Download the PDF
The complete book from our first book sprint, Beyond the Book: The Future of Publishing.
Download the PDF
Download the PDF
The complete book from our first book sprint, Beyond the Book: The Future of Publishing.
Field Notes from the Future of Publishing
Well, we did it! Our mission was simple: write, edit, and publish a book in three days from the floor of the Frankfurt Book Fair. By the end of the third day we had more than twenty-five essays and a number of videos, brief interjections, excerpts, and other ancillary material to fill out a respectable volume.
To be honest, I knew we would: get a few professional writers lined up, ply them with lattes, lay down a few deadlines, and you will inevitably see results. The main surprise was my naïve assumption that I would have time to write alongside them rather than working with our excellent support team to keep the cameras rolling, the editorial engines churning, and our visitors to the booth nodding and smiling.
Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, why did we do it? What did we accomplish? The basic answer is that this was about performance. We wanted to take the distinctive energy, the imaginative space that writers require for creative production, and put it on display. I admit, unashamedly, that one of my inspirations for this exercise was the great, underappreciated Monty Python skit where novel-writing has become a national pastime that can fill a stadium with cheering fans. It’s a little silly, sure, but why don’t we celebrate writing like this?
So we put up a big clock and gave everyone status updates on the project. We had a film crew (there is no better way to signal a happening than to have someone record it). We staged the event as series of individual “sprints” where we would all brainstorm ideas around a particular question, turn to individual writing time punctuated by occasional queries and sardonic commentary, and then gather for a brief review and reflection period. And, in fact, by the end of three days our little group of collaborators did feel something like a team in a stadium, or maybe a newsroom: working hard together on a shared goal under tight constraints.
The effort to plan and execute this at a frantic site like the Frankfurt Book Fair was non-trivial. We spent hours discussing the layout of our space, the people we should invite, the larger goals and specific agenda items, all the way down to the optimal spacing of coffee breaks to allow for maximal productivity (key insight: make caffeine available all the time). Ultimately, the setting was crucial to creating a physical network effect: people stopped by our book…smart, connected people who were going to take this back to their executive boardrooms or their vast online communities.
This brings us back to the notion of performance. Somehow for all the openness of digital culture, the way we share our innermost thoughts, our half-formed ideas and streams of consciousness, writing itself has remained unchanged. Writers compose in private, even when communicating with millions in real-time. You don’t see novelists sitting down and letting people watch them crank out prose, with a few notable exceptions.
The gulf between writer and audience has many consequences. The absence of the artist at the heart of the literary work, the way in which all of those false starts, dead-ends and commodius vici of recirculation are elided in the final text, is a form of loneliness that many writers have struggled with. Ironically, we have made the written word – this deep expression of the self; the telepathic, mind-projecting transmission of thought and feeling from one brain to another – into a new barrier. I suspect this has been true for centuries – that writers like David Foster Wallace find fiction to be a source of redemption, a way out of the lonely Skinner box of human existence, but also an endless deferment of direct, live contact.
Turning writing and publishing into a live act also takes its inspiration from the performance of literary culture, the idea that extemporaneous discourse is an art in and of itself. So how do we create a space for live writing? Walter Ong (1982) called our transition into the space of contemporary letters the move from orality to literacy, noting that the explosive impact of the written word has involved losses as well as gains. The culture of auditing – privileging speech and listening as the primary formal and legal modes of communication – has given way to the culture of silent reading and, increasingly, silent writing. We lose something in these silences, as the spoken word can never be unsaid, according to the French literary theorist Roland Barthes (1975). Too often the silently written word can be silently erased, and the Internet’s textual cornucopia tempts us to forget all that Google does not know.
The notion of live writing and the performance of writing has interested poets and literary scholars for decades, leading to many experiments in creating more nuanced spaces on the page and in public readings for the performance of poetry and other literature. At its roots these modes of performance serve to construct our own identities as players on the cultural stage: Adam Smith more or less founded his entire theory of moral philosophy on the importance of knowing how to express your thoughts effectively on the fly in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). In our Frankfurt experiment we challenged ourselves to imagine how the process of writing itself could become more fluid and more open to observation.
