Social Media? Dream on (my first rant)

Sean Cranbury of mad bookselling and Books on the Radio fame came into to class today to talk to us about copyright. That lasted about fifteen minutes and then Sean talked to us about how book publishing has changed in general for the next two hours. Today's discussion was kind of illustrative about how talks in publishing just dissolve into general ruminations about where this thing might be going. We can't seem to think about change without talking about all the other changes that are happening across the industry. Today's discussion of copyright was inherently tangential. Case in point: we were talking about O.J. Simpson 10 minutes in.

There was a lot to think about, some of which I wanted to play with a bit. So here, I'm trying some ideas out on you, none of which form any kind of coherent argument. I'm really not attached to any of these thoughts so it would be really nice if someone would shoot me down. I love hearing from you and I have no problem with being proven wrong.

Oh, and I should warn you: I worry a lot. Dr. John Maxwell, our technology prof, argued that when some artists and publishing professionals think about the possibilities for sharing online, they immediately jump to conclusions of apocalyptic proportions, such as, "WHAT IF MY BOOK IS ON NAPSTER AND PEOPLE ARE STEALING IT?" I think this is silly, too. You're lucky if anyone reads the work that you do; I feel lucky that you are reading this. All the same, I am prone to being more pessimistic than your average bear. Let that be a preface for what I'm about to say.

From the speakers we've seen at school this semester, I'm getting the feeling that it's simply not cool to worry in publishing these days, or to simply think pragmatically about how we are going to take advantages of the opportunities ahead. The advice given generally goes, "Stop worrying about what's falling apart and take advantage of the opportunities"--usually those opportunities are in building brands. DB Scott of Canadian Magazines was in last week (we are a really lucky bunch) and offered us an impressively tidy take on the future of magazines. His solution to small magazine outfits was to band together to gain access to new technologies--the ones that would give them access to readers online and new audiences. By banding together, he suggested, these mags could maybe compete with other players who are already adept at using digital media and have the resources to launch a full fledged campaign (and have leeway to fail).

I don't buy this yet. A community-based model where cultural mags share the use of a distributor or circulation manager works but a successful digital media effort needs someone who is versed in the culture and language and community of a magazine. Can one person do this for five different mags? Can one person or small organization (which isn't going to charge an arm and a leg) manage the facebook pages, twitter, digital editions, flickr group, and blogs for so many mags at one and still convey an "authentic" voice? There have to be more realistic solutions for these little mags (which have just lost so much funding!)

I recognize that social media is a game changer but how it's changing the nature of the industry is really not that well defined. Call me a paranoid, pessimistic grouch but one of social media's main effects is to reinforce what is already there (rather than really, significantly evening the playing field). Though Random House, Penguin, and Harpercollins will need to change the way that they do business, the fact is that they have an advantage. Maybe they're shaken up because no names are edging in and taking a piece of their pie but at the end of the day, they can hire someone to sit at the computer and make YouTube videos for them ad nauseam. They can afford to hustle. Time is money and this stuff costs time. Tons of fucking time.

At the very scary end of things, the myth of social media is going to push aside some very important voices. Many, many, many people can say something to the world on blogger, twitter, or wordpress (just to name a few platforms) that they wouldn't have been able to before the Internet BUT there are also people who are just as time-impoverished as they are economically impoverished. And just because what they have to express is out there and worthy doesn't mean that people are reading it. Can we all just recognize this? We've given people access to making more noise... at this point (at this point) we haven't found ways to use the Internet and develop it into fulfilling its initial promise of facilitating a more democratic discourse.

And that's the way it's going to be for a while. All of us will hustle, think strategically, and hope for success and recognition. And social media will be an fundamental part of that success. Nothing is going to change that. I completely accept that. I'm freaked out because I don't even think this blog is being indexed by Google and I don't know how to find out if it is, or isn't... and if it isn't, I don't know how to fix that. I would say that I'm competent at using social media, but by no means a guru. So there, full disclosure: I'm threatened by the new environment.

