Will Barnes and Noble survive the takeover by a hedge fund company? Will Amazon Publishing continue to take market share? Will audio-first become more dominant for readers? How will AI impact the publishing industry? I discuss these things and more with Mike Shatzkin on today's episode.
In the intro, Open AI releases an updated version of GPT-2, the AI natural language text generator [The Next Web], try it out at TalkToTransformer.com. Chinese search engine Sogou is creating AI-lookalikes to read popular novels in the author's voice [BBC], and the article also mentions the development of human-level text-to-speech through DeepZen.io and Lyrebird.ai. Plus, indie superstar Hugh Howey talks about how he manages his publishing contracts —including retention of ebook rights, limited-term English print deals, and more in this interview on The Knowledge Project (in the last 30 mins).
Plus, I'm a finalist for the Digital Book World 2019 Publishing Commentator of the Year and Best Use of Podcasting in Publishing 🙂
Today's podcast sponsor is Findaway Voices, which gives you access to the world's largest network of audiobook sellers and everything you need to create and sell professional audiobooks. Take back your freedom. Choose your price, choose how you sell, choose how you distribute audio. Check it out at FindawayVoices.com.
Mike Shatzkin is the founder and CEO of The Idea Logical Company and an author, professional speaker, and thought leader about digital change in the book publishing industry. His most recent book is The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know.
- On unforeseen changes in the publishing industry. Mike also talks more about this in his blog post, A lot has changed in the industry in the last 10 years
- The growing trend of audiobooks and the potential of audio-first markets
- How the purchase of Barnes & Noble by Elliott Management, a hedge fund, under the management of James Daunt, will affect their retail stores [The Bookseller]
- What’s the future of Amazon Publishing?
- Some of the practices that traditional publishing uses like returns, pulping and promoting debuts. Are traditional publishers changing the way they do business?
- On the future of translation with AI, referencing my article on 9 ways that AI will disrupt publishing
You can find Mike Shatzkin at Idealog.com and on Twitter @MikeShatzkin
Transcript of Interview with Mike Shatzkin
Joanna: Mike Shatzkin is the founder and CEO of The Idea Logical Company and an author, professional speaker, and thought leader about digital change in the book publishing industry. His most recent book is The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know. Welcome to the show, Mike.
Mike: Very glad to be here. Thank you, Joanna.
Joanna: Thank you so much for coming on. I was just saying to you beforehand, but for all the listeners, I've been a fan of your blog for must be 10 years and have always considered you one of the most knowledgeable people in the industry. So I'm so grateful you've come on the show today.
Mike: I'm glad to be here. Thank you very much.
Joanna: You have been in the industry for nearly 50 years.
What are some of the most significant changes that were unexpected or unforeseen?
Mike: What's unfortunate and unexpected unforeseen depends on the person. But I would say that the two things that have caught me most by surprise are the persistence of print and the pricing pressure on publishers that comes from self-publishers.
When I first started reading electronic books in 1999 on a Palm Pilot I became immediately persuaded that this is the better way. You always have your book or books with you. The short line length on a small screen is actually very enabling for reading quickly and efficiently.
Since that time I've read everything on a small screen that I can. There was a period there for years that there were a lot of books that weren't made e-bookable, up until Kindle was invented but. So I read print books sometimes because I had to but mostly I read them because I like reading on the screen.
It was a surprise to me that when people were presented with this opportunity that many people really just preferred the print book. It didn't matter that it weighed something, didn't matter that you had to turn the pages etc. or all of that. Whatever the reason people really preferred it, which meant that print survived much more robustly than I would have expected around the turn of the century.
The other thing, of course, which was really just not thinking it through, was that it was always obvious that as the audience grew that we could directly access what it wanted online and didn't need retail. That would enable self-publishing to actually be commercially viable.
What I didn't really think through was the fact that through a combination of Amazon pressure and enlightened self-interest that self-publishers would put their books out for 99 cents or $1.99 or $2.99, and a commercial publisher with a normal cost structure simply can't play at that level in any sustained way.
Obviously, most self-published books are not commercial and are of interest to most people. I don't know whether it's one in 10, or one in 50 or one in 100 that is, but over the years we have crowd curated a very large number of self-published books so that someone entering the marketplace today can find thousands of books that have been read by many thousands of people that are cheap and respectable and not put out by a regular commercial publisher.
