Historical fusion

In this first post of 2010 it’s time to return to history. Not that some of the last few comments are without historical relevance, but this one focuses on the fusion of old and new. I’ve spent some time over Christmas reviewing the Portuguese translation of The India Road. I’ve written about that previously, but I got a chance in early December to review the full text. The whole thing took longer than expected, and now some final copy-editing is underway. Publication is due in early spring.

Apart from the experience of writing, which is a huge enjoyment, and the joys of vicarious living, I was really lucky to do this at a time when technology is breaking through barriers on various fronts in the book world, and that’s where the fusion part comes in.  First, the editorial world is now a bubbling cauldron: traditional publishing is going up against internet solutions provided by the likes of Amazon and Scribd, analog printing (aka the book) is vying with e-book platforms, so we are in a primeval soup of literary mayhem.

The editorial world, and I think to some extent literary agents, appears to many as a kind of traditional London club which zealously guards membership. I understand that well, having published extensively in academic journals. Currently, there is a parallel drive in academia for “open source” journals, publishing directly on the internet. There is no distribution overhead for printed matter, and there is an avidity for publication that aches to be satisfied.

Like publishers, mainstream academics tend to sniff at the tendency,  which seems to open the gates of the Holy Grail. And established authors are proud of the barrier to entry, aware of the difficulties they themselves once faced, when on the other side of the high fence. There is one key difference between academic and mainstream publications. Although bad scientific papers do occasionally get through triage, the peer-review mechanism stops the majority at the gate. But bad books can get through easily, as long as they can sell. This is “fixed” by ghost-writing and other tricks, but the subject matter is often not fixable. Think biographies of Lady Di, and so on. Because the emphasis is on making money, both good and bad get through, as long as the public is there. Which makes an argument for the direct publishing mechanism, since the editorial triage is as much about quality as about potential revenue – in other words, except for a few, publishing houses are not keepers of the Holy Grail.

It seems to me that people feel empowered by all the new tools: YouTube, FaceBook, SMS, and everything else which is springing up everywhere. The dusty world of top-down control is fading fast, and although reviews get read, there is less and less time for punditry. The new marketing weapon is viral, electronic word of mouth. In olden times, word of mouth was limited to the number of pairs of ears you came in contact with, so culture, phobias, and prejudice propagated slowly and at a local scale. Inertia works on both what moves and on what stands still, which meant that established ideas were also slow to change. A bit like the human life journey, where there is a generational struggle between the parent with entrenched old ideas (father knows best) and the adolescent bursting with new directions (you just don’t understand).

Now word of mouth is word of mail, word of Twitter, word of web, word of mobile. A quick look, and everyone makes their own decision. Advertising is on its head. No longer the province of corporate B2B, it sits more and more with C2B2C. Ebay, web ads, and other techniques (of which spam is one of the more sinister examples) have allowed individuals to target other individuals, and radically changed the decision process which drives shopping.

The editing tools that allow the writing of a book, and the research tools on technical aspects, geography, history and everything else you need, are all in place, and getting better every day. The receiving platforms for your product are ever broader, and will increasingly overlap rather than gripe at each other. And you can market better and better at the individual level. Truly a brave new world.

With that in mind, the www.theindiaroad.com website has been redone, to help captivate the public who trawls the web, unsure of the fish that swim within, but eager for a taste of some undiscovered species.

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