Pull vs Push: How has the paradigm shifted?

Pull vs. push: how has the paradigm shifted?

The pull vs push strategy as employed in marketing has undergone a paradigm shift. In the old days, it was about pushing products out. Manufacturers had the power to decide what to process, the retailers sold what was handed to them. According to an article in The Frontline, “The push system involved manufacturers deciding what they’re going to produce and then trying to get retailers to buy it and sell it for them.”

Enter Walmart.

The world’s largest retailer isn’t so only in name—“It has over 11,100 stores in ~27 countries. With a market cap of over $275 billion, it ranks among the top ten companies in the S&P 500 Index”. (Analyzing Walmart – The World’s Largest Retailer)

Walmart revolutionized the pull vs push strategy by placing the power in the hands of retailers. “The retailers have more and more say over what is being produced, under what pricing, at what time. They’re basically playing a key role in dictating exactly what will be produced, when and where.” (The Frontline)

Pull vs Push in Publishing

Now let us consider the pull vs push phenomenon in the increasingly digital world of publishing. Allowing readers to pull in the content they wish to read is not only vital but pretty much the only option left to publishers today. “We’re moving to an environment where it will be about consumers pulling rather than publishers pushing a product,” said David Steinberger, president of Perseus Books. Adds Rajiv Jain, chief technology officer of photo-marketing site Corbis: “Discoverability has always been an issue, but there’s now infinite shelf space.” (Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content)

In the olden days it was a matter of laying content out at the bookstore. Publishers chose the books that ought to make front shelf. This made them further choose the books to publish—which happened to be the ones they felt were front-shelf worthy. There may have been countless novels and stories that never saw the light of day because of such monopoly. Either that or a miraculous change of events led the publisher to see the error of its ways. Following is an example of one of the biggest errors of judgment in publishing history:

The Christopher Little Literary Agency received 12 publishing rejections in a row for their new client, until the eight-year-old daughter of a Bloomsbury editor demanded to read the rest of the book. The editor agreed to publish but advised the writer to get a day job since she had little chance of making money in children’s books. Yet Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling spawned a series where the last four novels consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history, on both sides of the Atlantic, with combined sales of 450 million. (Best-sellers initially rejected)

While the traditional routes of marketing books were limited, publishers enjoyed power. But with the emergence of the Web that changed. There is now “infinite shelf space” as Jain put it. Social media platforms emerged to compartmentalize that space quite well. SEO giants emerged to make sure the platforms remained viable and connected. Giant online retailers such as Amazon emerged to capitalize on it further and self-publishing became a glowing testimony to power changing hands.

Enter Web 2.0

Going back to square one for a bit, let us examine the word “push” in detail. The official US poster of Terminator genisys  at a bus stop, advertising both Arnold Schwarzenegger in his full, machine-with-a-soul glory and the dates when the movie would hit theatres is an example of “pushing” content out. It is already there. Terminator fans see the poster and know what they have to look forward to and when. They do not put in any effort to looking up the details on their own. In the “push” case, you are basically shoving matter out and hoping your customer picks it up. This type of strategy works well in cases where the brand is established beyond a doubt. Terminator is a franchise and the mighty and as-impassive-as-ever Schwarzenegger, its selling point. Push in such a case works fine. Fans are bound to hit the theatres.

Now let us look at “pull”. If I want to read fiction involving, say, North Korea, I google the very words: fiction involving North Korea. Google promptly comes up with about 404,000 searches (in 0.51 seconds). The sites that stand out prominently are Wikipedia, Goodreads, Amazon, and even important news sites, in this case, The Guardian. While “pull” here involved a bit of work—thinking up what words to search—the reward was a collection of about 400,000 sites to choose from! That is a lot of content to choose from and conversely speaking, not at all the monopolized rendering or “pushing out” of content as a publisher would have traditionally preferred.

I find something intriguing—The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. A Pulitzer prize winning novel, it deals with themes of propaganda, identity, and power in North Korea, and has been published by Penguin Random House. The very first site advertising the same is Amazon.com and along with this novel, Amazon recommends what other books customers look at—for similar themes or simply by virtue of them all being award winners.

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But it doesn’t stop at that. There is more.

Goodreads does even better. It lists out entire e-shelves of books that have anything to do with North Korean literature.

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Not to be left behind, Wikipedia has its own “Category: North Korea in fictionas well as North Korean literature”. The Guardian weighs in with “The best books on North Korea | World News…” And that’s not all, scroll down a nanometer and you can see The Washington Post proudly brandishing its own list of “10 illuminating books about North Korea”. And this by no way is the end of the list.

But already, I have choices. I now have “Aquariums of Pyongyang: 10 years in the North Korean Gulag” by Kang Chol-Hwan and “Nothing to envy: Ordinary lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick to add to my list of intriguing North Korean literature.

Push to pull (by reluctant publishers) to push (by interested readers)

This is where things become more interesting—turning push to pull. Publishers who want to succeed must realize that the time to push content out is past. Readers pull in what they want and in turn, it is the readers who “push” content out further. And this is where the shift comes in—readers choose what to push out. Control has changed hands.

