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An Arms Race of Monetized Distraction

Image – iStockphoto: Celafon
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:

In Berlin, Michael Tamblyn [3] of Kobo [4] 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 [5], 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:

  1. Independent bookstores;
  2. Chain bookstores;
  3. E-commerce (taking bookstores online); and
  4. 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 [6] 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?

The Fifth Wave: The Fight for Time
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

At The Muse in the Marketplace, I’d laid out a few of these “fifth wave” concepts in which the new marketplace is a war for attention. The closing keynote in Boston is always packed with some 500 or so people listening to a panel’s responses to the marketing plans of three authors who have books publishing in the next year. My next plane would be leaving soon and I was grabbing my bags and there was a tap on my shoulder.

It was one of the three authors from last year’s Muse, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, who handed me her book, which has just been published by Macmillan’s Flatiron Books in the States this week: The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir [7]. I’ve just spoken with her rights agent, who already is selling it into The Netherlands, the UK, Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, with other markets lining up. The book is unnervingly serious and goes far past true crime into the inexplicable nature of homicidal acts—and their nearness to all of us.

And in the odd linkage of that “news relationship syndrome,” I got all three messages, from Tamblyn, from Marzano-Lesnevich, and from those political headlines that keep changing, minute to minute with such nauseating, relentless demands on our attention.

[7]The war for attention is raging. Look away from the news for 10 minutes and a chunk of what makes this nation so singular in history may have broken right off as congressional leaders cower in corners of the Capitol. Even as journalism finds its feet again for the first time in so many years—our Fourth Estate is back just in time—the various media are in “an arms race of monetized distraction.” Each of their advertisers wants to distract you. And so do their networks’ producers: it’s all breaking, all the time.

And isn’t it phenomenal how much of your attention is going into simply trying to understand, follow, sort out the latest incremental update? The exhausting character of this news cycle will be recorded as an era of urgent confusion. So few moves make sense, so few are driven by plan or policy, so few can stand up through a single news conference without being turned on their heads.

I believe Tamblyn is right and I believe that his model for all this—the attention economy—is direly accurate. How is it that Marzano-Lesnevich can be capturing the attention of publishers on another continent with a tale of unexplained murder encountered in Louisiana? And how is it that you have to stop and wonder if you’ll have time to read that book, or any other, because you’ve got to read up at five different news sites to find out what everybody means by a deputy attorney general who blindsided his own boss, the attorney general, with a special “councel.”

“Wait, what just happened?”

How well are you faring in the attention economy? How well do you understand how your stories need to be armored for that “arms race of monetized distraction”? How much do you feel the pull of the battle for your own time? And tell me again, how many hours are you asking your reader to spend with your book…and you wanted that reader to pay you for that thing, too, right? 

Quick note: A bit of a complicated day here, so it will likely be into the weekend before I can respond to you in comments. Thanks!

About Porter Anderson [8]

@Porter_Anderson [9] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [10], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [11] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [12]