March 18, 2013

Book as startup and other dangerous idiocies


Joyce probably needed to share around a few more iterations of that Finnegan book before he IPOed.

Okay. Enough. Enough of this. New models of publishing are being opened up by technology every day. That is a good thing.

The thoughts and jargon behind tech startups are leaching out into the language as a whole. That is a fine thing, and understandable if not particularly palatable.

But now the models and the metaphors of the tech industry are, full-throatedly, without embarrassment, being used to talk about not just the methods of publishing books, but the books themselves, and this is a grand and wondrous idiocy, a diminishment of art, a gravity well of stupidity so deep that we cannot even talk about it properly, only study its effects.

Last week on the New Yorker Page Turner blog Betsy Morais introduced us to some of the speakers at this year’s O’Reilly Tools of Change conference here in New York. Among the attendees she interviewed were two founders of new online-based publishing ventures, Tim Sanders of Net Minds and Peter Armstrong of Leanpub

The TOC conference is often a great resource for floating tech-based ideas under the umbrella of the publishing industry. Some valid, fun and well-executed ventures that should help support literature and authors both are on display every year. But like any book convention, it attracts its fair share of self-styled outsiders looking to shill their latest jaded idea to the growing market of author/entrepreneurs. Morais seems to have a knack for meeting these.

Armstrong is providing a service to the self-publishing community, one that no doubt serves some well. His company Leanpub lets authors publish their work in progress, get feedback, and then tailor the eventual book as a result. In the “Manifesto” page of the site he writes “Lean Publishing is the act of publishing an in-progress book using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.”

While the tactics espoused here—tailoring a book to a focus group the way companies might test out an ad-spot for antacid—are not exactly savory, and may make me want to rend my clothes and run raving into the street crying after the dying Author,  they are not new. They might even have their value. Some authors are writing the textual equivalent of antacid, after all, flavorless chalky books of only fleeting and vaguely medicinal value. Nobody is worse off if those books go through a few rounds of peer review.

The really problematic part of Leanpub is not the process, but the language used to justify it. Armstrong is insistent that “A book is a startup.” Again, from his manifesto:

There are four parallels to consider when comparing books and startups.

  1. Risk: There are market risks, technical risks and a very low probability of success.
  2. Creative: Both writing a book and creating a startup are highly creative processes undertaken by one or a few people working closely together.
  3. Stealth: Historically it has taken about a year, often spent in isolation or “stealth mode”, to develop and release the first version.
  4. Funding: Historically, startups have been funded by VCs and authors have been funded by publishers, both of which are hit-driven businesses.

It would take a longer discussion than this to break down some of the assumptions on display there, but in brief, Amstrong is not fully wrong here. He is, however, fully objectionable. We’ll come back to this.

Sanders, the other writer discussed by Morais, runs Net Minds, whose business model is, again, useful and not of itself problematic. It is essentially a tool to help authors find teams of freelancers to help them edit and market their books.  the problem here is the migraine-inducing insistence on the metaphors and jargon of companies like Yahoo where Sanders has worked. From Page Turner: “‘We believe a writer is not necessarily a writer,’ Sanders, the Net Minds C.E.O., said. ‘They are content containers.’”

From the Net Minds page: “Every creative project is like an entrepreneurial venture. You have to create, test and launch your vision.”

Sanders and Armstrong share something with the startup world as a whole: the arrogance of naivete. They see what they think is a problem. They think they’re the ones to solve it. Fine. It’s an attitude complicated by confluence with a libertarian market ethos, but fine. Even Armstrong and Sanders themselves are relatively harmless, so long as their customers remain satisfied and you don’t count Sanders’ $25,000 speaking fees as “harm”.

And I get why these guys need to sell themselves and their ventures with this type of language. They need to woo customers, and they are doing it by positioning themselves as somehow both experienced and as mavericks (Sanders’ speaking bio actually uses the word). You can’t blame them for wanting to make a buck.

But they are symptoms and agents of the propagation of this powerful and quite dangerous idiocy, the irruption of the language of venture capital into the province of the book.

Look at the quote from Armstrong above. He talks about the “success” of a book. What he means is that the book pays out. Many publishers might agree with that standard, but how many authors?  And that phrase “stealth mode?” Are we to the point where the act of being alone, writing to an imagined audience and not a real responsive audience is akin to hiding?

As for the real winners, the claims that made me actually clench my teeth and take a deep breath when I read them—Armstrong and his phrase about creativity, Sanders and that terrible terrible terrible sentence about “content containers” what’s to be said? Anyone who could think such things is quite specifically part of The Problem in the starkest sense. (Our own Curtis White addresses exactly this issue—creativity, commerce, Byron and the swiffer—in his forthcoming The Science Delusion.)

Theses guys are not harmful, as I say, but the spread of this type of jargon is. Language shapes, language is, thought, and the more comfortable we grow talking about nascent books as “content”, about drafts as “iterations”, the more we trivialize those books that don’t benefit from focus groups. These guys, this language, is hurting literature by changing how we think about books in general. It is a spreading disregard, not even conscious or apt enough to be malign. And I don’t think it likely to stop.



Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.