Using social media platforms, publishers make sure everything they have is out there. The Orphan Master’s Son exists on Goodreads, Amazon, Wikipedia; it has a Facebook page, it has been tweeted about, and it has also been bandied about on Pinterest and Tumblr. But from here we enter murky territory. The success of the novel does not depend on the social media platforms that the publisher has used to make its existence known. At least not anymore. And not from a lack of making an effort at pulling readers in but simply because readers now have choice. They can choose if they still want to read The Orphan Master’s Son—even though the publishers think it is the best and even though it now has a Pulitzer Prize to its credit.

In fact, while “pulling” my own content in, I decided I found Escape from Camp 14 by American journalist Blaine Harden more intriguing. So not only do I pull that content in, I choose to push it out further. I decide to pin it on my Pinterest page on books I have read so far. Other interested “Pinteresters” look it up, and repin it from me.  I like its “Facebook” page. My close friend on FB who “follows” my activities, looks it up intrigued. And now it seems he has read it too because the 500 “likes” for “Escape from Camp 14” just increased by one more reader. I vote and add to its scores of 90 and 8,907, respectively, on Goodreads. In all this rigmarole, The Orphan Master’s Son lies forgotten—and not because it is an inferior novel in any way. It must be an excellent book with harrowing themes of love, betrayal, dark underground tunnels, and harsh labour camp laws—not very different from Escape from Camp 14 itself. Yet my choice is all that mattered in the moment I chose to go with Escape from Camp 14 and not the latter. Flustered publishers had already done their bit—they had tried pulling in readers for both books as best as they could.

But this is exactly how the pull vs push paradigm works today. Readers pull in what they like and choose to push it out further. Publishers are relinquishing control.

“In cyberspace, it’s hard to push material in front of readers the way it has been done by a bookstore, a newspaper delivery boy or a mail carrier. But bookstores are disappearing. And readers often reject commercial e-mails from publishers. Many online readers use a search function when they want news or information rather than seek out a particular website.” (Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content)

Fear of discoverability to “infinite shelf space”

The question that emerges is what does the publisher do? Or lets go back a bit and analyze why publishers were so anxious to push out certain types of content while blatantly disregarding other precious gems as discovered by serendipity. After all, Louis L’Armour received 200 rejections before Bantam decided to risk it. He is now their bestselling author with 330 million sales. (Best-Sellers Initially Rejected)

What is it that they feared? Discoverability.

And that has now changed. With Web 2.0 and the relentless social media presence brought on by it, there is immense scope for discoverability. Or rather, with the “infinite shelf space”, publishers are at a loss as to how to control the flow of media.

Initially, plagued by fears of discoverability, publishers chose what to publish, thus maintaining a tight rein on the entire process from tailoring content to choosing the book cover. Now the digital world has made discoverability quite easy and, therefore, even trickier for publishers.

So these are the questions plaguing a publisher these days: How do they ensure their products are discovered when readers have a million others to choose from? How do they make themselves useful? David Steinberger, president of Perseus Books asks, “How do you invigorate that pull?” It gets better, which social media platform do you choose from? Or does all or any of it matter in the end if it all depends on the reader?

Attempts at pulling in readers: the grimaces, the sacrifices

Communities around brands

“According to Conde Nast group president David Carey, newspapers and magazines foster communities of readers that “form around our brands.” For example, Wired magazine hosts events that attract as many as 50,000 people. At the same time, former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz warned that in the digital world, communities based on content producers’ brands are fragile. “It would be easier for publishers to work together to create a New York Yankees website than to get Yankees fans to come to a newspaper website,” he said. (Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content)

Why didn’t a publisher buy Goodreads?

The twist came the day Amazon bought Goodreads instead of a publisher! After all, if you want to build a community of readers around your products, a better platform than Goodreads cannot be imagined.

A “social cataloguing” website, it allows “individuals to freely search Goodreads’ extensive user-populated database of books, annotations, and reviews. Users can sign up and register books to generate library catalogs and reading lists. They can also create their own groups of book suggestions, surveys/polls, blogs, and discussions. In December 2007, the site had over 650,000 members and over 10,000,000 books had been added. As of July 2012, the site reported 10 million members, 20 million monthly visits, and 30 employees. On July 23, 2013, it was announced on their website that the user base had grown to 20 million members, having doubled in close to 11 months.” Courtesy: Wikipedia

Of course, as Hoffelder suggests in his article “There’s A Reason That No One in Publishing Bought Goodreads“,  it could be about “publishers not being able to afford the rumored $150 million that Amazon paid for Goodreads, but they probably could have afforded it when it was smaller.” In fact in 2010, 3 major publisher got together to announce “a new site that would give them a direct digital connection to readers. It’s called Bookish, and it does give Hachette, Penguin, or Simon & Schuster a direct connection to readers. But the connection it offers is so very, very different from Goodreads that the differences tell us quite a bit about these publishers’ priorities.”

Goodreads vs Bookish

The contrasting differences here are examples of how publishers realize that the time to “push” content out is long gone but are still living in denial.

