What Would Mark Twain Click On?

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Imagine you’re living in 1895. You’ve just sat down to dinner with your family when you’re interrupted by a knock on your front door. It’s a travelling salesperson holding a sample of a new book by Mark Twain. Do you listen to his pitch, or just close the door and mutter about annoying salespeople?

The “hard sell” was standard practice for promoting the works of Mark Twain, one of the first writers to trademark his name. Although today we might appreciate Twain’s writing on literary merits, business considerations influenced what he wrote, and how he wrote it. He said that the money he could make from publishing a book “has a degree of importance for me which is almost beyond my comprehension.” Most of us would associate those words with the ambitions of a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, but not a literary and cultural icon.

The financial calculus of book publishing drove Twain to innovate in other ways. He deployed a subscription sales model along with a dedicated sales force to cover a wide geography. (At the time, this itinerant sales force was one of the first to recruit women for jobs.) Using brand-name recognition common today, sales agents sold his books on the promise of the enjoyment the reader would get over time.

The salespeople engaged with customers by reading the publisher’s selling script, which included choreographed conversational details. Because the subscription sales model required selling some works that hadn’t yet been published, salespeople didn’t possess complete books. They sold entertainment, using samples that contained rich content at the time, including portions of text, pictures, page layouts, and choices for bindings.

Here’s the pitch you might have heard, quoting from an actual script: “I’ve got specimen pages of Mark Twain’s latest and greatest book! . . . there are nearly 700 pages in this book, and there’s a laugh on every page . . . The title of Mark Twain’s work (open the title page) is Following the Equator.” Even then, promoters and salespeople knew the importance of “controlling the conversation.”

Given Twain’s penchant for sales innovation, how might he exploit digital media if he were writing today? It’s interesting to think about what he might click on. In which formats would we discover and enjoy modern versions of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? Could their adventures be distributed through a series of two-minute YouTube videos or Podcasts? Would this presentation enhance—or detract from the enjoyment we’ve derived from Twain’s stories. Would his ideas be equally inspiring and memorable without the written word? Or, you might think that because no other packaging can eclipse the eloquence of Twain’s prose, we should consider ourselves fortunate that when Twain was alive, print publishing was the dominant vehicle for mass recording and sharing of thought.

I can’t help but wonder what we’re sacrificing as information technologies develop and converge, and we embrace digital media. With similar uncertainty, in his book The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr questions the eventual outcome from the actions we take when exchanging thoughts and ideas:

“The Internet turns everything, from news-gathering to community building, into a series of tiny transactions—expressed mainly through clicks on links—that are simple in isolation yet extraordinarily complicated in the aggregate. Each of us may make hundreds or even thousands of clicks a day, some deliberately, some impulsively, and with each one we are constructing our identity, shaping our influences, and creating our communities. As we spend more time and do more things online, our combined clicks will shape our economy, our culture, and our society.” Clearly, Carr is ambivalent about the outcome. His insight leaves it up the reader to determine whether the future impact will be sustaining or debilitating.

Jeffrey Bezos, quoted in The Wall Street Journal (“The Way We Read,” June 9, 2008) said, “Over some time horizon, books will be read on electronic devices. Physical books won’t completely go away, just as horses haven’t completely gone away. But there is no sinecure for any technology. If you think about books, it’s astonishing. It’s very hard to find a technology that has remained in mostly the same form for 500 years. And anything that has stubbornly resisted improvement for 500 years is going to be hard to improve. That is what we’re trying to do with Kindle. We see this as an effort to improve upon the book, even though it’s resisted change for 500 years.” He continued, “Over the last 20 years, most of the tools that we humans have invented have made it easier for us to be information snackers. If one of the outcomes of Kindle and other devices like it [is] making long-form reading more frictionless so that you end up doing more of it, I think that’s a good thing.” But is the trend toward “information snacking” a signal that we’re sliding toward an abyss that denies society literature on the level of Mark Twain’s creations?

Maybe not. Twain, who made his narratives intentionally long to fit the subscription distribution model he pioneered over a century ago, would have already sent an instant message to Mr. Bezos. “I have a great idea for a story! Let’s meet and we’ll talk about how we’ll both make money.” I applaud Mr. Bezos for his vision. I hope that 100 years from now we’ll look back, recognizing that Kindle—or something like it—facilitated a literary achievement on par with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

2 COMMENTS

  1. In large part, I don’t think it’s all that odd that the printed book format hasn’t changed in 300+ years.

    As cool as Kindle sounds in theory (e-distribution, immediate availability of new books for download on a single electronic unit), I think the hurdle Kindle faces–and will continue to face–is that there is a sensory experience in reading an actual, physical, printed book that cannot be duplicated. Even today, when nearly every book I purchase comes in a standard print and e-book format, time and time again I’d rather go pick the actual book off of the shelf.

    You simply cannot re-create the sensory pleasure of reading an actual book. That being the case, I believe that the challenge Kindle’s stakeholders have will be to create a new, different customer experience with its product, one that will be compelling enough for consumers to adopt it.

    -Steve
    InsideSales.com

    See the MIT research study that demonstrates the value of Web leads decreases 1000 percent in the first 24 hours.

  2. Thanks, Steve. It’s a stretch that Kindle will prove a direct replacement for the venerable paperback that can be rained on, left in a hot car, lost, stolen, or simply abandoned on a beach house bookshelf without heartbreak.

    As Jeff Bezos points out, emerging needs for consuming written material–he uses the example of “snacking,”–will drive future uses and ultimately will determine whether the device will be a commercial success, a good idea that’s just ahead of its time, or a literary Edsel.

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