Talking ‘Bout A Revolution: This Ain’t It

I’ve always loved Penguin, more specifically, the Penguin Classics. When I was an undergraduate, I set myself the task of reading every single Penguin Classic that had been published. I can’t say I reached that goal, but my book shelves still contain quite a few of those works, and I remember my time with them with feelings of joy and, yes, nostalgia.

So it was with great interest that I read about Book Country, a service that the Penguin Group offers to writers of genre fiction. David Shanks, CEO of Penguin Group, told the WSJ that the company had invested a “substantial amount of money” in the new technology.

And there’s the rub. I’m just not seeing any innovative technology. Yes, there are community and networking elements, and while helpful, these are not new innovations. Indeed, it makes it look like Penguin was a little late to the game, and cobbled together a variety of functional (read: social) elements to cloak their true intent: that is, to sell high-priced services and to take a distribution fee.

The wonderful Joe Konrath said that he “threw up in his mouth” when he looked at what Book Country was offering. Perhaps he realized that the lamb he was eating was really mutton?

Konrath has done a great job at detailing what Book Country is all about: high-priced formatting services and a stake in your revenues. Makes sense: for lack of better ideas, services are where the lowest-hanging financial fruit swings.

But what bothers me is simply the lack of innovation. I’ve worked with many publishers in my professional career, and we share the same abiding interest: a love of books. But with the exception of a few publishing houses (O’Reilly comes to mind), most publishers do not attract the best and brightest “technology” minds. They can’t–there simply isn’t the upside (or environment) that the small start-up down the street offers. Instead, publishing houses tend to hire folks who have graduate degrees in English. Great people (trust me, I used to be one of them) but they aren’t thinking of algorithms in their spare time.

A suggestion to the publishing houses: if you really want to be of help, take a look at what’s happening in Silicon Valley. There are quite a few companies that provide models for what aspiring writers need to market themselves.

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