Episode 18 – Curation with Michael Bhaskar

Curation by Michael BhaskarIn a world in which we’re bombarded with information and have choices available to us every waking moment, curation – ‘selecting and arranging to add value’ – is just as important as creation. Michael Bhaskar argues that it’s essentially a business model: you have a responsibility to your customers, your clients, your readers to select, organise and present material effectively.

He also gives some insights into his own secret weapons as a writer, juggling his books with a full-time job and a new baby: structure, coffee and Google Docs.

Alison Jones:      I’m here today with Michael Bhaskar, who’s a digital publishing supremo, founder of Canelo Press, and also a former colleague of mine at Macmillan. Welcome to the club, Michael.

Michael Bhaskar:              Hello, hi. Great to be here.

Alison Jones:      I know that you’ve had a bit of a sleepless night, haven’t you? You’ve got a new one in the house.

Michael Bhaskar:              I have, yes. I’ve got a two-week-old baby now living with us. It’s slightly different around here. I’m probably less rested than I’m accustomed to being, but just as invigorated.

Alison Jones:      You have coffee, right?

Michael Bhaskar:              I have coffee. Virtually all of the time, I have coffee.

Alison Jones:      I bet you do. If there’s any noises off, people, you know what it is, and congratulations.

Michael Bhaskar:              Yep, it will be the baby.

Alison Jones:      Wonderful. Before we get into curation, which is what I want to focus on today, because obviously your latest book is called Curation, I wanted to take the opportunity while I’ve got you to get your thoughts on publishing generally. I mean, you and I talk about the future of publishing all the time. What do you see as the most interesting, the most important trends specifically for business books, and for business authors?

Michael Bhaskar:              Well, I think the really interesting thing about business publishing is how it’s thriving. It’s doing incredibly well, especially in the export market. I used to work at another publisher that was very much focused on business books, and they found that they would do incredibly well in India, China, Hong Kong, Singapore; all across the Far East, really, with business books. The whole area is doing very, very well, but a lot of the material is also available online. That’s the real challenge for business book publishing, I think, is how does it keep asserting itself as something that you pay really good money for?

For example: there’s a book out about the block chain. The block chain is the technology that powers Bitcoin. It’s very interesting; it’s very exciting; everyone’s talking about it. If I want to find out about the block chain, I can go to any number of websites, blog posts, read newspaper articles, and read very good introductions. Why should I spend £14 on the book Block Chain Revolution about it?

That should be this massive challenge for business book publishing. Actually though, what I think we’re seeing is this sort of phenomenon of ‘reassuringly expensive’. People in business like to pay for the advice they’re getting. It’s not like, for example, cookery, where people pay for the object, but they’re not really paying for the recipes often. If you want a recipe, you just go online; you get it free, but then you buy a nice huge hardback to have in your kitchen, and impress your guests when they come round for a dinner party.

Business book publishing isn’t like that. People want to feel like they’re getting the very best quality advice, and they’re willing to pay a premium for it. You’ve got this potential challenge that all of the information for business book publishing is out there already, but actually, people want something more, and want something better. You couple that with these still-searching markets around the world. I think it’s looking very healthy. Now you throw in all of these unprecedented business challenges. Everything from new technologies to slowing growth, etcetera, etcetera. I think it means it’s really vibrant.

Alison Jones:      It’s so interesting, isn’t it? Everything you say resonates with me, and particularly because I came from reference books. Professional reference background, and we’ve always come out the other side. We had that sense of, “Oh, my goodness, nobody’s gonna buy books, ’cause it’s all on the Internet.” Then you get to the point where there’s so much on the Internet that you need the books to make sense of it, and to provide the stamp of authority on it. It’s a battle for attention now, isn’t it? Rather than a fight for content.

Michael Bhaskar:              It’s a complete battle for attention, but this is what I think we’ll discuss with the current book is that there’s just so much out there that people really feel the need for a very clear signal.

Alison Jones:      Let’s talk about curation, because I think you’re right. It’s at the absolute epicenter of the kind of massive existential dilemma that publishing finds itself in, you know? If there’s all that content out there, do we need publishers? Why do we need curation? What is it all about?

