The white noise is a distraction from the real business of publishing

Trevor Dolby
Opinion - Publishing 07 Jul 2009

Of course publishers need to plan for the digital future, but the industry is deluding itself if it believes the answer to the missing millions lies in Twitter and Facebook, suggests Trevor Dolby And all week long your River City Youth'll be frittern away, I say your young men'll be frittern! Frittern away their noontime, suppertime, choretime too! Get the ball in the pocket, Never mind gittin' Dandelions pulled Or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded. Never mind pumpin' any water 'Til your parents are caught with the Cistern empty On a Saturday night and that's trouble, Oh, yes we got lots and lots a' trouble - to be sung in the voice of Robert Preston in The Music Man . Two thirds of everything I read at the moment is about ebooks, Facebook, web pages, widgets, Google search positions, Tumbler, Twitter, web 2 ('a more interactive environment'), 'enriching the experience of reading', 'creating communities', 'the society of books', 'new ways to tell stories' (good one that), 'merging words with images'... bla bla bla. It's all becoming just white noise, a continuous hiss giving me a headache.

Not one of my chums, from supermarket pick-up buyers to people who buy 20 or 30 books a year, has an ebook or is particularly concerned about getting one. They do all seem to have an iPod Touch or iPhone and most seem to have Stanza on them or some such and have downloaded a few free ebooks, Jane Austen, Dickens, the complete Shakespeare, so it's sitting there just in case they have a spare year or two to read them. I've never seen a reliable figure for the sales of ebooks/Kindle or downloads of ebooks or enhanced ebooks. OK, they are all old lags, but my children in their late teens seem to be no different.

Of course publishing companies should spend money and time on trying to define how the new digital world will work, making it easy to read books on whatever electronic devices appear. What I have a problem with is the inordinate amounts of time spent on the touchy-feely side: attempting to use these social networking sites to try to get inside the heads of people who may or may not at some time in some indefinable future be those that precipitate a financially viable conduit to readers of electronic books, or some such. It's all the hype about Facebook and Twittering and blogging and whatnot and how we can sell books through them. What I don't seem to be able to fathom is any indication of how all this activity is making us any money - or, indeed, how we might turn it into making us some money. I do understand that there is benefit in facilitating readers to converse with one another in the manner of a virtual reading group but, however one cuts it, people like to talk face to face. That's why there are still pubs and airlines and why video conferencing equipment gathers dust in boardrooms. Human beings are social animals: physically social. That's why cinemas and concerts have never been more popular... E M Forster, The Machine Stops anyone?
I wonder if we are losing sight of the prize. Are we in danger of confusing this tidal wave of 'choice' with that of empowerment?
On a practical level, where do people find time to do all this social networking stuff, and why would anyone axiomatically think that books are going to carve out a bit of it and make money? The pundits bang on about how these sites 'bring people together'. No, they don t! They fragment and polarise people into more and more self-interested specialist groups.
The latest thing is Twitter. A Harvard review which studied 300,000 of the 10 million or so Twits, was headlined on the BBC with: 'Micro-blogging service Twitter remains the preserve of a few, despite the hype surrounding it.'

Their research 'found that just 10% of Twitter users generate more than 90% of the content, half the Tweeters updated their site less than once every 74 days and most people Tweet just once after joining. This implies that Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.' Does that remind you of something printed on paper? The report continues: 'Twitter is a broadcast medium rather than an intimate conversation with friends... However the service bills itself as a way to 'communicate and stay connected' with 'friends, family and co-workers',' evidence suggests it simply isn't.
The content hype is one thing, the hype of the social influence is another. People who use these programmes are a tiny sliver of the people we as publishers should want to communicate with. How many people on income support are Twittering? How many teenagers or people in their early 20s in housing estates all over Britain are Tweeting? Indeed, how many housewives who watched Richard & Judy are Tweeting?
We so want things like Twitter to be effective that we delude ourselves. When Jonathon Ross started his Twitter book club, the trade and the press were all over it. Sales of Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats, Ross' first recommendation, apparently went up 7,000% No actual figure anywhere. It could have been 1 to 70, 10 to 700 or 100 to 7,000 for all I know. A free download version was released, but no figure anywhere for how many downloaded it, or whether any had converted into book sales. The Telegraph reported that Ross also recommended Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grace - no, really, according to the Telegraph it's called Leaves of Grace; at least Ross got the title right - and a graphic novel, Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan. First I'd heard.
I listened to Chris Anderson speak the other day - the author of The Long Tail and a new book, Free. At the end of his piece, someone asked him to give his sage view of what would follow Twitter (he's a big fan of Twitter). He said he didn't know. I'd like to offer a thought: how about books on paper, marketed though a new social networking activity called Wheelbarrow. What you do is spend the time you would spend on Twitter and Facebook loading up a wheelbarrow with books, taking them to the end of the road and selling them. It works for Pat Fletcher in Romford Market.

Trevor Dolby is Publisher of Preface

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