The Change Agents: Jeff Gomez

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

The Change Agents is an occasional series spotlighting the work of of people inside Big Publishing who are confronting disruption with creativity, and helping their respective companies adapt, adjust, innovate, and reinvent. Read the anchor post here.

If you’re a publisher looking to innovate and adapt, it might help to employ people who are living examples of the innovation you’re seeking to foster. In other words, you might want to hire people like Jeff Gomez. Besides working as Vice President of Online Consumer Sales and Marketing at Penguin Group USA, Jeff Gomez is the author of the recently released iPad app, Beside Myself, an interactive novel that lets readers shuffle the novel’s contents, arrange them like an iTunes playlist, or follow one narrator around at a time–while navigating live links, fake websites, fully functioning email addresses to the characters, interactive menus, original photographs and music, integration with Facebook and Twitter, and more. In this brief interview, part of the occasional series, The Change Agents, Jeff talks about how writers must take the lead in innovation, how the publishing community might organize its thinking around born-digital narratives, and how to carry The Great Gatsby around in your heart. (UPDATE: In a fair bit of irony, shortly after doing this interview, Jeff Gomez left Big 6 Publishing to join a startup in San Francisco.)

Ashlock: You’ve worked at two of the Big Six publishers over the past few years. Tell us the other side of the Big-Publishing-Is-Doomed narrative: what do you think publishers are getting right?

Gomez: I think the Big Six publishers are in fact making a lot of smart moves: digitizing their backlists, simultaneously making frontlist titles available in electronic formats the same day as print, creating digital-first publications, and more. That being said, there are lots of questions around eBooks that have yet to be adequately answered—such as pricing, DRM, and numerous formats—but almost all of the Big Six publishers have experimented with aspects of these issues and remain open to experimenting with new business models and methods of delivery and consumption.

Ashlock: You mention that the promises of new technology are limitless, but we continue to default to containers–whether for print and paper or html. Do you see a curiosity and interest among your peers and colleagues to break out of the container way of thinking? Is it possible to do so in a company whose business model is based on selling a bunch of containers?

Gomez: If all you’re given to work with is Tupperware, it’s going to be hard not to be in thenew_screenshot_1-1 container business. So it’s up to writers to invent new forms, and then it’ll be up to publishers—if they wish to remain the gatekeepers of literary culture—to find a way to get them to the public.

Ashlock: You’ve stated publicly that Publishers need to start thinking about technology as a fundamental part of the book’s DNA (which is akin to our development mantra at Movable Type: “think digitally first; act digitally early”). How are you seeing this happening? Is there a project besides your own recent release Beside Myself that seems to get this right?

Gomez: We need to stop looking solely to publishers for innovation; it’s up to writers to forget about books and to think about technology as a fundamental part of a story. After all, it was James Joyce who came up with all of the stylistic inventions of Ulysses, not Sylvia Beach.

I think The Silent History is a really interesting recent example. It’s also a perfect candidate for a digital storytelling taxonomy since they call it a “literary product,” mainly becausethere’s not yet another term that makes sense. But “literary product” is way too bland and innocuous a description for what they’re going for. It also smacks of being a replacement or surrogate for the real thing, as if it were the literary equivalent of pink slime. What I also like is that it’s an original; it’s not an existing work that has bells and whistles added to it. Instead, the enhancements are an integral part of the story itself.

Ashlock: I also heard you call for what I would term a digital storytelling taxonomy (in your words “new language to identify, quantify, and criticize the next metamorphosis of the novel”), something that hasn’t been built yet. Can Publishers lead the effort to create this taxonomy? Do you see signs that they already are? If not, how can we begin?

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Gomez: This needs to come from a variety of sources: critics, writers, readers, etc. But the works have to come first; phrases like “rhythm and blues” and “abstract expressionism” were coined only when there was a need to define those new experiences. But there also has to be more than just a few disparate examples before we can create a true digital storytelling taxonomy; just because you have “Rock Around the Clock” doesn’t mean you have rock and roll.

Ashlock: What are your own reading habits? What percentage is print and digital? What devices?

Gomez: I still read almost all of my literary material via print, but all my news is read on a laptop or iPad. The reason for this is that news is ephemeral, whereas I have a deeper connection with novels or narrative non-fiction. However, that’s a personal connection that younger generations—who have no physical associations at all with information—won’t be likely to have. And, as long as they experience great works of art, it won’t make any difference; it’s far more important to carry the story of The Great Gatsby in your heart and your head than to merely carry it around under your arm.

<Click the tag The Change Agents to read all posts in this series.>


2 thoughts on “The Change Agents: Jeff Gomez

  1. Hilary Sierpinski

    Fascinating discussion, but I have to take issue with this idea that it is up to the writer “to forget about books and to think about technology as a fundamental part of a story” because some of us are, and are getting nowhere fast. I have been pitching a digital serial for middle-grade with cross-platform storytelling built into the project and the response, nearly across the board from agents, is that they can’t sell it. Now I realize that a lot of it may be agents not connecting with the concept or the writing, but at least three have asked to see the project again if I rewrite it as a stand-alone (shove it back in the container). As far as the cross-platform or transmedia elements, several agents have advised me that I am getting ahead of myself. My personal favorite was an agent telling me that he/she would consider taking a look at the project again when I finished it, which IMHO, completely disregards the impact of audience immersion and interactivity. I have spent three years building this storyworld. It isn’t lack of material.

    Yes, I’ve heard the arguments that middle grade readers are not there yet. Not only do I disagree with this assertion, and believe as was pointed out in the DBW Webcast The ABC’s of Kids and Ebooks, that middle grade remains an untapped market and an opportunity for publishers in the digital space, but even if it was true, considering how long it takes for a publisher to acquire and produce content, what exactly is everyone waiting for?

    It has been my very frustrating experience, that the “gatekeepers of literary culture” are not seeking the innovative, think-outside-the-container writers you say are needed.

  2. Pingback: Writer Unboxed » Author As Innovator: The Future of Publishing is Story, Not Technology


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