That has changed a lot of things in the industry and has forced publishers to really abandon almost certain areas like genre fiction. So those are two things which I think were the most surprising to me.
Joanna: As I said, I've been reading your blog and I've appreciated your perspective on self-publishing, which I've done since the beginning of my writing career 10 years ago because I'm a businesswoman.
You mentioned self-interest there and when an author can get 35 to 70 percent, even when they're pricing lower, they're still getting more than they’re going to get from traditional publishers. And I'm really glad you recognize that.
But I did want to follow-up. You talk about the persistence of print against e-books and yet what we're actually seeing right now in some markets is audio first. We're seeing Storytel, for example, growing markets as well as obviously Audible, but growing markets soo the e-book sales are not there but the audiobook sales are growing as well. Which is kind of surprising.
I think and I've seen my own behavior change to an audio first listening preference, especially with nonfiction which traditionally I would buy in print.
What do you think about audio? Do you see this changing?
Mike: You're absolutely right about audio and it's not hard to understand why. Because audio travels digitally just as well as words on a flat-screen do.
And now that we're almost all carrying devices that can support audio it's just simple, it's an easy choice. Really, it's up to the consumer what they would prefer.
It has been an observation of mine that I'm not sure I've made in writing anywhere that almost everything that is available as words on a flat screen or flat surface should also be available as audio and just about everything that's audio should also be available as a transcription.
I think we're moving to a world where that's increasingly going to be the case and in fact, I've found myself using audio. I'm starting to listen to blogs. I've tried podcasts, which I did and I certainly went for the very highly produced version of the Mueller report with actors reading it and really sort of trying to turn it into a radio show. And it's a much better presentation than trying to read something that's that dry.
So yes, I think you're absolutely right. I think that there will be a lot of audio first. But I think the important thing in the digital age is that, from the producer's point of view, both formats, listenable and readable, should almost always be made available for just about everything. And I think increasingly that will be the case.
Joanna: I totally agree. All my books now are in e-book, audiobook, paperback, hardback, as well a large print. Large print, I've discovered is a market that is underserved so having things available and we're going to come back to print-on-demand.
Staying with print, just yesterday the deal with Elliott Management and Barnes and Noble went through [The Bookseller]. So I wondered what your thoughts are about what could happen with Barnes and Noble, because this is very important for the publishing industry in the US as well as the UK. Elliott Management also owns Waterstones for those who don't know and they are a hedge fund, which to me means they want a return. And this is entirely our opinion.
Any thoughts on what's going to happen?
Mike: I think Barnes & Noble, very much like Waterstones, is really not configured for the future. The very large store with a very big selection was mooted by Amazon. It's 25 years later but even now I believe that they are past their sell-by date.
Then the question becomes, if all your leases are large retail establishments and it doesn't make sense to build them with a hundred and twenty-five thousand titles, what else are you going to fill them with? Then that means you're not just in the book business anymore, you're in some other businesses as well and all retail is challenged.
I suspect it's the same in Britain but every place in America what you see is empty retail establishments that were full five years ago, 10 years ago or 20 years ago. And that's really just down to people are finding it easier and easier to just do their shopping online. And the things you don't buy online are the things that you really need to feel, see or touch or also are the things you need to have right this minute. You can't wait for tomorrow or the next day.
Books do not fall into that category at all. So I think we're nowhere near the end of share transferring from physical retail of books to online. I don't think that transition is done yet. I think that stores are still going to be losing share for quite some time.
I guess I'm just as curious as anybody else as to whether Barnes and Noble can figure something out that will save them. I'm not exactly sure what the differences are between the U.S. and U.K. I went into a Waterstones in London about three weeks ago or a month ago and I did notice that for example there's almost no craft books in the store anymore because if you want to knit or sew you learn how to do it from YouTube. You don't learn how to do it from a book.
That's one of the things that I noticed was different. Obviously, a lot of face outs but not that old feeling of loss so many books on the shelves that you have to spine some of them. But apparently, it's working for them, which I think is great. But I would expect that in both Waterstones and Barnes & Noble there's going to be very, very hard to have any top-line growth or to avoid any top-line shrinkage.
I think it's a very tough row to hoe. I think it was impossible for Barnes and Noble with their mentality of superstores, which is what made them into a massive chain. It was very hard for them to adjust to a completely different world.