But again, that's OK. I accept that it is the way that is it. I just don't want to pretend to this Internet thing has really rocked the world that we live in. There's still an older white man running the program I'm attending, which charges something in the area of $15K to be a part of. And I'm in an industry dominated by women. That would be exciting except we work in an industry where the most you can hope for is a living wage. (MPubbers, how many times do we have to hear that we won't get rich doing this thing we love?)

Anyway, Sean, thanks for coming in and sharing your passion, ideas, and enthusiasm. I agree with most everything that you said, I just wanted to add a little dimension to it. It certainly was a rich presentation that motivated me to write my longest blog post in a year.

Now, friends, I'm dying for your thoughts. Please, please, please share!


Deanne said...

Agreed! I think the only thing we can say is that more people will be participating in (social) media as writers and artists, but even fewer will make a living at it.

One thing I would like to add, or maybe emphasize about your argument, is the importance of resources in media production. People often assume that because we can put words online now, rather than paper, that we've cut the majority of our costs and anybody can publish. Some people even say this means the death of publishers, and the imminent creation of a more one-to-one, creator-to-audience supply and demand relationship.

However, I still buy a newspaper because CanWest Global has money to station reporters around the world, to spring for researchers and fact-checkers, good photographers and graphic illustrators, and to have reporters spend a few days chasing down an interview. Publishers in this case have the money to invest into a competitive product--no matter the media.

Blogs and even some online news sources (Huffington Post, The Tyee) have a limited regional scope, or are limited to the scope of expertise, i.e. here's a marketer writing an op-ed about a marketing-related issue, because that is cost-efficient.

What I'm trying to say to your argument is yes, small and independent publishers have limited time and money to introduce their product to readers, but also limited means for creating a competitive product.

So money wins. Again.

tracy said...

every forward thinking speaker that has spoken to us has had the same massage: do more! occupy every space your reader lives in!

how is this possible when there is no money to hire employees that are properly trained to do so? or not even trained for that matter.

every time someone even hints at this questions our industry experts seem to change the subject.

i for one am overwhelmed by it. but don't worry, megan--you're ahead of most in the social media cluster fuck. ahead of me anyway. i only have one blog post and there are no signs of more to come anytime soon.

ML said...

Tracy, you are a clever fox. You've just gained a blog follower. See, you're a social media expert! See you online, offline, and in-person.

englishcanuck said...

I don't know (and anybody who claims that they do know is bullshitting you) about the future of publishing.

I don't think print will ever really die (after all it has on "killer feature" - no battery). But it will be changing it's form. Those with money will have to focus on creating content that others can't. The internet cuts out distribution, but production values are now more apparent then ever. For the written word that means embracing top-notch editors and writers, a trend that is embarrassingly fading away. YouTube, Twitter and other's may uncover new talent, but it's the support staff that makes these guys shine (look at Justin Beiber, talented yes, but only rich + famous after working with Usher).

What scares me the most is that the music (and movie) industry still haven't really figured this out. They're still backing cheap acts in the hopes of a smash, rather than investing in talent that takes time to grow and create a following. They've had about a decade to work on this, and it seems like nothing's changed. The publishing industry is just starting to learn that the book will not be the ubiquitous form of text in the coming decades (hello Kindle, Nook, and iPad). And yet, they're fighting almost every new model brought their way.

The only answer that's certain is that something will digital will dominate, and soon. But what that platform is, is extremely uncertain.

As for what I do know - you're using Blogger which is a Google platform, which means that you're being indexed by Google (and others) automatically. I just searched for social dream rant and you came up number 7. For better indexing try creating titles to your posts as if someone might type it into a search engine.

Kathleen said...

Great post!

I have to say I'm pretty terrified too but I'm trying really hard to be excited. I've been reading a bit of Kuhn and his notion of paradigm shifts for my tech paper and I'm hoping that freedom of information and social media and niche publishing and web 3.0 will suddenly just click into place when I look at them the right way; I also hope that when they do, I'll have a job.

