Suiting Up for the Attention Economy
From time to time–many journalists know this moment—it feels as if several stories or trends you’ve been covering (or trying to dodge) start locking into place in some sort of shape or design or purpose. Call it “news relationship syndrome.”
This happened for me at the beginning of the month, and it brought together:
- The annual Publishers Forum industry conference in Berlin: I was there this year to moderate a panel on international threats to copyright.
- The annual Muse and the Marketplace Forum writers’ conference in Boston: I was there to lead a closing keynote panel on authors’ marketing strategies.
- And our daily Trump l’oeil in which so much of the national news seems to revolve around the questions (a) “Wait, what just happened?” and (b) “Wait, is that really what it means or does it mean something else?” and “Wait, we don’t really understand this yet, do we?”
In Berlin, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo had introduced the idea of a “fifth wave” in book retail, and this is something that Jane Friedman and I wrote about in the May 3 edition of The Hot Sheet, our newsletter for authors. Tamblyn was concerned that industry players today might be breathing a sigh of relief and thinking that the digital scare has passed, that they can just “get back to publishing and making books without having to worry about the industry remaking itself.”
Tamblyn describe four historical “waves” of publishing retail:
- Independent bookstores;
- Chain bookstores;
- E-commerce (taking bookstores online); and
- Ebooks and audiobooks (taking content itself into the online ether).
And then he dropped his bombshell: “The fifth wave,” he said, “isn’t a format shift. And it isn’t a change in where books are sold or distributed. It isn’t subscription vs. single-title sale. It isn’t about how much a book gets sold for at all. Instead, it is the commodification and commercialization of attention.”
Welcome to the wars of attention.
And as we trundle out onto this unholy, unpresidented battlefield, I want you to think about this brilliant phrase that Tamblyn lobbed at us like a mic-drop: “It is an arms race of monetized attention.”
The mechanized (algorithmic) warfare around you is being waged by Netflix, Amazon Studios, HBO, Hulu, Showtime, everything on your Roku. Have you heard any of your fellow author-soldiers talk of wanting to get into the miniseries content armies? I have: at London Book Fair, when I spoke on a panel in the Author HQ program in March, the writers in the audience wanted to know about Hollywood. And Hollywood is trying to capture your reader’s attention as a prisoner of war.
“It is about the fight for time,” Tamblyn said. And it’s too easy, he said, to shrug and say that books have always “jockeyed with TV and movies and magazines and newspapers for people’s time.
“Now we live in an attention economy,” he said, in which thousands of companies “have a very clear sense of what people’s time is worth.” In other words, what they can charge for your attention, “what they would like to do with it…and an incredible array of tools” to use in capturing it.” Your attention. Your reader’s attention.
My provocation for you today is a question about how clearly you know what you’re doing in trying to find and build a readership. Do you understand that you’re in a battle for people’s time and attention? How many hours do you want from someone to read your latest book? And what will get their attention so that they know it’s even there to read?