This reflexivity creates a space for collective processing and authorship to take place as well, with writers responding to one another on the fly rather than engaging in a more traditional essay-response format. By organizing ourselves around a series of “sprints” where each writer discussed and then staked out a claim on a particular topic, we were able to work in concerted parallel, explicitly and implicitly weaving together the threads of ideas like Dan Gillmor’s notion of iterated, perpetual beta books and Charlie Stross’s nightmare of feral spam literature.
We could have conducted this experiment with quill and parchment (maybe the Declaration of Independence is a good precedent for writing as performance), but instead we chose to run our experiment online, using Intel’s Professional Grade E-Book platform and a WordPress blog.
Computational tools hold huge potential to create new forms of collaboration between authors, editors, publishers, and their audiences and we are only just beginning to imagine the possibilities. Crucially, they open up the practice of live writing, of shared composition, to become a space of creative performance. While our experiment in Frankfurt relied primarily on closed writing tools (Microsoft Word, the WordPress text editor and the like), I am fascinated by the potential for new modes of collective, live composition. Despite their individualized editorial interfaces, sites like Wikipedia and Reddit rapidly assemble collective narratives about world events as they unfold (the Boston Bombing, for example), creating a collaborative, performative composition space as pages are continually refreshed with new contributions. Likewise social media is rapidly becoming a tool for collective storytelling through hashtags and call-and-response narratives that can involve thousands of voices in the same emergent “story.”
In terms of composition, most digital publishing tools are still discrete, private booths into which we pour our words. They are deceptively simple in their front-end operations: users see some kind of text box, maybe some tag or categorization options to direct their conversations towards the right audience, and a big, enticing “submit” button. The real sophistication lies in the algorithms and sharing platforms that curate and transmit all that text to networks of readers. As it stands, most of these systems function as black boxes, specifically fortified against those who seek to “game the system.” All of the most interesting heavy lifting takes place behind the veil, so authors, readers, and texts are put in touch according to proprietary notions of serendipity.
Many of these processes – recommendation engines, social media feeds, discoverability – remain beyond the scope of what we set out to accomplish in Frankfurt. Nevertheless a major ambition of our Sprint Beyond the Book is to make this backend as visible as the front, to demonstrate how easy it is for publishers and authors to create digital versions of their work without resorting to expensive software. The platform we were using from Intel, the Professional Grade E-Book system (PGE), was intended to serve this role: a simple, transparent set of tools to ingest PDFs on one end and create a graceful digital book on the other.
Getting this done in practice was a reminder that every performance needs its gaffers, grips, technical directors, and stage managers. The PGE tool is a proof of concept at this stage, a working prototype of a platform that in the future could be more flexible (running on multiple computing platforms, not just Windows), more adaptable (ingesting multiple text formats in addition to PDF), and more supportive of the increasingly iterative nature of digital publishing, where a book might be published and republished many times as various pieces of its content are updated. In practice our workflow at Frankfurt was still radically simplified and accelerated from the traditional publishing model, with new iterations of our evolving text going online several times a day and a freshly formatted edition coming out roughly once a day. However, we could glimpse even greater efficiencies in the promise the PGE platform has for full commercial deployment: a system that allows anyone to create a high quality e-book using a single, simple production system.
The experiment in Frankfurt ultimately centered on a different kind of staging: not writing but publication itself as a performance. Bringing our authors together in public, creating the book out in the open, on the fly, is an homage to what I see as the core aesthetic of the publishing industry. Publishers are businesspeople, running companies that serve market needs and must turn a profit, but they are also cultural arbiters. They support writers (who are usually not businesspeople), they watch trends, and above all they define a certain kind of style. The world’s great publishing houses still have this, a sense of brand identity and cultural purpose that extends beyond a simple profit motive. This intangible aesthetic is its own form of performance, a long-running improvisation where books and market seasons are the individual episodes of a larger drama.