“Goodreads was launched to encourage readers to show up and be bookish. The community formed around them.

Bookish, on the other hand, was launched in order to provide Hachette, S&S, and Penguin with “direct digital customer relationships”. The publishers got to build it from the ground up, and the manner in which it functions says a lot about the type of ”direct digital customer relationships” these publishers want to have. The word relationship implies that there is more than one party speaking, and that is not the point of Bookish. This site exists to be little more than yet another marketing channel for publishers.” (Goodreads vs Bookish)

Going after Facebook and Twitter: not exactly a success story

Shareaholic report has shown that Facebook still reigns as king of social media. With an outstanding 22.3% of overall traffic to sites coming from Facebook, it is one of the best places for publishers to promote their content. (Facebook vs Pinterest vs Twitter: What Should Publishers Use?)

In fact, desperate publishers would even team up with rival organizations to pull readers in. In a recent blog, a writer says, “The Daily Dot regularly posts other publishers’ articles on its Facebook page, which featured 40 such articles in the past week. The site works with around 35 publishers, including Mental Floss, Maxim and Wired. Seven of those sites have agreed in turn to post Daily Dot stories on their own Facebook pages.” (In search of Facebook love, publishers form link-sharing pacts with each other)

Earlier last year, “nine major publishers began publishing articles straight to Facebook under the social network’s long-anticipated product, called Instant Articles. Facebook sweetened the deal by letting publishers control the ad sales, branding and content; sell ads on the articles and keep all the revenue; and get data on their readers.” But the attitudes are not as bracing as they seem. Not every publisher is happy about such strategies—after all, who likes to relinquish control.? “BuzzFeed and NBC News were the only ones to go all in committing to using the product. Others, like The New York Times and the Atlantic,” … took “a more cautious approach”. (How publishers are using Facebook’s instant articles)

Moreover, a few thousand “likes” hardly mean that their content is being read or that their books are being bought. Keeping readers engaged on their Facebook page is another matter.

Regarding the success of the “Instant Articles”, a blog post explained how it has led publishers to sacrifice their own site visits for the 1.5 billion pairs of eyes that visit Facebook, not to mention it only means more revenue for Facebook itself. “As TechCrunch eloquently wrote, ‘[they] are in danger of becoming dumb content in the smart pipes of platforms like Facebook and Twitter’.” Moreover, “With channels like Facebook, you’ll never see the full picture. As such, you can’t compare it to your own data, you can’t use it to build your own interest graph, and you have no control over who your content gets matched with.” (Are Facebook’s Instant Articles Actually Beneficial to Publishers?)

There was a time when Twitter was used to tell compelling stories.

“Previously, the platforms were willing to pass people on to a publisher’s website where they could show ads, promote their other posts, and forge a relationship worthy of a subscription fee or frequent repeat visits. The platform just wanted to be a gateway, and run ads between these chances for discovery.”

“Now, the platforms want to absorb the Internet, becoming the destination — a sit-down restaurant, not a take-out counter. The latest example of this is howTwitter’s newspapery Moments feature assimilates the content of tweets it aggregates on mobile, but hides the vital link back to the publisher’s website without users even knowing.” (Twitter And Facebook Are Turning Publishers Into Ghost Writers)

Pinterest might have some hope

As Mary Hiers says, “Pinterest has had an astonishing rise to prominence since it started as a closed beta operation in March 2010. By August 2012, Pinterest was the fourth largest source of traffic worldwide.

According to Matt Crystal, Head of International at Pinterest, “Pinterest is quickly becoming an important part of the audience development and engagement strategy for publishers. Publisher content is a great fit for Pinterest, and because every Pin links back to its source, we drive significant traffic to publishers of all kinds.” (A Publisher’s Guide to Pinterest Strategy)

As journalist Alastair Reid reports, “The notion of saving pins to a board is powerful,” he said. “It signals consumer intent and starts a chain reaction of sharing.”

But this is where the news stops being so good. Pinterest is still heavily dominated by female users, according to a research survey—users into crafts, fashion, lifestyle, and cooking. So this site might not be too conducive for content from every type of publisher. Plus, again content trafficking is solely in the hands of readers. It all depends on which pin they want to repin, which has absolutely nothing to do with which publisher has advertised that pin!

Tumblr? Nah…

“For publishers, social media is mostly about driving traffic… Several publishers report it doesn’t drive much traffic”. Amanda Michel, The Guardian’s U.S. open editor, said it “doesn’t have obvious transactional value.” Another social editor for a large publication said it is “more of a fun, rogue little playground.” (Is Tumblr a Must For Publishers?)

Conclusion

The bond between readers and publishers weakened a long time ago. In a Web-besieged world where content can flow in through apps, devices, computers, tablets, and other digitized screens, expecting a steady inflow of dedicated readers is out of the question. With the emergence of Amazon, bookstores—a publisher’s direct link to readers—already started going extinct.

