01 September 2006

Invasion of the Book Snatchers

I'll get back to longer pieces before long. Trust me—I'm a lawyer. This is the closest that you're going to find for a while, as I jump from one tidbit to the next in the chain.

As a follow-up on my snarky comments earlier this week concerning celebrity marketing, consider the distinction between "content" and "brand" implied here:

What's certain is that the absurdly steep cost of some of this autumn's celebrity yarns will far exceed the probable revenues. As a result, plenty of genuine books by genuine writers will never achieve the precious "positional good" of a place on the list of a major publisher with marketing clout. But if you dare suggest that the book trade should seek out and support literary ability rather than chucking suitcases of extra cash at already pampered millionaires, an assortment of wealthy populists will get very hot under their smartly tailored collars and call you an "elitist".

Boyd Tonkin, "A Week in Books," The Independent (01 Sep. 2006).

Mr Tonkin's concern is perhaps a bit overstated—but only a bit. Part of the problem is the relationship between total sales and velocity of sales. Since long-term sales of books tend to rely upon making substantial up-front investments in stock—not to mention the inequities of the returns system—publishers need/want to get a decent return soon instead of a somewhat higher (but uncertain) return later. (Sorry, POD-persons, POD is not yet an economically viable substitute for liquid-ink printers, particularly for casebound books.) More to the point, there's the inability of bean counters to even see over that next-quarterly-report horizon. But that's for another time; it's not like the rest of the entertainment industry lacks similar problems!

Speaking of POD-persons (does the title of this post make any more sense now?), there's yet another glowing infomercial article on how POD—which is a printing technology, not a publishing model—may influence (but not determine) publishing models at IBD. As proof that the article's author knows only enough about publishing to drink the POD Kool-aid (ostentatiously omitting the trademark symbol), consider this "paragraph":

O'Reilly and others have turned a number of blogs into books — or what some call blooks — for their authors, who rely on their niche Internet followings to sell the volumes. One recent blook is Hackoff.com: A Historic Murder Mystery Set in the Internet Bubble and Rubble. It's a fictional novel that grew out of a blog written by Tom Evslin, a former tech executive, about the dot-com boom and bust.

Jennie L. Phipps, "Book Publishing Turns The Page, Thanks To Technology" (31 Aug. 2006) (typography corrected). "Fictional novel"? The real problem with this article is that it completely fails to acknowledge that there are actually two distinct factors driving the current publishing model: The specific and critical scalar economies of the printing process, and the distribution system. This article—like almost all POD-person soliloquys—conflates the two.

Speaking of the problems with the distributions systems in entertainment, consider the poor Beatles ("poor" having nothing to do with economic status for the nonce). They've filed suit claiming that—like virtually every significant figure in twentieth-century distributive entertainment—they've been hosed by faulty and/or fraudulent accounting by their distributors. I'm shocked—just shocked—to find dishonorable accounting practices in an industry now run by marketing dorks (instead of even the purportedly honorable editors/publishers who came up with the system). Pardon me… I have a potential client calling…

Much of the way back around the wheel, consider the technology involved in musical instrumentation, particularly those instruments commonly used in popular music. A sadly amusing and somewhat interesting article on electric guitars in the Telegraph illustrates some of the simultaneous ignorance and innovation concerning these sorts of things. Leaving aside the many non sequiturs in the article,1 it never mentions that the real distinction between the electric guitar and its predecessors is a materials basis and nothing else. Not the body: The strings. (And anyone who says one can't "bend" a piano's notes isn't skilled enough to trust in the first place.) One might even argue that the reason we think of "guitar heroes" and not "keyboard heroes" parallels the reason we think of "infantry heroes" and not "tank heroes": In ordinary use, one can see the face of the infantryman/guitarist, but often not that of the pianist/tanker.

And finally for the moment, remember that it's not enough to have a great product: One must distribute that product. And sometimes competitors put inappropriate roadblocks in the way, knowingly/intentionally or otherwise. The irony that Comcast is also the least responsive of the major ISPs to complaints of copyright infringement—even worse than was my most visible opponent—doesn't make it into the article on spam filtering… probably because that's too big a leap to make unless you're looking for it, and know that the same individuals usually determine the responsiveness of both policies.

  1. The picture of Roger Waters, a bassist, illustrating an article on electric guitars that quotes David Gilmour extensively, would be amusing enough without knowing much about the history of Pink Floyd. Not only do Waters and the remainder of Pink Floyd have some rough patches between them, but Waters started out as the rhythm guitarist to Syd Barrett and was later "demoted" to bassist at about the time Gilmour joined the band.