I think that DB Scott's idea of banding together is useful for some of the administration and infrastructure in magazine publishing. Small magazines can collaborate for distribution, market research, and the kinds of efforts that work best on a larger scale. But small publications are hugely disadvantaged by their lack of resources. I think the glimmer of hope DB Scott gave us was that "we must think of our magazines as elite products of high value, distributed to people willing to pay for their true worth." Small publishers do serve communities larger players fail to, and this is where they have an advantage. Social media may continue to privilege the big conglomerates but living in the digital age means non-geographic cultural communities are accessible to publishers and vice versa.

Obviously the issue of voices being excluded is not a new one. I think it's getting better, but it's also one of the things I hope to take on in a meaningful way when I'm in the industry. I also have high hopes that rather that homogenizing, the internet will serve niche publishing and make small communities more robust.

Cynara said...

maybe it's because i'm ~*ever-so-old*~ but I don't feel so much frustrated by the calls to "do more! be everywhere!" as much as I feel like a lot of the things people are touting as "new in the noughties" have been happening for decades. social media is just making it more difficult to hang on to the dream of being "quietly discovered drinking coffee at the local coffee shop and writing the next great Cdn novel."

I don't know a single working writer--and I know just about every working writer in wpg--who has been able to secure a publishing contract on artistic merit alone. The game has been about self-promotion, fortuitous encounters, and building contacts for a long time now. Ask any new and emerging writer (of fiction or poetry) "so, tell us how you got your first book?" and they will try to skirt the question because the answer is almost always "I had a friend start working at [small press] or, a friend of a friend passed on my ms to [editor at press] and got me in the door." I don't think the process is any less about making noise than it was ten years ago, it's just now we're being made to acknowledge it more and keep score.

my degree is in creative writing and while I had scattered publications, my biggest breaks have come, hands down, through blogging & social media. I have a bigger audience via flickr & the network of blogs I guest at then I ever had at poetry readings. And the reason I ended-up with an essay in a book with several intnl editions is because of--connections. i connected with bloggers who got their book deal based on being able to prove they had an engaged audience.

Contrary to being squeezed out by big guns with lots of funds, I think small publishers--who have voices and opinions that are more defined to begin with stand to gain the most through the application of social media. I don't think HarperCollins or D&M have a very unique voice, whereas when small publishers speak up, I want to listen.

As for being time impoverished... I think this will become the lay of the land, unfortunately and i think of of us without smart phone are already at a huge output disadvantage which we'll be forced to address if we're to move forward in the industry. All my love of social media aside, I get overloaded with being in all spaces online and relish a bit of brain quiet between destinations. geotagging terrifies me because i feel that it masks an imperative that we should always be "on the clock."

When I was completing my undergrad, my doctor disclosed to me that she spent most of her time these days looking at lady parts and writing doctor's notes for burnt-out students who needed extensions because they couldn't keep up with working, studying and producing at a breakneck pace. "the human body was not meant to perform this way" she told me, "this world has gotten too fast for any of us."

jmax said...

Great post, ML... and I love the commentary too.

I think the game-changing impact of social media is effaced when we call it "media". Henceforth I am going to say "social networks" because that puts the emphasis in the right place. Social networks are cultural plumbing; it's infrastructure. As I mentioned today, what was formerly only possible in Paris, London, NYC because of intense density of artistic communities starts to become possible beyond and between these places. That changes things, and it disrupts the capital-intensive, NY-based model that has been in effect for almost a century.

sean said...

Hey Megan

Great post but more importantly, great job at engaging people and inspiring them to comment and carry the conversation forward. That's awesome.

Just a couple of comments. The devil, as always, is in the details.

The reason that we were discussing OJ Simpson - exciting as that is in any context - was because we were discussing the complexity of publishing contracts in the digital age.