Michael Bhaskar:              To talk about it in the context of publishing just to start with; the figure that I’ve always come back to is that… every year there a million new books published in English. That is officially published books around the world. They have an ISBN. Every year, we are adding 1,000,000 books to the sum total of what there is to read. Of course, that’s compounding on all the books that are out there already.

Alison Jones:      And then of course there’s the dark universe, isn’t there? All the books that don’t have ISBNs, that are self-published on Amazon.

Michael Bhaskar:              Then there is the vast, vast demi-monde of books that are published unofficially, they don’t have an ISBN. No one know quite the number that is, but it will substantially increase on the million figure, maybe double it, maybe more. To the question, I always say to publishers is, what is the value in simply adding another book for another book’s sake, you know? The a millionth and one book is not necessarily what the world needs. What you and I need as readers is the exact right book for us. That I think is slightly starting to change the value equation in publishing from just producing more, to finding better from what we have for readers. That’s the nub of the whole idea of curation. The whole idea that I think, this is an important idea.

It is a buzzword; it does have these pretentious overtones, but in a world where we’re publishing a million new books a year, this idea of curating suggests that value has moved from just humping out more stuff. Specifically, in publishers, we have to see ourselves as curators, as choosers of books. Everything we publish has to have real meaning. We’re not just these kind of sausage factors for chucking out more and more product. What we’re about doing is saying there’s this huge amount of content out in the world, and we’re the people who will spend a huge amount of time and effort choosing that for readers.

Alison Jones:      I love what you imply there, as well, is that sense of matchmaking, almost. It’s finding the author; knowing the reader, and building the most effective and efficient link between them with the content that they need.

Michael Bhaskar:              Absolutely. There it is. That is the value, and it’s … a publisher is somebody who is, well, at least meant to be, an expert. That’s the thing that I keep coming back to it, curation. It’s not a random filtering. It’s really expert selection. That’s why it’s very valuable. I think what we’re seeing is we’re seeing that across the book world. For example: Waterstones now has got a much more curated feeling in the sense that a huge amount of power has been devolved to the shops on buying decisions. It used to be that things were driven centrally, and they were driven by promotions. Now, Waterstones has become a much more curated space in that individual booksellers are empowered to choose what goes where in their shops; what books they buy.

I think it’s probably too early to say that we’re seeing a renaissance in independent book selling, but I think it’s certainly the case that independent book shops that are surviving and thriving are the ones that have very carefully curated selections. Throughout the world of books, and I think what we’re seeing is, is we have this massive production on the one side, and then we have all of these different kind of curators from editors in publishing and print to booksellers, from you and I, who curate our reading in the sense that we choose what we read very carefully, and then we might recommend it to friends, and so on. All of these different mechanisms for managing that huge bundle of books. It does change where the value lies. A book shop isn’t really a means of getting a book into a reader’s hands anymore. You can go on Amazon and order any book, anywhere. Book shops used to be about inventory. They’re not. Now they’re about what books are faced out on the table in the front? That’s where their value lies.

Alison Jones:      I love those things that they have in Waterstones: ‘What we’re reading…’

Michael Bhaskar:              Exactly.

Alison Jones:      It’s that human connection, isn’t it?

Michael Bhaskar:              Yeah. It’s incredibly interesting. That’s what people want. The truth is, if I need to get a book, I can get any book at any time. I don’t have to go into my local Waterstones, but I frequently do, just ’cause I love browsing the tables and seeing what’s there.

Alison Jones:      And we’re book people. We just like smelling books, really, don’t we?

Michael Bhaskar:              Yes, book people to our core.

Alison Jones:      I love that point you’re making in your book about the importance of curation for business more generally. Obviously, I’m up there with you in the sense of curation as a publishing concept, but I was really interested in the way that you … you pulled that further; curation as a business model. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Michael Bhaskar:              Well, I think this is the central argument of the book. I think it’s worth saying a couple of things in background to preface it. It feels odd to say that, because curation has its roots in the museum world; in the art world. It’s only in the past perhaps 20 years or so that we’ve got this wide use of curation. It’s worth saying that traditional curators, in art galleries, and museums, they really hate the fact that the word has travelled. They resent it. They think, “Oh my God, you’re really devaluing our professional practice. I always say two things to them. I say: “One, unfortunately, in the English language, words do change their meaning, and they do evolve, and, you know…”

Alison Jones:      Deal with it!

