO, the $15 hardcover will continue as a collectible, but that plain and simple ebooks will completely replace mass market paperbacks.

People think that digital is spiffy and new and high tech, but really it's the new pulp.

Lee McAulay said...

I like the way you think on these sorts of subjects. Maybe I'm old skool. Or maybe just old (lol). But I'm sure text will win out for books. When I read a book, I see my own pictures, if the author's done her/his work properly. I don't need someone else to interpret those words for me. If people want pictures, they'll watch the film, or the animation, or the graphic novel - and enjoy that form for its own merits.

The Daring Novelist said...

And even with images, it's like an illustrated book.

Pretty much anything you can do to "transform" a story into something beyond a book, turns it into something else. (Like a game.) Which is fine -- but that's another industry and golly, there are already people doing that who are really good at it.

chacha1 said...

I agree with you completely - digital is the new pulp. All you have to do is look at the explosion in self-publishing in romance, erotica, horror, SFF, mystery etc - pretty much all "genre" fiction. All those writers who couldn't get an agent before (or who never really tried, like me!) can now publish their own stuff and let the chips fall as they may.

If additional formats are wanted by the customers, the customers will certainly let writers know. But it seems pretty clear to me that digital self-publishing is no barrier to adaptation. Whatever bias or stigma may have existed at the beginning of the e-book age has been effectively squashed by the success of the products.

The book will never die. Neither will the comic or the movie or the tie-in game. They will just be developed through different paths.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yeah, and innovation and new forms won't come from publishers thinking "how can we compete with Amazon and YouTube?"

That question puts you immediately behind the curve.