Bob Stein's Unified Theory of Publishing

The other day, Bob Stein posted a really interesting article at If:Book about his so-called “unified theory of publishing” which tries to address these particular questions:

  • What are the characteristics of a successful author in the era of the digital network?
  • Ditto for readers: how do you account for the range of behaviors that comprise reading in the era of the digital network?
  • What is the role of the publisher and the editor?
  • What is the relationship between the professional (author) and the amateur (reader)?
  • Do the answers to 1–4 afford a viable economic model?

His idea of a “dynamic network” allows for a number of possibilities, all with the goal of providing ways to “engage readers with the author’s conclusions at a deeper, more satisfying level.”

Stein goes on to describe some of the possibilities this idea allows, addressing the way this idea starts to lead to Wikipediaish sounding ideas by establishing the author’s role in tending a text of this sort over the long-term, rather than letting anyone and everyone take it over.

What I found most interesting was this anecdote about reading habits:

(an anecdotal report regarding reading in the networked era)

A mother in London recently described her ten-year old boy’s reading behavior: “He’ll be reading a (printed) book. He’ll put the book down and go to the book’s website. Then, he’ll check what other readers are writing in the forums, and maybe leave a message himself, then return to the book. He’ll put the book down again and google a query that’s occurred to him.” I’d like to suggest that we change our description of reading to include the full range of these activities, not just time spent looking at the printed page.

I find myself doing things like this quite frequently. (In part because I’m always frickin’ online. And even when I’m not, I’m checking my e-mail on my phone in a crippling OCD sort of way.) It’s interesting to me to think of ways in which, knowing that readers read like this, publishers can adjust and treat the internet as an active, vibrant addition to a published book. I’m not sure exactly how this would work, but at the current time, I think we mostly view printed books as the finished, complete product/work of art, which might not be the best way to look at things in the not-too-distant future.

Some of the implications Stein comes up with in relation to his main idea are pretty interesting:

f) So it turns out that far from becoming obsolete, publishers and editors in the networked era have a crucial role to play. The editor of the future is increasingly a producer, a role that includes signing up projects and overseeing all elements of production and distribution, and that of course includes building and nurturing communities of various demographics, size, and shape. Successful publishers will build brands around curatorial and community building know-how AND be really good at designing and developing the robust technical infrastructures that underlie a complex range of user experiences. [I know I’m using “publisher” to encompass an array of tasks and responsibilities, but I don’t think the short-hand does too much damage to the discussion].

In a way, that’s what we’ve been trying to do with this blog since the start. And in a way, community nurturing is what all good litblogs strive for.

g) Once there are roles for author/reader/editor/publisher, we can begin to assess who adds what kind of value, and when. From there we can begin to develop a business model. My sense is that this transitional period (5, 10, 50 years) will encompass a variety of monetizing schemes. People will buy subscriptions to works, to publishers, or to channels that aggregate works from different publishers. People might purchase access to specific titles for specific periods of time. We might see tiered access, where something is free in “read-only” form, but publishers charge for the links that take you OUT of the document or INTO the community. Smart experimenting and careful listening to users/readers/authors will be very important.

Monetization is always the big question and obstacle. This paragraph can be interpreted into a number of different actualities, but on a theoretical live, I’m attracted to the idea of a subscription sort of model. To me, subscriptions seem to favor small, well-branded publishers who have a strong vision, rather than the hodge-podge of books that large houses usually have to publish in order to survive.

The one area of his article that I don’t think is very cool is this part about the future of fiction:

When talking about some of these ideas with people, quite often the most passionate response is that “surely, you are not talking about fiction.” If by fiction we mean the four-hundred page novel then the answer is no, but in the long term arc of change I am imagining, novels will not continue to be the dominant form of fiction. My bet now is that to understand where fiction is going we should look at what’s happening with “video games.” World of Warcraft is an online game with ten million subscribers paying $15 per month to assemble themselves into guilds (teams) of thirty or more people who work together to accomplish the tasks and goals which make up the never-ending game. It’s not a big leap to think of the person who developed the game as an author whose art is conceiving, designing and building a virtual world in which players (readers) don’t merely watch or read the narrative as it unfolds — they construct it as they play. Indeed, from this perspective, extending the narrative is the essence of the game play.

No matter what happens with future technology and models and whatnot, I can’t imagine the bulk of readers ditching novels for videogames. (Or even more unlikely—authors deciding to stop writing novels.)

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