A New Word for E-Book

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Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich

This piece originally appeared in the Future Tense department on Slate. Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

When’s the last time you sat down to read a book for several hours? Or even one hour? We are both card-carrying humanities scholars, but even we can barely scrape 15 minutes together for sustained engagement with a text. And yet humans are reading now more than ever when you think about the billions of hours we collectively spend on email, Facebook, Twitter, texting, sexting, and reading illicit things online. This is more than just information overload: When we change how we read, we are changing our brains. Researchers have proposed that we play out literary scenarios with mirror neurons and fire up complex, full-brain patterns of activity when asked to practice “close reading,” in contrast to the patterns associated with reading for pleasure (Keen 2006; Goldman 2012).

Neurological effects, different types of media, totally new reading habits – just a few reasons why e-reading is a fundamentally different experience than curling up with a dead-tree book. Print books are a highly refined technology that isn’t going anywhere soon, but there are ways in which the digital is superior to the old-fangled, and vice versa: They’re horses of different colors.

And yet publishers keep trying to recreate the print experience online, with the faux wood of the iOS bookstore and the fake page-turning animations on many e-readers. It’s time for that to end. We need to embrace digital reading as its own medium, not just a book under glass. That means imagining a new language for reading as an experience, starting with a new word to use instead of book.

It’s still no easy trick to figure out a name for this thing, though. Throughout the writing of this volume, we acted as ringmasters for a crack team of novelists, journalists, and publishers conducting a gonzo experiment in the future of publishing. Sprint Beyond the Book aimed to upend the publishing industry’s centuries-old model for book production. We wrote in public, on the crowded and noisy floor of the fair. We moved from concept to final product in just 72 hours. We crowdsourced the writing, featuring dozens of contributions collected through our website. We shot and embedded videos throughout. We’re even giving the thing away for free. But despite our pretensions to renegade chic, we couldn’t stop returning to the word book to talk about what we were building.

The fact is that every other name we came up with sounded boring or silly. Text was a strong early contender – after all, it’s used by humanities geeks like us to refer to everything from political speeches and Hungarian rap lyrics to recipes for gumbo. Sadly, it’s totally misleading: We’re hurtling toward a future in which reading means making decisions, watching videos, writing back, and getting lost in vast virtual spaces. Book system is too stodgy (as are reading system, platform, and service) and doesn’t even get rid of the word book. We gleefully entertained and discarded many bad ideas like graphies. Some of us liked plat, a shortening of platform that sounds like something out of a Golden Age science fiction story, but the more we said it, the more it sounded like a comic book sound effect for something gross.

Rather than grope forward, we decided to look back. With some trepidation, we would like to nominate codex, a word with a rich history that most of us don’t know anything about. Codex, derived from the Latin caudex (meaning “trunk of a tree”) even happens to contain the English word code, which will be central to the future of reading in a variety of ways. The things we’ll be reading in the future will not only involve a lot of programming; they’ll also require readers to decode complex, multilayered experiences and encode their own ideas as contributions in a variety of creative ways. Since standard printed books are technically codices, we propose (with significantly more trepidation) to distinguish our variant with one of those annoying midword capitals: codeX, to remind us that these new things involve experience, experimentation, expostulation…you know, all those X things.

This also works nicely because it reminds us of the X-Men and the X Games: We see the future of reading as an arena with the social dynamics of competition and play, scoring points and showing off, rather than a LeVar Burton rainbow of love and generosity. (Twitter works like this now, as a performance space where we’re all more or less openly vying for the award for “most clever person on the Internet this minute.”) Books have always been potent weapons in the cultural battlefield for prestige and distinction, and they won’t magically turn into utopian spaces anytime soon. At the risk of sounding too academic, we think the X highlights the jousting and (hopefully friendly) conflict inherent to digital reading.

From social reading platforms like Medium to digital pop-up books like 2012’s Between Page and Screen, we’re already building the future of reading, and there’s no going back. So let’s agree on a new term and stop pretending these utterly new ways of reading are anything like the singular and lovely experience of thumbing through a printed book.

