Writing, speaking, and translating the future

The author in bits: Subutai, ebooks, and read/write media culture

The author in bits: Subutai, ebooks, and read/write media culture 1

A few examples of the coming shift in publishing can be seen swirling around two Ne(i)(a)ls. Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson are on the forefront of what I envision as the next step for authors in the ebook industry. Authors will take more control and profits from their own work, and publishers who do not adapt to the trend will become conduits rather than arbiters of style.

In this essay I will describe the current developments in ebooks and then extend them to what I see as their logical unfolding.  These ideas can be encompassed by saying that ebooks will demand new forms of marketing and that the fanbase will actively participate in the creation and dissemination of a writer’s products. But before I reach the work of the two Ne(i)(a)ls I have to first take a detour through the world of Manga and the discussions of Lawrence Lessig on read/write culture.

Daniel Pink, who has recently published Drive wrote an impressive article on Manga back in 1997. Pink describes the Manga industry in Japan and the unspoken agreement Manga publishers have reached with the prolific and amateur writers groups(dojinshi) that base their own Manga on commercial, copyrighted works. It may best here to quote Pink’s work.

However, because permitting — let alone encouraging — dojinshi runs afoul of copyright law, the agreement remains implicit: The publishers avert their eyes, and the dojinshi creators resist going too far. This anmoku no ryokai business model helps rescue the manga industrial complex in at least three ways.

First, and most obviously, it’s a customer care program. The dojinshi devotees are manga’s fiercest fans. “We’re not denying the viability or importance of intellectual property,” says Kazuhiko Torishima, an executive at the publishing behemoth Shueisha. “But when the numbers speak, you have to listen.”

Second, as Takeda put it at Super Comic City, “this is the soil for new talent.” While most dojinshi creators have no aspirations to become manga superstars, several artists have used the comic markets to springboard into mainstream success. The best example is Clamp, which began as a circle of a dozen college women selling self-published work at comics markets in the Kansai region. Today, Clamp’s members are manga rock stars; they have sold close to 100 million books worldwide.

Third, the anmoku no ryokai arrangement provides publishers with extremely cheap market research. To learn what’s hot and what’s not, a media company could spend lots of money commissioning polls and conducting focus groups. Or for a few bucks it could buy a Super Comic City catalog and spend two days watching 96,000 of its best customers browse, gossip, and buy in real time. These settings often provide early warnings of the shifting fan zeitgeist. For instance, a few years ago several circles that had been creating dojinshi for the series Prince of Tennis switched to Bleach, an indication that one title was falling out of favor and another was on the rise. “The publishers are seeing the market in action,” Ichikawa says. “They’re seeing the successes and the failures. They’re seeing the trends.”

Taking care of customers. Finding new talent. Getting free market research. That’s a pretty potent trio of advantages for any business. Trouble is, to derive these advantages the manga industry must ignore the law. And this is where it gets weird. Unlike, say, an industrial company that might increase profits if it skirts environmental regulations imposed to safeguard the public interest, the manga industrial complex is ignoring a law designed to protect its own commercial interests.

This odd situation exposes the conflict between what Stanford law professor (and Wired contributor) Lawrence Lessig calls the “read only” culture and the “read/write” culture. Intellectual property laws were crafted for a read-only culture. They prohibit me from running an issue of Captain America through a Xerox DocuColor machine and selling copies on the street. The moral and business logic of this sort of restriction is unassailable. By merely photocopying someone else’s work, I’m not creating anything new. And my cheap reproductions would be unfairly harming the commercial interests of Marvel Comics.

But as Lessig and others have argued, and as the dojinshi markets amply confirm, that same copyright regime can be inadequate, and even detrimental, in a read/write culture. Amateur manga remixers aren’t merely replicating someone else’s work. They’re creating something original. And in doing so, they may well be helping, not hindering, the commercial interests of the copyright holders. Yet they’re treated no differently from me and my hypothetical Captain America photocopies. The result is a misalignment between the emerging imperatives of smart business and the lagging sensibilities of old laws.

