Five Things: February 16, 2023

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BookTok is Good, Actually: On the Undersung Joys of a Vast and Multifarious Platform | Leigh Stein

“When I scroll TikTok, I see creativity, joy, pleasure, energy, and a contagious enthusiasm for books. When I scroll past millennial and gen X writers on Twitter or Instagram, I see the symptoms of major depressive disorder: fatigue and feelings of worthlessness, irritability, lack of pleasure. More than see it—I feel it. I’m there.”

This might be the most interesting take on #BookTok I’ve read so far. Also… I feel seen? ?

TikTok never clicked for me — neither in my brief time on the app itself, nor the many TikTok videos I’ve seen cross-posted to Twitter and Instagram — but unlike some other briefly popular social apps, I *get* it. No social platform is going to appeal to everyone, although Facebook arguably came close for a brief while, but you can bet if its audience is, or is perceived to be, predominantly women, it will be taken less seriously than others. Hello, Pinterest! Hello, Wattpad!

I remember when so many publishers scoffed at BookCon in its first couple of years because it was catering to predominantly young women interested in Young Adult books, and few publishers valued the opportunity to engage them directly, preferring the insular and heavily intermediated traditional experience of the then-dying and now defunct Book Expo America. I suspect a lot of those women are on now #BookTok, and suddenly these same publishers are tripping over themselves trying to figure out how to reach them and benefit from their surprisingly measurable influence.

I like that Stein focuses on who the readers are, and what they’re reading, rather than the platform itself, which is still too often the focus of most #BookTok coverage. It’s not a magic bullet to reverse-engineer; it’s yet another segment of readers who are too often taken for granted because they don’t resemble the “Reader” persona many publishers cling to. These mysterious readers have found a platform that allows them to share their interests and engage with others who also share those interests.

If that skews to a specific type of books, there’s nothing wrong with that. If it drives sales of a particular category of books, there’s nothing wrong with that. There are other platforms, and other groups of readers who avidly share what they’re reading, driving unmeasured word of mouth for reasons that may or may not be mysterious.

What I mostly don’t understand is how the industry measures #BookTok’s influence on sales despite TikTok being more of a black box than usual, but still can’t measure the influence and impact of library sales, circulation, and readers’ advisory. ???


Running a big publishing house is not as much fun as it used to be | Mike Shatzkin

“It is sadly ironic that publishing has chosen this moment to be activist about hiring from minority groups that had been excluded from publishing house opportunities for years. Just when the jobs are no longer tickets to a multi-decade career, the previously ignored are invited in… But a dim future for big publishers is not a dim future for readers.”

Mike Shatzkin makes two excellent points in his broadly insightful obituary for corporate publishing, calling out the “glass cliff” most diversity initiatives turn into, while also recognizing that publisher problems aren’t reader problems. I’m starting to think the failure of the PRH + S&S merger combined with all of the sad details about corporate publishing’s myriad dysfunctions that came out during the DOJ trial will be looked back upon as the beginning of the end for corporate publishing as we know it. Acquisitions have been the only way for them to grow for years; backlist sales are becoming an even larger percentage of a traditional pie that’s mainly getting bigger at the margins; Amazon and supply chain issues have an inordinate impact on them; and they’re actively antagonizing one of their most important intermediaries: libraries.

That Simon & Schuster will most likely be sold to a private equity firm rather than simply being spun off as its own division because it’s not considered a core asset for a global media conglomerate that partly relies on books as a source for the stories it tells in other media is baffling, but also telling. As the pandemic-driven highs of the past couple of years inevitably wears off, these becalmed cargo ships are going to find themselves in an even more challenging position.

Fortunately, the publishing industry is much broader and way more diverse than the “Big 5,” and organic growth is still possible with the right business models, partners, and audiences.

Librarians and booksellers, in particular, would be wise to start actively supporting more small and independent presses; recognize “readers” are not a single monolithic group; and ignore the bestseller lists as much as possible.



Catapult to Shutter Online Magazine, Writing Classes | Sophia Stewart

“This decision to center our efforts on our foundational business will ensure a successful future for our imprints and incredibly gifted authors as we continue to publish with the passion and care that defines the Catapult Book Group.”

I haven’t paid much attention to them since my Writer’s Digest days, but I used to frequently reference Catapult’s online presence as a good example of a book publisher wisely diversifying their offerings to serve an audience in multiple channels, similar to WD but on the literary side.