But that was not all. Amazon’s Kindle Publishing System came along to make things uglier—for the publishers. This system has turned self-publishing into a wholly exciting and global phenomenon. In fact, Hugh Howey, with his hugely popular Wool series, which he initially released as a self-published book on Amazon’s aforementioned platform, is a live example of how a traditional publisher can be rendered completely useless.

Reluctant but still desperate to drive content, publishers started using social media sites to help generate traffic to their own sites. But here they are faced with several challenges, each more complicated than the next. This is the age of the web, meaning an explosion of content and shorter attention spans. Jumping from content to content can hardly ensure a dedicated readership to a particular website. In fact, in this day and age, distraction rules and therefore, quality of content suffers.

As mentioned above, it is totally up to the reader whether they want to follow content to its birth parent or simply forgo it and choose from the million other options. There are hundreds of sites to choose from. Choices offered by social media are endless. Therefore, publishers can hardly have a say in it.

While Fifty Shades of Grey outsold Harry Potter, raking in millions for Penguin Random House, it left more than one mouth hanging open at the incredulity of this phenomenon. Even the parent company could not have anticipated such phenomenal success! In the traditional days, a publisher would have outright rejected such ambitious content. And in the unlikely event that a publisher did risk publishing it, the book could hardly have hit headlines, had it not been for the ease with which its content was picked up—and read discreetly!—on tablets, ipads, and a multitude of other such devices with screens. In addition, let us not forget the enthusiastic reader tweets, retweets, pins, repins, likes, shares, and downloads!

Last but not the least—it is a dog eat dog world out there. Social media platforms themselves cannot only be concerned with the joys of a publisher. This is quite clear with the “Internet absorption” that is going on currently. “Facebook doesn’t need any individual publisher, but they all need the social network. Facebook never wants you to leave, so it’s swallowing up where you might try to go. A few years back, its News Feed brimmed with links to content hosted elsewhere. News articles, YouTube clips, business websites, ads for ecommerce stores.” (Facebook’s Quest To Absorb The Internet)

Yet these are desperate times. “With way more content than its algorithm can stuff into people’s feeds, supply is high, and Facebook controls the demand. If it’s willing to give publishers a way to stand out in the feed and get more traffic, they’re willing to try it rather than risk being left outside the garden walls.” (Facebook’s Quest To Absorb The Internet)

The rest is of course up to a reader. There is no saying what will take one’s fancy. These are days of the vampires, werewolves, and shades of gloomy colours!

It is not a pretty picture. But it is all there is. For now.

Reading Response—Hacking the word

This article is an excellent corollary to Liu’s “From reading to social computing.” James Bridle says that, the internet is yet to feel like a “literary plot device” because we still hold on to notions of the “single-authored work.” Liu’s hint at “democratization and decentralization of knowledge” emphasizes the same.

Bridle’s idea of “the first native literary form of the network” is fan fiction. He says “It seems native to the network because it embodies the network’s inherent disposition towards hacking and world-building, overlapping fictions which take from anywhere to generate new stories.”

However, this is Web 2.0 we are talking about. Every form of literature that exists digitally could be called native to the Web because the very medium of expression, compared to print media, is different. For example, reading a review in the newspaper is a vastly different experience to reading a review on online. Reading the review online opens up the possibility of simultaneous comments. Readers post comments, “like” them, insert links to other similar, useful, or relevant comments as well as other web sites. It is a wholly alive, walking, talking dynamic community experience. It is a wholesome celebration of literature—and one that only the web makes possible.

Of note here is Liu’s example of using social computing in literary study. He explains how his students used Facebook to enact the Shakespearean play Romeo and Juliet. They created profile pages of all the characters, created “friend” relations between them, created the Facebook group called “The Streets of Verona” whose message-board forum staged a large fight between the Capulets and the Montagues and so on. In essence, according to Liu, “Facebook became a platform for character or role-playing. It allowed the students to study the play as if they were directors staging it in an alternative medium.” This is an excellent example of creating literature native to the Web. Using Facebook to enact a Shakespearean play is a whole novel form of literary expression and one that only the Web, specifically Web 2.0, could have allowed. In fact this could be taken, in Bridle’s own words, as an example of “fiction, which takes from anywhere to generate new stories.”

Bridle in his own words seems to echo Liu’s ideas of “co-authorship”. He says, “But the true literatures of the network will emerge when we abandon notions of the single-authored work, when we abandon authority entirely, … when we truly begin to understand, and describe, the technologically-saturated culture we are already living in.”

But while he feels we are yet to get there, I think we have already made leaps and bounds. Every form of expression on the Web is native to the Web, and by extension—true literature of the Web.

Content not container

Content not container: The standalone importance of content

Papyrus scrolls

The first ever book was written on a piece of bark, or maybe a leaf. It had to be. The papermaking process was officially described for the first time by the Chinese in AD 105. But the words have been pouring forth since 3000 BC in Egypt first when content was wound around a thick “type of paper” made from the pith of Cyperus papyrus.

The blog post Ancient Egyptian Medicine tells us, “The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a textbook on surgery and details anatomical observations and the “examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis” of numerous ailments It was probably written around 1600 BC… Medical information in it dates from as early as 3000 BC. Imhotep in the 3rd dynasty is credited as the original author of the papyrus text, and founder of ancient Egyptian medicine. The earliest known surgery was performed in Egypt around 2750 BC.”

