What if Goodreads, Amazon and Facebook went out of business?

Hard to imagine, but what if these behemoths of data went belly up? Sure, a few banks might fail, a few cities go bankrupt, perhaps even a few countries; a whole bunch of employees would be made redundant, and that vast treasure trove of data would be on the auction block.

It’s the data that I am concerned about. Between these three entities, all the information on me has been stored, mined, and exploited. They ran a fairly good privacy model while in business, but what if the new buyers at the auction are from Russia or China or North Korea or some Middle Eastern kingdom anxious to acquire western assets at bargain basement prices? I remember the time Yahoo was hacked and e-mails went from “me” to the whole world selling them Viagra, Costume Jewellery and asking them to click on links to spurious spyware. Luckily Yahoo, under its new management, decided to take sterner measures to protect its members’ privacy, two years later.

Data is the new gold, like oil once was. Knowledge is power. And we plebes gave up our power willingly in order to have free publicity and extend our reach to places we could never reach on our own for free, which in the past would have required lots of money for publicists and traditional media advertizing. If these guys go bust,
Armageddon will be nigh.

So what can we do? Here are a few options:
(a) Pray! That always works.
(b) Hope that western governments will declare these companies NATO assets in case of a stock meltdown, or declare them “Banks” (after all, they bank data) and add them to the “too big to fail” category of the economy.
(c) Buy shares in these companies, especially if and when their stock price tanks, in the hope of a rebound and the making of millionaires of all of us.
(d) Delete our data and go back to those days when no-one knew who or where the heck we were, and no-one really cared (we wonder if anyone really cares today, despite us keeping them posted of our every life event, meal, and bowel movement).
(e) Shrug and carry on as before, comforted by the premise that whoever gets their hands on our data will continue to make us famous or infamous, and both of these states will attract attention in these attention-deficit times.
(f) Build tighter spam filters for the barrage of nuisance e-mail that is bound to head our way.
(g) Get ready to lose all your friends and followers in social media when they have been inundated by spurious email from YOU.

Ah, well – it’s a good problem to ponder, or a scary nightmare to wake up from.

There will be no professional writers in future: banner or epitaph?

“There will be no more professional writers in future” – read the headline of the arts section of one of our national newspapers last week, waking me up to my own dire predictions of the last few months, reminding me that I am not the only one having these nightmares. Change is coming, no matter how much we bury our heads in our ink and hope that it goes away.

The article went on to throw out some scary phrases—feudal economics of the 21st century (with Amazon and Huffington playing landlord to us poor hacks who are being relegated to serfs), 10 cents per 1000 reader clicks, and more than one million authors on Amazon’s online Kindle store— bringing us back to that scary headline: There will be no more professional writers….

Let’s go on the assumption that literature will still exist in our future, however retrograde that future becomes. That said, just like with any green•field business that initially attracts more supply than demand, a crash and consolidation must come in this electronic age of literature. The questions remain as to when will it come, who will go out and who will stay in, who will get fatter, and who will be marginalized when the dust settles. Here’s my pick:

Authors: We still need these guys to write content, original content (so help us, God!). So I guess they will be kept alive, even by force•feeding. Slimmer pickings at the base of the steep pyramid known as the “Hierarchy of Authors” will drive wannabes to pursue other interests like fishing. Some will eke out serf•like existences even if to merely avoid psychotherapy, while others will live like lottery winners and drink to ease their guilt about compensation that far exceeds effort—and seek out shrinks. There is no socialism here. Writing schools will decline, replaced by fishing schools, perhaps.

Publishers: These guys are in the cross hairs of the impending fall. Some parts of their business are valuable, like editing, formatting, marketing, branding, access to awards and distributors etc. Others, less so, like lengthening the publishing pipeline that was under their watch, elongating it from about six months to the current 2•3 years; slush pile management is another red card (bad job done here, guys – your response rates suck!); and manning the gate for curated content (many of their picks have been flops). Perhaps they will change their names to Content Facilitator and outsource the slush pile. Or move away from the royalty model towards fee•based, unbundled menu pricing for their various services that are still deemed valuable; the recent moves by mainstream publishers to purchase self•publishing arms is an indication of this.

Agents: They may fall on either side of the fence. Their current remuneration model will be unsustainable. On the one hand they could become Author Assistants (paid by the author – watch out, the fees may be a bit measly). They could easily add Publicist, PR and Author Manager to their job description, if not there already. Or they could go over to the other side and be talent scouts for the new Content Facilitators, paid to hunt for good content now that the slush pile has been eliminated. Or they could band together to become Content Facilitators themselves and cut out the man above.

Distributors: The monopoly that exists with Amazon and its buddies must give way to smaller independents that also have access to that universal distribution highway, the Internet. The smaller guys just have to find ways to carve out little side roads with distinct signage (branding) that flow content and revenue their way and off the Amazon•Huffington highway. Just as Amazon has become the general store for books, why not several niche stores specializing in certain genres, with wider selections within these genres?

Software Developers: Let’s not forget the guys who started the revolution by bringing the technicalities of publishing down to the user level. It could only be a matter of time before kindle and e•pub formats become add•ons to Microsoft Office and other desktop bundles.

Readers: Will have to pay for good content again (the accent being on “good”) or the serfs who are farming that content will die out. They will also be the power holders in this industry. “Going viral” will belong to them and will determine the livelihood of all the other players in this literary drama.

Endorsers: A breed of super reader. The endorser is a reader among readers who commands an audience and who cannot be bought. I will exclude newspaper reviewers and well known TV show hosts who predictably have their “picks” go on to become bestsellers; by “picking for pay,” they will have exposed their hand for serving the wrong master. The new Endorser will live on the adulation and followership of readers only. A new literary savant who survives on ego food.