Literary fiction and creative nonfiction are difficult categories, even with a rich benefactor (RIP Astra Magazine), but online writing programs have been a reliable segment for years, so this was a surprising and unfortunate turn. The ability to create additional revenue streams by offering ancillary products is a proven approach, but it only works if you’re addressing your audience’s needs. At WD, writing better and getting published were its two pillars, so online education was a successful no-brainer. Based on Catapult’s move away from what appeared to be a core pillar for them would suggest that fans of literary fiction and/or creative nonfiction are more interested in simply reading than wanting to learn how to write better themselves.

Corporate publishing has plateaued. Amazon is shifting priorities. Private equity sucks. Rich benefactors are unpredictable. Venture capital [thankfully] has zero interest unless there’s an app or data mining involved.

The trade book publishing industry is kind of a mess right now.


Tech Was Supposed to Make Cars Safer. It Didn’t Deliver. | Paris Marx

“But because the phone was the interface people were getting used to, touchscreens slowly got implemented in cars; first as an addition to traditional functions, but increasingly as the only method of adjusting vehicle settings. Even if you want to change what you’re listening to or adjust the climate control while you’re driving, you’ll have to mess with a touchscreen that provides no tactile feedback, forcing you to look away from the road. No surprise that presents a safety hazard.”

Several hours before putting this newsletter together, on my way back home from dropping my daughter off at school, I was sitting on the shoulder of 280W with a flat tire, waiting for a service truck to show up. I pulled over as far as I could while leaving room to change the tire but could still feel the car shake every time another car whizzed past me, which is why I called for service rather than change it myself. Twice I watched someone start to turn onto the shoulder, at full speed, to pass another car, only to quickly get back in the lane when they saw me up ahead. After the second time, I got out of the car to wait.

Ever since I started listening to the The War On Cars podcast, I’ve become hyper-aware of how ridiculous it is that we have to “trust” each other to drive these big machines responsibly, especially on the highway. Their most recent episode, Car Brain with Dr. Ian Walker, introduced me to the concept of “motonormativity,” and it was one of those, “you can’t unsee this” moments.

I still like cars, and I still need a car to do a lot of things, but I’m definitely starting to come around to the belief that building our lives around cars was a mistake. I definitely do not believe we’ll have real self-driving cars anytime soon — certainly not safe ones — and I’d still rather take my chances with other humans than trust flawed technology driven purely by business concerns. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced the “war on cars” is much more than a light skirmish right now, and embracing electric (or possibly better yet, hydrogen) cars may be our best option, but as with many things I’m increasingly cynical about, I hope I’m wrong.


When critical thinking isn’t enough | The Conversation

“Critical ignoring is the ability to choose what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities. Critical ignoring is more than just not paying attention – it’s about practising mindful and healthy habits in the face of information overabundance. We understand it as a core competence for all citizens in the digital world.”

Every now and then I come across the formal definition of something I’ve instinctively done and assumed was normal, and then realize it’s not. Critical ignoring is the latest, something I’ve practiced religiously since my Digital Book World days of an “early awareness, late adopter” approach to technology, in particular. I learned to quickly judge the immediate merits and longer-term potential of the shiny du jour, so I could minimize the amount of time I spent worrying about nonsense like enhanced ebooks, NFTs, and ChatGPT, among other things.

It’s also how I was able to go cold turkey from Twitter last year and not look back.

Coincidentally, I finished reading Jennifer Howard’s Clutter: An Untidy History this past weekend, and there’s definitely a connection between critical thinking, ignoring, and the cluttered world of information we all live in today. Part memoir of a moment, part history of why so many of us have too much stuff in our homes, Clutter gave me a new perspective on recycling, individual responsibilities, and my own possible digital hoarding problem. I liked it so much, I recommended it to my wife who is the real reader in the family.

Speaking of reading, I’m getting back into the groove and have signed up for The Storygraph to track my reading again and am participating in a fun reading challenge / scavenger hunt designed to diversify your reading choices, so you may see an occasional brief review here now and then.

If you’ve read this far, what’s a recent book you really enjoyed and why? Drop it in the comments or send me an email. My TBR list is theoretically set for the year, but I said that a month ago and have already added five more books since then!

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