 

Two Paths for the Future of the Author

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Let’s pretend you’re an author. What do you most want from life? More likely than not, you want readers to read what you create, and you want enough money to keep writing what you’d like to write (in relative comfort). In the future, who is going to read your books? Who is going to give you money to keep paying your rent? The most common answer, the author’s fantasy, is that she will earn money from the people who read her work.

You dream of living comfortably because you’re able to attract readers. This is more or less a fantasy of market justice. I’m sorry to report that reality bears little relation to this fantasy. The people who read you and the people who pay your bills are probably not going to be the same. It is exceedingly rare for an author to be able to generate enough of an income to survive from book sales. In almost every case, non-readers subsidize your writing.

This is true today, and will continue to be the case. Let’s take a look at two possible futures for the author which have their foundations in already existing institutions.

Literary Investors

My novel Pop Apocalypse imagines a future world in which aspiring celebrities can float their names on a reputation stock market. After your IPO, you capitalize on your potential, build your human brand and pay dividends to shareholders. There are primitive examples of systems like this that exist today. For example, the novelist Tao Lin sold shares of the profits of his novel Richard Yates to readers. The minor-league pitcher Randy Newsom sold shares of his future earnings. Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding sites promise to generalize these phenomena.

You may think of these sites as a means of forging a direct relationship to readers. But this is a mistaken view. Such sites are only indirectly related to whether you connect to readers. On these services, enthusiastic investors may pony up cash because they like a particular project. They may indeed want to read your book. But they may also have purely financial motivations. If the author is offering to share a portion of the book’s profits, the book itself is secondary. Investors may, as Ian Bogost suggests, have an almost purely imaginative relationship to the project in question. Bogost writes:

We don’t really want the stuff. We’re paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, not the experience of a realized product. For the pleasure of desiring it. For the experience of watching it succeed beyond expectations or to fail dramatically. Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment. It’s QVC for the Net set. And just like QVC, the products are usually less appealing than the excitement of learning about them for the first time and getting in early on the sale.

Your investors may want to be seen as the sort of person who supports a particular kind of literary project. They may be fans of your literary brand, not your books. So literary investing would become a kind of entertainment media. Admittedly, part of the symbolic fulfillment of a particular entertainment-investment might involve the author-brand completing her proposed book. Investors might also feel happier if their favorite author is a bestseller. Who doesn’t love a winner?

But whatever the case may be, you shouldn’t nurse the fantasy that you’re earning your keep because readers love – or even read – your books. Whether or not a literary investment fulfills its promise, its success is only incidental to its material realization.

State Subsidies

Norway offers another model for your literary future. As Wendy Griswold documents in her book of literary sociology, Regionalism and the Reading Class, Norway invests in its authors in a serious way. I outlined the dramatic scope of this investment in a post on Stanford’s Arcade blog:

Norway buys 1000 copies of every book a Norwegian author publishes. It provides a $19,000 annual subsidy to every author who is a member of the Authors’ Union. The Association of Bookstores is allowed to have a monopoly on the sale of books – but is prohibited by law from engaging in price competition. It requires, by law, that bookstores keep books in stock for two years regardless of sales. And it exempts books from its very steep sales tax. Not surprisingly, Griswold finds, “Norwegians everywhere read, and they read a lot; Norway has one of the world’s highest reading rates.”

Under this system, authors receive generous support, literary culture thrives and readers presumably have a wide range of appealing books to buy on the market. Which is all for the good. As an author, I’d like to live in a country with a literary system that resembled Norway’s. Though you would be materially enriched if you lived under such a system, the relation between you and your readers is anything but pure or simple. You presumably receive your subsidy whether or not you are productive in a given year. You’re ultimately being paid by taxpayers, not readers. These taxpayers may or may not also be readers. At the top of the literary pyramid of success, you may earn substantially more than your allotted subsidy, or you may not.