And the other thing about retail stores is that the speed with which books become popular and then drop out, the change in public attention, has gotten faster and faster because of digital change. And that makes it very hard on a physical location when something becomes hot, and it's going to be hot for three weeks, to get books in and on the shelves and available to the public. And then to send them back a month later, it's just very inefficient.
I just think that the physical store is a 20th-century item and I think it's going to be increasingly difficult no matter how smart Mr. Daunt is and no matter how hard Elliott Management is willing to work at saving Barnes & Noble.
Joanna: It's so interesting hearing you talk about it. I feel like we think the same about a lot of things, even though our backgrounds are very different for them.
It's interesting because when James Daunt took over Waterstones one thing he did do was return a whole load of stock to publishers [NY Times] which could essentially mean a lot of returns back to US publishers in the next month or so.
But also he did a deal with Kobo, sending e-book readers to Kobo. [The Bookseller] He did briefly have Amazon and Kindle in the store and then very quickly removed that and then moved everything to Kobo. In the Bookseller, they quote him as saying Barnes and Noble will now benefit from the support of an owner committed to physical bookselling.
Do you think they're going to get rid of Nook and sell it to Kobo?
Mike: I think that's the most sensible move and I think that's something that a lot of people expect. Nook looked great for a while because in the early days of e-books the Amazon Kindle stole the people who are Amazon customers. There were still a lot of people in 2007, 2008, 2009, who were Barnes and Noble customers and not Amazon customers.
And then there were also people that really wanted to see an e-book reader before they committed to one and that was perfect for Barnes and Noble and Nook and got them into the game very quickly.
But they say that their market or their audience is pretty static and all the people in their audience have been exposed to it now. So they don't have that. There's no more surge left. And operating a proper e-book company requires attention and investment and Nook didn't want to make it anymore and Barnes & Noble doesn’t want to make it anymore and partnering with Kobo just makes all the sense in the world.
So yes, I would expect that to happen. I think that it's hard for me to see why Barnes & Noble would want to continue to invest in a business that won't be a growth business for them even though I think neither will print. But that's what they're committed to and that's what they want to make happen.
What I would wonder is about print. I thought Amazon had the formula right which is to do these little Amazon stores where you have 4000 titles or 5000 titles and you just drop them into the middle of someplace else. I suggested a long time ago that Barnes & Noble ought to go to book departments in other people's stores, rather than feeling that they have to own the retail. And I still think that that's true.
I think the real question for Barnes Noble will be, does Amazon ever commit itself to opening thousands of little bookstores? Because if they do, that's going to be it for Barnes and Noble.
But if they don't, then Barnes and Noble has the opportunity to use their buying expertise and connections to the public. To create smaller spaces on some sort of different business model. And that's the one path that seems to me to make sense.
It's nothing that they would ever have considered under the original management. And it's not really what Waterstones has done. So I don't know whether that's something to expect but that's what I would if I were trying it. If I were going for a Hail Mary pass that would be it.
Joanna: The other interesting thing, because of course I've been through in the UK the buy-out of Waterstones by Elliot: what they did very quickly is they introduced a new loyalty card and a very active email list, which I had never seen before as good as this from anywhere else in terms of bookselling.
They do lots of competitions, lots of giveaways, lots of clicking nice pictures of things. So it may be a data play at some point and maybe they might sell to Amazon for example.
Mike: That makes a lot of sense. I can't see Amazon wanting to own Barnes & Noble's real estate so they would have to be some very great powerful tools to compensate them for. They don't want that.
You remind me that I didn't talk about the returns, at the point that you made earlier, which is a very good one. but big for Amazon.
Depending on how you dated the superstore model that opened in the 1980s of 100,000 or 125,000 titles was always a returns trap because nowhere near 100,000 titles sell at any rate for any period of time. So there were really a few hundred thousand titles in the store 60,000 of them were meant to bring people in. They weren't really meant to sell because there aren't 100,000 titles that sell at a rate that makes sense at retail.
So what would happen is every few years Borders and Barnes & Noble would clean out their inventory of all the books that weren't selling and the publishers would get a wave of returns and that was something that was part of the landscape, but it was spread over time. They didn't empty the whole chain at once and both chains didn’t empty at the same time. So it was smoothed out.
But I think you're quite right. I think that the publishers could be getting massive returns from B&N over the course of the next year. It won't all happen in a month because there's labor involved in pulling and sending back all the returns and there's refactoring of the stores and there's restocking. You can't just flush out 600 stores and change them over at one time so it will, in its way, be somewhat gradual.
