Friday, September 6, 2013

I Hired a Book

I have an article up at Library Journal about startups that have been getting hired for reading ecosystem jobs over the past three years. The startups that I profile are GoodReads, Wattpad, Readmill, SIPX and Zolabooks.

This view of hiring companies for jobs comes from Clayton Christensen's concept of Milkshake Marketing, explained here.

Christensen describes the case of a fast food restaurant that wanted to improve sales of its milkshakes, but really didn't understand the job that consumers were hiring it for. Customer observations revealed that almost half of the milkshakes sold were to early morning customers who had long boring commutes; the milkshake was being hired to relieve boredom and postpone hunger.

Libraries too need to think about the jobs their users are hiring them to do. Sometimes it's just to relieve boredom or escape bad weather.

silo schematics
by Jerry Yeti
Over Labor Day weekend, I hired a book for a very specific job. I went to an actual bookstore and bought a book to occupy myself during a cross country flight from LAX to EWR, with a connection I was sure to miss in DFW. I chose Hugh Howey's Wool. Given the book's publishing history, you might think it perverse that I bought the print version. Wool was, for a long while, an ebook-only self-published series; Howey did a precedent-setting deal with Simon & Schuster for the print rights only. But consider the job I was hiring it to do: why would I buy an ebook that I couldn't read during the long waits on the runways? (My son had dibs on the window seat.)

Having spent the outbound trip coding new features for unglue.it, I needed a mental break, and Wool enveloped me in a completely absorbing self-contained world that did the job I hired it for quite nicely. Wool tells the story of the inhabitants of an isolated post-apocalyptic silo, built and supplied with technology from the year 2012. "IT" is the villain.

There was one continual distraction for me. My engineer's brain couldn't stop calculating the dimensions of the silo. The narrative made the silo seem large- after all it's the whole world for its inhabitants. But of necessity, it has to be compact. But how compact? Towards the end of the fifth part, I get some measurements: the bottom 8 floors are flooded, a depth of "70 to 80 feet". So 10 feet per level. That's pretty cramped!

Wool seems so relevant to our current environment, especially today's revelations about the extent of the NSA's decryption effort. Books have a way of doing jobs other than what you hired them for, just like the best employees. Just like libraries. Think about it.

Update 9/9: I purchased the DRM-free ebook package for Shift, the second book in the series. Which so far reveals that the silo tech is supposed to be from 2050 and that the top level is 10 meters, not feet.
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