What's Wrong With Being Sexy?

'We've become victims of our ever-increasing capacity to store, organise, instantly access, and share vast amounts of cultural data.' Simon Reynolds, Retromania

‘I’m bringing sexy back.’ Justin Timberlake

The last session of the day at the Futurebook Innovation Workshop in the early summer was called 'Getting Real', and spoke to the workflow and business practices publishers are having to adopt in a new, increasingly digital landscape.

It brought together an eminently intelligent group of panelists, but it alarmed me that a false dichotomy was being mooted of the ‘sexy’ (read ‘creative’) versus 'unsexy' (read ‘systemic’) aspects of digital publishing. The jumping-off point being that enhanced ebooks and apps are prodigal and frivolous concerns, weren’t making their money back and were basically not what we should be focusing on, and that it was time to concentrate on the pressing concerns of the ‘unsexy’ parts of adapting our businesses.

The debate about narrative-driven enhanced ebooks and apps is a microcosm of the affliction of the conversation around digital publishing. I see this as focusing far too much time online prospecting, debating and speculating about technological developments, at the expense of taking more creative risks with the channels and platforms we have at our disposal.

I began to question how much I should pay attention to every, single little technological development in the wake of two announcements this year: Google's acquisition of Motorola and Facebook buying an app developer called Push Pop Press. The received wisdom is that the former happened in order to acquire patents and build smartphones, the latter to bring developer talent to Facebook's platform.

As I studied the blogposts and reams of analysis over both these topics I had to remind myself that my main concern is how people are reading in new ways and creating digital reading experiences for those people. It surprised me how quickly cold water was poured on the speculation that Facebook might have acquired Push Pop (buzzy, slick developer of Al Gore’s Our Choice book app) in order to create an e-reading platform. The retorts were pretty sharp.

But who exactly are the experts here? I don’t think anyone really has a clue unless they sit on the boards of one of these companies, do they? And the mergers and acquisitions of big technology companies like Google should be a background concern to those of us trying to make things, shouldn’t they?

They are important in a broad, over-arching sense, but these instances threw up a huge level of discussion amongst my industry peers. I was left feeling cold by it and asking: Is this what my job is really about now?

It is dispiriting just how readily the possibilities of multimedia forms of narrative – whether enhanced ebooks, apps or something entirely new – are blindfolded, taken out back and shot dead. Repeatedly.

Dismissing apps and multimedia experiments at this stage is like watching a baby learning to walk and giving up when it first falls over.

I’m not going all West Coast on you, though. I’ve said before that I don't believe in failure as a strategy for success. I believe you learn from failure but that it is still the enemy, and any failures to make apps work are deficiencies in the execution, marketing, business approach, rather than anything inherently hopeless in the form itself.

The idea that publishing is a distribution industry and not a content industry is also flawed. Yes the routes to market and arena for selling and communicating are different online and require new skills, that's a given. But if you can't see how a publisher is a co-creator on the micro level of an editor shaping a book with a writer, and a macro level of creating lists (as flattening of this vertical notion of publishing as the web might or might not be) and brands of works, I think you misunderstand the industry.

Let's not conflate the creative editorial opportunities of digital with the challenges of new business practice and in-house workflow. Sexy and unsexy digital publishing co-exist and should reinforce each other. Metadata is important; some think metadata is digital marketing, end of discussion. I don't, and I don't get out of bed in the morning because of metadata. I appreciate that it's the secret spice of life as is SEO, but like all really great forces for good or evil it remains the silent machinery in the background, and can be hugely powerful at that.

But I do get excited by creative ideas. Sorry.

(Actually, I’m exaggerating here. I do find metadata exciting when Michael Bhaskar of Profile talks about it. But that’s because he makes it sound sexy.)

It’s by empowering editors and writers with the basics about what tools we have at our disposal that paves the way for creative ideas to take flight. But I think digital employees ‘on point’ must filter the must-need-to-know information, and leave the rest to the tech blogs.

Sometimes I think digital publishing needs to be liberated from the digital ghetto of its own making to achieve that. The worrying corollary of this is that I don’t know where that would leave me…




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