The pictorial cuneiform language must have been a challenge to read and master, but the preparation of the “container” to carry the language must have been an even bigger obstacle. Imagine hunting for the wetland sedge (easier if you live by the Nile, considering the plant grows freely around the river), removing the outer stem, extricating the inner fibrous pith, cutting it out into two layers of strips, laying them at right angles to each other, gluing them, drying them, and finally, being able to write on them. Manual labour at its earnest! Now imagine inscribing complex medical texts on these scrolls. Paper might not have been an option but that didn’t stop Imhotep’s medical assistants from saving Egyptian lives.

While Imhotep’s papyrus forms the basis of modern medicine and surgery, the carrier of the texts have evolved into thick tomes of parchment, first created from mulberry bark by Tsai Lun of China in 105 AD and mass-produced since Gutenberg’s Bible in 15th century AD.

Content not container: Words stay the same, the container evolves

Vellum parchments

Marcus Tullius Cicero—the Roman philosopher, lawyer, and orator—wrote a letter titled de Officiis, earnestly explaining what it meant to live an idealistic life, and which path to choose when the “honourable and the expedient conflict”. Written to his son, his words laid the foundation for moral public behaviour, even though it failed to revive the republican system or prevent the assassination of Julius Caesar—shortly after which, Cicero himself was assassinated. As Alexandra Suich elaborates in The Future of The Book, “Cicero probably dictated his letter to his slave, who wrote it down and made subsequent copies. De Officiis was read and studied throughout the rise of the Roman Empire and survived the subsequent fall. It shaped the thought of Renaissance thinkers like Erasmus; centuries later still it inspired Voltaire. ‘No one will ever write anything more wise,’ he said. The book’s words have not changed; their vessel, though, has gone through relentless reincarnation and metamorphosis.”

“A thousand years later monks meticulously made copies by hand, averaging only a few pages a day. Then, in the 15th century, de Officiis was copied by a machine. It was printed in Mainz, Germany, on a printing press owned by Johann Fust, an early partner of Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of European printing. It is dated 1466. Some 500 years after it was printed, this beautiful volume sits in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, its home since 1916.” (The Future of The Book)

While the printed forms have seen paperbacks as well as hard covers, now some non-printed forms are available too. “You can read it free online or download it as an e-book in English, Latin, and any number of other tongues.” (The Future of The Book)

Content not container: Allen Lane’s Penguincubator

Paperbacks

In 15th century Venice, the highest paid jobs were scribal jobs in the Vatican. With Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, as Richard Nash points out in Publishing’s Future: When Editors Eat Robots, “it eliminated the writer as copyist — in the words of an historian of the time, ‘the writer as trained scribal laborer.’” But it also began as era of bulk-produced content that could reach the masses. It was about delivery of content to ensure the spread of literacy. Allen Lane’s Penguincubator is a revolutionary example of taking the same even further.

Who cared how the container looked as long as it reached everybody? “Allen Lane (British publisher and founder of Penguin Books in 1935) wanted books to be cheap and convenient. The vending machine was what allowed him to put books cheaply onto railway platforms, into the squares, near buildings — not to draw the consumer to where the books were, but to put the books where the consumers were.” (Publishing’s Future: When Editors Eat Robots)

That was the era of paperbacks. And they were cool. When hardcovers came by, paperbacks became “cheap”. These days books come out in hardcovers before the “lighter, cheaper paperback edition” can hit the market. Why? And what does this have to do with content?

Nothing, apparently.

C.C. in his article titled Why books come out in hardback before paperback elucidates, “The paperback was pioneered in the 19th century and became popular in continental Europe. It took off in Britain and America in the 1930s, when publishers such as Penguin and New American Library began mass-producing cheap but well-designed reproductions of older texts, aimed at a new generation of readers who could not afford hardbacks. During the Second World War, interest in reading as a pastime increased just as paper shortages demanded more efficient methods of printing. The paperback was the solution.”

Hardcovers

These days if a book is supposed to sell well, a hardcover to it is what a cinema ticket is to a film. If you want to watch the latest movie, hit the theatre. The DVD comes out several months later. Similarly, the book has to be bought in hardcover and one has to shell out the extra bucks. “And they hold a certain snob value, too: literary editors traditionally don’t review paperbacks. Once hardback sales have slowed, a paperback edition is released. Some publishers time their hardback editions to come out just before Christmas, eyeing the gift market, before publishing the paperback edition in time for the summer holidays.” (Why books come out in hardback before paperback )

Dust jackets of hardcovers hold aesthetic appeal. They are prized by modern book collectors—in fact, ninety per cent of a hard cover’s value lies in the dust jacket. These are brilliant examples of craftsmanship—choosing the superior cloth bind (collectors’ editions boast of leather or silk), decorative borders, and displaying beautiful end papers of an equally expensive quality.

