Friday, 29 May 2009

Of Success and Salt (or dare to fail not fail to dare)

Twitter and its simultaneous capacity for both linear and lateral information flow remains very much in the (book industry) news (and on my mind) at the moment with the NY Book Expo Tweetup being the talk of the fair and over here in the UK Salt’s Just One Book campaign attracting attention.

That I am a Salt groupie and therefore hopelessly prejudiced in their favour is a well-established fact. But you don’t have to be a fan to discern that Salt make beautiful, intellectually rigorous books in collaboration with authors who like being published by them. However Salt have yet to create a robust business model even though they have been pushing boundaries to achieve this – most particularly in their innovative use of social media to promote the company and its authors.

The power of Twitter and #hashtags is that suddenly, off the back of Just One Book there now exists a fast, simple mechanism to search and follow others who are also rooting for Salt. (And the same applies for thousands of other special interest subjects that people are using hashtags to flag up for others.) Through this mechanism Twitter has led me to a variety of postings about Salt including ghostwriter Jane Smith’s blog (not one I would normally visit, aimed as it is at authors). What drew my attention was not the fairly brief post (23 May) – but rather the fierce debate that ensued in the comments column. One anonymous reader (who subsequently identified him or herself as "Rae") had been dismissive of Salt’s campaign as a “gimmick” and was rounded on by a number of Jane’s more regular followers some of whom are Salt authors. However I was struck by the remarks "Perhaps Salt Publishing should try publishing books people want to read rather than resorting to emotional blackmail…” and – on the Salt website - “There are just too many steps for the uninitiated, other book websites are not quite so cumbersome - I guess that's why they aren't having problems with sales”.

I found myself pausing to reflect whether there is something of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome going on here. Are those of us deeply engaged with books and publishing so blinded by our beliefs and our self-belief that we can’t risk seeing ourselves through the eyes of others? The comment thread reveals both an unwillingness to tolerate criticism and some of the unwritten expectations we have of the way in which people comment on blogposts and in discussion fora. This is not the first time I have observed a dissenting voice raising the ire of a committed and converted community of followers and in doing so often terminating a discussion.

It seems to me, however, that Rae raised three most apposite points -

1. "Perhaps Salt should publish books people want to read...”
This is a statement freighted with assumptions – first and foremost that people are aware of Salt’s books in the first place. According to the Salt Confidential blog, Chris Hamilton-Emery has been humbled by discovering just how little awareness there is of Salt outside those with a real commitment to poetry. It is evident that for all of their Facebooking and assorted innovations, Salt have remained outside of the mainstream and consequently many active book buyers remain unaware of their lists. The reasons for this are too diverse and numerous to enumerate here. Now the real crux of the matter is that the exposure the Just One Book Campaign grants them will get books and authors into new hands, or rather in front of new eyeballs. Ergo we will soon see whether Salt are publishing books people want to read if – after Just One Book – sales can be sustained at significantly higher levels than before the campaign. If not, maybe it tells us something that we don’t really want to know.

2. (re website) “there are just too many steps for the uninitiated…”
Here was genuine feedback from someone who had made the effort to visit the site. And it was slightly shocking to read given that many of us in the industry envy Salt’s content-rich web site. But because we are engaged we don’t need to evaluate the site objectively for its new-user-friendliness (and how many of us are guilty of that in relation to our own sites). If writers and publishers resent and reject such useful feedback from first time visitors – then we deserve to fall victim to our own hubris.

3. “…other book websites… not having problems with sales”
Of course many other book websites are run by large retailers and not by independent publishers. The fact that Amazon, B&N and The Book Depository set the standard for the online book purchasing experience is a real problem for under-resourced independent publishers (not to mention everyone else in the supply chain). The rest are playing catch-up. (As an aside, the assertion that others are not having problems with sales is debatable and unanswerable. Are we talking about publishers or retailers here? Other poetry publishers may well be having problems with sales – but if they are part of a larger group there may be other resources deployed to support poetry, and then of course some others have long-term public funding arrangements in place.)

