Andrew Keen on Trump, Amazon, AI... and how to fix the future of books

Andrew Keen on Trump, Amazon, AI... and how to fix the future of books

In December 2016, entrepreneur and author Andrew Keen gave the closing keynote at our FutureBook conference, predicting a 'renaissance' for book publishers in a post-truth age. Next week, his fourth book, How To Fix The Future, hits the shelves - investigating "what we must do if we are to try to preserve human values in an increasingly digital world."

Ahead of its launch, we asked him to apply his critical lens to the book industry once again, and share his hopes, fears and recommendations for fixing the future of books.

It’s a year since your FutureBook keynote. Do you feel encouraged or disheartened by how you’ve seen the book industry develop in the past 12 months?

It’s been a year dominated by two connected and highly disturbing things. Firstly, by the Donald Trump presidency and his reality TV show politics of xenophobic narcissism. And secondly by the crisis of Silicon Valley companies in the face of growing economic inequality, the growing fear of automation in the face of automation, fake news, the cultural divisiveness and inanity of social media, and an increasingly ubiquitous surveillance capitalism. On one level, of course, the book trade - as a small, economically inconsequential industry - is a tiny sideshow to these two main acts. But what encourages me about the publishing industry is its ability to curate uncompromisingly high quality commentaries on both Trump and Silicon Valley. While Facebook and Twitter have increasingly become tools of Putin’s trolls, the book industry has  produced important critiques of Silicon Valley by writers like Franklin Foer, Jonathan Taplin and Noam Cohen.

Above all, of course, the phenomenal success of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury - which may well become one of the fastest selling books in history - reveals the enormous public appetite for a 75,000 word text by a professional journalist that exposes the idiocy and corrosiveness of the Trump regime. This should be enormously encouraging for those who worried that physical books were becoming irrelevant in our electronic age. What has become clear over the last year is that books matter. And they matter more than ever in an age in which our values and even our democracy itself are under threat from the racists, xenophobes and warmongers who increasingly dominate uncurated popular media like Facebook and Twitter.

What do you see as the biggest threat to the book trade in the next three years?

Of course, Amazon has been, is and will be a threat to the book trade over the next three years. But my sense is that when it comes to the book business, we’ve seen the worst of Amazon in its well documented (particularly by Brad Stone in The Everything Store) bullying of small publishers and quasi-monopolistic practices. Over the next three years, Bezos’ company will increasingly enter into the crosshairs of anti-trust regulators. So I think Amazon’s behavior, while never cuddly, will not worsen with respect to its treatment of independent publishers. Amazon, then, is the 800 pound gorilla in the room that the book trade is going to have to learn to live with. But that gorilla isn’t going to get much larger or more violent. So we have to feed it, play with it, maybe even befriend it.

A bigger threat to the book business, I fear, is the growing crisis of political freedom in much of the world. We are seeing the rise of strongly anti democratic forces in much of Eastern Europe, the Putinization of the American Republic, the rise of dictatorships in Turkey and the Philippines, and the growing threat of a Big Brother style digital totalitarianism in China that would’ve even chilled George Orwell. This anti-democratic turn in the world is an enormous threat to the book trade. Wannabe dictators like Erdogan or even Trump want to destroy the free press. They are all book burners - the ultimate threat to the book business. Just look at the way in which Trump tried to use the American judicial system to ban Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Had he been successful in censoring Wolff’s tell-all, the book industry would have lost tens, perhaps even hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Fortunately, the independent American legal system was strong enough to withstand Trump’s attempt to ban this book.

Ironically, Jeff Bezos’ acquisition and reinvention of the Washington Post has become one of the most effective bulwarks against the corrosion of democracy in the United States. So Amazon has become - at least, indirectly - an antidote to the biggest threat to the book industry.

And the biggest opportunity?

The biggest opportunity is for the book industry to remember that its business is in the mass production of carefully curated, high quality physical texts. This is a medium that has existed for millennia. As the relative strength of books sales over the last couple of years show, the book business isn’t going away anytime soon. In our age of impermanence, the most valuable things are permanent.New technology is, therefore, mostly a distraction. E-books, for example, boomed at first, but have now plateaued. Crowdsourced texts are, by definition, so garbled and inchoate as to be mostly unreadable. The hysteria surrounding self-publishing  seems to have subsided a bit because it’s becoming increasingly self-evident that even successfully self-published authors would prefer to be distributed by traditional publishers.

So the biggest opportunity remains the discovery, development and distribution of high quality authors. Rather than worrying about Facebook promotions or e-readers, publishers should be aggressively finding and promoting the next J.K. Rowling or Malcolm Gladwell. The world is desperate for stories. The mass market book, along with the movie, remains the most effective vehicle for the telling of both non-fictional and fictional stories. Packaging and selling stories, therefore, is the greatest opportunity for the 21st century book industry.

Which publishing-focused innovators do you admire?

