What is a Book? On Publishing, Books, and Video

Photo by Sam BR http://flic.kr/p/7MNugf

Seth Godin argued in a recent blog post that publishers need to revisit their assumptions about what “books” are…and by extension what their jobs entail. This is an important point, because it actually shows one potential way forward for an industry that is struggling to create value as its traditional business environment changes underfoot.

Book publishing, like the newspaper business, and the music business before it, is threatened by outmoded business models, new competitors, digital distribution, and the rise of substitutes for consumers. Barriers to creating and distributing a book have fallen so far that, as Clay Shirky says about publishing:

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

So what does a savvy publisher do? Godin argues that publishers should redirect the curatorial, editorial, and marketing skills they have towards other projects that may not take the form of a traditional print book. He uses the short film “Caine’s Arcade” as an example.

Caine’s Arcade from Nirvan Mullick on Vimeo.


It’s worth noting that more people have spent ten minutes watching this film in the last week than have read all but a handful of books over the same period of time. And even more profoundly, that this short film has raised almost $200,000 for the star’s college fund without really trying.

Conceptually, this is a book.

…the act of finding Caine, of investing in a short film, of bringing that idea to the public–it’s stuff like that that publishers are actually quite good at–the format and the economics will change, but the risky act of bringing ideas to the public is what publishers do.

This is an important skill in a world where video is just as important as text. The creators of “The New Liberal Arts” argue that video literacy is one critical skillset for our era.

Basic literacy—reading and writing text—is no longer enough. Now, all media is transmitted through the window of a glowing screen. Television and web video have become dominant modes of communication and even print news media rely increasingly on video to show us “truth.” Understanding video is essential to participating in modern society.

The future of publishing may well involve scaling the ability to find, shape, and ship narrative-driven multimedia projects, which sounds a lot more like an emerging business than a dying one. All publishers should take a cue from Godin and ask themselves: What is a book?

P2P lending org Kiva’s background and future

Excellent read for those interested in social entrepreneurship: Kiva co-founder Matt Flannery discusses the first three years of Kiva and the pioneering of the person-to-person lending field in an in-depth article from new MIT journal Innovations.

What makes this case study interesting is not just that it is penned by the entrepreneur himself, but that many of the issues raised are still very much alive. See the transcript of VC firm Union Street Ventures’ recent event, “Hacking Philanthropy,” for a long discussion of Kiva’s challenges in vetting non-accredited or lower-tier microfinance organizations in the developing world. The transcript is in need of a good copy-edit but the content is solid:

MR. SHAH [Premal Shah, president of Kiva]: We have a growth risk. So we could [lend to all] our NGOs, the existing 70
NGOs. We haven’t vetted all of them fully.
We haven’t randomly sampled, audited. That
takes time and money. And from where we
started from, to actually get that done. So
we’ve actually limited them to how much they
can post each month. But we can raise those
limits to say buyer beware. Craigslist,
Internet community. The problem is that
there’s an information problem right now.
So, I mean, I’d love to hear
either privately or in this forum ways that
we can break that constraint of letting our
lenders make more informed choices. So this
NGO is less vetted. This entrepeneur might
not repay us. And how we get that
information flow from the developing world.
We’ve been racking our brains. And it’s