ad hoc: algorithm-defiant human-only curation

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Last year, I’d seriously considered partnering with various trusted peers in the creation of a new, “hybrid” publisher. It was clear as Gorilla Glass what traditional publishers were doing wrong so I figured I’d start my own.

Then I realized I had no idea what to do instead. Not fundamentally, anyway. Certainly there are surface details I’d change. Me being the publisher, for one. But with a stronger jaw, and fuller hair. But without a clear vision for how a New Publisher should operate in 2015, it just didn’t make sense to proceed.

I’m still thinking about it though. One of the books on my “reading clump” next to the bed is The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso. Calasso is the longtime publisher of Adelphi Edizioni, the prestigious Milanese, um, publisher. (Excuse the synecdoche.)

Born into the Tuscan upper class, Calasso has worked for Adelphi since 1962. (Class is a significant thread in the traditional publishing ecosystem, even in the U.S., and one of the many reasons publishers are finding the 21st century an awkward fit. Also why salt-of-the-earth fishmonger types like myself find traditional publishing an awkward fit.)

Calasso is erudite and sophisticated. If you looked up “publisher” in an Italian dictionary, well, you wouldn’t find anything because that’s not the word.

Regardless, he writes:

We might wonder why the role of the publisher has attracted so many people over the centuries—and continues to be regarded as fascinating, and in some ways mysterious, even today…Apart from being one branch of business, publishing has always involved prestige, if only because it is a kind of business that is also an art. An art in every sense, and certainly a dangerous art since, in order to practice it, money is an essential element. From this point of view it can be argued that very little has changed since Gutenberg’s time.

This certainly captures the essence of the publishing mystique for me. Calasso’s wrong about the money angle though—you can perform the role of publisher for very little bitcoin nowadays.

That said, publishing remains dangerous. It’s one thing to be attacked (figuratively or literally) on the basis of your own deeply cherished beliefs. It’s a very different thing to be attacked for publishing someone else’s beliefs. I’ve worked at two organizations (off the top of my head) with bulletproof windows erected because of threats spurred by one specific creative work. Each work angered members of a different religion, but a bomb is a bomb.

Putting controversial books aside, what exactly is the role of a book publisher today…

  • …as the infrastructure (big publishing conglomerates, national book chains, BEA, etc.) continues to wobble and degrade?

  • …as new technology combined with a robust freelance talent network allows anyone to create and sell books that are difficult to distinguish from traditionally published ones, even for pros?

  • …as mysterious algorithms increasingly decide which books readers even see, let alone buy?

Today, algorithms even decide which of your friends’ heartfelt book recommendations actually appear in your feed. We can’t even recommend books to each other without algorithmic distortion.

As the realization that social media is poisoning our brains and destroying our civilization the same way lead pipes toppled the Roman Empire continues to dawn on us, the value of Algorithm-Defiant Human-Only Curation (AD HOC) becomes irrefutable.

Perhaps the role of a book publisher today, above and beyond any other function, is to convince readers of the value of this type of curation, to prove incontrovertibly that AD HOC is worthy of their attention.

In my experience, once you have the attention of readers, the rest of the supposedly difficult parts of making a book (editorial, marketing, design, finance, operations, elbow patches) tend to fall into place. In the words of Saul Bellow (or was it Milan Kundera?): “Enough interested readers and any idiot can run a publishing house.”

If you too are interested in the idea of ad hoc publishing, shoot me an email. We should start a conference. Or a bootcamp. Or a mastermind. A summit?

On a related note (related to the culture of publishers), I read this fascinating post  by Martin Sústrik, a Google software engineer. Sústrik is talking about a dispute over how to manage software projects but (to me) it applies to making books as well:

I guess it boils down to the difference in personalities, with Pieter, being an extrovert advocating the idea of a software project publisher treated as a social club, place where people with similar interests get together, feel at home, have a good time and eventually do some good work. Me, being reclusive to the point of misanthropy, I see a software project publisher as purely technical endeavor, an exercise of craftsmanship, without caring too much about its social aspects.

So short it makes no sense to summarize further. Its an interesting read even if you (as I) know nothing about open-source software communities. In just a few words it touches on several aspects of the “community” that makes the books, and made me wonder whether there might not be a better organizational design for New Publishers.

Publishing “imprints” within massive international publishing conglomerates often started as discrete entities that were eventually subsumed and mushed together for financial reasons of scale. Sort of how the mitochondria in our cells started out as separate organisms but eventually become the internal machinery of other living cells.

Does it still make sense in 2015 to have all these distinct-but-similar identities/brands/teams floating around within larger generic publishing companies that float around within even larger, even more generic transnational media corporations, island-in-a-lake-on-an-island-in-a-lake-on-an-island-style?

Especially when the vast majority of these imprints don’t really focus on a particular kind of book or on a particular audience, and the same bunch of (lovely, good) editors tend to move fluidly between them? I mean, what’s the point of all that structure?

The whole thing reminds me of Apple right before Steve Jobs returned. I worked in a Mac repair shop around that time. Apple had about a million different products and they all kind of sucked. But people still really, really wanted to like them. (Remind you of traditional book publishing’s current situation at all?)

Steve came back and pared the offering way down: pro desktop, consumer desktop, pro laptop, consumer laptop. Even the digital camera had to go! Let alone the Newton.

Maybe publishing companies and their multitudinous imprints are ready for a Steve Jobs moment?