The blog post The History of Dust Jacket describes, “A striking jacket design would be more likely to grab the attention of the book shop browser and could also be used to advertise other books published by the same company.” They are more durable and resistant to wear and tear and therefore preferred by librarians as opposed to the thin paper covers of paperbacks. The winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize “The Narrow Road to the Deep North“, by Richard Flannagan boasted strong, rigid covers, bright red endpapers, and weighed more than half a kilogram, at 464 pages, 22cm in length, dust jacket et al. It also costs $26.95. The paperback edition is lighter, and cheaper. (Why books come out in hardback before paperback)
Some said the slow death of paperback had begun. But paperbacks have proved resilient to hard covers. If any, they are in danger of death from ebooks. If cheap is what matters here, ebooks are even more cost-effective.

In all this endless debate, nobody mentioned content because content remained the same. The Narrow Road to the Deep North has had takers in hard cover as well as paperback. In fact, the paperback version has sold more simply because of the monetary savings it offered while the hard cover has been a luxury item. The book’s contents, however, was, is, and will always be a harrowing tale of Australian prisoners of war in Burma.
The carrier evolved further—from papyrus to parchment to paperback to hardcover.

Content not container: The pinnacle

Ebooks and the next step in industrial revolution

What is a digital book?
An electronic book (variously: e-book, eBook, e-Book, ebook, digital book or e-edition) is a book-publication in digital form, consisting of text, images, or both, readable on computers or other electronic devices.

Suich says in The Future of The Book, “Historically books were a luxury item. Having become cheap enough for the masses in the 20th century, in the 21st century digital technology and global markets have made them more accessible still. In 2013 around 1.4m International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) were issued, according to Bowker, a research firm, up from around 8,100 in 1960.”

These figures do not take self-publishing into account—a wholly different phenomenon unto its own.

While the ebook revolution has had many fearing the death of the print industry as we know it, “The rise of digital technology—and especially Amazon, a bookshop unlike any seen before—underlined those fears. In the past decade people have been falling over themselves to predict the death of books, of publishers, of authors and of bookshops, even of reading itself. Of all those believed at risk, only the bookshops have actually suffered serious damage.” (The Future of The Book)

In fact, as Richard Nash puts it in Publishing’s Future: When Editors Eat Robots, “Bezos is not destroying the publishing industry. “He represents its pinnacle. Its apotheosis. But, of course, when you reach the pinnacle, you’ve nowhere else to go. So Bezos has also introduced the end of the industrial era of publishing. By introducing the Kindle.”

Ebook vs print

When comparing different forms of technology that have aided the written word, a thick papyrus sheet to a thin but resilient piece of mulberry bark has been a major, evolutionary leap—one that gave rise to revolutions and shaped civilizations around the world. The post-Gutenberg printed forms have mostly been about instituting democracy—educate the masses and give them a voice. The content throughout has remained unquestioned.

One can hardly choose between a papyrus scroll and vellum parchment, considering each was available as the only option of its era. Then again when printing took hold and went through various stages of refinement, the difference between the two major printed forms, namely paperback and hardcover, was mostly about aesthetic appeal. One can hardly argue for or against content when the absence or presence of a dust jacket is the only parameter making a visible difference.

The actual battle began the day the Kindle, and by extension, the ebook reader entered the arena.

Paperless vs paper: Now that is a very big, quantifiable difference and one that has called content readability and accessibility into question. But is it really as bad as they say?

The innovative difference

Baldur Bjarnason makes a living on ebooks. You should hear him talk about “Great text” which “transcends nothing”. The interesting fact about this argument is that Bjarnason emphasizes on the importance of content as a standalone and holds both print and ebooks to their inadequacies. In doing so he further validates the argument that it is content and not container that matters. Every container has its fault: a print can have bad typography, illegible text, the paper can be of poor, “pirated” quality, the design can be off putting. In the same vein, wouldn’t it be fair to say that an ebook reader is yet to explore more in fonts, typography, and readability?

Ebooks as Bjarnason points out look worse than their trade paperback or hardcover counterparts but he also argues that it is simply a natural corollary to the fact that print and digital are two extremely different media to begin with. For example, choices of typography in the ebook might be restricted but that is a conscious decision of ebook makers. In the article Font swap in iBooks, Glenn Fleishman says Apple shipped iBooks for the iPad in 2010 with five font choices: Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times New Roman, and Verdana. The latest iBook version still retains only Times New Roman of that lot with the addition of seven new fonts, six of which are serif and two san serif. Clearly, Apple is still experimenting with its reader.

The important point to remember about ebooks is that they don’t really need a dedicated ebook reader. Kindle sales might be in decline but that’s the advantage of owning an ebook. Its contents are fluid. Any number of devices from tablets to computers to ipads to mobile phones can allow you to read the book that you bought online, sitting, at your desk in a different continent altogether. You don’t have to pack all those books into your bag and lug them across oceans. You can simply store them on your e-shelf or on own your computer with thousands of other files. The underlying point here is that irrespective of the device, you get the same content.