Specific example being an author choosing to withhold digital rights from the print publisher in order to manage those rights through other means. For instance, 3rd party digital/ebook publishers or sophisticated multi platform media companies such as ex-Harper Collins CEO Jane Friedman's Open Road Integrated Media company.

Since we were discussing Ms Friedman, I took the opportunity to tangentially discuss Judith Regan who created one of the most successful imprints/brands in recent publishing history with Regan Books.

Regan Books was a ridiculously successful imprint of Harper Collins. Jane Friedman was the CEO of Harper at the time and there was a well known mutual loathing between the two women.

When Judith Regan announced the OJ Simpson book and generated the predictable response from the American public... well, that was the end of the line for Judith Regan.

There was a vicious and very public episode involving lawsuits, reported racial epithets and a decade-long power struggle coming to a bloody end.

That's why we were discussing OJ Simpson. Because he is connected intrinsically to the moment that we find ourselves in right now in publishing in North America.

Who knows where we would be if Judith Regan was still running rampant across the publishing landscape?

Quite honestly my money is that we would be much further along the digital road than we are... and further still than Ms Friedman's Open Road proposes to take us.

I think that's true and I think it's important for people coming up in the industry to know who these 2 women are and what they did over the past 15 or so years.

Especially, Judith Regan. She was an original.

Anyway... one last apocalyptic comment.

Book publishing is a gift not a right.

It is about cataloging a time, telling stories, sharing the human experience, whatever.

It is about creativity and documentation. Sharing visions, feeding communities.

Boil it down to the essence and always try to ask better questions.

Thanks for the comments. I could continue writing all night but I will stop here.

ML said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ML said...

Deanne: let's make us so money!

Wells: thanks for the SEO tips.

Kathleen: Kuhn sounds great. I'm going to read your paper

Geissler: So much to learn from you. I'm not suggesting that social media isn't necessary or useful, but that its effects and politics are misunderstood.

Sean: I think book publishing is a gift *and* a right. At least, conceptually, Cdn cultural policy supports this: If you have something that has cultural value, you have a right to make it heard. But, point taken. And the OJ tangent was quirky and great. I appreciated it.

John: The networks (not media) thing works for me. I can dig it.

sean said...



So... what do you mean by publishing is a 'right'?

because, quite honestly, i don't see it enshrined anywhere.

step into the chamber.

sean said...

Wait a minute... do you mean that it's our 'right' to publish things of 'cultural value'?

And which comes first? The 'right' or the 'cultural value'?

And who decides what is of *ahem* 'cultural value'? What does that look like?

And who pays for this 'right' to publish items of 'cultural value'?

Independent investors? Creators? Tax payers?

Just asking.

These are good questions.

I am often confused by this notion that it's a right to 'publish' but I am often confused by very simple things like this.

ML said...

Gah! How did you get me to defend Cdn cultural policy?! It's a mess of course--the politics of who gets to decide and who has no say at all cannot suit everyone--but aren't we glad that Cdn support for culture lets at least some people publish books and mags that wouldn't be able to otherwise?

When I say it's a right to publish, I mean we all have a voice and we all should have access to the tools to express it and let it be heard, regardless of whatever the cultural value might be... assuming it's not hateful material, etc. etc.

Isn't that the promise of a blog? I guess that gets back to where we started... isn't the point of social media to let everyone have a platform to *publish*? (maybe that's where we're getting stuck - what is a book?? what is publishing?? help!)

sean said...


Always fun to watch someone's brain explode so early in the morning.

You're right on all counts, especially the one where it does/doesn't make any sense. It's like a trick of the light or something.

LumpyCam said...

Ted Nelson's original vision for hyperlinks (we can mostly point to him as 'inventor') included a rigid system of track-backs to ensure payment and/or recognition returned to the source creator. While the Web strayed from this during the 90s and 00s there's potential the 10s may bring this model back into focus.

Impact: Smaller magazines could forget about being brand monsters and return to content creation while still returning a respectable revenue.

~ DS