Books, NOW!

Via Filed By and my good friend José Afonso Furtado’s Twitter Feed comes this fascinating Publishers Weekly story about Perseus Book Group and its BIG EXPERIMENT at BookExpo America 2009.  The crux of the matter is this: Perseus plans on publishing a 144-page book consisting of “sequels” to some of literature’s great opening lines — all within the span of 48 hours.

The title of the work — Book: The Sequel — clearly isn’t just about the content.  It’s as much if not more about the publishing industry and how it operates (or could operate), which is to say nothing of the existential crisis its main product — the book — finds itself in today.  What we have in Book: The Sequel is more than just print-on-demand, it’s essentially books, now!

I’m usually fairly circumspect of experiments like these.  Rarely are they particularly well thought through, and often they put far too much faith in simple, technological solutions or outcomes.  Not here.  Perseus proposes a remarkably holistic picture of what book publishing could be in the not-so-distant future — or later this week, if you want to get all “the future is now” about it.

First, the substance: crowdsourced content.  There already have been experiments in collaborative book writing, so in a sense what Perseus is doing is not altogether new.  Those who wish to contribute to the volume can log on to www.bookthesequel.com, where they can can pitch their own opening line sequels.  On the other hand, the Press’ experiment in crowdsourcing demonstrates one possible future function publishers may choose to take on.  That is, they may opt to become aggregators of decentralized information, as opposed to their simply remaining the gatekeepers of already centalized or unified information.  Perseus also plans on focus-grouping the cover designs using similar means, which is in keeping with my previous post on the marketing power of a site like Scribd.

Next, the product, which is multiple.  Perseus plans on releasing digital, audio, and online versions of Book: The Sequel, as well as a tangible, print-on-paper volume.  This is impressive.  Too often experiments in flash publishing result in only one of these — usually the e-edition and nothing more.  The looming test of the book industry’s mettle will be in how well it works — quickly and elegantly — across both analog and digital platforms.

Finally, the opportunities for post-publication interactivity.  Thus far publishing has done a fairly good job in recognizing the growing importance of author-audience interaction.  It has built ample infrastructure to support this.  But what the industry hasn’t caught on to well enough yet is the importance of decentralizing its social networks.  Online book marketing has been preoccupied with bringing audiences back again and again to the publishers’ or the authors’ websites.  This is understandable.  But we live in a time when conversations about culture happen all over the place, and increasingly on Facebook and Twitter.  It’s a testament to Perseus’ vision that it’s recognized how it need not try to control or consolidate the conversation about its book for that conversation to occur.

My only misgiving — and it is a significant one — about Book: The Sequel is that there appears to be no structure in place to compensate those who’ve donated their labor to create the book’s content.  This will have to change, even if it ultimately results in micro-payments to the authors (which, as Chris Anderson has shown, can add up in the long run).  Any book publishing business model that relies on crowdsourced content but that does not compensate the crowd for its initiative, wisdom, and goodwill surely will be unsustainable.

That said, Perseus plans on donating the profits of its grand experiment to the National Book Foundation. Who could have any truck with that?

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