Thursday, December 3, 2009

What Publishing Needs Much More Of : Failure

The Twittersphere, or at least publishing's corner of it, has been chattering about Rick Moody's experiment with Twitter-fiction--an original story, "Some Contemporary Characters," that he wrote and posted in tweet-size increments over three days, commissioned by the innovative journal Electric Literature. I won't rehash the details of what happened (see accounts here   or here), but for various reasons the venture seems to have attracted a great deal of negative commentary on Twitter and elsewhere. Vroman's Bookstore, which joined the project by co-streaming the story, dropped out midway:  They reflect on the experience here, calling the project a "noble failure."  A blog post at Telereads asks,"Twitter a flop as a book promoter? Or just a failure with SOME books?"

Maybe the Moody project was a failure. If so, my reaction is: HOORAY! What we need in publishing today is much more failure. The one thing people in the industry can agree on is that the current methods of doing business are showing diminishing returns. The only way we're going to arrive at new methods is by trying dozens, scores, hundreds of new ways of reaching readers, building awareness, and ultimately selling content. Of course, some, probably most of these won't work, but it's through large-scale, repeated failure that we're going to find out what succeeds. As Clay Shirky puts it, "Failure is free, high-quality research, offering direct evidence of what works and what doesn't."

However, I would argue that "failure" is the wrong word to apply to Moody's Twitter story. In science, an experiment is only a failure if you don't learn something from it. Simply reading the comments on the Vroman's post one can see that a few basic tweaks  to how the story was presented (like adding hashtags) could have avoided many of the problems that bothered readers. Electric Literature can do it better next time. (And one commenter says they attracted thousands more followers thanks to the story, which is surely a success for them.) Twitter may not be a great new medium for fiction but it may yet be a great way to attract the interest of readers.

By the way, I personally thought "Some Contemporary Characters," as a story, was well worth reading-- intriguing, sometimes funny, and sometimes touching. Try reading it in its entirety in the @ElectricLit Twitter stream (and remember to read upward from the first post, dated 10:04 on November 30th). Maybe it wasn't a masterpiece, but I'd say Rick Moody is to be applauded, rather than criticized, for making the effort.

Someone asked Wayne Gretzky how he became the most prolific scorer in hockey, and he answered, "I figured it out. I missed a hundred percent of the shots I didn't take." 

(Photo from


Anonymous said...

The Great One (Mr. Gretzky) also famously succeeded by skating to where the puck was going to be, not where it was. Anticipation was everything.
—Douglas Hunter

Unknown said...

Experimentation never has failure. As we are learning at French Creek Press, Twitter publicity just hasn't worked for us. But the experiment has not failed. It gave us valuable insight into viral marketing that we wouldn't have if we didn't attempt the experiment in the first place.

DOT said...

Hooray for failure, indeed. How I agree with you. In times of ripeness, industries are happy to take risks; in times of uncertainties, they cling to the mountain of past achievement, like bad skiers, in the hope that what succeeded before will succeed again, forgetting what they cling to was built on risk.

Peter Ginna said...

Thanks to all for the comments. Shoshana, I'm glad to hear that you have found something positive in your experience with Twitter. As Doug Hunter knows, Twitter may not be so much a marketing tool as a place to make serendipitous connections (to find a puck where you weren't expecting it?). DOT, there's an interesting post by John Byrne on his blog about how hard it is for print media in particular to embrace online opportunities:

Gwen Hernandez said...

Thomas Edison once said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Something unexpected will come along and disrupt publishing as we know it, but not without those willing to fail in the effort.

Anonymous said...

"I missed %100 of the shots I didn't take"
-also Wayne Gretzky

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

OH said...

Perhaps it wasn't an ideal reading experience, but it's certainly not a failure. Electric Literature wanted to embrace Twitter and wanted to increase the size of their audience on Twitter.

They gained over 10,000 followers with this story. Success and publishing are also about reach, so I'd call this an imperfect success.

Peter Ginna said...

Gwen, that's a wonderful quote from Edison. Ben, "imperfect success" may be a nice way of putting it.

By the way, reading about Electric Literature led me on to Ben White's site,, which he was apparently too modest to mention in his comment. Anyone interested in the potential of Twitter-sized fiction should visit it, or follow the @nanoism Twitter stream. I have enjoyed reading whole stories told in 140 characters, like this one:

He wrote the poem out for her carefully and she folded it just as carefully and slid it under the short leg of the table.