And as for that newspaper headline, I have to agree that the old model of professional writer is under threat, but a new model is emerging, and as long as a civilization needs those among it to reflect, dissect, interpret, and record its evolution, writers of some shape or form must exist.

A Brave New World indeed, and I am applying for citizenship to play several of the above roles in it. What about you?

So Amazon and Kobo want to be Publishers, eh?

The recent announcement by these players to advance up the book industry value chain from retailing to publishing comes as no surprise. In an industry which has many handoffs in its delivery process, and many players, each player muzzles for maximum turf over time. The ones upstream (i.e. the creators) try to advance down the chain like oil companies muzzling into retail gas stations. Those at the tail, retailers like Amazon and Kobo, try to move into the middle currently occupied by publishers, and those in the middle try to go both ways like departments stores that create loyalty programs at one end and private label merchandise at the other.

Success will depend on what value is provided. In the case of Amazon and Kobo, their original value proposition lay in their ability to provide the largest selection of books, globally, without the shopper having to leave the comfort of his home. In becoming a publisher, one has to be selective (also known by that dreaded term “editorial integrity”) and promote only “the selected.” This is a different stance from the presently held “come one, come all” position of these online retailers. So what would Amazon and Kobo do in their new roles as publishers? Provide two•tier distribution: a premium level for authors who self publish through them and a more basic level for all books coming from other publishers? Start a separate branded line for their own publishing streams of books? Cherry•pick the best•selling authors and offer lucrative one•shot deals? Or hire an army of interns to wade through miles of slush piles should every unpublished author want to self•publish through them? This new move is surely going to raise questions about the altered value propositions that these two players now bring to the reader, and to the author.

The danger when two or more bed mates jostle for elbow room on the same bed, especially if one has a lot of muscle, is that the muscular one gains at the expense of the others. The ones with less and less room, risk falling off the bed altogether and may leave to sleep elsewhere with other bedfellows. And there is no fun in sleeping in a bed with one big elephant – be that a major publisher, a retailer•turned publisher or a distributor turned one•stop•shop. In this incestuous game, many bed mates, each having equal space, is good – it’s also called competition, in case I was stirring orgiastic imagery in you!

The wild card for everyone is the technology that is making these moves possible. And technology, while enabling bigger and newer entrants to muzzle in for space, can also scuttle the best made plans plans. In this case, the new technology also allows the story•teller, (aka – the author) to reach his audience directly, for it is no big deal to publish a book these days, be it in trade book format or e•book format, if one is reasonably adept at word processing and has access to some conversion software. And it’s no bigger deal to distribute it directly from one’s website with no intermediary hand•offs. All the author needs is a facilitator who can help his audience find, sample and endorse him. The reader needs the facilitator too, to point him to good reading material. This facilitator role is the one going to be prized both by readers and writers in the future – not a big bully who keeps the lion’s share and offers poor quality in exchange, but a big brother who makes it happen for the writer and the reader.

I am keen to see whether Amazon and Kobo will truly transform into Big Brothers or lose both authors and readers because they ended up being Big Bullies.

Social Networking – a must-have or a time waster?

A couple of years ago, a reputable speaker at a literary conference told me that if I did not build a social networking platform I would be of no use to publishers in the future. In other words, I had to bring the audience to me, which in the past I had thought the publisher did. I guess he had outsourced this job – to me! Having no one else in the distribution chain to pass the buck down to, I complied, and got into heavy social networking.

Let’s see, I registered my own domain name as www.shanejoseph.com and built my own website with e•commerce capability, populating it with new content weekly (I’m not a Yahoo or Google who can update content hourly – at least, not yet!). I blogged and twittered, and joined lots of online forums where writers and readers gathered. I syndicated my blogs, became a reviewer on Goodreads and copied my book reviews over to Amazon whenever I was mindful of the p’s and q’s in my content. I Facebook’d and Linked•In’d and even started giving talks on the value of building an online platform – heck it was fashionable, why not cash in? However, I recall, so were beads and bell•bottoms and drainpipes and sideburns and “give peace a chance” love•ins, once upon a time. Very soon, I was spending several hours a week on my growing platform. I was famous but still poor.

I even thought of opening my website to advertisers and giving away all my books as free e•book downloads. Heck, I could deliver free copies to my huge platform of readers – numbering in their thousands at this point – and claim to be a best•seller, or at least, “the most widely circulated.” I’d obviously incur the wrath of my fellow writers who were trying to make a living out of this vocation; I would be banned from the writer’s union, and would never be guaranteed that any of those free copies would ever be read (people don’t even read paid•for copies anymore as they function better as doorstops, coffee placemats, bookshelf adornments, and claims to literacy rather than as vehicles of enlightenment). I might even end up turning the existing, broken book publishing model on its head. Or I might be ignored as a crackpot and dismissed with, “His writing must suck, because good things are not free, and free things are not good.”

If getting people to read your books is the end•game, then operating an online platform is essential but insufficient. You need to put the book in the reader’s hand and say “read it,” and they in turn need to put the book in other readers’ hands and say, “This is a damned good book – read it!” The online platform creates awareness and builds mystique, but there is a much longer journey from that point on the continuum to turning curious browsers into readers and endorsers.

I am not dismissing the online platform. It seems a necessary burden in these times. But I need to balance this effort with focussing on my writing and making it the best ever. I want an unprovoked reader to read my book, put it up on his social networking site and say, “Hey, listen up! Read this book, it’s so cool!” Now, that endorsement would indeed be a desirable end•result, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d!”