As a result of watching the Just One Book campaign, I am renewed in my belief that just because a company publishes wonderful books, it does not follow that they are a successful publisher. Production and editorial values alone do not make for publishing success. Publishing, as practised by commercial publishing ventures, is about creating lists that successfully reach a paying market (which may or may not be the end consumer) and are therefore profitable. The required scale of that profit is for the publisher to determine according to their own objectives and shareholder or stakeholder pressures. But whilst there are many measures of creative and artistic success in the form of literary gongs and industry awards, Mr Micawber’s advice about what represents financial success still holds true today.

In 1999 (co-incidentally the year Salt was founded) I attended my first Independent Publisher's Guild conference as the newly appointed Secretary of the organisation. From the Platform, Michael Schmidt, publisher of Carcanet, said something that lodged in my mind and has remained with me ever since: "I take a forestry ecology approach to publishing poetry". So saying, Michael recognised that successful publishing needs first and foremost an enthusiastic, informed audience that values what is published highly enough to be prepared to pay for it (a market). Whether Schmidt and Carcanet have been successful in husbanding or enlarging poetry’s habitat is a separate question, and not for now.

If you are paying attention you may recall that in my opening sentence I asserted that Twitter is lateral as well as linear. Even better, the lateral can link back into the linear in serendipitous ways. A couple of days ago a random retweet threw up a perfect example of this by leading me to a blogpost by Mack Collier (@MackCollier) entitled “You will fail at social media.” Intrigued, I read on – and I thoroughly recommend that you do too. Embedded in the post is a video of a TED lecture from Sir Ken Robinson whose 15-minute presentation on why education matters posits that creativity demands we have to dare to fail in order to succeed. This short video has radically altered my thinking about my childrens’ education and training and education in the company I help to run. I can't recommend it highly enough. Sir Ken’s thesis observes that children dare to fail until adults educate that courage out of them – and that this traditional approach to education is disastrous in the context of the global creative economy we live and work in.

Then it dawned on me that what Chris and Jen at Salt have been doing for the last ten years is daring to fail. And when it looked like that failure was complete (in commercial if not artistic terms) they dared to be brutally honest about it – and apply their own brand of wit and creativity to facing up to that reality. How ironic it will be – and how salutary – if that failure is the birth of a level of success they could never previously dream of achieving.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

On (the value of Tweet)streams and silence

Aside from a return to the blogosphere last weekend also provided some badly needed R&R in the form of a day in the Kent countryside. We were meant to be walking but as rain threatened we took detours to the homes of two remarkable men. First Down House, home and laboratory to the naturalist Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species radically altered our understanding of mankind, provoking a debate between creationists and evolutionists that continually resurfaces (and has been much in the news this bicentennial year). Then to Chartwell, creation of Winston Churchill, a man who lived multiple lives as a journalist, soldier, politician, trade-union-card-carrying bricklayer, artist, Prime Minister and Nobel-prize-winning author in just one legendary incarnation. Both visits have caused me to dwell on the nature of thought, ideas, information and work.

Since returning to my desk on Monday I’ve been amused to realise that my comments about Twitter being a river of information seem to be somewhat on point (a refreshing change). In past three days I’ve read numerous references to “stream” and “flow” in the way people talk about what Twitter and for that matter Web 2.0 is about. Of course thinking about information as a flow is not new: thread, flow, train, trail, stream are all words historically applied to the way in which information is shared between people. There is a commonality in the imagery deployed – a visualisation of information as being something linear and continuous or connected. What’s different about Twitter is it is not a thread but rather a medium for parcels of discontinuous information of almost infinitely variable usefulness, relevance and quality, to move along at various speeds and in multiple directions or even dimensions. Since loading Tweetdeck I’ve discovered that it is perfectly possible to sit and watch a stream of information parcels flowing in front of my eyes.

On a good day I feel like a heron perched on a rock watching the tweetstream flow by and choosing which is the plumpest, most promising fish to dive for. Conversely on a not-so-good day I feel like I’m in the Matrix, watching ribbons of code wash down the screen, and wonder whether I’m being reprogrammed or reconditioned as it flows in front of my eyes. Then of course there’s the suggestion that Twitter is “crack for the easily distractible” (apologies to whoever tweeted that remark, I didn’t have the wit to favourite it and I'm yet to discover a time-efficient way of swimming upstream to fish it out again.) Whatever one’s view, it is clear that Twitter and other media/ social media/ electronic networks are capable of transforming the way in which humans engage with information, ideas and possibly even with each other – or at least those humans with access to the web who are willing to spend considerable portions of time to splashing about in this virtual paddling pool.

