eBook leaning on a stack of hard copy books

A Collaborative Solution To Grow The Reading Market

A conference hosted by the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) prompted me to think about growing the reading market. Reporting on the IBPA meeting, Jim Milliot summarized remarks made by Dana Beth Weinberg, who presented the results of a survey she had previously conducted for Writers Digest and Digital Book World.

Hugh Howey has claimed that Professor Weinberg’s analysis compared apples and oranges. An earlier post captured my thoughts on that discussion/debate. In this post, I’m thinking specifically about something Professor Weinberg said while presenting at IBPA, as captured by Milliot:

Weinberg emphasized that she wasn’t trying to discourage people from entering publishing, either as a self-publisher or by establishing a press, but only looking to point out the challenges ahead. She noted that consumer spending on all books is a “limited pie” and that not every author or publisher can be a winner.

The “Limited Pie”

This notion of a “limited pie” shapes a lot of our thinking about books, eBooks, digital formats, subscription models, fan fiction, independent publishing, copyright terms and more. Belief in a static or a shrinking pie puts us on defense, inclined to protect core aspects of traditional models as we think about new entrants taking share from existing publishers, retailers and others.

Last October, I asked “Can collaborative approaches help grow the size of the pie for reading?” (a question I asked again in yesterday’s post). On both occasions, I consciously avoided using the word “book”, because we don’t know that the traditional format is the only way we’ll be able to sell content in the future.

There is an opportunity to think about growing the reading market. I think Professor Weinberg approaches this topic in a fundamentally broken way, with the notion that abundance divides a fixed or shrinking pie so finely that most of us can’t benefit. I’d prefer a discussion in which we talked about how the dynamic of a larger writing population—a movement unprecedented in human history—might lead to more content consumption, not less.

“Sharing Changes Everything”

In an interview with McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, Clay Shirky offered his thoughts on “The disruptive power of collaboration“. He talked about several things, the first of which is simple: sharing changes everything.

Shirky explained his interest in the “collaborative penumbra,” the areas in which collaboration enabled by new technologies fosters fundamentally new ways of engagement and interaction. He expands on this idea with two examples:

So the collaborative penumbra around 3-D printing is a place where you don’t have to have someone who can do everything—from having the idea to making the mesh to printing it. You can start having division of labor. So you’ve got all of these small groups that are just working together like studios and still able to play on a world stage.

And all the way at the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got these collaborative environments where almost no one has to coordinate with anybody else. When I upload something to Thingiverse, or I make an edit on Wikipedia, it’s not like I need anybody else’s help or permission. So the collaborative range is expanding. The tight groups have more resources, and the loose groups can be much more loosely coordinated and operate at a much larger scale. And I think the people who think about collaboration want to know what’s happening to it, and the answer is everything.

Wikipedia is already a publishing example, but there are more. Wattpad is a collaboration platform, one on which up to 90% of the traffic comes from readers. UK newspaper The Guardian crowdsourced the analysis of expenses filed by members of Parliament, simultaneously making the overwhelming manageable while increasing the level of civic interest and engagement.

Growing The Reading Market

As Clive Thompson points out in Smarter Than You Think, until the web grew social, the average adult spent an entire lifetime writing little or nothing. We have no collective experience that would inform how an explosion of writing, as comments, annotation, blog posts, short stories, works of fiction, fan fiction and who knows what else, will shape our appetite for reading.

Here’s what we do know: supporting collaboration in other settings has grown the pie. It hasn’t immediately and reliably generated a business model, making it easy to dismiss collaboration in the near term. As well, at least some of the benefits of collaboration are externalities: My life is made better by Wikipedia, even if the folks running it have to struggle to stay funded.

By any measure, we’re no more than a few years into the period when anyone can write and be published. We might encourage this collaborative chaos a bit more, to see where it leads us. I’m guessing that, when we figure out how “sharing changes everything” in publishing, we’ll be talking more about growing the reading market and a lot less about static or shrinking pies.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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