The business of books: Why curation beats search
You can’t have failed to notice that there are an awful lot of books around these days. Too many books, some say.
‘Every year there are a million new books published in English. That is officially published books around the world. They have an ISBN. Every year, we are adding 1,000,000 books to the sum total of what there is to read. Of course, that’s compounding on all the books that are out there already… Then there is the vast, vast demi-monde of books that are published unofficially, they don’t have an ISBN. No one know quite the number that is, but it will substantially increase on the million figure, maybe double it, maybe more.’ That’s Michael Bhaskar – digital publisher and co-founder of Canelo, author of Curation: The power of selection in a world of excess, and my guest on The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast last week.
So what’s the appropriate response for publishers? An amnesty, maybe: stop producing new books for a year or so – or maybe a decade – and let me catch up with the ones already out there, please? Not going to happen.
But as Michael says: ‘What is the value in simply adding another book for another book’s sake? The ‘millionth and one’ book is not necessarily what the world needs. What you and I need as readers is the exact right book for us.’
This, he says, is the fundamental principle behind curation: ‘chang[ing] the value equation in publishing from just producing more, to finding better from what we have for readers… We have to see ourselves as curators, as choosers of books. Everything we publish has to have real meaning.’
There’s curation throughout the book supply chain, from the commissioning editor to the bookseller choosing which titles to stock and display, and, perhaps most powerfully, readers sharing their recommendations online and off.
But Bhaskar goes further, claiming that curation is not just an industry by-product, it’s a business model.
‘I define [curation] very simply as selecting and arranging to add value…
The reason this is a business model is just that we have too much in almost every area of our lives… In the past two years, we’ve created more data than the rest of human history put together.’
Mind boggling, isn’t it? It gets worse.
‘The average American is bombarded by the equivalent of 175 newspapers’-worth of information every day. Now, bear in mind that if you were a medieval peasant, the equivalent of The Sunday Times was your total sum of information that you had in your life. Now we’re getting vast multiples of that every day’
And it’s not just data, it’s stuff in general.
‘We have this engine in our economy that is geared to producing more and more. At some point the value of just doing that has shifted to the value of selecting and arranging. That’s why curation is a business model. I wouldn’t say that there are businesses that say, “I am a curator.” What happens is that curation is folded into other business models. For example: if you are Netflix, your business is supplying films to people, but in order to do that, you have to be a curator. They have thousands, hundreds of thousands, of different things on their site. By definition, they have to be selecting and arranging those things for people in order for people to find content. Yes, Netflix is in the business of supplying films to people, but it has to be in the business of curating those films, as well.’
In the heady early days of online content it was all about a good search experience, helping you find what you wanted. But done well, curation allows us to show people what they want even when they didn’t know it existed. And while machines can help, they can’t (yet) replace the human touch.
‘Where we know what we want, technology can do that very well. Where we don’t even know what we want in the first place, that’s where you need curation… If you think about what the Internet is, on one side of the fence, you have literally all the world’s data and information and media. On the other side, you have a pair of eyes and a brain. You need to manage the processing of all of that huge mess of stuff to one individual, and so you need all of these ways of filtering, of selecting, and so on. To do that, you need a mix of these algorithmic machine-driven curation to manage those vast data sets. Then, also, the human touch to produce things that we would find unexpected and interesting.’
It’s a great challenge for publishers: yes, you need complete, accurate and timely metadata for the discovery piece. But that’s just the beginning. How can you go beyond that to deliver the unexpected and the interesting to your readers? Because when you nail that, when you add the curation business model to all the others at your disposal, you become more valuable to both your readers and your authors.
 Personally, I stand with Hugh Howey: ‘It’s like saying we have too much pizza, sex or chocolate. Books belong on the short list of things we can’t get enough of.’ http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2016/dbw-interview-with-hugh-howey-author/
Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com.