Why I’m Here – Charlie Stross


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 1980sĀ 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.