ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs Serial storyteller, poetry pusher, digital doodler, flâneur.

Print Books: Purge or Hoard?

Although I love my print books, e-readers, in one form or another, have become my primary reading device over the last few years. I barely touch my print books, although they are still beautiful and important to me. But they sit on my bookshelf as a decorative and intellectual art form… When I voiced my reluctance to ship my books, one of my editors, horror-stricken, said: “You have to take your books with you! I mean, they are books. They are so important!” The book lover in me didn’t disagree, but the practical side of me did… In the end, I decided to leave 80 percent of the books behind, donating them to bookstores and even throwing some old, tattered volumes in the garbage. Readers, what would you have done? (


Image by henry… via Flickr

Old news. Familiar question. Sort of…

I just returned from the Writer’s Digest Conference where the question of jettisoning or clinging to print collections came up several times. No consensus, but an interesting question.

This winter/spring is “out with the old, in with the new” time for me, so I’m lightening my load in as many ways as I can. My 2012 word-of-the-year? Agile. I’ll revisit this in the months ahead. Am I throwing too much too fast for you to follow my line of reasoning? Yes, I am. Concept still jelling. Actually the concept and the conviction have jelled, but I’m still sorting through how to explain my mission. Dump nonessential baggage and travel light. Simplify. Cut the crap. Chase the dream… As you can see, I’m still in beta on this!

Nick Bilton‘s July 27 post, “Print Books: Should They Stay or Should They Go?” cuts right to the chase, and I suspect that his decision to pare print down to 20% of his collection will be an increasingly common phenomenon.

I’m not there. I like digital, but I’m a sucker for ink and paper and bindings. I’m passionate about marginalia-filled white space and flattened relics which tumble out of books instantly transporting us back to an orange poppy in Big Sur or a teenage romance. I’m not ready to swap my bookshelves and floor/windowsill/desk stacks for a slim digital facsimile. Not yet. Purge I will, but not the books. Not now.

What about you? Do you feel the urge to purge?

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Publishers Need Agile Content


While the e-book is an excellent entry into the digital world, it should not blind publishers so they miss the larger point. It is definitely not about focusing on specific formats, as their persistence (or rather brevity) in the market is impossible to predict. They may be called e-books or printed books, online publications or iPhone apps. A publisher should be able to serve all of these formats, without focusing exclusively on one… Particular attention must be paid to the quality of the content and its editing. XML, semantics and RDF emerge as main priorities.(Publishing Perspectives)


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Publishing Isn’t Broken

Publishing isn’t broken, or so says Jane Smith over at How Publishing Really Works, and here’s why. The very best books from the very best writers get published; books get sold; and writers, agents, editors, publishers, etc. get what they want: money. Phew. Good to have that sorted out so tidily. Unless, of course, it’s not really that tidy…

For decades, the publishing business has worked pretty well. Writers write books; agents sell those books to publishers; publishers make the books available to the market. Money flows through the system from reader to writer via the publisher and agent. Everyone involved makes money, and gets what they want… Be very wary of new models of publishing. The old one works just fine. (A New Model for Publishing?)

Smith suggests that the only breakdown in the publishing world is unskilled writers, agents, etc. Granted, there’s plenty of room to point the finger at unqualified contenders, that’s always fun and easy. But it seems that Smith is overlooking vital current concerns about whether or not the traditional publishing environment is broken, outdated, inefficient, etc. She talks a lot about money in traditional book publishing. This makes sense because the Gutenberg Paradigm is expensive to maintain. Whereas evolutions in technology, book selling, and readers’ habits have enabled modern publishing alternatives that make book publishing less expensive. Much less expensive!

Mainstream publishing isn’t broken: it has its flaws, certainly, but it still works. It still publishes books which show clear commercial potential; works to make those books as good as they can possibly be; and then gets those books into as many sales points as it possibly can. Just because it does that by only publishing the very best books from the very best writers, and consequently rejecting the majority, doesn’t mean that it’s broken: just that far too many writers are not yet good enough at their craft for publishers to risk investing their money in them.(Publishing Isn’t Broken)

Correct, rejecting the majority does not mean traditional publishing is broken. Correct, many writers undoubtedly are not worthwhile investments for traditional publishers, either because they are not sufficiently skilled writers or because there isn’t a big enough market for what they write. But this fulcrum of commercial potential is dramatically shifted when we consider the modern publishing industry’s efficiencies. Digitally distributed ebooks cut significant time and cost out of production and distribution. Print on demand (POD) publishing dramatically reduces up-front costs for book publishing. And these are just two cost cutting shifts that favor new models of publishing over traditional models of publishing. And less invested in a new title means less risk of failure and a lower ROI threshold. It means that the market can be used to evaluate the viability of a new book rather than a committee, an editor, even an agent. This means more variety and risk is possible for new books. It means niche markets become far more viable than they were in traditional publishing.This is hugely exciting!

Publishing cannot focus solely on bringing works of staggering genius to the attention of a grateful reading public, or on nurturing and supporting novice writers as they learn their craft and experiment with exciting risky new projects: while that would be nice for those novice writers it wouldn’t be nearly so nice for the publishers’ shareholders who would have to provide funds to publish the many turkeys such an approach would undoubtedly hatch, nor would readers appreciate being provided with all the unreadable tripe which might well result… [So] publishing books which will sell well has to be the publishing business’s main focus. (Publishing: Broken Or Not?)

