100: Live from New York: NEWS about swimming in spiritual Seas of Change

OurLent inspirational stories are over here. ON THIS PAGE you’ll find our daily ReadTheSpirit stories.
    This week, we’ve been reporting Live from New York. This is the first part of 3 stories. Here are: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

“We haven’t seen times like these in 500 years.”

That sentence opened our first ReadTheSpirit story less than five months ago.
    AND ALREADY, we’ve reached the Centennial mark — our 100th story on this page. That’s how fast media and new forms of spiritual connections are moving around the world. We are, indeed, in turbulent waters of revolutionary change in the way people form communities — but, as we’ve said all along:  The Good News is that, as people of faith, we are the people who know how to swim in these seas!

    Please, pay close attention to the words we use to talk about these so-close-to-the-heart issues.
    What we’re talking about is as big as the entire Earth (and wow that’s overwhelming) — but it’s also as intimate as: You and Me. Right now as you read these words, it’s just the 2 of us. You’re thinking about how these ideas may shape your life — and we’re eager to share what you’re thinking with others.
    At ReadTheSpirit, our vocation, our whole passion each morning, is sharing important spiritual voices that help all of us connect in larger, stronger, safer, more creatively inspired communities.
    And this whole concept of media-merged-with-evangelism is very much in tune with what smart voices are urging in New York City this week at the Tools of Change conference. No question, this is a secular, hard-headed, professional conference — although there was a fascinating presentation on Monday about what the Talmud’s format of text-and-commentary can teach media pioneers today. So, at least a few experts here are making concrete connections between faith and media.

      In fact, the biggest NEWS from NEW YORK on Monday was that publishing giant HarperCollins has decided to try a new-media strategy — involving a couple of spiritual stars like Neil Gaiman (at right) and Paul Coelho. HarperCollins has decided to give online access to “free” copies of their books.
    Or, well … sort of free copies … of, well, selected books.

    HOWEVER — as the conference unfolded on Monday, some of the commentary on HarperCollins’ dramatic move (which made headlines in the New York Times on Monday) — turned, well, fairly sour.

    Here’s what happened …
    About 600 media and publishing professionals, mainly from across the U.S., gathered at this Marriott conference center just off Times Square in New York City for Tools of Change. It’s only the second global conference like this to explore how new research and new media are rapidly reshaping traditional publishing. (ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile participated in the first Tools of Change conference last  year in California and our own founding principles are closely in line with what’s emerging.)
    As part of the first day of the New York conference, HarperCollins broke the news that they will begin giving away free copies of a small handful of books — which are available online right now. Here’s a link to HarperCollins’ homepage (over time, the home-page links to these free books may move, but the link works this week.)
    Neal Gaiman’s free book won’t be online for a while, because he’s added yet another wrinkle to the online connection with readers. On Gaiman’s Web site, he is describing this as a kind of “birthday gift” to his fans — and he is inviting his readers to vote for the book he will give away (at least for 1 pilot, month-long period). Here’s a link within his site to “The Birthday Thing,” an article in which he describes the voting process in more detail.

    THE WHOLE POINT of this sounds a lot like emerging evangelism vs. the church-marketing strategies from the ’80s that were all the rage for a while, but now are proving to be a close-to-bankrupt view of what faith and community are all about.

    An almost universally accepted “given” at Tools of Change is that traditional models of media are crumbling — and traditional media companies must change rapidly to adapt. We’ve written about the importance of these changes for people of faith from many points of view in recent months.
    This is the same message I heard at the Asia-Pacific Media Conference I attended in Thailand in January, where professionals from 23 countries gathered to talk about similar issues. By the millions, men and women are abandoning traditional newspapers, magazines and TV networks. As technology allows them to make their own media choices 24-7, they’re flocking to media-on-demand like YouTube and entirely new social connections from Facebook to cell-phone-generated messages and videos.

    Seth Godin (at left) is one of the popular new-media marketing gurus who spoke on Monday in New York. Godin is famous for a long string of best-sellers, most of them about the cutting-edge of marketing, which Goden turned around and self-marketed in innovative ways. Among his most successful experiments is giving away complete, free copies of his books online — which, in each case, fueled the successful sale of actual books.
    In one case, after giving away hundreds of thousands of free online copies, he priced hard-back copies of his books at $40 to make the point to skeptics that this is truly how great ideas can flow successfully in today’s culture. As it turned out, he was absolutely right. In a market that seemed to be already saturated with copies of his free books, these expensive $40 copies nevertheless racked up best-seller status!
    “Authors are really idea merchants,” Godin said. “Ideas that spread win. Free ideas spread faster than ideas you have to pay for. And when people really like the ideas — they spread them even farther.”

