How Can We Generate Rewards for Reading? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I share three smart pieces worth reading about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

Publishing’s Future: When Editors Eat Robots by Porter Anderson

This is a provocative overview of a talk by publishing industry futurist and consultant Richard Nash (formerly of Byliner, Small Demons, and Soft Skull). Some of the choicest quotes are:

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

Nash’s last point relates to the “quantified self” trend now prevalent in our lives. (He uses the Fitbit as an example.) His comments remind me of an excellent talk by Jesse Schell on the gamification of daily life; it’s well worth the 30 minutes to watch and imagine how this might affect writing, reading, and books.

Thoughts & questions:

  • I find authors often more capable than their publishers at capturing the value they create—if they can free themselves from thinking that money only comes from book sales. Nonfiction authors, however, tend to have an easier and smoother time creating that value (speaking/teaching, consulting, coaching, etc). It’s sometimes difficult to point to good fiction writer models to follow, where value can be captured outside the book itself, outside of the huge franchises (such as Game of Thrones). Suggestions, anyone? John Green, the YA author, comes to mind.
  • What do you think about coming up with rewards for reading?

Last Call: The End of the Printed Newspaper by Clay Shirky

When I shared this piece earlier in the week, I received a number of comments along the lines of, “Duh!”

It’s probably helpful to read another Shirky piece that helps inform “Last Call,” where he discusses the continuing nostalgia for print. Given that most traditional print publications earn the large majority of their revenue from print, and only pennies from digital, one has to start imagining (1) a lot of publications closing in the next decade, (2) new digital publishing business models that successfully charge people for content, and/or (3) more successful digital advertising models. (Native advertising looks most promising at the moment.)

Thoughts & questions:

  • Do you believe the New York Times won’t exist in print form in 2024?

Stuff I Want to Know by Hugh Howey

Howey lists a range of excellent questions he’d like Amazon to answer, including:

  • How many customers borrow a book, then go on to buy it.
  • How far readers get in a book.
  • When gamification will be implemented (very, very similar to what Nash is suggesting above—badges for reading/completing books)
  • and much more. Go browse the full list.

Thoughts & questions:

  • Amazon definitely knows the answers to the questions that Howey asks (at least those that seek data points and analysis). It speaks to me primarily of how much power and insight Amazon has, given their immense data set, that the rest of us do not.
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