The book sprint in Frankfurt and our upcoming experiments at Arizona State University and Stanford University highlight this bigger picture. Expanding what Pierre Bourdieu called “habitus” in terms of individual actors in the drama of cultural systems (1972), we are using PGE and the framework of new digital platforms to ask how a new transparency might transform the relationships between publishers, readers, authors, and critics. We already see writers publishing drafts and readers responding, publishers crowdsourcing new books, and authorship collectives short-circuiting the old rules to bring new books to life. The processes of writing, reading, and publishing are already happening in tumultuous parallel – what happens when we bring them together into the same room, into the same conversation?
The Sprint Beyond the Book is complete! You can read the main text of our publication, Beyond the Book, on this website by using the links below. You can also download the Intel Labs PGE Reader to access the book with a fully-designed layout featuring video interviews, images and additional text crowdsourced from attendees at the Frankfurt Book Fair and participants around the world. We’ll be updating Beyond the Book with additional essays and other content soon, so check back frequently to experience the latest version of this living text.
The Sprint Beyond the Book was a great success: we wrote, edited and published a collaborative multimedia book exploring the future of reading, writing, editing and publishing in just 72 hours! We are extremely grateful to everyone who made this possible: our collaborators here on the ground and around the world. Thank you to our writers – Charlie Stross, Dan Gillmor, Jane Friedman, Brian David Johnson, Corey Pressman and Lee Konstantinou – to the many people who shared their thoughts in text and video contributions, to our colleagues from Intel and at ASU, and to the many supporters who stopped by to show their support at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Beyond the Book isn’t a finished product – it will continue to evolve. You can join the conversation on Twitter at the hashtag #beyondthebook. You can also contribute your ideas for future editions of Beyond the Book and our other experiments with the future of publishing by responding to our 7 big questions.
Beyond the Book
How will people read in the future?
How will people find new books to read in the future?
How will books be produced in the future, and who will produce them?
How will books be written and edited in the future?
How will the concept of the book evolve in the future?
What will the economics of authorship be in the future? In what new ways will authors engage with their readers?
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.
To many devoted readers, bookstores, and collectors, a book is good, but a signed book is best – and the absence of a title page to autograph is just another reason for purists to eschew those newfangled e-readers. A signed copy of a favorite book can be intensely meaningful to an avid fan. And in the world of rare-book collecting, something inscribed by the author can catapult a book’s price into the stratosphere.
But apparently Apple hopes that this charm of print publishing may have a digital equivalent after all.
The website Patently Apple recently posted the details of a proposed Apple e-book patent. (Purcher 2013; Dougherty 2013). The method would allow two e-readers to communicate, so that the publisher or the owner of the content could create a special autograph page in the reader’s device, ready to accept an image of the author’s autograph. The inscription could be transmitted when in the vicinity of an author at a book event or in a special online forum. Apple’s patent would also offer a certificate of authenticity and give readers the chance to add a photo or video of themselves with the author to the page.
There aren’t too many sacred cows left in publishing, and it’s unlikely that the industry will go to battle with Apple in defense of the real-world author autograph. Nevertheless, the commodification of this one tradition seems like it won’t offer Apple many rewards. Although the e-book market in the United States is showing signs of maturity, digital migration has leveled off (Owen 2013; Cader 2013), and it’s doubtful that e-book signing capabilities will be the carrot that attracts the last remaining print loyalists. That’s because an inky signature has a certain personal quality that won’t translate easily to digital.
And naturally, for Apple to roll out this new capability, they’d need to have authors on board.