Michael Bhaskar:              “you can’t legislate the meaning. If people start using curation in this way, which they do, then it’s already too late.” Second, I say: “Actually, you know, I think this is quite exciting. Curation used to be this little niche. Now it’s this business trend that we’re seeing in all kinds of areas. And actually I think what that means is that these once fairly obscure practices in worlds like contemporary art now have this huge and wide relevance.” I say: “Hey guys, think that would be quite exciting and interesting.”

The word ‘curation’ started to take on all these new meanings. That started on the Internet. We started to see a lot of people talk about curating this, curating that. Then it became a wider concept. Why is it a business model? Well, I think, firstly, to look at what I think curation is. I define it very simply as selecting and arranging to add value. That’s it. I don’t think that’s the final word on it, but I think that’s a useful starting place for defining what we need when we talk about curation.

Alison Jones:      As opposed to creation.

Michael Bhaskar:              As opposed to creation, which is where we’re producing new stuff. Curation is where we’re dealing with the stuff we’ve created, essentially. The reason this is a business model is just that we have too much in almost every area of our lives. I know sometimes we feel that we don’t have too much, and there are a lot of people in the world who really don’t have too much. For those of us sitting here in the U.K., or similar countries, we’re absolutely overloaded in data at any one time. The world is producing something like … well, in the past two years, we’ve created more data than the rest of human history put together.

Alison Jones:      Mind boggling, isn’t it?

Michael Bhaskar:              It’s mind boggling. Mind boggling statistics. Another one, this is from an American neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin: he says that the average American is bombarded by the equivalent of 175 newspapers’ worth of information every day. Now, bear in mind that I once read that if you were a medieval peasant, you had the equivalent of The Sunday Times, was your total sum of information that you had … writing, and so on, in your life. Now we’re getting vast multiples of that every day. I don’t know whether that is true, but what’s certainly true is we have this total bombardment of data.

Alison Jones:      It certainly feels true, doesn’t it?

Michael Bhaskar:              It feels true, and it almost certainly is true. Everything from the adverts we see if we’re on the bus; to, there’s something like the 200 times a day we check our phone, etcetera, etcetera. All of the emails. It really does add up. I don’t think we’re even aware of it anymore. It’s not just data; it’s also, we saw with books, it’s our material products. We have this engine in our economy that is geared to producing more and more. At some point I think the value of just doing that has shifted to the value of selecting and arranging.

That’s why curation is a business model. I wouldn’t say that there are businesses that say, “I am a curator.” What happens is that curation is folded into other business models. For example: if you are Netflix, your business is supplying films to people, but in order to do that, you have to be a curator. They have thousands, hundreds of thousands, of different things on their site. By definition, they have to be selecting and arranging those things for people in order for people to find content. Yes, Netflix is in the business of supplying films to people, but it has to be in the business of curating those films, as well.

Another example would be, say, a shop called Eataly, which has been described as the supermarket of the future, and they’re enormously popular. They don’t have any in Britain yet, but they have them in Italy and New York; all around the world. What it is, is it’s a shop that sells Italian food, but every single item in it is exhaustively chosen. It really is the absolute best of what it can be, and you know, Italian cooking is incredibly complex because it’s incredibly regional, right down to different villages having different traditions, and different products. What Eataly does is work incredibly hard to choose the very best of that, and present it in a simple way. They are absolutely booming. You wouldn’t say, “Eataly’s business model is to curate things.” It’s business model is to sell food, but the critical part of that proposition is their curation.

Curation gets folded into business models in this incredibly complex over-saturated world that we have.

Alison Jones:      That’s really interesting, and I noticed that you didn’t use Apple as an example there. It’s-

Michael Bhaskar:              I do in the book indeed use Apple. For example: the App Store relies on curation, and, in fact, it relies on this constant battle of people trying to do little tricks to get more apps on there, and Apple trying to stop them; find new ways of curating. Apple, so of course, a great example because it’s recently been in the business of acquiring a lot of curators for Apple News and Apple Music; which are human beings, experts in the field. Zane Lowe Radio 1 DJ got hired by Apple to be a playlist creator on Apple Music. Apple is a great example. No one will say that this vast business worth half a trillion dollars has curation as its business model, but curation is folded into all the offering that it’s producing these days.

