Sending the Right Signals


What’s in a book? This is the question we ask, albeit unconsciously, before deciding to buy a physical book. We want to know that the book is worth the cover price, and the time we’re going to spend reading it. Of course, we can’t truly know in advance. But a book sends us signals—cover art, quotes from authors, number of pages—that we can use to guess at its content and quality.

What signals can and should digital books send? The answers matters, because the digital world is so competitive. Contrast these scenarios: arriving at the start of an article via a link on social media; looking at a book after picking it off a bookstore shelf. The latter is much more contemplative. And on social media, in fact almost everywhere on the Internet, we are used to encountering short chunks of text. So digital books don’t just have to compete with other digital books—they often have to compete with the rest of the Internet.

Here’s an aside that makes that point. I was chatting recently with a designer at the company where I work. She’s smart and loves to read, but she told me she almost never reads long articles. (In this context, “long” means anything over 2,000 words.) She said that she never knew if the investment in the story would be worth it. In other words, the long articles she was seeing weren’t signalling her correctly.

Of course, digital stories can borrow all the techniques used in print. They can and do come with cover art, endorsements, summaries, etc. But digital offers us an untold number of different ways of signalling quality. What are the other options? I don’t know the answer, but here are two ideas that I think are interesting:

A better version of Amazon’s “search inside the book” feature. It’s pretty horrible to use at present, but Amazon’s tool is great in that it allows readers to sample a large work, just as people will open a book and read a random page before deciding whether to buy it. What might a better version of this tool look like?

Make the structure visible. I often look at the chapter page of a book before starting it. I’m not even sure why—the page doesn’t usually tell me anything particularly useful. I guess it’s an attempt to gauge the contours of the mountain I’m about to climb. What might a digital contents page look like? There’s no need to replicate the print version. Could the contours of a book could be expressed graphically, for example?

Why I’m Here


Here’s an allegory that’s probably overused, but it came to me on the drive here today and I can’t shake it from my mind. A hurricane rips through a zoo and, in some magical way, tears the animals’ cages from the ground yet leaves the animals themselves unharmed. The storm subsides and quiet descends. The keepers are still hiding in a storm bunker somewhere. What do the animals do? Nothing. They stare at the wide open spaces in front of them, unsure of what to do with the possibilities that are now open to them.

I said it was overused because I’m sure I’ve seen it applied to other technologies. Still, I feel like it captures where we today with digital publishing. The physical and economic constraints of printed books were torn away by the internet around two decades ago. Yet we—writers, editors, publishers—have often spent the following years staring dumbly at the new digital spaces in front of us. Lately we’ve begun to take a few tentative steps out of our cages, but we’re still overwhelmed by the possibilities in front of us. So overwhelmed that—as Ed Finn put it—we spend most of our time recreating printed books on screens. Or doing something interesting but clumsy, like embedding a video into the middle of a story.

I’m here because I think we should be taking bigger steps, and I think that we can accelerate that process by sharing and critiquing ideas. I’m particularly interested in how we can make progress with long-form nonfiction. The genre that feels right for the digital age, with its emphasis on snackable packets of information. It’s also a genre that’s been hampered by the economics of print. It’s been squeezed into the back of magazines, in an often unhappy marriage with lightweight front-of-the-book material. And how many books are really long-form articles that have been puffed up by unnecessary repetition? Wouldn’t ideas reach more people if they were contained in a beautifully crafted essay rather than a 100,000-word book?

So what big steps might long-form writers and editors be taking? I think we can do some exciting things around the interaction between an author and her or his audience. The challenge is to make that interaction meaningful, to provide genuine value for those on both sides of the exchange. I also think there’s a huge discussion to be had about multimedia storytelling. These are both big topics, and work on them will stretch years ahead—but I’m excited about making progress on both here.