A conversation with Richard Nash (@R_Nash)
(#TheMakingOfaNewBook. Soon in italian, here) Everything you need to know about Richard Nash
You were one of the firsts to say that “match-making” is the key to understand the contemporary publishing. Now, we have algorithms and artificial intelligence. How do envision the future of publishing?
Yes, match-making is a key service in book culture, a service to both writer and reader. A “yenta,” to use the Yiddish word. Match-making in the village has one set of challenges—a lack of options. Match-making in the metropolis has another set of challenges—the yenta can’t know everyone.
Such is our challenge now, matching-making amidst tens of millions of basically anonymous people. Books are like people, I believe. Songs and to a lesser degree movies, the first subjects of algorithmic recommendation, much less so. A song takes three minutes and it’s mathematical in nature, so it’s easy to algorithmically define and connect, even though there are tens of millions of songs. A movie is is a lot harder to algorithmically define—witness Netflix giving up on collaborative filtering even after the million-dollar Netflix prize, in favor of tagging with microgenre attributes—that’s easier because there really only a couple hundred thousand movies.
Books are the hardest—they’re ten hours each, there are tens of millions of them, and they’re radically unmathematical (Siri’s problem isn’t just recognizing timbre but the deep complexities of language itself, and if it can’t handle ten words in row, imagine 75,000 in a row). In other words, they’re like people.
So I think match-making holds up as a good analogy. Obviously enormous resources are devoted to fine-tuning dating websites, but they compete with real-world yentas too. Increasingly dating technology aims at easier problems: finding a sexual partner fast. Because the work of finding a sexual partner is much easier than finding a life partner. But books are more intimate than sex—at least with sex you can closer your eyes. And it’s a much briefer encounter, almost universally.
So I suspect the role of the algorithm is more like a powered exoskeleton. It’s best used by professionals as a tool, reducing infinity to a manageable scale, within which individual choice returns.
Of course, match-making is just one of the services that publishing provides. The other two are, I think, making writing better (like being a yoga instructor, or a shrink), and connecting
A couple of years ago you said me: “There’s just no future in making money solely from selling digital content”. Are you still convinced about that?
Yeah, for producers, and you’ll need to be one of a tiny group of aggregators to build a sustainable business there. Which is not to say there’s no revenue there, but it can’t be the sole revenue stream.
I’ve become slightly more optimistic about the ongoing role of print as a revenue stream. I had thought that the paperback could vanish entirely, but I’m now feeling it seems ot have some decades ahead of it. But to return to digital—the shift from ownership to access is really, when you think about it, built into the very nature of digital, especially given how tenuous the nature of physical property is anyway, nothing more than a social contract.
There’s just no broad social consensus around intellectual property—it was much easier to persuade people to spend money in intellectual property which it was contained within a thing. Basically, digitally represented IP is barely excludable (it’s hard to stop people from making copies) and barely rival (one person’s use of it does not exclude others from enjoying it). When it cost a person more to make a copy of a book ythan it cost the publisher, she was OK with paying the publisher for the copy. But now that it doesn’t cost either of them anything to make the copy, she’s less willing to give to the publisher the exclusive right to make the copy.
When the cost of an additional copy is zero, the price drifts to zero. So what’s left is, once again, the building of services. What services can you make around digital content. Like iTunes, like Pandora, like Spotify. We can get all the content we want for free from the torrents, so what we pay for is convenience. But you have to be really good, and really big to make money from selling convenience.
I don’t think publishers, or any but ht every largest aggregators can make money from just building services around digital content. But digital content, along with, say, print, and with education, and custom events, and content marketing…there’s a business for a lot of different entitities there.
How are technology and culture shaping each other?
Gosh, I was so taken by Ted Striphas’s response that I’m not sure I can add much more. Except perhaps this other Medium article, by my friend Joanne McNeil, about how the search for “beauty” in Google Image Search produces a bunch of white.
They are clearly so interwoven. And in fact, when we pretend they are separate, like when we pretend that politics and economics aren’t connected, that’s when we get in trouble. Culture is an argument about how we live, technology the means by which we argue, the means by which we live and see others live. Culture biases everything, for good and for bad, and technology, whether that’s a hammer or a book or an algorithm, is the means by which that bias expresses itself.
What do you think are the forces and trends that are driving the change in the cultural Industry?
From product to service, for sure. Basically the industrial era of the culture industry is ending. The industrial revolution begins with the book, our first mass-produced cultural artifact, and it ends with the 3D printer, and the first 3D printer was the Apple Laserwriter, which produced reasonable facsimiles of books at home. From hand-weaving, to the massive industrial looms, back to Etsy.
How much publishers need to innovate? In which areas?
It’s a cultural change, as it almost always is. We have to become servants rather than deciders, as I’ve described above.
It is important to remember is that publishing is simply an agglomeration of niches. And that these niches aren’t necessarily niches, they can be adjacencies that look like niches only because they’re momentarily overlapping a sliver. Cookbooks are a niche, but they’re also part of a multi-billion dollar food industry. Art books are a niche, but also part of the museum/fine art gallery/travel business.
The various consolidations of the 20th century pulled together these niches into a single industry for the sake of cheapness and convenience (to manufacture scale), and Amazon took that to its logical conclusion. In that regard, Amazon isn’t doing anything new in relation to books, it’s simply carrying forward with ruthless clarity the existing trajectory of the 20th century publishing (commodified, uniform, supply chain driven manufacturing).
One of the points around the kind of ecosystem collapse Annalee Newitz’s book Scatter Adapt and Remember deals with is that the system becomes top heavy and unstable. Resources tying up inside massive dinosaurs perfectly adapted to that exact moment. Using smallness, smartly, in those situations is how you innovate. So to change the game, you scatter ie you cease to remain solely a part of that industry (20th century Amazon-dependent supply chain publishing).
You adapt, you connect to other platforms, and you focus on services. You remember, you re-emphasize the always-already-there content, rather than the container.
The reason I focus on services, is that services don’t scale in a way that is acceptable to Amazon. It’s not just an area that Amazon chose not to play in, it is antithetical. The fact they’re even trying it displays their limitations.
Editorial doesn’t scale, the way things and files do. It’s why, in a recent study of the likelihood of given professions suffering job losses in the next 20 years due to computers and robots, “editor” ranked not far behind personal trainer in its low likelihood of job loss. By comparison, airline pilots are viewed as three times more likely to suffer job losses than editors. The business, as currently structured, needs enormous change. But the opportunities are just as immense.
Follow Richard Nash on Twitter: @R_Nash Twitter: @gg