AHHH! Frankfurt Book Fair Less than a Month Away

Normal office behavior until the Frankfurt Book Fair is over:

spongebob freakout

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Hanser Verlag’s Michael Krüger on the State of Literature

Michael Krueger, publisher of Carl Hanser Verlag in Germany
Michael Krüger (Photo © Carl Hanser Verlag)

On the eve of retirement as publisher of Carl Hanser Verlag in Germany, the legendary Michael Krüger spoke with Publishing Perspectives about the current state of publishing and literature. Below, his answer to the question, “Do you think we are entering an increasingly impoverished literary age?”

“I only know there are good and interesting books, and bad ones. You can read them on paper or on the screen, I don’t care. I only get nervous when people are constantly reading second-class books, when reviewers praise third-rate books, and when booksellers put bad books in their windows. Since book publishing became a mass-market business, the quality level is constantly sinking. But there are still very good books around, in every country! The problem is that people can’t get them because they are hiding. People thought that with digitization, the good books would be easier to get. But the problem is that most of the readers love bad books! I have no explanation for the fact that modern societies have invested tons of money into schools and universities only to find out that horrible books are much more loved than the good ones…”

It’s certainly true that book discovery has only become more complex with the rise of ebooks and online bookselling. With millions of books for sale on Amazon, how can readers find the rare gem that they don’t even know they want? Recommendation algorithms from online retailers like Amazon and B&N are based on patterns, which means a reader will see books similar to what he or she has previously read — not so good for finding anything new.

Then again, some readers aren’t looking for anything new. They are looking for entertainment. Consider what Open Letter Books publisher Chad Post says about this:

“ . . . speaking in broad strokes, ‘entertainments’ tend to reinforce current dominant cultural modes, whereas ‘literature’ can upend some beliefs, ways of thinking, assumptions. Which may well explain why these books have limited sales success . . . ”

So, do “most of the readers love bad books” as Krüger says, or do they have a book discovery problem? I would argue that because readers have access to a larger selection of books than they will ever read in a lifetime and because many of them read for entertainment, they see little need to dig deeper than the recommendation algorithm, the bestseller lists and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends.

This isn’t true of all readers, obviously. There are book lovers who will seek out new books, pick through the shelves at their second-hand bookstore, and deliberately stray from the bestsellers. But we can’t expect that all readers will invest so much time and effort.

Passionate Journalism: Maria Popova’s Keynote at TOC 2013

It’s hard not to be impressed and inspired when you hear someone speak with real passion and eloquence. Watch this keynote presentation that Maria Popova of Brain Pickings gave at this year’s Tools of Change Conference, in which she encourages us to remember what journalism is all about and to consider alternatives to ad-supported journalism.

A Flash-y Anecdote

Just a quick anecdote on the Apple-Adobe confrontation that just blew up recently when Steve Jobs took his disparaging remarks about Flash to a new level. I am a huge Apple fan, but the company’s decision to exclude Flash is not so cool.

The other day, someone emailed me and several other people a link to a Wall Street Journal video. In the video Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen speaks with Alan Murray about Steve Jobs’ remarks and the ongoing rivalry between Apple and Adobe. It’s a good video and you should watch it.

Immediately, one of the other recipients of the email responded by saying he tried to watch the video on his iPad, but couldn’t because it required Flash.

Moral of the story: closed system=smaller audience (ahem, Amazon Kindle…)

The Historical Record called Twitter

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My first reaction to the news that the Library of Congress will save Tweets was, “you’ve got to be kidding me!” Do we really need to archive all the drivel that is pumped through Twitter each day?

Then some of my neurons fired and on second thought, archiving the Twitter stream could actually provide a very clear insight into public opinion and current events. Watching the trends over a timeline would be a fascinating way to find out how Twitter users are changing and what impact Tweets have on other forms of media.

Imagine having a vast written record of public opinion about monumental events in history like the stock market crash in 1929, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Civil Rights Act or even 9/11. Twitter is the ultimate observer (along with other social networks like Facebook) of society as seen by individuals, not just politicians, journalists and PR agencies. The historical record is now a lot bigger, and everyone can add their voice to it.

First Video Review of the iPad

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The iPad is finally here! Despite a few drawbacks, this iPad is a pretty cool device. It is perfect for reading newspapers (and would be great for magazine content, if the magazine industry ever decides to step into the digital era) with slideshows, videos, and links. Below is a video of my first impressions (done for Publishing Perspectives) including a look at the iBook app.

Take the Leap, Stay Relevant

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The other day I had brunch with a couple of journalists who write for niche publications that come out both online and in print. They’ve been doing so for a decade, are well connected and skilled at what they do.

Naturally the conversation drifted to the way online media has changed journalism in terms of profits, job security, and the skills that reporters need today. The more we talked about this, a sense of fear and resistance rose from these two journalists. One of them said that his plan was to try to hold out for another decade without losing his job or having to learn new skills, then he would retire.

I can’t think of a worse way to end a career: spending the last ten years of your working life feeling afraid and defensive, hoping that things don’t change too much, hoping you can stay relevant enough to survive.

This man decided that trying to delay change in the media industry in order to make sure his knowledge stays relevant is a better idea than learning how to stay relevant in a changing industry.

Market forces always prevail and we can’t pull the entire media industry back from the edge of any cliff. We’ve already fallen over the cliff. The change is already here.

Being an expert these days, especially in the media industries, means being willing to learn. Knowing how to create a newsletter in MS Word doesn’t mean that Word is the best tool for the job. Understanding a certain business model doesn’t mean you should use that business model. It’s hard work to always think about what could be rather than what is. And nobody wants to lose their expertise. I certainly don’t. But none of us can stay relevant if we only use the knowledge we acquired yesterday.

It’s just hard to believe that there are intelligent people out there who refuse to believe this.