When I saw Jason Ashlock take part in a panel on the future of book publishing at the Aspen Summer Words conference a few months ago, I immediately noticed something different about him: He lacked that black cloud of doom floating over his head that many people involved in the book industry tend to cower under these days.
Ashlock, who makes his living as a literary agent and multimedia book packager, was downright chipper even as he discussed the demise of bookstores, book reviews, and the traditional publishing model. Why is he so upbeat? Instead of worrying about what’s been lost, he focuses on capitalizing on the new enthusiasm among readers that the advent of e-books has created.
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Many publishers and bookstores have suffered financial losses in recent years, but on the other hand, readers have embraced e-books and some studies show that people who own e-readers are reading more than ever before. Are you optimistic that readers’ enthusiasm for e-books will translate into new sources of revenue?
Jason Ashlock: I have the luxury of being optimistic because my position in publishing is as close as you can get to the author, and that’s the best place to be. The anxiety that big publishers, bookstores, and other traditional players in the value chain feel is due to myriad factors, economic and cultural, but the truth is, the farther you stand from the author, the more danger you’re in. The author’s all that matters now — the author and the reader. Everybody in the middle is in a period of redefinition.
My job is to lock arms with the author, help them craft outstanding stories, and help them find their way to the readers who right now are craving those stories — even if they don’t know it yet. It’s a great time to be an author and a reader. It’s not as great a time to be anyone else. If you’re a reader, there’s more great content than ever, it’s more accessible than ever, it’s better priced than ever. If you’re an author, you have more venues than ever, more control than ever, more access to powerful technology, more direct relationships with readers.
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You said the author’s “biggest enemy today is not piracy, but obscurity.” Is anyone stepping up to fulfill the curatorial role that book reviews and booksellers used to play?
Ashlock: The void is being filled in an ad hoc manner by a mixture of online community recommendations, such as book clubs and newsletters and social media, and the ever-inaccurate online reviews. But these aren’t sufficient for most readers. The transition out of the bookstore and review tradition is a difficult one, and curation and discovery is still in a state of disorientation.
I’m glad you ask that question in that way, because it’s for this very reason we’re launching RogueReader.com this fall. In short, The Rogue Reader is a digital publishing channel for outstanding suspense fiction. We select only the very best new voices in the category and introduce only one author a month to our readers. That’s it. We call it precision-curation. We help that one author produce elegant e-books, beautifully designed and carefully edited, and we position their novels in the market in very strategic ways.
We believe there is exceptional value in quality curation. The signal-to-noise ratio on the web is immense. How do we know what to pay attention to? What’s of value? What’s worth my time?
Theoretically, what publishers do is up the signal strength by their brand. For authors, publishers offer the sense of being selected. Authors know when they’re published by, say, Random House, that they have been chosen from among thousands of prospects. And readers know when they pick up a Random House book that professional book people have selected these as the works that should be attended to.
But increasingly, the self-publishing community is producing works of arguably equal quality that are just as popular and appealing. Last week, 27 out of the top 100 books on Amazon were independently published. But among the millions of self-published books –which were not curated, and went through no filtering — how do we know what to read? We rely upon trusted voices: recommendations of friends, buzz on social media, even very impersonal and regularly useless systems like how many stars a given book averages in a retail channel.