Monday 16 February 2009

The future of the essay anthology

One of the most thought-provoking things that happened to me at Foo Camp was being given a print-on-demand (POD) copy of the Best of TOC writing anthology from O'Reilly Media.

TOC stands for Tools Of Change For Publishing, a division within O'Reilly Media that "seeks to connect the people, companies, and organizations asking and answering the questions that will define the future of publishing." The TOC anthology brings together a couple of dozen blog posts from the past 12 months on this topic, drawn from the TOC and other blogs.*

I love anthologies. When I was a kid, it was fairy tales - remember the Blue book and the Orange book and the Red book of fairy tales? As an adult, it's the 'Best American Science Writing' and 'Best American Science and Nature Writing' series.

Over the past few years, I've used the bookmarking site Ma.gnolia to create my own anthology of blog posts on various topics that interest me. These are usually article-length pieces that I refer back to and refer others on to. As some will know, Ma.gnolia recently and very regrettably fell over, and while I've extracted my bookmarked sites , they're currently in the form of one very long HTML page, and I'm reduced to searching it using the Ctrl + F function until I get my act together and reload them elsewhere.

But even before that, I often wished that I could compile my own printed manual of those blog posts, a physical reference that I could flip through faster than I could keyword search my bookmarks. Of course, I could print off all the posts and spiral-bind them, but that wasn't quite the elegant solution I was looking for.

Over the past few years, I've also had a subscription to the New Yorker. Back copies of the magazines sit in piles around the house; every couple of issues there's an article that I so enjoy, that so changes my thinking, that I can't bear to recycle them. At the same time, there's no easy way to collate the bits I want, so I can get rid of the bits I don't. Yes, I could rip them out and file them, or bind them, but again - not the elegant solution I want.

POD publishing would seem to offer this elegant solution for both my dilemmas. If the blog posts were correctly formatted and Creative Commons licensed, or available at a modest price (say, a dollar per item) I could bundle them into an e-book and, using POD, easily print off my manual. Likewise, if the New Yorker made its online articles available for download in this way, I could make my selection of my favourite 20 or 30 pieces for the year and treat myself to a customised collection at Christmas time.

Now let's mash this up a little. Hendrik Hertzberg writes for the print edition of the New Yorker, and has a blog on their site. His reporting on the US presidential election was quite amazing; what if I could make an anthology that combined the best of his his print and online pieces?

And another step further. What if the New Yorker entered into an agreement with some other publishers whose magazines I read, so that I could make a cross-title selection. Then I could pull together all the really seminal pieces of reporting on the election into one mega-anthology, or create a selection of great book reviews, or aggregate pieces of social and tech reporting that are relevant to my job.

Then let's add a social element. Let's make it so that I can share my anthologies online. People could look up the Best of 3 account and download and print anything that interests them from the list of books I've compiled. Or, even better, let them use my list as a starting point, taking out the items that they're not interested in and adding new pieces. If you want to get all cool and Web 2 about it, you could add some ranking tools (so people can vote up popular anthologies), commenting and tagging, and maybe a couple of algorithms that surface titles automatically based on measures of popularity and timeliness.

I see this as a win-win situation. Publishers are trying to figure out how to make money off the digital versions of their print publications, and exploit their back catalogues more efficiently. I'm wanting to make physical versions of my favourite online things.** Everyone's happy. So - who do I talk to about making this happen?

*You can download the TOC anthology from the Reilly site for free; but you can also find links to all the blog posts collected in the book here; I really recommend this great interview with Derek Powazek on the 'evolving relationship between print and web content' and John Siracusa's extraordinary piece 'The once and future ebook'.

**A Webstock workshop that I went to yesterday had some really interesting reflections about the way online activities and communities filter out into real world objects, events and relationships.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, but seems like a classic techie idea to me - good for the user but no real relation to the economic basis of the form.

The business model of the magazine is creating an audience and selling their attention to advertisers. Subscription and newsstand sales are secondary. Allowing users to leave the context of the magazine or website to consume the content offers nothing to the advertiser.

The way this could happen is if a distributor decided to commission a whole bunch of authors to write excellent essays, and/or allow authors to sell their own essays through this model. But the revenue generated wouldn't support editors, writers, etc. at the same level as a print publication, so you'd be hard pressed to get writers to switch.

There's a reason why iTunes has been the only really successful new content platform and media distributors would like to see it dead. Apple could afford to not make any money out of it and see it as an add-on to their iPod business. (Similarly, for Google, YouTube does not need to make money). Someone needs to commission the original content that gets aggregated in the a la carte systems like the one you describe, and I haven't yet found out who has a vaiable business doing that.

[From my pov this is why Joost failed to revolutionise television the way the Skype guys had been able to change calling: media is a much more complex business]

Courtney Johnston said...

Oh Boris - you have no idea how flattered I am to have come up with something that someone considers to be a "classic techie idea"!

In all seriousness, I think you raise some very valid points. I really recommend checking out the blog posts collated in the TOC book.

You're right that this idea doesn't address the question of advertisers - but then, it's not like print publishers are feeling all that good about advertising revenue right now. So maybe a tweak to my idea is that you can't download the essays until a week or two after the print publication date - that way, the advertisers get the immediacy, and I get my content.

The comforting thing about your comment is that it indicates that no one is currently doing what I describe - I was worried that someone was going to leave a comment saying , umm, have you not heard of X, Y or Z.