My editor, Morgan Entrekin, the CEO of Grove Atlantic, the largest independent US publisher, is innovative in his defiance of the trivia of technological innovation. Rather than frittering away his time on “innovative” schemes to reinvent the publishing industry, Entrekin has prioritized the publication of uncompromisingly high quality texts such as the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer. But Morgan Entrekin is no technophobe and has also invested substantially in LitHub, the internet’s leading publication for high quality reviews and writing about books. Both on and offline, therefore Entrekin invests his time and resources in high quality writing and talent. That’s true innovation.

More controversially, I also admire Jeff Bezos for his unrelenting commitment at Amazon to the highest quality customer-centric experience. As anyone who read my 2015 polemic, The Internet Is Not The Answer, knows, I’m not a great fan of Amazon’s labor practices or their bullying behavior toward small publishers. But as a longtime customer of Amazon, I’m continually amazed by the intuitive nature of the website’s interface and the incredible reliability of its ecommerce service. I also love how Audible has been seamlessly integrated into Amazon. And I’m encouraged by Amazon’s reasonably serious attempts to clamp down on fake and corrupt reviews. What I would like to see from Amazon - as they’ve done with music - is the packaging of the physical and digital book in one price. When I buy a physical book, I should also get the digital one for free (or at least at a significantly reduced price). This would not only be fair to consumers, but actually spark a revitalization of the ebook market.

What does publishing innovation NOT look like?

Over the next few years, technophiles will tell us that intelligent machines, known in Silicon Valley as artificial intelligence or AI, will “change everything” about the publishing industry. We will be told that these supposedly “smart" algorithms will be able to write stories - thereby essentially making authors, and even publishers, redundant. And we will see the appearance of well funded start-ups promising that they will “disintermediate” publishers and authors and create smart fiction or non-fiction. But this won’t work and all these literary AI companies will fail. Computers, you see, can’t think for themselves, which is the essence of good storytelling. They couldn’t have written this paragraph. And they certainly will never be able to invent an original character like Harry Potter or “write” an all-too-human narrative like Fire and Fury.

I’m also not convinced that publishing innovation looks like the creation of Netflix or Spotify style subscription services. This may work in music and movies, but might actually result in the devaluation of books if taken seriously . Book buyers want discrete products, not services. So book subscription services, while attractive in some ways to both publishers and consumers, could ultimately undermine the industry. The real problem is that the economics don’t work. Spotify, for all its success in its growing number of subscribers, remains not only unprofitable but also exploitative of artists. So a book subscription service would be particularly bad news for authors.

What should the bookshop of the future do?

Bookstores of the future need to be become uncompromisingly experiential in their presentation of products and engagement with their customers. In our electronic media age, there is increasingly appetite for physical experience. Given the virtualization of commerce and communication, we - particularly young people, the so-called “ digital natives” - desperately seek physical interaction with other humans. One author rightly described this as the Revenge of Analog. It is manifested in the revitalization of the vinyl music industry, in the popularity of physical networking events like the TED conferences, in the rediscovery by young people of the delights of writing a diary and, above all, in the continued popularity of that most uncompromisingly physical of things - the book.

Meanwhile, e-commerce - and Amazon, in particular - has undermined the value of traditional retail by commodifying shopping and making it almost impossible to compete on price. So malls all over America are closing and the retail industry experiencing its greatest crisis in its history. The middle of the retail market is being destroyed. So all that’s left, for better or (mostly) worse, are low-end dollar stores and high-end luxury retail businesses.

The bookshop of the future, therefore, needs to be an experiential hub for all things literary. It needs to be a place where writers can talk with and meet their readers. It needs to be an physically engaging place in which readers can drink tea or eat while browsing. And the bookshop of the future should be an extension of a high quality publisher like Grove Atlantic. Curation is key. Rather than an Amazon like algorithm which can never truly know its customer, the human staff of the bookstore of the future must know their book buyers  intimately and be able to recommend the best products for them to buy. Trust, an increasingly scarce resource in today’s world, is essential. Trust trumps price. It's the essential commodity for the book retailer of the future.

Would you say there’s anything ‘innovative’ about the way you wrote, produced or distributed your book?

You keep throwing this word “innovative” at me. In today’s increasingly “innovation” obsessed business culture, the word has become so fetishized as to be almost meaningless. My new book How To Fix The Future is the result of a year’s research in which I travelled around the world and interviewed over a hundred experts about the most effective strategies for solving the greatest digital dilemmas of our age. Just as How To Fix The Future has a strongly internationally perspective, it is also being published and promoted all over the world, and will be globally promoted on Twitter and LinkedIn by a team of marketing professionals.

Is this “innovative”? Maybe. More importantly, however, I would argue that this is all essential for a professional author in our globalized, social media age. Today's successful books must not only tell compelling stories, but also must take advantage of all the most effective digital marketing tools and practices. Above all, to survive in the 21st century, authors need to leverage their unique human skills - as public speakers, conversationalists, above all as story tellers - in ways that can’t be replicated by smart machines.