The state presumably doesn’t subsidize authors because they love you as an individual author – sorry! – but rather because it reflects the priorities of the population. A people who choose to direct tax dollars toward authors presumably care about fostering a healthy and sustainable national literary culture. The goodness or badness of a particular author is beside the point. The health of the literary field as a whole is what is at stake. We may debate the desirability of such a system – the question of whether Norway’s system is optimal will require much more discussion – but the point is that your capacity to pay your rent and your readership is heavily mediated.

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What conclusions can we draw from juxtaposing these two models? First, the writer-reader relationship is never simple. You may think that you are fostering communities of loyal followers or readers, but you’re actually interacting through a much vaster set of mediating institutions. Someone educated your readers. Labor law shapes the amount of leisure time that your readers have to enjoy your books. The state may facilitate your bodily survival, either through the provision of social welfare benefits (like health care), through tax breaks and other subsidies or through other indirect means. When you put your wares on the market or make a promise to put your wares on the market, you may think you are forging a more direct connection to your readers. In fact, you are fostering the fantasies of readers, possible readers and others who may not read word you write.

Is this a depressing state of affairs? No, it’s just as it should be – and, moreover, just as it must be. The real question goes beyond the situation of the individual writer. The question is: What kind of literary system do you want to live in? What policies, institutions, and economic arrangements would foster the world you want to write in? If you believe you have some hand in determining the future of the book – if you believe that, working together, we can direct the Shape of Things to Come – then the real task ahead is to build this better, alternate world. You’ll have to become a writer of something like political science fiction.

Authors: Develop Communities, Not Just Audiences

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In 2008 Kevin Kelly, author and former editor of Wired magazine, posted an incisive and influential essay, “1,000 True Fans.” He noted that the “long tail” in media is great for the aggregators (Google, Amazon, etc.) and the general public, but a problem for artists who weren’t stars. He wrote:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

I’d experienced this several decades earlier, when I spent seven years playing music for a living. My band had the kinds of fans Kevin describes here. We played mostly around New England, and almost no matter where we appeared, at least a few of them would show up. They were, for us, much more than a friendly audience. They were friends and part of a community.

Later, as a journalist practicing my trade relatively early in in the digital age, I discovered something else: My readers knew more than I did. This was blindingly obvious in retrospect, if not at the time. Not only did they know things I didn’t, but they could easily let me know via online communications.

When a blog software pioneer, Dave Winer, launched one of the first blogging platforms in 1999, I jumped aboard. It became an essential part of my newspaper column at Silicon Valley’s San Jose Mercury News and the comments became a vital part of the conversations I was having with my readers.

As noted elsewhere in this e-book, I used the blog to post chapter drafts of my first book. The suggestions from readers were amazingly helpful, and the book was vastly better as a result.

Since then, our ability as authors to interact with our audiences has only grown — and I’m more convinced than ever that we need to move past the word “audience” and think about “users” and “community” in this context.

My more recent book, Mediactive, isn’t just a book. It’s also a toolkit for modern media literacy. I offer blog-based lesson plans for teachers and make everything available under a Creative Commons license to help spread my ideas on what I believe is an essential skill for the 21st Century. I also have great conversations in email, on Google+ and Twitter, and of course on my blogs, with people who want to talk about this.

Creating users and communities has meaning for an author’s bottom line as well. As crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and self-publishing tools of various kinds give artists ways to go around the traditional publishing industry cartel, authors can leverage their communities into support. We can reach our 1,000 fans much more easily, with less and less conversational and financial friction, than we ever could before.

A caution: Community development and management skills don’t come naturally to everyone. I failed badly at this in a digital news startup some years back and I don’t claim to be an expert now. But having a conversation isn’t a chore for me, and what I gain from it is more than worth the effort.

Where can we take conversation and community? For one thing, we can recognize that a single price point – a book’s list or street price – is an absurdly limited view of the emerging book ecosystem. Some authors are experimenting with higher-priced special editions for what we might call their 250 Super Fans who not only buy everything but are happy to spend more for a special version. Or maybe there’s a premium-priced “dinner with the author” when he or she is visiting a new city.

One more caution: Conversations and communities take time. Authors have to ask themselves how much time they can afford to divert from their most essential job: writing and re-writing. If they neglect that, the rest won’t matter.

