Publishing’s Future: When Editors Eat Robots


The Quantified Self Of Richard Nash

He is a podium prowler. He moves around during a conference presentation. He sets up gazelle-graceful concepts and wounds them quickly, before you get too comfortable. Lots of articulate gestures. Give him two flashlights and he could land a Dreamliner onstage as he talked.

And his talks? They tend to work like successive trap doors, dropping audience members through one floor after the next, toward a deep, quiet truth or two.

“There’s a perception,” he said in Stockholm, “that this industry is dying a very slow, sedated, almost benign, almost comfortable kind of euthanize-ation. My job is to be the pragmatic optimist.”

And so he talked about extinction.

“There’s a wonderful book by an American science journalist, Analee Newitz, called Scatter, Adapt, and Remember. It’s about how humanity will survive the next extinction event.

“I think publishing can scatter, adapt, and do well to remember.”

Adaptation, in fact, was already underway: “I changed my title five seconds ago from ‘Editors Beat Robots’ to ‘Editors Eat Robots,’ partially because I don’t believe in neat oppositions of editor versus robot, book versus transmedia, print versus digital. I believe in hybridization, which happens when things get combined. In a certain sense, I could say, ‘Editors Fuck Robots,’ and not in the aggressive sense but in the reproductive sense. What happens when editors combine themselves with robots?”

Like all of us who spoke at Stockholm’s The Next Chapter conference produced by Publit’s Jonas Lennermo, Nash had been asked to consider the question “where are we now?” in the digital transformation of publishing.

“Where we are now is a function of where we’ve been,” he told the Moderna Museet audience. “Before the printing press, the mere fact that you could write guaranteed you a job. It was the only time in human history when the mere fact of literacy ensured you an economically viable life.

“In many respects, it’s been downhill since then.

“The printing press, in a sense, destroyed the economic viability of the writer because it eliminated the writer as copyist — in the words of an historian of the time, ‘the writer as trained scribal laborer.'”

Nash was ready to relieve us of a few more cherished dreams of the bookish old country.

“The Book Is The Original Commodity”

Something of a serial start-upper, Richard Nash is a highly regarded player in, or consultant to — let’s say a presence around — significant publishing ventures. They don’t always succeed financially. They’re usually intriguing.

Some of those have included Soft Skull Press, Cursor, Red Lemonade, Byliner, Cursor, BitLit, and Small Demons. What he makes of these experiences is always worth hearing.

“Before bookshops,” he told Stockholm, “retail consisted of a person walking up to a desk, saying, ‘I want two kilograms of sugar, five kilograms of flour and some sawdust.'”

“The storekeeper went to the back room, got the stuff, brought it out in a bag, took the customer’s money, and that was it.

“The bookstore,” said Nash, “was the first moment in retail when the consumer was allowed to look at what she or he was buying before they bought it. It was the first time anybody bothered to make the package look attractive, to make it enticing. It was the first moment where the consumer, as opposed to the producer, held some power.

“Now…books had to become cheaper in order to support a consumer model instead of a patronage model.”

And as mass production through applications of printing-press technologies took hold, prices were driven down, of course.

“Books were almost the beginning of the industrial revolution,” said Nash.

“Mass reproduction, economies of scale were driving down prices…What seems to be a very rarefied, high, elite product is, in fact, the exact opposite: The book is the original commodity. It is the original mass, reproduced thing.”

“Publishing Has Always Been Driven By Barbarians”

Allen Lane, 1902-1970, was the founder of Penguin Books, credited with making mass-market paperbacks viable by producing classics in durable, inexpensive editions which he sold in his 1937 vending machine, the “Penguincubator.”

“Allen Lane is considered something of a hero with good reason,” Nash said, “for his creation of the Penguin Classics.

“But the interesting thing about Allen Lane is that the guy never read a book. He was a popularizer of books, he believed in books, but he didn’t actually read books. He was a sort of barbarian.

“But the reality is that publishing has always been driven by barbarians.

“Allen Lane wanted books to be cheap and convenient. As cheap as a packet of cigarettes, and as ubiquitous as a pack of cigarettes. The vending machine was what allowed him to put books cheaply onto railway platforms, into the squares, near buildings — not to draw the consumer to where the books were, but to put the books where the consumers were.

“Now, does this sound familiar?”

“The End Of The Industrial Era Of Publishing…The Kindle”

“Jeff Bezos is frequently described as a man who is destroying the publishing industry, right? Who is disrupting the publishing industry.

“I believe this is a grave misunderstanding. Not so much of Bezos. I don’t really care about his feelings.

“But it’s a misunderstanding of what the publishing industry has been.

“The publishing industry has been 500 years of focusing on making commodities as cheap and convenient as possible. that is our history. That has been the drive of the industry since it began. Greater economies of scale, greater efficiencies, more sophisticated retail, more and more efforts to put more and more copies of books into the hands of more and more people.

