Now that any poor soul with access to an Internet cafe can post an idea, an article or an entire book to an inexpensive Web site instantaneously accessible to millions of individuals worldwide, now that print on demand places the means of production back in the hands of the beleaguered literary worker, now that blogs break news more effectively than conventional ink-and-paper journalism, forecasts concerning the demise of publishing as we know it are almost too common to track.
But there is one argument—one glittering, sacrosanct argument— that we who love books and magazines cling to like baby monkeys grasping at their mothers’ chest fur. That glittering argument goes something like this:
Established print media, including literary magazines like the one you are reading right now and a handful of venerable New York book houses, will remain essential because readers will always need gatekeepers—that is, editors—-to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Or as my friend Matt says, “Someone’s gotta wade through all the crap, and it ain’t gonna be me.”
I rather like that argument—and my editor really likes that argument—but said argument is growing less plausible by the day. The new generation of “content” consumers—young adults, the ones who will determine what our world looks like in 2025—finds the idea of discerning gatekeepers about as useful as a 1950s sex-education primer.
Who has time to wade through all of that crap? Apparently, 23.5 million people have the time.
If you haven’t heard of YouTube, you are either woefully out of touch or not paying attention. Maybe both.
Let me explain: Once upon a time, Hollywood executives ruled the rarified worlds of film and television distribution. What these sleek and supernaturally tanned beings did all day—well, other than having fat suctioned out of their chins and picking anorexically at $60 salads—was to sort through millions of possible scripts and pilots to determine what might horrify, amaze or amuse us. They would audition, envision, commission, green light and red light into the wee California hours, eventually determining what we would or would not see.
That was then, however, and this is now. Today, YouTube, a video-sharing site on the Internet, allows anyone—even un-agented, non-Hollywood nobodies—to upload a video and make it universally available. The uploaded video might be a one-woman show, a prank caught on tape, an amateur music performance, the hanging of a dictator or shots of your cat chasing his tail.
Within moments of the upload, anyone—even, for instance, a network executive squandering a few moments between Bikram yoga workouts—can go to YouTube, click a link and watch that video. For free.
That executive, if horrified, amazed or amused, can e-mail thousands of friends, or strangers, and send them to watch the same video. For free.
It all sounds like a silly waste of time, doesn’t it?
Except that YouTube pulls in close to 23.5 million unique visitors each month, and the average visitor spends 28 minutes watching the oddball footage. Last year, media monolith Google acquired YouTube from its two 20-something founders for a neat $1.65 billion.
Where I come from, that’s real money.
More to the point, though, YouTube has garnered a substantial and widening cultural influence.
The site has its own array of stars: the fraudulent but popular lonelygirll5, spaz-dancing comedian Judson Laipply, the “Saturday Night Live” Narnia rappers and countless Japanese game-show contestants.
And anti-stars: This past midterm election, Sen. George Allen of Virginia mocked a supporter of his opponent, calling him “macaca” in front of a rolling video camera. The resulting few moments of amateur video went viral, spreading across the Internet and leading to destructive charges of racial insensitivity. Allen lost. The balance of power in the Senate shifted.
No one doubts that voters will turn even more often to YouTube and similar sites to decide the results of the 2008 presidential election. Our love affair with user-generated content and social-networking is likely in just the beginning stages.
Understand, I’m not gloating. These trends tend to depress me.
I write books and essays, enjoy small royalty checks and the occasional public notice. In my own minor way, I am part of the current cultural status quo. Why would I want it to change?
So I cling for a moment to a revised version of the sacrosanct argument. One that goes like this:
The serious, literary reader is a bit more discerning than your average watcher of viral video. While a brief film of a teen skateboarder ramming headfirst into an ice-cream truck might be amusing to some, those who consume literature are more thoughtful, less susceptible to fads and user-generated anarchy. Intelligent readers still demand filtered content, printed on upscale paper, using only the finest soy ink. Ivy League English majors, thank goodness, are and will remain critical sorters of the slush and determiners of what is worth our time.
This seems like a good replacement argument until I open the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to read Bob Hoover’s account of the newest trend in book marketing—YouTube.
Savvy authors, apparently, have found that an effective way to market books these days—now that publishers can’t really be bothered—is through YouTube-distributed video. Michael Connelly, creator of the Harry Bosch crime series; French memoirist Gregoire Bouillier; and best-seller Bill Bryson are all on board, and more are joining the trend every day. Where else can you find 23.5 million pairs of eyeballs willing to consume seemingly anything?
And, of course, a few visionaries, like free-culture guru Lawrence Lessig and sci-fi blogger Cory Doctorow, have realized the next logical step: provide the entire book as a PDF download, at no cost. The lesson to be learned from Internet monoliths like Amazon and Google, you see, is that the first step is building name recognition. Turning that name into profit can come later.
The future isn’t coming, my friends. It is here.
So what’s to be done?
I see only one clear path to follow.
Buy my book.
Because next week, I’ll be giving it away.