Google Should Buy the Entire Publishing Industry

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The creation of books is a cottage industry: solitary artisans or small teams labor away in private to produce eccentric products tailored to the recondite needs of an audience which may be tiny (in extreme cases of academic publishing, the reader community may number a couple of hundred, worldwide) and is in any event very small by mass media standards. Even a wildly successful global-scale bestseller is unlikely to rival the audience (much less the profitability) of a mid-ranking Hollywood movie. Publishing as an industry is only large because it is so prolific, with roughly 300,000 trade books published per year in the US (“Books published per country per year”); it may come as a surprise to realize that the global turnover of the publishing industry is around the $20 billion mark.

Moreover, much of this turnover is absorbed by the supply chain. Amazon alone has three times the turnover of the Big Five multinational publishing conglomerates (who account for 80% of the industry’s revenue). Publishing is, quite simply, not a very profitable industry sector – it’s labor-intensive, inefficient and the only reason we put up with it is (to paraphrase Winston Churchill) because all the alternatives are worse.

Part of the reason we put up with the system is because it gives authors (the “we” in this context) a mechanism for remuneration. Writing is hard brain-work. Worse, non-authors underestimate it. (Most people have the basic literacy skills to read a book, and also to construct a sentence or write a paragraph. Books are, to a first approximation, just lots of paragraphs strung together: “so why shouldn’t I write a novel?” thinks the lay reader. This ignores the fact that a novel is structurally different from a high school essay the way a wide-body airliner is structurally different from a balsa-wood toy glider: there’s a complexity angle that isn’t immediately obvious. But I digress.) So books and the labor that goes into making them are persistently undervalued.

The mechanism by which working authors currently earn a living is copyright licensing. We automatically own copyright – literally, the right to control copying – over material we have invented. If we’re successful, we license the right to make copies to a publisher, who sells copies to the general public and pays us a pro-rata share of their receipts (a royalty).

There’s an interesting paradox implicit in the copyright/royalty licensing paradigm, of course. The more expensive the product, the more money the author receives per copy – but the fewer the number of customers. Consumers are convinced that anyone can write a book: how hard can it be? So the idea of charging, say, $10,000 a copy for a novel strikes them as ludicrous, even if the work in question took the author years of hard work to produce. In economic theory, the term for the change in demand as the price of a product increases is the price elasticity of demand.

Books are problematic: it turns out that e-books in particular suffer a drastic drop in demand if the cover price exceeds a very low threshold – around $4.99 in the US market. This is considerably lower than the price of a mass market paperback, much less a hardcover: consumers, it would appear, value the information content of a book less highly than the physical object itself.

As an author I have two goals. I want to maximize my income, and I want to maximize my readership. But by seeking to maximize income per copy sold, I may inadvertently minimize the number of copies sold, i.e. minimize my readership. The two goals are not merely orthogonal; they may be in conflict.

Anyway, this brings me to an interesting thought experiment: what would be the consequences if a large internet corporation such as Google were to buy the entire publishing industry?

Bear in mind that Google or Apple have a sufficiently large cash pile that they could take out a majority stake in all of the Big Five – it would only take on the order of $10 billion. Also bear in mind that the paper publication side of these organizations could remain largely unaffected by this takeover, insofar as they could still be operated as profitable commercial business units. The focus of the takeover by Google would be on the electronic side of the industry. The purchaser would effectively have acquired the exclusive electronic rights to roughly 300,000 commercial-quality books per year in the US market space. They could provide free public access to these works in return for a royalty payment to authors based on a formula extrapolating from the known paper sales, or a flat fee per download; or they could even put the authors on payroll. The cost would be on the order of a few billion dollars per year – but the benefit would be a gigantic pool of high-quality content.

From an author’s point of view, the benefits should be obvious. Having your books given away free by FaceAppleGoogBook maximizes your potential readership, while retaining print royalties and some sort of licensing stipend from FaceAppleGoogBook should maintain your income stream. Win on both counts!

