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An 'Ask' for a New Digital Model
May 10, 2010 - 9:08pm

"I see you rolling your eyes. That’s right, you: the one in the fake-vintage rock ’n’ roll T-shirt and thick-framed glasses reading this on an iPhone at the sidelines of your daughter’s soccer game. But you know exactly what I’m talking about, pal."

From A.O. Scott in his terrific essay on the Gen X Midlife Crisis - featuring The Ask: A Novel by Sam Lipsyte. (Thank you Laura the Librarian for sending along the quote).

What most caught my eye was the last sentence in Scott's essay, "Since its publication in March, “The Ask” has sold around 7,000 copies. Disappointing? Of course. Our generation wouldn’t have it any other way."

7,000 copies? I'd immediately requested (from Laura Librarian) The Ask after reading Lydia Millet's rave in March 4th NYT's Book Review.

If only 7,000 people bought a book as good as The Ask then Farrar, Straus and Giroux are doing something wrong. Maybe all the attention from the Times will raise sales - I hope so. As an outsider to the publishing industry, it seems as if this number is emblematic of a larger failure. Isn't the job of publishers to get book and readers together? If Lipsyte writes such a great book (and it is a great book), hasn't he done his job? Is the publishing model so broken that books like The Ask can't find an audience big enough to support an author?

As I was reading the story of Milo Burke, development officer at Mediocre University, I kept thinking how great this book would be to teach. The Ask would work in a sociology course (my gig), or an English course, or a writing course - maybe even a University fund-raising course (do they offer those?).

So here is my modest proposal: The publisher, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), should offer a digital copy of The Ask free to any enrolled student at an accredited body of higher learning. Bring down the cost of including The Ask in the curriculum to zero. Include digital files that can be read on Kindle's and iPhones and iPads and computers. Maybe even get Sam Lipsyte to agree to engage in some classes through a class blog. I'm betting that if The Ask takes off as a book that is taught in higher ed that it will quickly gain a larger share of cultural currency, and hence sales. Maybe not Oprah sales, but it could be pretty good.

This would cost the publisher nothing, as college kids are probably not buying the book anyway. The digital copy has already been produced, so the marginal cost of producing new copies is zero. The only cost is the administrative overhead to make a program like this work. This is where the higher ed community could really step-up. We could figure out some mechanism that publishers could provide digital copies of books at no cost to our institutions, and return their largesse with data on how the books are being used in the curriculum.

This is an example where a publisher could take a risk and leverage the economics of digital to do something different. Publishers are not used to "giving away" their content, but the world of digital means that their are more opportunities to find the right price for the right market. Authors and publishers I'm sure want their books to be taught and discussed on campus. Let's experiment together with new ways to make this happen.

Looking forward to you telling us all the reasons why this proposal will never work….


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