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Interstitial Publishing: A New Market from Wasted Time

To grow, publishers must either battle other publishers over market share or identify and serve new markets. Digital media are useful to publishers only insofar as they serve one of these aims. (A separate matter is using digital media to drive down costs and boost profits, but that is not growth in the defined sense.) Using digital media to redistribute market share may be costly and not lead to the expected gains, as a publisher’s rivals are likely to use the very same tactics: anyone can publish for the iPhone and Stanza, anyone can get books onto the Kindle. But with market share battles there is no relief; it is an arms race, and a publisher can no more forego publishing in digital form than it can stop seeking new and creative authors. For a publisher pursuing growth, alas, it’s new markets or nothing.

Digital media do not necessarily lead to new markets, and in some situations, digital media may actually serve to shrink markets. For consumer or trade publishing in the developed world, finding a new market can be challenging. Our lives are full, our calendars are snug, and our attention is spread over a seemingly infinite number of media choices, ranging from old-fashioned books to social networks, music, movies, museums, and countless other things. To find a new market here requires opening up a crack in a broad, seamless facade.

Which brings us to interstitial publishing, publishing between the cracks. (No, uh, wisecracks, please.) For a day filled with IMs and music and slathered over with email, one opportunity for publishers is to promote interstitial reading, reading that is done in the brief moments between other engagements, whether those claims on our attention are other media or simply the wiggle room in a schedule: the time spent waiting for a plane, a doctor, or for a meeting to begin. That’s a huge number of minutes in any day; a good portion of our lives is wasted while we are waiting for the main course to arrive.

This point was brought to mind by a mailgroup post by O’Reilly’s Andrew Savikas, who commented that he was stuck for an hour in an airport. What a great opportunity to pull out his iPhone and check out mail, alerts, and Web sites. But he could have been reading, if publishers had provided formal material (formal here means “the kind of stuff you are willing to pay for”) to slip between the interstices of Andrew’s day.

An hour is a big crack in the day; to become a true interstitial publisher, you would have to aim smaller. How about the 10-minute crack? Five minutes? Think of your own day: How often are you simply waiting, doing nothing? Daydreams don’t count — because ultimately the aim of every media business is to colonize your mind’s every moment. (Dust off that old copy of the science fiction classic “The Space Merchants” by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth for a satiric vision of imperial marketing.) If you had something to read that you could sip in draughts of five minutes at a time or perhaps 10, you would participate in the growth of the new market for interstitial publishing. And this is genuine growth, as at this moment the total sales in the interstices is zero or close to it. The goal is to go from zero to 60 in five minutes.

For interstitial publishing to work, you need a handy device (PDA, iPhone, or something like that), which you carry with you all the time so that you can take advantage of the cracks in the day. For this kind of thing, a Kindle or any dedicated ebook reader won’t work, as it is more of an effort to pull such a device out of your bag as you wait in line in the supermarket. So if it’s growth you want (as distinct from market share), forget the Kindle. A smart phone is a different matter, however: How many times do you see someone yank a Blackberry from a belt clip and glance at incoming email? Instead of email, that could be the twenty-third chapter of the new micronovel by William Adama. The proper device is critical, and the software that runs on it must have sophisticated bookmarking capabilities.

You also need (and this ultimately may be the harder part) content crafted with the interstices in mind. Reformatting “Moby-Dick” for interstitial publishing simply won’t do, as the structure of the text, even the syntax of the sentences, militates against draughts of only 5 minutes. This is not a matter of immersive vs. non-immersive reading: it’s entirely possible to get immersed in 5 minutes. But it is an issue of what you get immersed in. Sorry, Tolstoy and Grisham, even William Gibson, but we need a new breed of writer, who is born digital, who is born in the interstices.

Often interstitial publishing is confused with having a short attention span, as though a moment is somehow less valuable than an hour. The key to this new form of publishing, however, is that it views the short period of each entry not as a watered-down version of the “real thing,” a long text, but as something built perfectly for the space and time it occupies. This is what McLuhan meant by “understanding media”: it’s not about the content in itself but the content as it accommodates itself to the shape of the surface, which in turn is created and supported by the underlying technology.

Interstitial publishing can be fiction or nonfiction, but it is unlikely to be a single isolated five-minute item, as it would be hard to market or to find such an item. More likely short items will be strung together in an anthology; the thesis of the anthology (“brief bursts about the new administration”; “101 short poems about transistors and current”) will suffuse each item with a sense of being part of a whole.