Such a buyout would amount to a wholesale shift to a promotion-supported model for book publishing. Google would presumably use free book downloads to drive targeted advertising and collect information about their users’ reading habits and interests. Apple might use the enormous free content pool as a lure for a shiny new proprietary iReader hardware device. Facebook could target the authors, wheedling them to pay for promotional placement in front of new readers. The real questions are: is there enough money in a new shiny iReader device or the AdWords market (indeed, the advertising industry as a whole) to support the publishing sector as a promotional loss-leader; and, would this get FaceAppleGoogBook something they don’t already have?

Perhaps we should ask why they haven’t done this already.

The dismal answer probably lies in the mare’s tale of contracts and licensing agreements and legal boilerplate that underpins the publishing industry. The 300,000 books/year figure points to 300,000 legal contracts per year. Contracts which in many cases ban advertising, or place bizarre constraints on licensing and sub-licensing and distribution through anomalous channels such as Edison wax cylinder reproduction rights and talking stuffed character toys. Untangling the e-publishing rights and renegotiating the right to distribute them for free in return for a flat payment would be a nightmare; only an algorithmic approach to massively parallel contract negotiation could succeed and such an exercise might strain even Google’s prodigious programming capabilities. And as an afterthought, why should FaceGoogleBook try to buy books so that they can advertise through them, when they can plaster advertisements all over the search pages that lead readers to the books, or the commerce sites that sell them?

Looks like my utopian future as a salaried Google employee churning out Creative Commons licensed, freely downloadable novels for my enthusiastic audience (enthusiastic because everything is suddenly free – in return for their eyeballs, of course) will have to wait.

The Idea of the Author Is Facing Extinction

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I spent more than ten years working at Writer’s Digest, a media brand that provides information, education and services to writers both new and established. In the span of those ten years, a lot happened. Most of the U.S. population got online, social media and Web 2.0 evolved and e-books took off.

Expectations for authors have changed dramatically. Perhaps we never lived in a world where a writer could just focus on his writing to the exclusion of all else, but certainly there was less to worry about if you were writing novels pre-Internet. Your publisher wasn’t asking you to tweet, be on Facebook, write blog posts, have a website or build a platform.

On the other hand, pre-Internet, an author had few options for making a living that didn’t involve working with a publisher. Today’s authors live with the burden and opportunity of being able to reach their readers directly, without anyone’s help. In fact, an author can make a full-time job out of marketing, promotion and audience development, waking up to find that, somewhere along the way, the writing became secondary. Steven Pressfield has talked about this phenomenon, what he calls the “shadow career.” He writes in Turning Pro, of people who get distracted by activities that lie outside of the work (in our case, the work of writing):

Instead of composing our symphony, we create a “shadow symphony,” of which we ourselves are the orchestra, the composer and the audience. Our life becomes a shadow drama, a shadow start-up company, a shadow philanthropic venture. […] The amateur is an egotist. He takes the material of his personal pain and uses it to draw attention to himself. He creates a “life,” a “character,” a “personality.”

There is a danger in the industry’s call to authors to build relationships with readers, to be responsive and engaged, to be in “conversation.” How big of a danger, however, totally depends on the values and goals of the writer. If the goal is sales and long-term readership growth, there might not be any harm at all. But if the activities impede the writer from pursuing his primary purpose (however that may be described or quantified), then we can see the call to engagement as seriously detrimental and distracting.

This has been the conclusion of many “literary” authors, or those people who see their purpose as producing art and meaning, something that goes beyond entertainment or “satisfying” the reader. Author Will Self said in an interview with The Guardian: “I don’t really write for readers. I think that’s a defining characteristic of being serious as a writer” (qtd. in Day, “Will Self”). What happens to such writers in the future of publishing, if it is defined or driven by author-reader interaction?

I’ve often tried to tell writers (of all stripes) that the Internet is the best thing to happen to the introvert. Before the Internet, an author would probably be put upon by a publisher to do tours, talks and other public appearances that can be time-consuming and draining. Post-Internet, the introverted author can decide exactly how, when and where they want to interact with the public – do it completely on their own terms. There’s a great deal of control and planning that one never used to have over marketing, promotion and networking activities. The Internet, in short, is a great blessing for introverts.

