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The Web isn’t the enemy of print

Russell Brown

[Publishing]

Here’s something that still needs saying occasionally: the Internet has given the written word a great big boot up the bum. People who once could go weeks without writing anything more substantial than a birthday card now enjoy email and argue the toss in forums. Kids who would never keep a diary write blogs or keep MySpace pages. The spelling and grammar might be terrifying, but forecasts of a post-literate world have been upended.

Yet old-fashioned print is flourishing. The mainstreaming of the Internet coincided with an explosion in new magazine titles. Amazon made buying books cool again. The worlds of digital text and print are synergistic.

Last year Martin Taylor, my old boss at IDG, proposed that we should launch a new book publishing imprint together. As it happens, I said, I have a book in mind.

A feature on my blog site, Public Address, called Great New Zealand Argument, aims to bring notable writing of argument back into the public eye. More than 10,000 people read our transcript of David Lange’s iconic Oxford Union debate speech, ‘Nuclear Weapons Are Morally Indefensible’, in a week and a half. If you type ‘Lange Oxford Union’ into Google, the first nine results relate to our project (the tenth is Lange’s own memoir).

The speech subsequently appeared in Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas About Ourselves, the debut title for our new imprint, Activity Press. Big retailers were initially sceptical but the book is now into its second printing—never mind that the Lange speech and nearly everything else in it, including Robin Hyde’s ‘The Singers of Loneliness’ and Bill Pearson’s ‘Fretful Sleepers’, was already freely available online, because we’d put it there, and because people like Pearson’s executor, Donald Stenhouse, took the leap of faith (and ignored people-who-knew-better) to let us do it.

The mainstreaming of the Internet coincided with an explosion in new magazine titles. Amazon made buying books cool again.

We showed that pre-publishing on the Web didn’t kill demand, but created a community of interest around the book and its themes. (For our second title, Michael Carney’s Trade Me Success Secrets, the community was the subject. The book benefited hugely from good word-of-mouth in the Trade Me forums.)

This kind of synergy happens elsewhere: Guardian Books’ The Baghdad Blogger is a straight cut-and-paste from the blog of Salam Pax, the 20-something gay architect whose quirky reports were the truest and most human account of the first year of the Iraq war. Virtually everyone who bought it had read it online; that’s why they bought it. Elsewhere, former Apple executive Mike Evangelist is writing a book about his time with the company and progressively publishing it on his website, www.writersblocklive.com, for comment and scrutiny from readers.

It’s not hard to see where this is going: the most exciting Internet projects are not only collaborative, they’re massively collaborative, like Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database. Already, we’ve been involving our audience in book creation in small ways—the first round of editing of our Lange transcript, for example, was swiftly carried out by keen-eyed blog readers. At some point we’ll explore a fully collaborative project aimed at publication.

A lesson for creative professionals? That it’s not a zero-sum game: if you share with your audience you’ll get something back. And it’s good to give. I dropped in to see Donald Stenhouse before Christmas with a bottle of wine—and a second royalty cheque, for the reprint. That felt good.

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