Alison Jones:      I think that’s been one of the biggest changes that I’ve seen with Apple over the last few years. It didn’t use to spend any attention on curation, and it made the user experience awful. It’s really got a grip on that recently.

Michael Bhaskar:              It has. In that respect it’s like most of the big tech companies that … perhaps didn’t thought like, this is something that’s easy, for a long time. They thought, “Oh, this is the kind of thing that we can throw a few engineers at, and we can solve.” Then rapidly realized, actually, it’s not that easy.

Another example that I think is a really good one is Spotify. I’ve had a Spotify subscription, well, for years and years. Almost since the beginning. For a long time it was bad, the curation. There wasn’t any. You just had 20,000,000 songs plus. I think it’s about 30,000,000 songs these days. There weren’t that many ways of navigating it. You really had to search for what you knew that you wanted to listen to. Now they have all of these playlist makers creating playlists. They have much better Discover sections; better Browse sections. It’s really interesting. They’ve invested hugely in it. They’ve re-engineered the whole Spotify interface because they realized that they couldn’t go on as it was. You cannot have a service where you have all of this information without a better thing, really.

The key point there is that what is very easy, or what simple to solve as a technological challenge, is search. Where we know what we want, technology can do that very well. Where we don’t even know what we want in the first place, that’s where you need curation. The more stuff that you have out there, the more there is that sense of: we’re not even sure exactly what we want in the first place.

Alison Jones:      Yes. It’s so true, isn’t it? We don’t know what we don’t know.

Michael Bhaskar:              Exactly. Really, this is something that all of the tech companies have confronted. The reason is, of course, is that if you think about what the Internet is, on one side of the fence, you have literally all the world’s data and information and media. On the other side, you have a pair of eyes and a brain.

You need to manage the process of all of that huge mess of stuff and one individual, and so you need all of these ways of filtering, of selecting, and so on. To do that, you need a mix of these algorithmic machine-driven curation to manage those vast data sets. Then, also, the human touch to produce things that we would find unexpected and interesting.

Alison Jones:      Brilliant. The idea of the two eyes and the brain – you’ve just described a reader in one sentence. Can I pull you to the other side of the book, and look at it from the writer’s perspective for a minute? As we’ve just unpacked here, there’s some really big ideas in your book. I’m interested to hear from you how that process of thinking, and articulating, and writing plays out for you. How do you turn your insights and your observations into words on the page?


Michael Bhaskar:              It’s always a long, difficult process, and I have a full-time job, as well. It’s always a bit of a struggle, but it’s also always great fun. I think it starts off with having a little idea, and then dwelling on it for quite awhile. I think with curation … I just finished my previous book, which was about publishing, and I noticed that everyone was using the word at conferences. I thought: “Hold on, why is everyone using this word? This is a bit ridiculous.” Then, the more I heard it, the more I started to think about it. The more I thought about it, the more I thought: “Well, there’s actually something interesting here. It’s not just people being ridiculously pretentious. Even when people don’t quite know what they’re talking about, there’s still something really good.”

I would always leave it for 6 months, 9 months, not work on it too hard, but just sort of go over the idea. Every time I’d read something about it, note it down. Then it would be about putting together a proposal; then writing out the structure multiple times. Basically, before anything, I have to get the structure absolutely sorted. At that point I do a lot of general research; read books and so on. That’s always quite an interesting phase; just to try to get the architecture of the book into place. Then probably leave it again for a little bit just to sort of settle in. Perhaps show it to a few people, and then get it settled, and then start work.

I always work in a very linear way. Chapter by chapter. I would usually say: “Right, you’ve got 2 months on this chapter.” Then I’ll take 6 weeks of those 2 months to do all the research. Do it in a very targeted way; know what I’m looking for, then take about 2 or 3 weeks, generally weekends, generally weekend mornings, to write it up. Always do everything in Google Docs so I can take notes wherever I am; always access it. Always have huge amounts of coffee to write.