Fiction readers

According to the article Romantic Fiction’s Passion for eBooks, by Alison Flood, “Romance might have a fusty, old-fashioned image – crinolines and waltzes, tycoons and secretaries – but it seems her match with digital publishing was made in heaven. Mainstream imprint Ebury, part of one of the UK’s largest publishing conglomerates Random House, certainly thinks so, and is plunging headfirst into digital romance with a new list, Rouge Romance.”

If really the smell of a printed page, and the beauty of the typography were to enhance the romance reader’s options, romantic ebooks would not have sold as well. But with genre readers of romance, mystery, thrillers, and so on, two things matter—the content and cheaper alternatives—as they tend to be such voracious readers.

Self-publishing and the importance of content

Then there is the entire self-publishing phenomenon and its global success—made possible only by the digital revolution. As Suich writes in The Future of The Book, “Wool started off as a short story online about a subterranean city called the Silo. Reader enthusiasm and feedback encouraged its author, Hugh Howey, to extend it into a novel. More enthusiasm followed. Simon & Schuster, a big publisher, did an unusual deal to license rights to the print book, while Mr Howey continued to sell the e-book off his own bat. It became a bestseller.” If this had to be about the content, one of the two forms would have outsold the other but both forms sold very well and Ridley Scott seems to be in on the fact, now—Wool is on its way to becoming a big budgeted feature film!

“Like Wool, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey” started off online, and some of its e-book success has been attributed to the fact that reading erotica is more discreetly done on a tablet. But since being acquired by Random House it has done remarkably well in its printed form, too. All told, it and its two sequels have chalked up sales of over 100m worldwide.” (The Future of The Book)

Content not container: Enhancing content

Audiobooks

So far I have made an argument for the standalone importance of content, irrespective of the carrier. But the appealing fact about technology is that it is constantly evolving. The evolution that I am talking about here takes into account the importance of content again, irrespective of the form, thus enhancing it.

Welcome to audiobooks

“Of the various ways in which technology is expanding what a book can be, one of the most successful so far has been to add to books something that children have enjoyed forever, and that most people required until the 20th century: another person to do the reading. The cost of recording audiobooks has fallen from around $25,000 in the late 1990s to around $2,000-3,000 today, says Donald Katz of Audible, an audiobook firm owned by Amazon.” (The Future of The Book)

Audiobooks have changed the way content is viewed. Instead of turning pages—print or digital—one gets to plug the book in, sit back, and let their auditory canals process the magic. One could tune in during the long hours of commute and feel the satisfaction as they, literally speaking, hear the words pouring forth. In fact, taking it a step further, a study was conducted to determine “the impact of the use of audiobooks with struggling readers in a school library audiobook club.”

“The primary goal of this study was to answer the research questions 1) Do the use of audiobooks and participation in an audiobook club impact the reading ability of struggling readers? 2) Do the use of audiobooks and participation in an audiobook club impact struggling readers’ attitudes toward reading? both research questions led the researchers to proclaim the use of audiobooks with struggling readers a success. The success of this research project is significant given the broad use of audiobooks in literacy and library programs across the United States. Teachers and school librarians may also use these findings as a rationale for adding audiobooks to the list of reading strategies used successfully with struggling readers.” (Use of Audiobooks in a School Library and Positive Effects of Struggling Readers’ Participation in a Library-Sponsored Audiobook Club)

Finally, let us talk about Spritz.

“Spritz is an application which beams words to a reader one at a time. Like a treadmill, readers can set their own speed and read more quickly, because their eyes can stay in one place instead of scanning a page. Its most immediate application is to allow longish texts to be read on smallish screens, such as those of watches.” (The Future of The Book)

Imagine consuming whole books this way. While those who care about content, read on “beam by beam”, fusspots gripe about the carrier—as usual!

Content not container: Conclusion

The experiments will continue. The efforts in improving technology have been and will always be tireless. Carriers of the written word will continue to evolve. Innovations would abound and reading devices would become more diverse. But that said, the one aspect which would remain constant would be content. In fact, the one aspect for which all these efforts would be made would be content—and not because a certain type of device would be superior to the other types but simply so that a reader could have a choice.

The constant evolution has never been about the form or type of device, it has always been about choice—and one that a reader rightly deserves. It is my prerogative if I wish to pick up the paperback or the hardcover or the ebook or even the audiobook of Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue. The fact remains that it will always be a well-crafted suspense and a fitting conclusion to a trilogy as told by a master storyteller.

Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content—Reading Response

Discoverability is a fear that has long plagued publishers. When publishers rejected Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, they feared for its discoverability. At a time when the very idea was considered akin to paganism, they couldn’t imagine any supporters for the book. And yet it went on to be a bestseller! With numerous reprints and movie editions, the book symbolizes the spirit and emotions that lie at the heart of Christmas to this day!

Before the emergence of the World Wide Web, mass communication was a risky venture—be it book publishing or movie making. With the web connecting the entire world under one roof, accessibility increased. As Rajiv Jain, chief technology officer of photo-marketing site Corbis, says in the article: “Discoverability has always been an issue, but there’s now infinite shelf space.”

