It’s NOT the 1000-Monkey Scenario

At Transparency Revolution, I just published a piece responding to an observation by Charlie Stross on the ubiquity of photography:

Right now we’re living through the Photography Singularity; 10% of all photos ever taken were taken in the past 12 months, and the exponential up-slope is continuing.

The “photography singularity”* is an instance of an overall information explosion which is occurring here in the age of the the Internet and the Smartphone. It is not alone. A similar explosion is taking place in the realm of book publishing, where the growing popularity of self-published eBooks is producing some truly startling results. A while back, blogger Pat Bertram explained it in these terms:

300,000 books were published in the U.S. 2003.

411,422 books were published in the U.S. in 2007.

1,052,803 books were published in the U.S. 2009.

Approximately 3,000,000 books were published in the U.S. in 2011.

And . . . drum roll, please . . . in an online interview, Seth Godin suggests that 15,000, 000 books will be published in 2012.

15,000,000. Yikes.

Bertram is quoting Bowkers, the company that issues ISBN numbers, before he gets to Seth Godin’s prediction. I haven’t seen any official numbers for 2012 yet, but if the total was even half of what Godin predicted, that’s an astounding number.

But how significant is it, really? At Forbes, Nick Morgan offers the following analysis of the situation (relying on very different numbers from Bertram’s:

Here’s the problem with self-publishing: no one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Your book won’t stand out. Hilary Clinton’s will. Yours won’t.

Morgan’s assertion that any given reader’s book won’t stand out is refuted by a few exceptional cases — call them the Justin Biebers of the book publishing world — whose numbers appear to be growing.

In any case, not everyone is looking for Hilary-level success. Like the smartphones that are turning us all into photographers, digital publishing enables many more individual writers to be published authors than ever would have before. Just being a published author is a big deal for many; selling 250 copies would be icing on the cake. The traditional publishing industry is driven by harsh economics;  there is a set threshold of sales that must be reached in order to declare a book a success. But with the digital option you can publish a book that has a potential audience of only 10 readers and achieve something that the traditional book publishers have never come close to: 100% market saturation.

I mentioned recently how one of our recommended solutions, Boomwriter, provides a shared space for collaboration. Students write alternative versions of chapters of a book and then vote to decide which becomes the next official chapter. The finished product is published as an actual book, which usually has a fairly small readership — members of the class, their friends, their families. But the number of copies distributed doesn’t diminish the sense of accomplishment experienced by each of the authors.

Plus, with thousands of kids in hundreds of classrooms churning out book after book, there’s a very real real possibility that some of the finished works will have much broader appeal. This isn’t about having  1000 monkeys pounding on typewriters until they produce one of Shakespeare’s plays. As noted in my piece last week, having an audience seems to be a real factor in helping writers improve the quality of their work. And self-publishing helps works that otherwise would not have had the chance to find an audience. How long before a bestseller emerges from some 4th grade classroom in Iowa? How long before Hollywood is negotiating a three-picture deal with some middle-schoolers from Baltimore?

* The word “singularity” in Stross’s quote and as used by me here is a reference to the technological singularity, the hypothesis that we will soon see the emergence of a greater than human intelligence, changing the world in ways that are unpredictable and unimaginable. In common usage (disapproved of by some singularity purists) there are any number of smaller singularities occurring as we approach this big one — radical changes to society brought about by the sudden adoption of new technology. The “book singularity” is one such.

Social Hardware

Should Google Chromebooks  “rule the school? ” At Edsurge, Greg Klein lays out some persuasive reasons that they should.

Not a fan of the constraints inherent with desktop machines, Klein prefers laptops to tablets primarily because of the presence of mechanical keyboards (yes!), citing the Smarter Balanced recommendations. Of course, Chromebook is just one of many different varieties of laptop. What makes it the best choice?  Klein summarizes his reasons:

  • Affordability: Samsung’s $249 Chromebook is comparable on price alone with plenty of Windows laptops, and both beat Apple’s $999 MacBook Air. (Budget $279 for the extra, one-time $30 on the management console license.)
  • Deployability: You unbox, enroll, and get them into students’ hands in two minutes. (Kids can even do it themselves!) Mac OSX and Windows don’t even come close.
  • Usability: It runs the full modern web, in which you will likely find solutions to most any problem you face in the classroom, including all of the most popular adaptive online content. Managed Chromebooks may be the easiest to use when it comes to administering the new online Common Core Smarter Balanced assessments.
  • Supportability: They’re always up-to-date with limited-to-no manual intervention required by your tech department.

He notes the advantages of the Chrome management Console:

Through the console, you can push a personalized launchpad of web bookmarks or web apps to different students and classes. When kids log in to a managed Chromebook, they’re also then logged into their Google Drive, Calendar, Sites, Blogger, and websites, such as Khan Academy, that support Google single sign-on.

He also notes that the Google Drive productivity tools, while no match for Microsoft Office, are probably more age appropriate for most students than the Microsoft tools.

I agree wholeheartedly about the excessive bell-and-whistle-ization of Microsoft Office. In addition to being simpler, Google’s tools are designed for document sharing and collaboration. Collaboration isn’t second nature to the Google environment; it is the nature of the Google environment. Writely, the embryonic “web-word processor” that became Google Docs was originally touted as a way of sharing and co-creating word processor documents over the web. With Google Drive and features such as the single sign-on mentioned above, Google OS provides a true shared workspace.

For that reason, the Chromebook may be the most inherently social hardware platform for the classroom. Tablets and smartphones are social devices because they are designed to be nodes on a network; their purpose is to connect an individual (and that individual’s experiences) to another individual or to a group. A Chromebook, on the other hand, is more than just a discrete device that can be connected back to the network. It is, in a sense, a small instance of the entire network. Its purpose is to enable a user to carve out an individual set of experiences within a shared space.

From that perspective, education may be the perfect environment for the Chromebook. It might be a better fit for that market than any other, including business and consumer markets.