So Wait, Which of These 2 Million Books am I Supposed to Read?
Like music, the publishing and book selling industries have fallen on their own hard times. If we look at Barnes and Noble as a case study, we have to wonder what happened to force this literary Goliath to put itself up for sale. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that book covers had to be assessed for sell-ability by the company’s gatekeepers before major publishing houses would even dare to print them?
Journalists would have us believe the impending collapse of Barnes & Noble has much to do with Amazon taking an early lead in the development and distribution of e-books — followed by their own efficient delivery method, the Kindle. Could it be that Barnes and Noble didn’t put enough of a push behind its own e-reader, the Nook, and is now feeling the hit from the overnight success of Apple’s iPad? Does it have something to do with the countless number of people you see on the train, at the beach, at a café reading on their phones?
There’s a theme here, isn’t there?
Digital devices. But is it just the fact that Apple and Amazon have made digital a priority that will keep these companies afloat? Isn’t digital just an inevitable step in our evolution of media consumption? And what will digital’s challenge be?
If we were to predict the future of books, it might be better to look at the sheer quantity of content that’s being generated and ask how publishing companies will find the time, money and resources to market all of it to the proper audiences. Publishers can no longer assign meaning to their products because they’re too busy churning out the next batch.
Just like there was a time when John Reineck (See Part One) went to a record store and was presented with a limited selection of albums to choose from, those days in the book world are long over. Like the music consuming experience, book buying has gone from wading through a stream, to straddling a buoy lost at sea. We no longer have a place to tell us what’s good. Instead, we have algorithms in iTunes or Amazon that indicate “those who bought this, also bought this.” But why do I care about what other people have bought? I only care about the things that I like. And who’s to say we have the same taste?
My girlfriend Erin loves books. In fact, she collects them. One wall of her apartment is dedicated to them—arranged by color, seeing as how Erin is an interior designer and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Friends will often come to her apartment and make it a point to peruse her shelves. This is where they discover what they should be reading next. Usually, they’ll write down a couple titles, plug them into their phones, and the next time they see Erin they’ll talk about the books they’ve read.
What an amazing experience Erin has created here. Simply by stacking her books along the wall she’s created a context for her friends to know what’s good. And they trust Erin because she has discerning taste. She’s the last person to go with the herd, and she’ll toss out a book if it’s not carrying its weight. I saw this most recently with William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch which she plopped on my dining room table, declaring “This is such bullshit.” And thus poor William may never gain admittance into Erin’s circle—regardless of all the praise surrounding the title elsewhere. So much for algorithms.
The fact is, people need a context, a real context, to know what’s good, and as the number of books grow exponentially, we have less of an ability to narrow down what’s actually worth the read.
We could go searching for what’s good, but that would mean knowing what source is the best source. Which of the millions of blogs and Twitter personalities are the right ones for us to be consulting? Will Technorati tell us? Well, they’ll tell us which blogs are the most popular, but what are they popular for? I’d say that the majority of today’s top rated blogs are some of the most inane, obnox- ious slosh I’ve ever come in contact with. Are these going to become my trusted sources for recommendations? What about an online community like GoodReads? Wouldn’t they know what’s what? But then, who are these other users, and are they anything like me? Even in our weakest moments, where we head off with the herd and consume our guilty pleasures, we still have our own meter tuned in to what really resonates with us, and what slides in and out of our attention never to be thought of again.
Welcome to your dreams. Stay a while.
And then, of course, there’s video games—which, while we’re trying to fix everything else, just seem to keep getting bigger, better, and more immersive. My cousin Jeff told me recently about an experience he had playing a first-person shooter game set in a war zone. Jeff is a graduate of MIT. He’s no stranger to technology, and he likes to have fun. He tried the game at his friend’s apartment and said he had to turn it off after 20 minutes. He said his heart was racing, he was sweating, his mind was frantic. He had been trying to lead a battalion of soldiers through a firefight and was taking severe casualties. He was being shot at by unseen enemies while lost in a place he didn’t know. Jeff is an incredibly capable human being. He is highly creative, with a knack for problem solving, but what Jeff is not is a soldier. He’s not trained to be one, nor does he have the passion to carry those responsibilities. But for those 20 minutes he was one. He wasn’t just a guy playing a game. He was a part of its universe and he was forced to live by its rules. Jeff had entered its story, and just look at the instant emotional reaction he had from it.
Now, imagine if Jeff had turned on a game that put him in a world that he enjoyed. What if he’d found himself in a snowboarding competition where he could perform run after run, perfecting tricks he’d never attempt on an actual slope? What if he wasn’t held back by the limitations of actually being there, like physical exhaustion? How long would Jeff stay in that story? And how much satisfaction would he take away from it once he’d returned?
The same thought can be applied to Hollywood.
To me, Hollywood is the middle place between reality and our dream of it.
It is a golden revolving door where we step in wishing for something to be, and exit having experienced that thing—carrying with us the remnants of its universe, the memories, the things that stuck to us, that filled our pockets while we were there.
The question is why do we have to leave? Why can’t we live in that universe a little longer? And who says when it’s time to go? If I love a story, why can’t I stay? Is there nothing else you can give me? Is there not another door for me to step through? I’ll pay the admission. Do you hear me — you in the boardroom at the publishing house… at the record label… at the gaming studio… at the movie studio? I’ll pay the admission. Just give me more.
This is the open ticket that transmedia offers us. When one part of the story comes to an end, another medium is right there to pick it up and carry it into the next chapter.
Sparrow Hall will be speaking on Transmedia and Creative Rights Management at the 2011 StoryWorld Conference in San Francisco Oct 31 – Nov 2.