I think you're absolutely right that it's bound to happen and there's bound to be many titles in many, many B&Ns that have not so much sold a copy for a year or two or four and the new management is going to be relentless and ruthless about getting rid of those.
Joanna: Indeed. I wanted to come to Amazon Publishing because you had a post on your blog: Amazon recently signed Dean Koontz and you commented that this might herald a profound change in the industry.
And at the same time, the Association of American Publishers have filed with the FTC about anti-competitive practices and I've heard some senators in America say if you own the store you can't play in the store. Which kind of implies they want to separate the retail from the platform.
What do you think is going to happen with Amazon as regards to publishing?
Mike: I'm not a lawyer, but in my mind, the most obvious cure for Amazon domination of the book business is to prohibit them from publishing, because in fact, they are developing data and understanding from everybody else's publishing, which they then use to compete with it. And that's very, very dicey.
From my point of view, it's certainly not fair. Whether it's legal or not is above my pay grade. So I think that the notion that if you own a dominant retailer like Amazon that is half the sales for many people or more and 70 or 80 percent of the sales for some people that they can't be competing with the publishers. It's just not a fair fight.
I think that there should be some hope that the government would step in, in that case, and that would it would certainly help publishers a lot if Amazon was prohibited from publishing. But they are not currently prohibited from publishing.
What has happened is that in the eight years or so since they hired Larry Kirshbaum and had this vision of going out and signing all the books, their market share has gone from maybe 20 percent to 50 percent. When it was 20 percent and the other 80 percent the stores didn't want to have anything to do with a book that was published by Amazon an author that wanted not just money but an audience wouldn't publish with them. But now it's half the market.
And really, if you think in terms of it's half the sales of most books but it's far more than half the book readers have bought a book from Amazon and can buy a book from Amazon. So if you're Dean Koontz you're not really putting your audience to such a great inconvenience if the only way they can get your book is Amazon.
That said, is the boycott by the Barnes & Nobles and the independent booksellers of the world going to extend to an author of the stature and commercial potential of a guy like Dean Koontz? Or are people going to swallow their objections and stock those books even though they come from Amazon?
Either way, I think Amazon has got a path now to sign up a lot more authors and that seems to be what they want to do. And if they're thinking the way you and I are thinking about the fact that maybe publishing will be prohibited that says move fast. Before that happens move.
So I think that it's certainly possible that where I expected them to move quickly to open a lot of little stores and they didn't they might move quickly, to try signing up a lot more authors.
Joanna: In the audio space, coming back to that, they are so aggressive in signing up authors and snapping up audio rights, because I think what's happened with a lot of authors who, maybe their contracts are a little bit older where the publisher did not get the audio rights. There's a lot of audio rights for play right now.
And this is about Intellectual Property, isn't it? At the end of the day, it's all about IP.
Mike: You're absolutely right. And you're absolutely right about the audio and you're absolutely right about the fact that people had just left that. Because before the current model changed things before everybody had devices that could manage audio and e-books and they all had them all the time because every phone can do that. It was not as automatic. You needed the right equipment. You needed to orient yourself to do audio.
Now you don't. Everybody's got the capability. So it's changed everything and I think you're quite right that those audio rights, which are left lying around, are of great value now.
Joanna: Definitely. I want to come to your book which is called The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know and I’ll tell you I found this absolutely fascinating. I've had a full time living and a pretty good one for eight years now and my book business doesn't look anything like….
Mike: …the book business.
Joanna: Exactly and it's so funny because I often feel, as an independent author running a business, I probably have more in common with a tech company than a publisher. And your book really made this clear.
I've never worked in trade publishing, but I've been a business consultant and there are some weird practices in trade publishing. So we've talked about returns. And I have print-on-demand and I sell books stores, but I don't allow returns because I'm not going to make any money.
The huge print runs, and you've mentioned this, and I think the dirty little secret of pulping, which a lot of people don't know about. And also this focus on debut authors over backlist, which I just don't understand. These are some pillars of the business.
What has to change to make this work in an increasingly global digital world?
Mike: You certainly put your finger on some interesting issues.
First of all, as far as returns are concerned, if you want distribution through stores you have to have returns. If you don't care about distribution through stores and you're willing to just take whatever risk stores are willing to take or special orders from the stores where they don't care about returns because they've got the book sold before they order it. Then you don't need returns.