“It had plenty of beneficial side effects, in terms of literacy, in terms of revolutionizing Western political traditions, Western religious traditions.”

Scandinavian blood pressure readings still seem to remain generally steady in an auditorium where the Bezosian Beelzebub is mentioned. Most of the audience in Stockholm has yet to experience the commercial clout of what Nash was trying to assure them is not, in fact, the aberration in publishing that alarmists in the industry! the industry! may make it seem.

“Bezos is not destroying the publishing industry,” he told them. “He represents its pinnacle. Its apotheosis.

“But, of course, when you reach the pinnacle, you’ve nowhere else to go. So Bezos has also introduced the end of the industrial era of publishing.

“By introducing the Kindle.”

“Not Book-As-Object But Book-As-Reading-Service”

“One of the things that I think is important for us to understand is how, in fact, limiting the book has been as a tool for taking creativity and culture and converting it into money.”

Nash used the hypothetical example of a project in which a book named Lorem Ipsum — yes, the dummy text, ersatz Latin used by designers to indicate blocks of copy on pages.

“In the US, the typical novel published in paperback would cost $13.95. Under this model, it would be hard to publish Lorem Ipsum for less than $10.95. Which means that somewhere on the order of about 20 percent, at most, of the value of a book is the words that are inside it. In fact, if you really run profit and loss statements, you’ll find that our process for transmitting text into the world gives the text negative value. The cost of simply putting the book out there was greater than the revenue that you got for doing so.

“Conversely, sneakers, Nike sneakers? — their manufacturing and distribution costs are roughly 10 percent. Many pharmaceuticals, 2 to 3 percent of the price they cost.

“Yet the publishing industry, the books, the original intellectual property, right? — our manufacture and distribution costs are 80 percent, 90 percent. The premium that we charge is tiny.

“It turns out that books may not necessarily be the best way for capturing the value that an author creates.”

Pulling together data on user time devoted to reading and to activity on a social medium, Nash concluded: “Facebook, which is viewed as the most powerful attractor of attention on mobile devices is, in fact, no better at attaining attention than the average book. Which suggests that books, certainly in devices, are at least as good as Facebook.”

Pressing his listeners steadily away from literature’s fetish of so many centuries toward the idea of something less tangible and more networked, he continued: “In order to get at this, we’re going to need to re-think intellectually how we conceive of this book. Not book-as-object. But rather book-as-reading-service. As a service you offer readers.”

And when he showed his audiences charts of employment trends over the last 70 years in manufacturing and service sectors, he said quickly what they were thinking: “If we’re in the business of making things, we’re in deep shit. But if we’re in the business of providing reading services, we could be in luck.”

“It turns out that the humble editors — laid off over the last 10, 20, 30 years — it turns out, editors are in really good shape. And why is that? Because editors are a really good service. At least if you understand yourself as a service, like a yoga instructor or a shrink — and I’m sure any editors in the room have been psychotherapists for your authors at some point.

“When you understand editing as a service, as opposed to a process of picking products that may or may not sell, your value is defined by how good you are rather than how lucky you are. Which suggests that editors, when they eat robots, when they use tools, when they use data, when they embrace a post-industrial mode, can be the entities that are attracting the value.”

“Find Bullshit Rewards For Readers Now”

Having emboldened editors to eat their robots — and by extrapolation exhorted the industry to re-think itself as a creature of a service economy — Nash spent his last minutes in a coda of intriguing potential: reading and the “quantified self.”

Explaining that his Jawbone device (like my FitBit) had tracked his (limited) sleep the night before, Nash noted that the “quantified self” concept is “that if we understand more about how we behave, we will behave better. It’s a system that’s focused right now on exercise.

“It is designed to overcome a problem we have as humans, which is that we like to do things that give us pleasure now but not that will give us pleasure five years from now. ‘Let me be thin but not right now. Right now I want ice cream.’

“And reading suffers a similar challenge. ‘O, Lord, let me be well-read, let me have all the powers of empathy, of cultural awareness that long-form reading gives me … but that’s a really funny cat video.'”

A concept of reading-as-service, a reflection of the quantified self, almost came into focus. Its secret glinted from the gyrations of Nash’s hands. The end of his talk was rushing up at us and he would, as always, leave us wanting more, tantalized, bothered, unsettled.

“I don’t have the answer necessarily as to what the quantified self is around reading,” he said.

“But that is the task that I believe we all need to take on…To ascertain how generating rewards right now for reading can be offered to readers. How do we give readers rewards right now, rather than in the future?

“As arbitrary or irrational or manipulative as those rewards might be: Find bullshit rewards for readers now. Because they will thank you in the future.

“And I thank you now.”