David Rees, a comedian and the author of How to Sharpen Pencils (2012), says that he’d sign a reader’s e-book to be polite. But he thinks Apple’s patent sounded like a debasement of what an author’s signature is meant to be – the meeting of a reader and author in real space. “It sounds so sad,” he said “because they’re trying to figure out how to reproduce the physical authority that real books have. Next there will be a button for that musty old book smell.”
And how eager will bookstore proprietors – who usually host signings – be to accommodate the bells and whistles of a medium that has played a part in undermining their business?
According to Lacey Dunham, marketing director at Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose, it might depend on the retailer. If Amazon’s Kindle e-books were to take on this capability, the bookstore would have to have an internal conversation about whether they would allow Kindle e-books to be signed in their stores, she said. That’s because of the uniquely fraught relationship Amazon has with brick-and-mortar bookstores. But bookstores may be amenable to working with Apple, which has 20 percent of the U.S. e-book market (Reid 2013).
In the world of rare and antiquarian book-selling, the question goes beyond the author-fan relationship: A signed book can be immensely valuable. Yet according to Allan Stypek, rare-book appraiser and owner of Second Story Books in Washington, D.C, the idea of a signed e-book is artificial – nothing more than a facsimile. It just won’t have the historical or literary value that a physical signature has and would appeal only to those seeking to be completest about a particular author.
“I wouldn’t categorically refuse to handle an exclusive, signed e-book,” he said, “but it’s unlikely, unless I found it was a justifiable commodity in the market place.”
E-book retailers are exploring ways to let readers sell “used” e-books. But the truth is that you never really own a digital title – you’re more or less leasing it. These blurred lines have produced some horror stories, like Amazon disappearing an e-book copy of Orwell’s 1984 or when Apple was uncomfortable with the male nudity in a graphic novel of Ulysses (Stone 2009; Barrett 2010). And in its patent description, Apple doesn’t detail a means of transferring ownership of the autograph, ensuring that any attempt to resell an autographed e-book, in a market that barely exists anyway, will be doubly difficult.
But if you wait for hours to have Jhumpa Lahiri sign your copy of The Lowland (2013), wouldn’t you want your rights to her personal inscription to be a little more permanent? And what happens if you decide to dump your e-reader and change to a new device – does the autograph move with you? Or when Amazon “bricks” your Kindle for transgressing their terms and conditions, will you lose that meaningful signature, too?
By all means, e-retailers are free to experiment with additions to their still fledgling medium. As Dunham said, “A signed book is not a concept that [a bookstore] owns. There are lots of things that an e-retailer can do, but they cannot replicate everything that a bricks and mortar store does, it’s just not possible.”
And should e-retailers even want to?
Apple’s patent illustrates just how surprisingly unimaginative e-book and e-reader retailers have been over the past few years – attempting to replicate nearly every feature of a book’s physical incarnation, just a little more portably and with a little less permanence. There have been some strong examples of enhanced e-books, like Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword (2012), and there’s talk of creating what could be a new and unique form of storytelling. So far, though, e-retailers have displayed a strong inclination toward copying publishing’s more dusty traditions, but without the charm.
Most people that come in to have a book signed seek that brief relationship with the author, Dunham told me. “The decision readers will have to make in the end is what they will connect to the most – something signed, visible on their shelf or a signed copy they cannot see on their e-reader.”
Of course, Apple may never use its patent, but it might be better off if it left this one thing to the world of pen and paper. The future of digital publishing would be more exciting if they didn’t simply take all the traditions of print as their template, and tried something slightly more innovative. After all, if you really want his autograph, you can always just get Jonathan Franzen to sign the cold, hard plastic of your e-reader for posterity.
What is the future of publishing? How will people read in the future? How will people find new books to read in the future? How will books be produced in the future, and who will produce them? How will books be written and edited in the future? How will the concept of the book evolve in the future? What will the economics of authorship be in the future? In what new ways will authors engage with their readers?
These are all wonderful and engaging questions. But before we begin searching for examples of the future happening today, let’s start with a cautionary tale. The future is a tricky thing….