Narratives for interstitial media may very will be linear within each five-minute episode, but it is improbable that item A will lead serially to item B, to item C, and so forth. It would simply be hard to gather the narrative in our minds if it were written in this way. More likely each episode will have a beginning and an end–and then cut to another episode, which may be built around a different time or place or another character. All the pieces get assembled in our minds, five minutes at a time.

For “five-minute fiction” to catch on, we will need creative people who probe the nature of the interstitial medium. It’s easy to forget (or never to have known) that the linear narrative as we think of it today was in fact invented once upon a time when writers were faced with books that were inexpensively manufactured and distributed to wide audiences for the first time. Publishers will need to seek out writers who comprehend the new medium, who can engage a reader for fie minutes, who can make the many pieces of the work congeal in the reader’s mind. These writers will study readers, PDAs or smart phones in hand, standing before the spinning dryer in the laundromat, stopped at a red light, preparing to board a plane, waiting for the meeting to begin. In all of this publishers will see growth.

The aim of digital media should not be (or should not only be) to substitute a screen for a printed page but to reinvent the text on the screen and, in so doing, to bring new readers into the marketplace.

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Comments: 9

  1. I read books on stanza on my iphone in all sorts of interstitial situations. in line, on the bus, in the waiting room.

    and i’ve been sustaining such interstitial reading of a long text, war & peace, god help me!, for weeks now. and loving it. so i disagree, based on my own experience that “moby dick” won’t do, and that tolstoy is out. If war & peace works, the white whale surely will too.

    That’s not to say there isn’t an additional market for shorter works, but a long text can sustain itself through brief snatches of reading – as long as the reading is more-or-less constant over time.

    at least, it’s working for me. and I would venture, in total shock, that my little iphone/stanza might be a *better* way to read a long text than a paper book.

  2. Agree–I have an annotated version of Moby-Dick online (powermobydick.com) and have heard from many people who are reading it on iPhones and Touches, especially on the subway. FWIW, there’s a Twitter feed of Moby-Dick at twitter.com/publicdomain and one of Paradise Lost at twitter.com/paradiselost.

    This is not to say there isn’t a market for something more episodic, though I do wonder whether it would be delivered in segments, like email (or Twitter for that matter). The unpredictability of interstitial reading would seem to militate for whole, long works in whatever format sitting available to access at the reader’s convenience.

  3. I also read books on Stanza. Although, it does compete with podcasts, of which I probably consume far too many per day for my own good. But as information overload is certainly one of the wired world’s biggest problems, it makes sense that data should be minimized and serialized wherever possible to help us cope.

  4. I submit that reading at all is done interstitially and has been for some time. I do recognize such a specific digital focus as explained above, but the concept isn’t new. David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children” (found in Oblivion) is three pages long. Whether it’s on paper or an iPhone, such fiction is quickly read to completion. (So are digestible portions of all but the heaviest non-fiction and any poetry that isn’t The Iliad or Robert Bly.) It stands to reason that short stories, essays, poems, and articles would appeal to people with less time to read, but that predates ebooks.

    The strange thing is what Mr. McGuire said above: that his iPhone may in fact succeed paper as his primary medium for reading longer works. This seems to me far more surprising and consequently a better benchmark for success.

  5. How many mainstream publishers could have anticipated such a market? I read a blog entry from someone who allegedly claims he knew Curtis Benjamin of McGraw-Hill and this “twigging phenomena” ( http://lacunaemusing.blogspot.com/2007/11/publishing-and-lacuna.html )
    Is it possible that we have reached the ends of the leaves?

  6. How can I found a quartz surfaces Flex book? what publishers have got any similar book?

    Is the interstitial reading is really the right answer?

    BTW, I think that Moby-Dick – for all that, will work with interstitial publishing.

  7. Interesting blog. I enjoyed reading it as i enjoy reading books in interstitial situations. Congratulations on your good work. keep it up and coming.

  8. I just love reading books and I would never stop reading if it was my wish. I liked your blog as much as I like reading books in interstitial situations. I would love to read more of your articles because they relate to book worms like me. Thank you a lot for posting this article.

  9. “Five-minute fiction” already exists. It’s called flash fiction.

    Flash fiction is a new mainstream phenomenon rooted, I suspect, in exactly the life style paradigm you describe here: the fragmentation of daily life in the industrialized world into compartmentalized moments. Short-short stories have existed on the margins of literary fiction throughout the twentieth century (coincidentally paralleling the rise of modern technology). Virginia Woolf was writing experimental short-short stories in the 1920s, seventy years before my college professor told his classes at a California University he couldn’t picture a meaningful short story of less than twenty pages. However, flash fiction was never considered a genre unto itself before now.

    By your analysis, flash fiction collections are the new runaway-success fiction model on the horizon. It’ll be fascinating to watch for.