Interestingly the two houses we visited on Sunday are only a few miles apart and both set deep in the Kent countryside in locations that command wonderful rural views and feel quintessentially English. Both have a sense of timelessness. Of course the “mothballing” effect of being frozen in an English Heritage or National Trust package is partly responsible for this: a house preserved as an exhibit is markedly different to a house full of the hurly-burly of family life (in Darwin’s case) or the extraordinary pageant of society figures that passed through Churchill’s country residence. Yet both houses were clearly refuges and places where creativity and ideas were given time and space to be nurtured.

Churchill employed numerous research assistants for his extraordinary published opus, whereas Darwin harnessed his children’s energy to aid his experiments by monitoring the work of earthworms and charting the flight of bees. Neither man laboured in isolation – but conversely each of them created around himself time and space in which to think, work and play. Time and space into which selected colleagues and collaborators were invited rather than manifesting as a constantly available flow of information. Both houses are characterised by sense of completeness and detachment from unwanted intrusion, which I suspect is intrinsic and not the result of the heritage package deal.

So I find myself wondering what role Twitter and Web 2.0 might have played in the life and works of these two extraordinary men. Would the homes they lived and worked in still have provided them with the space they needed to develop themselves and their projects? Darwin in particular spent years working on his theories. He knew that they would shake the establishment to its core and provoke controversy throughout the Western world, and therefore he refined and re-defined them scrupulously for years. Ultimately he was forced into publication by receipt of an unsolicited paper from Alfred Russel Wallace, another young naturalist who had independently reached similar conclusions. One can’t help wondering how much longer he would have worked before publication without this external impetus – or whether in a world of 24/7 external information exchange he would have developed the powers of observation that gave rise to his discoveries in the first place? Would Churchill have had an army of research assistants Tweeting constant updates on the life of the Duke of Marlborough manuscript in progress and if so would the Tweets have obviated the need for anyone to buy the book when complete?

Intrigued as I am by Twitter and the connectivity it opens up to us – I can’t help wondering if the information flow it creates and the speed at which the packages of wisdom we tweet and retweet flash past will aid the development and discoveries of new Darwins and Churchills – or hinder them. Both Darwin and Churchill fully understood the necessity to self-brand and to stay ahead – and each deployed the media of their age to this end. Both endured their own intellectual and emotional hardships, despite each being born to extraordinary privilege and opportunity. And each of them created around them a private haven, free of external intrusions, in which to work, play, think, create, write and, ultimately, to publish. I can’t help worrying that the exponential acceleration of the information exchange we’re creating online means we will never see their like again.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Of Tweets (and Clucks)

Back to blogging my opinions after a few weeks muted by the demands of the physical world (as opposed to the intangible world that exists somewhere in the interface between my mind, fingertips, laptop and the internet). And I realise that what I have at the moment is not so much opinions – but a whole swathe of unanswered questions.

Top on the list is Why is Twitter talked about as part of the “social" media revolution? So far it looks to me that whilst it can be used to communicate the minutiae of one’s social life – that is just about its least interesting and in many cases its least frequent use. In the case of Twitter surely "Semi-Professional Media", "Self Branding Media", "Maven Media", "Free Advertising Media", "Fan Club Media", or even "Get a Life Media" could all be more descriptively accurate labels. To date by far the most interesting Twitterers I have followed are those actively engaged in working out what social and digital media are and how people engage with them now and in the future

Watching the different ways in which people tweet, I am coming to view the 140 character microblog as a mini blank canvas that’s moving at top speed while you are trying to paint the right characters onto it, and that accelerates away once the send button is hit. Tweets are something like a blank postcards on which one can both sketch a picture and write a message. But the card isn’t addressed or posted to one person – it’s cast out to sea like a message in a bottle. Except it isn’t a sea – it’s a torrent, a flowing river, chock full of other bottles and messages all shooting down the rapids.