But that doesn’t really solve the problem of the author who has zero interest in putting on a show or being revealed. Another serious author, Benjamin Anastas, argued:

Distance is the writer’s friend. It’s nice to break out from your seclusion every now and then and give a reading to a room of actual people, or visit a college class that’s reading one of your books, or introduce yourself to someone on the subway who’s got his nose in your first novel. […] But for the most part the old adage holds true: You should never meet your heroes. And if your heroes are writers, you really don’t want to meet them. Writers are generally vain, and needy, and shut inside for most of the day listening to the voices in their head, so when they come out, their behavior can be erratic. […] Mystery plays a big role in our love of books, and by using social media to promote yourself, you’re only demystifying your work for everyone who follows you. And that makes you lose potential readers.

What is to come of the author who holds this philosophy? Does such a species survive? Does the future of publishing, which is becoming more and more focused on reader interaction, favor a very particular type author, one who is comfortable serving his customers? Or is there a class of readers out there who, just like the authors, prefer no interaction, and recognize the wisdom of never meeting your “heroes”? Perhaps a patronage system will evolve to support such authors and their art, if they can neither support themselves (through entrepreneurial activities) nor gain publisher support.

What nags at me, however, is that our culture’s idea and concept of authorship is destined to change. As Richard Nash pointed out in his essay “The Business of Literature,” the concept of the author is a fairly recent one, which was invented side by side with the printing press. The digital era may entail a new type of authorship, one that is built on resampling, remixing and collaboration. Authors may evolve to be leaders, moderators and synthesizers of information, rather than the dictator in control of it.

Bob Stein, at the Institute for the Future of the Book, has advised, “Go back and study […] what McLuhan called the shift to print, the place where an idea could be owned by a single person. One of McLuhan’s genius insights was his understanding of how the shift from an oral culture to one based on print gave rise to our modern notion of the individual as the originator and owner of particular ideas.” We are outgrowing the era where someone owns an idea, or, as Stein eloquently says, “If the printing press empowered the individual, the digital world empowers collaboration” (qtd. in Bustillos, “Wikipedia And The Death Of The Expert”).

Pay the Reader

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Online publishers have been struggling to modify for the online media the product-based,  reader-paid business models. This recompense model needs to be flipped on its head, so that humans are paid to think out loud, in the secure, trusted, selected, and recorded environment  of their choosing, either anonymously or for attribution (different pay scales for each). Publishers will license “cogniright” instead of copyright, in this instance, and cognactivity would include such online actions as:

  • generating original prose or commentary
  • footnoting: linking to related sites or publications to buttress one’s original thoughts
  • opinionating: endorsing or damning other publications
  • living out loud: publishing one’s online thought pat

This reader-paid model might best be first implemented in medical publishing, as the life and death impetus has a way of sharpening the business need. And truth and timeliness in publication is critical. Also, in STM or Tech publishing, we frequently see heuristic cycles  of defined content domains where authors who are also readers who are also authors. What’s missing is the business model that compensates readers (and editors) specifically for their online editorial and publishing duties. And when I say compensate I don’t mean only a one-time hourly or retainer fee, but an ongoing residual for contributing to and assuming responsibility for the validity of online content.

 

Authors and the allure of scarcity

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As we see scores of amateur authors invest enormous amounts of time and effort to build audiences through social media, perhaps we’ll see more successful authors withdraw from these activities completely. Chuck Palahniuk and Jeffrey Eugenides come to mind as examples of authors who are not nearly as reclusive as J.D. Salinger or elusive as Thomas Pynchon, but do strategically avoid overexposure.

I can imagine a future in which participation in or abstinence from social media becomes a generally agreed-upon marker of stature and cultural value. In a world where constant media exposure is almost obligatory, mannered obscurity might be the only way to really get noticed.

The question, of course, is whether these authors will need to use social media and similar platforms to become name brands in the first place. Maybe these media will be a tool exclusively for early-career or undiscovered authors, and once established, the online presence will gradually wither, then disappear entirely.