But if you want stores to stock books speculatively based on the expectation that the publisher is going to generate some demand it's not going to happen without returns. And in fact, if you're a big publisher like Random House, or any large publisher or even let's say a university press you knock on the door of a store and you've got a lot of books in-store and a lot of books that didn't sell and you now have a lot of new books you want to put into the store in your own enlightened self-interest. You would be willing to trade the new books that have an unproven possibility of selling against the old books that have proven that they won't sell.
So, in fact, the publisher, in his own interest, if the returns didn't exist and was a publisher of many books and had many books in the store would develop returns. It would happen. In fact, publishers going out with the idea that they would have no returns sometimes negotiate returns because they want to get the next batch of books in and that's the only way to get them in.
So I think that returns if you're following a sensible self-publishing model where you are not trying to maximize your total unit sales but you're trying to sell profitably what units you can sell and you're not expecting any sort of explosion of sales where on impulse we are having a lot of books physically present actually makes the books sell. And then you don't need returns.
But if you're a regular trade publisher that has a lot of titles and about which the store is trusting you to do the marketing to make that make demand happen, you're not going to get them in if you don't add returns. And if you don't have distribution in place you're not going to get the kind of store sales that you were hoping for, expecting or have gotten in the past.
I understand why returns look silly to somebody who has not been living in the global book business, but in fact, they're essential if you're depending on intermediary retailers to sell most of your books.
As far as the print runs, I think that's something that's really changing. For many years, the idea was the first printing was the printing and most books didn't have a subsequent printing, they had one printing. And the unit cost of that printing was something that the publisher paid a lot of attention to even though they probably shouldn't have. So that encouraged the whole idea of the big initial press run.
And the other thing was that it was axiomatic that stores don't reorder titles that have sold. If they buy three copies and they sell the three copies they don't immediately buy another three copies. They think, good I sold those three and they move on to something else. So that's an incentive for the publisher to load more in at the beginning because whatever you get in is what you're going to sell and you're not going to sell any more than that. So that encouraged this whole notion of big first printings and loading the stores with a big advance sales.
Now that has really gone by the wayside for a lot of reasons including better-computerized inventory control and computerized suggestions of what you should order and very fast wholesaling. And somebody like Ingram, which has everything in print-on-demand so they can give you you a copy of a book tomorrow that didn't exist when you ordered it today. And so I think that supply chain has changed.
But a lot of the old publishers' habits have not necessarily changed with the supply chain. So I think that the notion of putting more books into a store than it needs. And the notion that only one order and you'll be very hard to get a reorder, those are things that publishers need to change their thinking about. And I think many of them are. I don't think that everybody's left in the past.
But I think that that now, in terms of the debut author versus the backlist, what that's about is that it takes a certain amount of work to get an unknown author known and a known author is known. And the backlist is known.
Now what is definitely changing is that publishers are more and more trying to stay alert to developments in the news or developments in the arts or developments among what books are selling to focus them on what books from that they published a year ago or three years ago or ten years ago or 30 years ago ought to be featured. Now because something current is going on that makes that book of current interest. One of the things that publishers are being challenged by is that they used to just be able to focus on the books that are coming out in two months or the books that came out in the last two months. So they focused on four months of output and that gave them a finite number of titles that they had to deal with.
Now any title could pop from the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousand that they published over years and years and years. So now they need tools. The big publishers need tools, which they're developing, to follow that social graph and the current news and figure out which books that might be old, need to be made new again.
And I think that that psychology and that approach is replacing the notion of just because it's new we promote it. And if it's old we don't. But again, the big publishers are big beasts and they've changed a lot over the last 10 years. But change is hard and requires staffing differently and structuring differently and responding differently to inputs. And it's not something that a large organization can do on a dime.
Joanna: What you say makes a lot of sense and I think we forget sometimes, again being independent, if I want to do something I just do something and if I want to publish something I just publish it. I don't need to ask anyone's permission and most of these business models for online publishing are global.
Even the idea of territory, which I always find really fascinating, changes when you have all of your rights. Really interesting.
I did want to ask you about Ingram, because from your blog you talk about Ingram a lot. And, of course, they are beloved of indie authors because they allow us to publish with them on IngramSpark. They sponsored the show and they're fantastic.
Why is Ingram so interesting to the traditional publishing industry?