I suspect that for some the challenge of being clever / witty/ interesting in the prescribed space adds an addictive frisson to Twitter (something like the challenge inherent in the NYRB personal ads). It’s clearly a wonderful medium for maven personality types, a global platform from which to broadcast their hints, tips, leads & ideas. I’m less certain of its worth or contribution to celebrity culture – although humans have an obvious and ancient urge to connect in some way with their idols, heroes and heroines no matter how remote. Perhaps following on Twitter provides an illusion of direct contact that speaks to this need.

I’m mystified by the ongoing discussion about whether Twitter will be a flash in the pan and the angst over Nielsen’s figures showing that more people drop out of Twitter than Facebook. Firstly, we know that fashions come and go in this space. So what if not everyone sticks with Twitter or it is not the flavour of 2010 or beyond. The point is that it is here now, and even in the small way I’ve been using it, its an incredibly powerful tool for connecting with people outside of one’s physical ambit and – crucially – for accessing and sharing ideas. If you want a highly reasoned and fascinating specialist disquisition on this try John Borthwick’s fascinating post The Rise of Social Distribution Networks on the Silicon Valley Insider. I particularly like his quote of Dave Winer’s metaphor of a “rope of information”. Except that in a rope the fibres are homogeneous and systematically intertwined. Twitter’s inherent structure is much more random – a sort of chaos theory applied to disembodied fragments of conversation. But that chaos is part of its attraction and its value. I certainly don’t care whether more people use Facebook or Linked In than Twitter – so why does it matter to others? I wonder if the answer to that question lies with those responsible for monetizing Silicon Valley.

I’m also bemused by the debate about the potential for passing around misinformation. Since when did any of us expect information put about by others – even if we know them (or in this virtual space “know” them) – to be consistently and entirely accurate? Has free information ever been considered to be inherently more reliable than paid-for information? Any of us who are specialists in a particular field know that the in traditional mainstream media what passes as information is often based on biased press releases that time-poor journalists working to deadlines have not had time to interrogate or even re-hash. It is axiomatic that much of what is tweeted and retweeted is second-hand information, gleaned quickly from others and re-broadcast to a follow group for a variety of purposes ranging from altruism to naked self-interest and every shade on the spectrum of motives in between and therefore is potentially inaccurate. If any of us wants to take what we find there seriously and act on its contents it remains our own responsibility to make reliable judgements about the original source and the potential for accuracy

This all links – tangentially – to the other big question that’s been bugging me. Why does it matter how many people I follow or am followed by? The culture of maximising followers strikes me as being an old-media ambition. What’s wrong with a small and self-selecting audience? Since when was biggest best? And we all know that democracies can get it spectacularly wrong. I’m not unhappy that so far I have just over 50 followers and am following about 80. Yes I plan to follow more, but slowly because I’d rather follow the most interesting few than the uninteresting many. So far Twitter is by far the most powerful Internet application I have encountered for access to diverse, relevant information which is pre-filtered for potential relevance to me by those I have chosen to follow. It's a bonus than in the process I'm also able to identify others with common interests and concerns and reach out to them.

All I have to do now is learn to fish the best bottles out of the river whilst avoiding drowning in it in the process.

Meanwhile back here in real, physical Caxland, the chickens arrived long before the ebook reader, as predicted. (I’m still hanging out for Kindle on iphone so it’s a case of waiting until the UK becomes part of Amazon’s e-universe). The girls: Elsie Hepzibah, Alchy and Gaia Artemis (names that divulge much about the individual characters of the resident teens and proto-teen who named them) are finding their voices and becoming daily funnier, bigger, bolder, cheekier and more beguiling. At the same time they are invading and threatening ever more of the garden. (Much as ebooks and digital information are growing up, becoming more sophisticated and penetrating ever more areas of the traditional publishing world). I’m going to have to reconfigure my tiny estate and build some discreet fences so the girls and my flowers and food crops can co-exist in harmony. It remains to be seen whether any legal, free market compliant, effective fences can be constructed that will allow books and ebooks to co-exist in a way that works for publishers, authors and readers.