Read More http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/magazine/15-11/ff_manga?currentPage=all#ixzz0pXLEYZ1a

Ironically this directly parallels Disney’s fight with the Air Pirates of the 1970’s. However, in that situation Disney fought to prevent others from using their characters for counter-culture comics, and eventually won concessions from congress with the Copyright Extension act of 1998 (sponsored by Sonny Bono). This act has extended copyright owner control and ultimately led to the DMCA which has further alienated consumers of copyrighted products. It has done so by creating an antagonistic relationship between producers and consumers. And it may well be what prevents publishers from staying viable in a read/write marketplace. Authors- as exemplified by Stephenson and Gaiman- are already adapting to the potential for read/write creation inherent in the ebook market, so I have no concern for their ability to prosper in these new markets.

Neil Gaiman:

Neil Gaiman’s foray into the ebook world seems to have increased his sales, and made him realize that the reader can become your best collaborator if he/she is given the chance. This article in Boing Boing from 2008 suggest that in independent stores the sales of all of his books increased because he was giving away his book American Gods.
This presents one of our first tenants of the ebook market.  The ebook calls for a new form of marketing and writing. That marketing and writing process must be not only innovative but inclusive. It makes the reader an active participant in the marketing and the creation process. The reader becomes a vested stakeholder, or a co-creator if you will.

Neil Gaiman: giving away ebooks sold my print books

Gaiman has participated in the creation of Charlie Orr’s Hypothetical Library project (as have many other authors) by freely writing a “flapcopy” for a book he will never write.

Below I am linking to the blog for this project, and I want to make sure to make clear that the final work is a collaboration of Charles Orr and Jeff Gray. And if he will be kind enough to speak to me I would like to follow this post with a future post about Mr Orr’s work, because I see his work as a perfect example of the collaborative creation that I describe.


Neal Stephenson:

Neal Stephenson has extended himself into the world of games/ebooks by becoming the Chairman of Subutai Corporation. He has become the architect of a storyline and a business model that may very well lead to the transformation and/or demise of publishing as we know it. Stephenson created an amazing world in his Baroque Cycle and now he appears poised to leverage it for a very interesting project.

The Mongoliad is a new kind of serialized novel, created by Neal Stephenson, and written by Neal, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo, and a number of other great authors. It will be told via custom apps on iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and Android, and will be something of an experiment in post-book publishing and storytelling.

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He will collaboratively work with other well known authors to expand and rewrite scenes and eras from his works. The goal is to more accurately portray the period and battles therein. These will be developed as ebooks and applications for tablets. And it seems as if Stephenson and Subutai are also planning to extend their work into movies, music, and other projects. As Subutai’s CEO claims

Because the project is multimedia and serial, the many authors will be contributing content to the novel as it develops. The public won’t be able to submit text for the novel, Bornstein said, but will be able to contribute to the larger world of movies, music, pictures, and more that Subutai is building around the work of the famous authors.

Subutai Corporation probably takes its name from the historical figure.
Subutai,  a great general of Genghis Khan, is best known for his use of the Siege Engine1 and Su for incorporating conquered peoples into his military forces.

This is of note because I think Stephenson’s business model may very well storm the defenses of publishing houses, incorporate the new forms of collaborative writing to expand ebook publishing models; and, it will do so by making the fanbase participating authors creating Lessig’s “read/write culture” on a massive scale. And it also clearly illustrates a few of the other ideas I posited in this new printing model. The authors and even a professional editor have signed onto the project. One could argue that Subutai is serving as the publisher here, but I think their role is more technical (military arts, and technology) than a traditional publisher.

If the venture is successful, I would expect many other authors and publishers to follow suit (first the visionary, technically inclined, and later the trend followers). And if I were a traditional publisher I would be hiring a whole new set of talent that might give me an edge in the coming paradigm shift.

1 A siege engine is a device that is designed to break or circumvent city walls and other fortifications in siege warfare.

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