Social media platforms emerged to compartmentalize the shelf space quite strategically. A publisher can now tweet, blog, Instagram, Facebook, Youtube (book trailers), Pinterest, and Tumblr its books! Add to the pile, discoverability giants such as Goodreads and publishers should be able to sleep easy. Yet, what was yesterday the publisher’s venture has today been reduced to a reader’s fancy.

A tweet from the publisher about the latest shades of grey would hardly make a difference if 5,475 readers did not choose to retweet it. A Youtube trailer about The One by Kiera Cass—the latest YA epic romance—would not make its presence felt beyond its digital space if 7,804 fans were not to “like”, “share”, and “comment” on the trailer! 899 “repins” of “series for fans of The Hunger Games” on Pinterest helped me discover the next dystopian trilogy I wanted to read. Pinterest even uses SEO discoverability such as linking to the mother of all search giants, Google! Imagine your book being a part of “The 10 trendiest books to read this summer”—blogged by a reader who fancied it. Or simply log onto Goodreads and see readers, authors, friends, and foes working their magic alike. The 5th Wave, the first in a post-apocalyptic dystopian trilogy written by Rick Yancey and now a major motion picture, has 160,754 ratings! Who published it again?

The article cites that “content discoverability is vital to keeping publishers relevant”, but also acknowledges how relevant it is for readers to know what their friends are reading or quote direct content from books they have read. A publisher must be on constant lookout for new ways to keep readers engaged because this is no more about the book of the season, or about the editor’s picks. This is a slowly unwinding movie about a publisher relinquishing control. It is more about what a reader thinks is worth reading and if his or her opinion catches the fancy of the world, then Fifty Shades of Grey is bound to happen.

Publishing has always been about control. The question today is who controls whom?

Great text transcends nothing — Reading Response

Bjarnason’s article offsets the cons of print and ebook forms quite beautifully. With ebook the likely loser of the contest’s outcome, Bjarnason, nevertheless, has the sagacity to not dismiss the digital form outright: “Ebooks, quite simply, have to improve.” I agree with that but I also argue that great text has the power to transcend its borders.

While Bjarnason proposes a beautifully designed, typeset, and packaged book does bring joy to the beholder, an ebook is not without its own attractions. Its permanence, for one, is untouchable. Its contents are fluid and transferable; the ebook itself is light and portable—one ebook is the mobile equivalent of your entire book shelf. A physical book is, however, restricted by its physical dimensions, not to mention lack of portability. Its packaged beauty is its vulnerability and its curse.

Ebooks as Bjarnason points out look worse than their trade paperback or hardcover counterparts but he also argues that it is simply a natural corollary to the fact that print and digital are two extremely different media to begin with. For example, choices of typography in the ebook might be restricted but that is a conscious decision of ebook makers. Some studies say that the eye generally prefers san serif fonts while reading online. But ebooks are still a growth area for fonts and typography. In the article Font swap in iBooks, Glenn Fleishman says Apple shipped iBooks for the iPad in 2010 with five font choices: Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times New Roman, and Verdana. The latest iBook version still retains only Times New Roman of that lot with the addition of seven new fonts, six of which are serif and two san serif. Clearly, Apple is still experimenting with its reader.

The biggest boon of ebooks has perhaps been in the self-publishing field. In fact, the past and the present can be divided into two universes—one with Hugh Howey’s Wool and one without. Having written Wool as a stand-alone short story, Howey self-published it via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing system in July of 2011. In Wool by Hugh Howey — a review, Flood says, “By October, readers were clamouring for more, and he duly obliged. His novel now runs to over 500 pages and has hit US bestseller lists, with book deals on both sides of the Atlantic, and film rights picked up by Ridley Scott.” The self-evident fact here is that had the poor looks of a Kindle reader—as opposed to its beautifully designed and glossed nemesis—been a deterrent, Howey would not have turned into the sensation that he is today. He has inspired thousands more to join him in the self-publishing movement—all made possible by the emergence of the Kindle.

Then there are those kinds of books which teach, and make for more than interesting reads. These books already have a bright future in the digital form. With embedded media and other software apps, their tactile worth is far beyond what a print book can achieve.

Arion Press in the USA is considered “the nation’s leading publisher of fine-press books”. As Suich points out in Essay – The Future of the Book, “its two-volume Don Quixote with goatskin binding and lush illustrations sets readers back a bit more than $4,000”. As a novel that founded the work of modern Western literature, an amount of $4,000 can only come in the way of its worth—how many of us can afford an edition that expensive? Reading the text of this great “canonical” book here becomes the main objective, not the form it comes in—and for those looking for less costly versions, the cheaper the better. After all, Allen Lane, the late founder of Penguin, devised paperbacks not so much to give joy to its beholders but to make the book cheap enough for the masses to read. So isn’t the ebook simply carrying on that tradition?

The ebook might not yet do justice to the 500-year-old tradition of the print book as an art or craft or even as a precious object in people’s lives, but then again the digital revolution has only just begun. There is space and immense potential for improvement. And as far as the text of the book is concerned, the ebook is already doing its job—and doing it well. Ask Hugh Howey!