Broken or not, Smith highlights one of the biggest challenges that traditional publishers face today: the economics are changing. The old way no longer works just fine. “Re-imagine the future,” Debbie Stier says. “Forget the old way. It doesn’t work in the new economy. Stop trying to control; make something useful and help people use it; get out of the way.” Amen. I’m anticipating a publishing industry that will be far more agile, flexible and stripped down. Far less costly to sustain. Far more in sync with readers, writers and consumer habits.

Truce: Andrew Wylie and Random House

Super agent Andrew Wylie has retreated, regrouped and/or renegotiated in his struggle with Random House over ebook rights. After Wylie announced that he would bypass the Big Six publisher by selling his author’s digital work directly to consumers through’s Kindle store, new and old media debates raged. Was this the final nail in the coffin for traditional publishing? Did the authors support Wylie’s bold move? Could he even follow through? Lines were drawn and opinions flared. Much attention was drawn to the plight and future of publishing, but the final verdict is still out. It’s too early to understand Wylie’s decision, but the detente is likely fragile and short lived.

Random House, which publishes 13 of the books in physical format, was outraged at the development and promptly issued a statement announcing that it would not enter any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency – home to 700 authors and estates – until the situation was resolved… A joint statement issued [two days ago] by the publisher and the Wylie Agency said the two parties had “resolved [their] differences”, and that the 13 “disputed” Random House titles… were being removed from Odyssey Editions and taken off sale.

“We have agreed that Random House shall be the exclusive ebook publisher of these titles for those territories in which Random House US controls their rights,” said the joint statement. “The titles soon will be available for sale on a non-exclusive basis through all of Random House’s current ebook customers. Random House is resuming normal business relations with the Wylie Agency for English-language manuscript submissions and potential acquisitions, and we both are glad to be able to put this matter behind us.” (“Truce called in battle over ebook rights” via The Guardian)

It’s interesting how quickly, how enthusiastically battle lines have been drawn after Andrew Wylie and, more recently, Seth Godin announced that he would skip traditional publishers in an attempt to connect directly with readers. Everyone is looking for a bellwether, but it looks like — at least for the time being — Andrew Wylie has retreated, regrouped and/or renegotiated. Do you think this truce between the Wylie Agency and Random House will endure?

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Ryu Murakami Bypasses Publishers, Opts for IPad

Are you familiar with Ryu Murakami? He’s a successful, established Japanese novelist, and he’s breaking away from the heard with his next novel, A Singing Whale. Although he’s still ironing out the details for an ink and paper edition, he’s releasing the digital version directly to his audience via Apple’s iBookstore, “circumventing his traditional publisher in the process…

Murakami’s project should be hailed less as a blow against the monopoly of big publishing houses over authors and the circulation of their work, and more as a celebration of the kinds of opportunities that devices like the iPad can provide for creativity and cost-efficient distribution.

Other authors are, however, dispatching more direct challenges to the traditional publishing industry model by signing deals directly with e-book retailers, rather than through their publishers. This spring, bestselling suspense novelist Stephen King released his latest work, Blockade Billy as an e-book one month before releasing the hardcover version in the U.S. and Canada, and published a short story, “UR,” exclusively for the Kindle in February 2009. Other prominent American writers have also sold the e-book rights to past and current work exclusively to Amazon. (

Wall Street Journal blogger, Yoree Koh, explains that the release and rapid adoption of Apple’s iPad has fueled a world of worry among old guard publishing industry heavyweights who “have feared the worst: thatprecious big-name authors might sign directly with e-book retailers, relegating the old-school publishers as the dispensable middleman.”

Let the nightmare begin. Novelist Ryu Murakami… replaced the publishers with a software company to help develop the e-book titled “A Singing Whale,” or “Utau Kujira” in Japanese. The digital package will include video content and set to music composed by Academy Award winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto… Mr. Murakami’s decision is the latest step taken by well known authors in re-writing the business model of the publishing industry… [By] offering fresh material only in an electronic format, Mr. Murakami’s plan has basically removed the traditional book publisher from the calculation entirely. (Wall Street Journal)

Obvious growing pains will follow such a bold move, but this as an inevitable and exciting evolution as the publishing industry moves away from the Gutenberg Paradigm toward a more audience-centric publishing model. I see this transition not so much as a challenge, but rather as a reminder that content can easily and quickly be packaged into engaging, innovative, multi-modal, portable and user friendly formats. Vook, iBookstore, Kindle and others are leading the innovation, while the lumbering dinosaurs sit by and grumble.

Why? Catch up. Surpass. Imagine an even sexier future! Paper and ink publishing is grand. Aesthetically pleasing, nostalgic, luxurious and enduring in a fragile sort of way. All true. I love books. And they’re here to stay, though their production will not continue to be the primary vessel for publishing content. They’ll likely become a specialty item. Electric format books offer outstanding financial benefits, distribution benefits, and creativity benefits. The biggest challenge will be to storytellers and content providers. It’s time for us to begin dreaming up the next frontier of storytelling, and Ryu Murakami’s A Singing Whale is just the inspiration we need. It’s time to liberate words from their bindings, time to let them soar and dance!


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