Mike: In all candor, I will also say that Ingram is a client of mine and has been for years. They are an amazing company and they really do believe that their success is dependent on their trading partners’ success. And their trading partners are every bookstore, publisher, and library in the world and a substantial part of the independent author community. Which is to say they touch more individuals and individual entities in the book business than anybody else does.
What's interesting is that they have basically built an infrastructure and they have built a machine that relieves everybody else from having to make the big fixed cost investments. Everybody else can ride on their infrastructure and pay only the marginal cost of what they use and what they need. So they've enabled people to become publishers without the investment that would have been required 10 years ago or 20 years ago to do everything: to produce your books, to distribute to books, to sell your books, to market your books. All of these things are now being done by incremental scale and being made available to individual publishers or individual authors.
So the key thing, I haven't written this in a long time, but in the 90s I used to dine out on the notion that book publishing is the business of content and markets. And if you're a publisher what you need to understand is the content that you are publishing and the markets to which you can appeal. Now a lot of small players have the capability to develop content and some idea of the markets.
But if it were the year 2000, you might have all that knowledge but you would have to go through the intermediary distribution system to get your books to the public. There would have been no other way. I mean Amazon was 5 percent or 8 percent of the sales. It wasn't enough to live on.
So in those days if you wanted to be a publisher you had to invest in an apparatus and you had to maintain that apparatus and you had to feed it enough product to make it worth the effort.
What Ingram has done, and Amazon too because Amazon was enabled by Ingram. Amazon would not be here if Ingram had not been here first. But what Amazon and Ingram between them have enabled is for anybody to take a single book. And if you create good content and you know some of the key influencers for the market for that content, which all kinds of people do for different markets, you can be a real pro and you can have a book reach its potential through Ingram and Amazon, without owning any capabilities beyond that.
That’s been a massive change in the industry.
And I think Ingram really does have a service orientation because Amazon's main interest is its end use customer. What they want to do is to make the person who buys from Amazon happy and if they have to make some of the people who supply stuff a little unhappy that's OK with them. Their main focus is to make the people who buy from them happy.
Ingram is trying to make everybody happy. They're on all sides of the equation. And so there are certain things they won't do. For example, Ingram will never open book stores because Ingram would not compete with their bookstore trading partners. And even publishing. Ingram has a tiny little publishing company that they bought as part of the Perseus deal that they acquired and they're doing a little bit of publishing but they're not really interested in competing with their publisher trading partners.
Sometimes it's the easiest thing to do but they're not going to go out and try to recruit authors in competition with publishers the way Amazon does. It's just not in their DNA so they are a partner that everybody can trust and respect. They are incredibly competent, incredibly well-run, so they are everybody's friend in the book business and I think that's a role that they're very comfortable with. And it makes it good for people like you and me to do business with them.
Joanna: Absolutely. I think you should bring back content plus markets because that is basically how I run my business!
Joanna: I'm really interested in artificial intelligence and how that might change the publishing industry. I personally wouldn't have a business without the technology that has emerged in the last 10 years. So what I see coming is things like A.I. translation and I'm putting some books out in German that way this year and A.I. audiobook narration and even text creation through natural language generation.
Given that you've been on the cusp of this type of change for years I wondered what are your thoughts on what might happen next.
How are we going to navigate the next ten years?
Mike: That's a really good question and it's almost impossible for me to look 10 years ahead. It's something I've been thinking about for Digital Book World actually, but that's a lot when you realize how much has changed in the last 10 years. It humbles you to think about the next 10 years.
When I said earlier about everything that’s delivered as words to read should also be delivered as words to hear depends heavily on A.I. and I think that A.I. you're definitely right for translation. It makes a lot of sense.
As a matter of fact, it's kind of crazy to do translation without some A.I. assistance. I think that we’re going to want human brains to cover the last mile of a lot of these things where you're what the A.I. do it but then you want a human being to review what the A.I. did and catch a few things that I didn't catch. I suspect that's the way it'll be for a while. I don't know if that's what you're finding but that's what I would have thought.
Mike: I definitely think that you're right, that it's going to be of increasing use and I also agree that there's going to be some opportunity to create books that way. I'm not exactly sure how because creating books has not really been where I focused my attention. Nor is A.I. where I particularly focused my attention.
