My pal Josh Hadro just tumbled an article to FriendFeed that I almost certainly would have missed otherwise: a Harvard Business School Q&A with Peter Olson, a refugee from big book publishing who now has washed ashore at the B school. (Yes, the one that will license its Review to libraries but won’t let professors link to it in their courses. For that, you pay extra. You know the hand gesture that indicates togetherness, usually to illustrate the phrase “Me and X are like this”? Me and the Harvard B School are better illustrated by a much ruder British two-fingered gesture. )
The former CEO of Big Random comments on the iPad launch and all the downloading of books that come with it,
“Traditional trade book publishers are scared,” says Harvard Business School professor Peter Olson. “The world that they have known, of print books and brick-and-mortar bookstores—the whole fiscal distribution system—is on the cusp of changing fundamentally.”
Quite rightly, he puts his finger on it when he says all the pricing and distribution issues, while vexing, are short-sighted distractions.
“The odd thing is that no one is really focusing on the reader. A disproportionate amount of publishers’ resources are dedicated to the manufacturing and physical distribution of books, when in fact their key function is editorial in nature. In a sense, many book publishers are trying to buy time, to postpone a reckoning with reality.”
Right. But here’s where I think he’s worrying about the wrong thing:
“The fundamental question at the very bottom of this is, will people read books at all?”
I know the answer to that one. Yes, they will. People like to read, they need stories, they crave stories, and they’re reading more than ever, contrary to doom-and-gloom scenarios.
How can publishers feed the craving for books without losing readers? First of all, forget everything you know about the publishing industry. Think about what really matters: finding good books, making them better, helping them connect with readers. Find out from readers what they want (and stop assuming they’re on the endangered species list, at least until you’ve observed them in their natural habitat). Talk to people who are good at making the connections – booksellers and librarians – and start over with a blank slate.
But bear one rule in mind above all others: don’t mess with readers. The more you frustrate them on the way to a brave new world, the more likely you’re putting the finishing touches on The End.
Image courtesy of mag3737.
*if you’re wondering what TK means, it’s what publishers put as a place holder when things like dedications are “to come” – though why K? I don’t know.