I Upset a Room Full of Journalists
It was my first time in Oslo, Norway and I was super excited. My father’s family actually comes from the city. I emailed Dad before I left and asked him to send me a list of the ancestors that lived there. I arrived on a cold clear day and took a walk around to get my bearings.
I had come to Oslo to talk about the future of entertainment and computing to a group of journalists, business leaders and students. I arrived a day early to prepare for the talk and take in a few sights. The harbor and downtown were lovely. The sun was out and the Norwegians were not shy about soaking up every little bit of it. They laid around like well-dressed seals on the steps and piers of the manicured harbor, sunning themselves and chatting. But the most exciting part of my trip was the cemetery.
Vår Frelsers graveyard is set in the middle of the city. Edvard Munch and Henrik Ibsen are both buried among its rolling hills. I crept around the gravestones with my father’s list of names in my hand, searching for ancestors. It was a bit haphazard. I didn’t really do my prep work, but it was exciting to wind my way through the lovely ground looking for familiar names. I found a few Johnsons and a few Johansens, but no exact matches.
The next day I rose bright-eyed and ready to meet the Norwegians. On stage I started by reading out the names of the ancestors that my father had given me, asking anyone who knew them to raise their hand. That slayed them. They loved it and laughed the entire time, but no luck – nobody raised their hand.
During the question and answer session, a tall, thin journalist with blond hair asked me, “What happens when the machines get too smart? Do you see a future where we humans might be at risk?”
I smiled and replied, “I’m an optimist. You see….”
“You’re an optimist?” the reported stopped me. He seemed shocked and began to write furiously.
“Yes,” I said. “The future isn’t an accident. I believe the future is made every day by the actions of people. And if that’s true, then why would we build a future that is bad? How about we build a future that is awesome?”
“But how can you be a futurist and an optimist?” another reporter asked. I had clearly hit a nerve.
“I’m an optimist because I choose to be an optimist,” I answered. “I believe you have to make a decision about your point of view, and I made the decision to be an optimist and to try to build the best future possible.” This turned out to be the most radical statement I’ve ever made as a futurist.
“But what about the rapid advance of technology?” the first journalist asked. “Don’t you think that things are moving so quickly that we can’t possibly keep control of the machines?”
“I don’t think technology is moving that fast,” I explained. “I live my life 10 to 15 years in the future. From that perspective, that rapid progression isn’t so drastic. The dirty little secret about the future is that it’s going to look a lot like today.” The place instantly became a madhouse.
“How can you say that the future is going to look a lot like today?” A third journalist stood up, recorder in hand. “You are a futurist. Do you really mean to say that the future will look like today?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. The look of the future doesn’t change all that much,” I started.
“But…” the third journalist tried to break in.
“The world around us doesn’t change that fast,” I kept going. I knew that I had a perfect example to make my point.
“Look: we are here in your lovely city. There are buildings in this city that are older than my entire country. Of course the future will look like today. And the reason is that people don’t want it to change that fast. If you woke up tomorrow and your entire world had been transformed into a science fiction future, you’d be living a nightmare.”
The room erupted into laughter. Two of the journalists sat down with smiles on their faces. The third still looked a little upset.
The Hardest Thing about Being a Futurist
The hardest thing about being a futurist and doing the serious work of futurecasting is something called metacognition. This is simply thinking about thinking. It’s what many people think makes us individuals, and what makes us human. But the hardest thing about my job is thinking about thinking about the future.
As we begin to think about the future of books, publishing, narrative and how we act and interact with each other, let’s be careful not to Jetson-ize our visions for the future too much. Let’s make sure to embrace the inexorable complexity of people and cultures. Can we hold two different futures in our heads – even if those visions are diametrically opposed to one another? Can we explore the extremes of technological progress while maintaining a rich historical perspective? If we can, then we’ll be able to map to the middle and explore the beauty and the contradictions of the future we will find ourselves inhabiting.
