I’ve joined the “Sprint Beyond the Book” in Frankfurt for two main reasons. First, as a writer who’s been trying to push boundaries for years, I’m keen to learn more about where authoring, publishing and reading (all in the broadest sense) are heading as we evolve away from our traditional manufacturing models. Second, I’m sitting at a table with authors and thinkers I admire.
The word I find most useful in this context is “ecosystem.” As Charlie Stross put it earlier today, a basic function of a book is to convey ideas from an author’s brain to the brains of the readers. One of my goals here is to start to sort out the ecosystem(s) that will make that happen in years and decades to come.
Going “beyond the book” means asking all kinds of questions. I suspect the most important one is this: “In a digital age, what is a book?” But it’s only one of dozens we’ve considered already.
Novelists can answer the “what is a book” question more easily than other authors. Novelists write self-contained entities that start here and end there, and they usually create a single edition that doesn’t evolve beyond sequels. I’d imagine that historians are in similar positions, though they always know that new documents and other interpretations may alter the conclusions they’d reached.
The books I write – and especially the one I’m working on now – are much more difficult to pigeonhole. Much of what I write is about topics that change rapidly and dramatically. My first book, almost a decade old, is wildly out of date. My last book is less so only because I decided to play down the technologies that change so fast and concentrate on principles that remain more or less constant.
The lines blur even more when we think about media in a more generalized way. The EPUB format, for example, offers all kinds of ways to enhance and extend text. When does a video-laden book become a series of videos with text annotation? Do links turn books into web pages? If a reader can make choices about where a book goes next, is it a game?
I’m especially hoping to explore how we can turn some kinds of books into living documents that have at least these properties: a) great authoring tools to use all kinds of media, including social tools for collaboration with audiences; b) fast updating to reflect changing circumstances; c) better interaction and annotation for readers; and d) financial models to support them.
I also hope we can thrash out the ecosystem issue. The people and institutions in the ecosystem include authors at the center, as well as editors, designers, agents (literary and speaking) and many others. The traditional methods and institutions still work well for best-selling authors, but for almost no one else.
I’m tempted to say, let’s hack publishing. Too late: It’s been happening for years. But we’re in the early days, which means the experiments — in writing, reading, producing and selling — have only just begun.