But it certainly makes sense to me that for example if you have something like the Mueller Report, which is much too long and boring, that A.I. could be used to create an abridged version that was really just the main highlights and the things that you really need to know without a lot of redundancy.
Actually, we just invented something there. AI could be used to create the brief version of any book, the condensed version of just about anything and there's probably a market for a condensed version of just about everything, which Readers Digest established 100 years ago when they started doing Reader's Digest condensed books with no A.I. at all.
So yes I would definitely agree that A.I. is going to have to become part of the publisher skillset and it's going to create competition for things that used to be done highly manually and all by human beings. I don't really have a guess as to what that means in terms of how many titles will be A.I. only or how it will change the output over the next ten years. But it definitely is part of the game.
Joanna: One of the things that a lot of people said about self-publishing is that it would bring in a tsunami of not very good things. And I've been thinking about this with translation and potentially A.I. creation.
If you think we're overwhelmed with content right now, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Book discoverability has to be one of the most important things in a sea of content, especially with A.I. translation. For example, every book in every language like all these Chinese books, for example, appearing in English.
Mike: There's no question about it. And there's no question about the fact that what you're saying will happen on some level. It may go beyond the crowd's ability to curate. The crowd largely curated the romance fiction and the mysteries that came from the indie authors and the indie authors who were appealing and persistent.
The formula for indie success is to do lots and lots of books for the same audiences over and over again so that each book that helps you build an audience is equity for your next publication. And that is something that AI could do fairly well. So yes, I think your vision of this is right.
Joanna: Interesting. I know it's very hard to look 10 years or even a couple of years in the feet around AI. But also climate change is something that you are very passionate about.
This is not a climate change podcast but I'd love to know how has your interest moved to this.
Mike: My interest moved to this because the more you learn about CO2 in the atmosphere heating the Earth, the more you realize that this is not sustainable. And as you learn more and more about it you realize that the apocalypse is not that far off. I'm 72 years old and I think I'll probably get out before the earth is really inhospitable to humans, but I wouldn't feel that way if I were 25 and so I think it's an urgent question.
I personally have been learning about it. The transition for me has been going from a business, like the business of books, where I really am an expert. I wouldn't try to present false humility. I've been in the business for 50 years or more. My father was in it before me. I've had tons of opportunity to learn about it and know all the people in it. And my expertise is fairly earned and large and widely respected, which I really appreciate.
But in the world of climate change, I'm a nobody and I'm not an expert. I'm trying to learn from the experts and develop the opinions. The main thing that I've come to is that the right-thinking people need to change their opinion about nuclear.
20 years ago I wanted to close every nuclear power plant but I didn't know what the damage of CO2 was then and now I know that every time we close the nuclear power plant we immediately burn more fossil fuel. And that's a terrible tradeoff.
One of my main interests is convincing people who are right and care that this is something about which they need to change their mind. But in any case, it's definitely it is a passion. It is urgent and it is taking some of my time that used to be spent on publishing to try to do something about it.
Joanna: I love the fact that you’re still learning and pivoting at this stage in your career because many people would just stick with what they know but you focus on change.
And I’ve got to add that because I am a real geek, I fully believe in the power of the tech community to invent something that will save us. I'm 44. I don't think the apocalypse will get me.
Mike: Good. That is the hope but the fact is we've already done a lot of damage that we can't avoid. We can't avoid seriously consequential sea level rise no matter what we do in the next hundred years. And also we're going to have to adapt to that. We can do things that will stave off the worst and technology has a lot to do with that. I sometimes share your optimism and sometimes I don't.
Joanna: I think many people feel that about the book business!
Mike: Well, that's true.
Joanna: It's been so great to talk to you.
Where can people find you and your book and everything you do online?
Mike: The Idea Logical Company is at idealog.com. I have speeches going back to the 1990s and blogs going back 10 years and a lot of content there. You can sign up there to get my blog as an email.
The book is The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know, which I co-authored with a friend of mine named Robert Rieger who unfortunately passed away since we finished the book and it is from Oxford University Press.
And I think you can find that just about everywhere books can be found. Certainly at Amazon, certainly from Barnes Noble and I tried to make it a pretty breezy read or Robert and I did and I think it is pretty accessible to most people. It's a Q and A format.
And I’m at Mike AT idealog.com and I'm always happy to hear from anybody that wants to communicate with me.
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time. That was great.
Mike: Thanks a lot, Joanna. Pleasure to get to know you.