On a first draft, the key thing… and this is, I think, the key thing for me is: just write. People faff around with writing, and want everything to be really good and perfect. The key thing is just to get words out. They’ll be days where I’ll say: “Right, I’m just going to write 4,000 words today.” You have to get on with it and do it. I often hear stories of professional writers putting out 500 words in a day, and I think, “Come on. Get on with it.” Then, you know, finish that chapter and move on. That’s really the process.

Alison Jones:                 It’s amazing how those constraints of a full-time job just focus the mind don’t they, when you have a limited amount of time you just have to crack on.

Michael Bhaskar:              You have to be very targeted in the research phase. I think in the early phase you have to luxuriate and take the time to let the ideas unfold, and to give yourself enough time to keep changing your mind about things; but then, once you’re actually in the writing, you have to be effective at knowing what it is you need to do. Otherwise, it becomes an impossible thing where you’ll never finish the book.

Alison Jones:      Absolutely. I love that. Such great advice. Thank you. For anybody who’s worked with me, I did not pay Michael to talk about proposal or structure or getting on with it…

Michael Bhaskar:              I find you can’t write unless you know where you’re going.

Alison Jones:      Right!

Michael Bhaskar:              That’s the trouble. If you’re happening to think about the structure, you simply can’t get the words out because you need to have the direction. Even if I’m writing a short blog post, I would still have to write out the structure of it before I started, simply because I just couldn’t do it. If I’ve got a structure, I could write all day, any day. Without a structure, I can’t even begin.

Alison Jones:      I think that’s awesome advice. I think you have got a structure. The danger, of course, is you start rambling and going completely off-course. It’s not helpful to the reader.

Michael Bhaskar:              It’s almost inevitable-

Alison Jones:      It’s going to happen. Brilliant. Fantastic, Michael! We’re almost out of time, and everybody I have on this show, I always invite them to recommend somebody that they think would make a good guest. Who do you think has something interesting to say about the business of business books, who would be good on this podcast?

Michael Bhaskar:              That’s a good question. There are lots of people, really, who I could say. In terms-

Alison Jones:      You’re worried about offending somebody, you know?

Michael Bhaskar:              No! I’m thinking of which way to go. I’m looking at a pile of books that is right next to me as I speak. There are 4 books, business books. I’ll just say them, ’cause they’re on my desk here. There’s Adam Grant’s Originals; it’s a brilliant business book. There’s a book called The Path, which is by a Harvard professor. It’s about Chinese philosophy, and how we can apply that to our lives and businesses. It’s done very well. Then there’s this book by Douglas Rushkoff, who’s this sort of digital thinker, and has written a lot of books. This book that I have here is called Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. It’s all about digital technology and inequality. His previous book is called Present Shock, and it’s one of the most original current affairs business books I’ve ever read. Then there’s a book called Strategy by Lawrence Friedman, which is a history of strategy. Any of those would be good.

On the other side, on the publishing side, my old boss Andrew Franklin, who runs and founded Profile Books and publishes lots of business books, is never less than incredibly opinionated and great fun, and would no doubt give you some incredible pearls of wisdom and other interesting things if you would speak to him.

Alison Jones:      That’s a great recommendation. Thank you. I love that your reading pile is so erudite. I have to tell, that within a year from now, you’re going to have Judy Donaldson at the top of that pile. It’s going to happen.

Michael Bhaskar:              I know, I know.

Alison Jones:      It’s all going to change! Thank you so much, Michael. Now, if people want to find out more about you, more about Canelo, more about curation, where should they go?

Michael Bhaskar:              Well, I think the best place to start would be my Twitter feed: @michaelbhaskar. Or my website: www.michaelbhaskar.com; or curationthebook.com. Or just put Curation into Amazon, and it’ll come up.

Alison Jones:      Awesome. Thank you so much, Michael. I seriously could’ve talked to you all day, but wonderful stuff there on curation generally, and that’s great thoughts for businesses coming out of that. Also, on books and writing, specifically. So, thank you.

Michael Bhaskar:              Thank you very much.


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