Here’s my caution: the future is going to look a lot like today. Our challenge is to be courageous to populate that future with amazing new experiences and stories that none of us could have imagined before today.
I bring two different perspectives to Sprint Beyond the Book. The first is the perspective of an author. My first novel, Pop Apocalypse (2009), is a near-future science fiction satire about a world where the Internet has been consumed by a new, closed platform called the mediasphere. As someone who likes to make fictional predictions, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of media.
I’m also a literary scholar. In my academic work, I’m interested in contemporary American writers, the rise of celebrity authors, and the radical transformations of Anglo-American trade publishing since 1960. I’ve been impressed by new literary scholarship such as Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (which is about the rise of creative writing programs) and by literary sociology such as John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture (which is about the social field of trade publishing). These books show how profoundly the literary field has changed over the last four decades. Publishers have been concentrated, often becoming subsidiaries of multinational media companies. Agents and retailers have gained market power, squeezing the bottom lines of publishing companies. Authors, most of whom make little to no money from their writing, have increasingly had to support themselves either through secondary income streams (such as talks) or by seeking patronage from institutions such as the university.
These transformations affect what authors do – and what they can’t do. Institutions are always legible on the page. As a fiction writer, I’m intimately aware of how these pressures migrate into my everyday practice. My ability to write, and the content of what I write, is hemmed in by the institutional supports, the community gathered around me, the assumptions editors bring to my manuscripts, the constraints of the current book market and broader economic and technological trends.
That’s why we need to reimagine (and transform) publishing as a field, not just as an industry, from production to distribution to consumption. We need to ensure that authors receive the support they need, and that readers have access to well-edited, high-quality writing. What are the forms of support that allow authors to survive and write well? What forms of mentorship and career development are possible today? Who creates and shapes reading publics? What direction do we want to move in?
These aren’t only academic questions, but also questions whose answers should guide what actions we take in making a better future. We shouldn’t simply submit to the market or to the allure of new technologies, but should make a new literary system that works for readers and writers.
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.
I’m Charlie Stross. I write for a living, but I’ve got a dirty little secret; I don’t understand books.
Books: a tool for conveying information — normally (but not exclusively) textual and pictorial information – from one person’s head to another’s. They’re not the only such tool, and they evolved iteratively from earlier forms. Clay or wax tablets, and bundles of leaves or tree bark, gave way to parchment scrolls and then, via Johannes Gutenberg, to bundles of “signatures” – big sheets of paper printed with text and pictures, folded and stitched and then cut along three edges – bound between leather or cloth or board covers. We’ve been refining the design and manufacture of these physical objects for hundreds of years.
Most recently, with the development of high capacity data storage media and low power/high resolution display panels, we’ve come up with machines that let us read and display text and graphics without needing the bulky, heavy lumps of bound paper. A 500 page hardback novel weighs roughly 650 grams; it contains up to 1MB of textual data. This was a remarkably compact form of information storage back in the day, but in the past couple of decades it has come to seem laughably restrictive. My iPad weighs the same as that hardback, but has roughly 64,000 times its data storage capacity – potentially enough to store an entire library. Moreover, digital data is searchable and (in principle) mechanically indexable. (Don’t mention this to a professional indexer, though, unless you enjoy being mocked; indexing is a highly skilled speciality, and one that is in danger of being destroyed by the reductionist assumptions of the software developers who build “just good enough” indexing tools into word processors.) Digression aside, what does it mean for the function of a book, the transfer of information from an author’s mind into a reader’s, when the book becomes an easily transferable chunk of data not bound to a physical medium?