    Wait a moment at this point in today’s story!
    Are you seeing the obvious parallels here between the cutting edge of new media — and evangelism? Whatever your faith might be — you’re interested in building spiritual community. You may not use the term “evangelism,” but you share this yearning to be connected with other people who share your spiritual hopes and traditions.

    Now, in that light, re-read Godin’s words, perhaps with a little re-phrasing: As people of faith, we are really idea merchants. We’re sharing the idea of our faith. And: Ideas that spread win. That’s the story of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and so on down through the millennia.
    And: Free ideas spread faster than ideas you have to pay for.
    I know. I know. On that last line, we can have a very long discussion, can’t we? But, basically, the stories of our faith have spread far and wide, the freer the better, until our faith communities now circle the globe.
    And, finally: When people really like the ideas — they spread them even farther.
    That’s evangelism, whatever your faith tradition may be. That’s why those old church marketing concepts from the 1980s, which saw each church as a competitor in the marketplace with every other house of worship, may have helped drive up attendance for a while. But, in the long run, competition is bankrupt in the realm of faith.
    Faith is about connection, connection, connection — not competition.

    At ReadTheSpirit, we’re Seth Godin-style media evangelists. This is exactly what we did with our Interfaith Heroes project — and what we’re doing right now with Our Lent.

    So, why did Godin pointedly slam the HarperCollins announcement in his own talk to the conference on Monday?
    Because the HarperCollins strategy is, essentially, too little, too late, Godin argued.
    Check out this HarperCollins Browse-Inside page yourself and you’ll understand a little more about Godin’s criticism. The software HarperCollins is using to provide these new “free” books is similar to the software on Amazon and other web sites that invite us to virtually “flip pages” as if we are standing in a store deciding to buy a book. For quite a while now, HarperCollins has been inviting readers to sample books using this software.

    They’re fairly generous in some cases. You can read more than 50 pages of Isabel Allende’s exiting new version of the story, “Zorro,” for example.

    But this is an awkward system, at best.
    There are signs that it’s a bit beyond HarperCollins’ staff to maintain it all properly. Click on the C.S. Lewis link on the Browse Inside page — and, on Monday, a page of gibberish popped up, perhaps where a Lewis’ book was online for a while, then expired.
    That’s the second problem with the new “free” books. They’re available only for brief, pilot periods. We can only read them online, flipping the Browse Inside pages. The pages don’t line up well on many computer pages. The type often looks fuzzy.
    Even Coelho, when interviewed for the Times story on Monday, admitted that the online page flipping is so cumbersome that readers “are not going to go beyond 20 or 30 pages.”

    That’s not all. We can’t save these Browse Inside books, carry them around — or share them with friends — any of the fun things we love to do with real books.
    As Godin talked about the news from HarperCollins, he said wearily with sarcasm dripping from each word: “What a great idea.”
    Here’s the problem, he said: “We’re going to give ideas away for free –- except you can’t print them, you can’t download them and you can’t give them to your friends. Well, all the things that make this idea work -– they’re turning off.”

    Here at ReadTheSpirit, I would say: Hey, let’s not be too hard on HarperCollins. This is part of a vast publishing company that has to maintain huge bricks-and-mortar office buildings, a staff of thousands and a monthly overhead that would make any of us extremely hesitant about giving away anything!
    I do like Neil Gaiman’s idea of letting fans vote on their favorite book to share with readers online.
    And, I’m pleased to read that HarperCollins plans to cycle through various Paulo Coelho books, a month at a time, which gives potential readers a chance to sample many different titles from this complex and challenging writer.
   (Frankly, our recommendation of a starting point for first-time Coelho readers — because our readers have told us that they love this book — is “The Alchemist,” pictured with this story. Click on the cover or the title of “The Alchemist” to jump to our own virtual bookstore.)

    (P.S. HERE’s one final sign of the shrinkage of traditional news media. By Monday evening, as I was completing this story for Tuesday’s ReadTheSpirit — I could count on one hand the number of journalists who I spotted passing through the Press Room at Tools of Change. This conference is a vital “listening post” in the midst of global cultural change — yet few news operations have enough staffers to cover something like this. The Library Journal did show up. And Publishers Weekly had a staffer at TOC. NOTE: One long-time friend in journalism, Joe Grimm, is here in New York, too. CLICK HERE to read Joe Grimm’s report on Day 1, writing for a general audience of folks interested in media trends.)

    COME BACK TOMORROW for a very timely “Conversation With” Peter Wallace, the inspirational writer and media guru behind the popular Day1 web site and radio network. Day1 is essentially a celebration of great preaching.   

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK: Click on the Comment link at the end of the online version of our story. Or, Email me, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.

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