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.