We talk of publishing books, but there are many kinds of business that call themselves “publishing”. The trade fiction industry is structured and operates along radically different lines from peer-reviewed scientific journals, academic textbooks, dictionaries, map-makers, and graphic novels. All of these industries have the core function in common — transferring textual or graphical ideas between minds – and all of them traditionally ran on ink on paper printing, but the source material, editorial processes, marketing and distribution channels are so radically different as to be nearly unrecognizable. An innovation in production that disrupts and revolutionizes one publishing industry sector may be irrelevant, inapplicable, or laughable to another. They may even surface in an unrecognizable form: the academic paper public pre-print service provided by Arxiv.org bears an odd resemblance to some of the urban fantasy/media fanfic aggregator websites if you squint at it in the right light – the workflow of submitting an astrophysics paper to Arxiv.org is eerily similar to that for submitting a Harry Potter fanfic to fanfiction.net.
We think of authors, especially authors of fiction, as being creative monoliths who have total control over the cultural artifact they produce – the mechanism for transferring ideas from Head A into Head B – but that’s not actually the case. Some authors write using an amanuensis or secretary. Some authors collaborate. Their manuscripts are then edited – both substantially, by an editor who reviews the structure and content and suggests changes or even re-writes sections, and at the copy level, by a copy editor who enforces syntactic and grammatical consistency and corrects spelling errors. The author may not be responsible for the final title of their work; they are almost certainly not responsible for the cover or other marketing adjuncts. Authors work as part of a complex ecosystem, which exists to generate inputs compatible with the production pipeline that results in physical books.
Again, we need to ask: how does the shift to books-as-data affect the processes by which books are created? Are some specialities or workflows no longer needed? Are other, new techniques required? The transition from hot lead typesetting in the 1980s rendered human typesetters’ skills obsolete but opened up new roles in layout and design for the more forward-looking professionals in that sector (which, while heavily automated by Desktop Publishing [DTP] applications, nevertheless raised standards of book production quality across the board after the initial excesses of the “I’ve got a font so I’m going to use it!” school subsided). What is the equivalent of the hot metal typesetter to DTP transition, and what new skills and specialities is it going to generate?
I’ve been writing on this subject for most of an hour, and I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. Two decades ago, in 1993, I thought I pretty much understood what a book was; now, in 2013, I’m far less certain, because the book has acquired a strange, shimmering, protean nature. Books are changing. And I’m here to take a look at how and why, and what they might look like a couple of decades hence.
I am here because, as much as my career has revolved around the reading, writing and publishing of books, the book, as a content delivery mechanism (whether print or digital), has limitations. The book, in fact, has become very disappointing in comparison to other things I can learn, do and experience through other mediums. While the book has become a shadow of its former self partly because of how often the form has been exploited and overproduced for profit (for the slightest and most banal of ideas), mostly I just see it as a less compelling way— even a last resort — for sharing ideas. I would rather attend a conference, I would rather read and write online articles, I would rather interact on social media (the horror!).
It doesn’t have to be this way. I still thrill at reading a beautifully written passage that fundamentally shifts how I see myself and the world—something that reminds me that most of what I know and believe has in fact come from a lifetime of unforgettable long-form reading experiences. In fact, every one of my major life changes can be traced back to a very influential book.
But the basic physical form of a book, as well as its direct digital corollary, the e-book, has not been successfully integrated into the larger digital network we are all immersed in. I ponder this question every day: Does the book belong apart, or outside, of this network, for a focused and sustained reading experience that is quiet and solitary, demanding reflection? Or does it belong inside the stream? Or perhaps it exists in both places at once, and we shift modes based on need and desire.
When I attend writers’ conferences, I often tell writers to think beyond the book, to think instead of the story or message they wish to share, rather than focusing on a particular container. There has been so much aspirational focus on writing and publishing a book without consideration for the many other ways we can share ideas in the digital age. I am here to think more deeply about the purpose of the book (to question its very definition), and to explore its place in the ecosystem of ideas, communication and collaboration.
Barry Eisler writes terrific thrillers. He’s also one of the more forward-looking people in the publishing world. Several years ago he turned down a book deal from a traditional publisher and signed with Amazon. In this conversation, we discuss how it’s gone, and how publishing is changing, especially for authors.