Competitive Annotation, and Bullwinkle


Thinking about how to bring more fun into reading, two thoughts:

First, dramatic readings: This isn’t a new idea. Hollywood actors did it nicely a few years ago:

And the professional speakers at National Public Radio did this exercise several years ago as well, with different reporters speaking different sections.

I find myself wondering how Bullwinkle might have rendered it…

Second, annotation. This feels more like work than play:


We could make it current, not historical:

declaration now

But I’m wondering if we could turn it into more of a sport.

What if we highlighted key phrases and words, and asked people to annotate or identify historical connections in competition with each other. I’m not sure what it would look like…working on a mock-up now.

Writers and Readers: Tools for Deeper Understanding


When I was working on We the Media (2004), I published an early outline in my blog. Then I published chapter drafts. I got incredibly useful feedback.

But when the book was published, I had no idea how people were using it. Did they stumble over certain passages? Did they skip entire sections? What was going on? I wish I knew.

I never did a second edition of that book (though I should have, mea culpa). If I had, I’d certainly have looked for a way to learn from the readers in much deeper ways than we do today.

As we ponder the future of books and reading, some of us are thinking about the emerging relationship between writers and readers, and how we can enhance that for both. I’m looking at it in this exercise from an author’s point of view—one author’s, of course, because writers have so many different styles and needs.

The features I want—many of which exist already, though not as part of standard authoring and publishing tools—include:

  • Collaboration with prospective readers as I work on a new book. I can do this easily now by creating a forum, wiki, Google Doc, blog post/comments, and any number of other ways.
  • Feedback. I can buy my book on Kindle and see what people have highlighted, or what they’ve written in the digital margins. But that’s just Kindle, and I want much more. I’d like to do semantic analysis on their notes, and get data on what they think matters, and why. I’d also want granular data showing how, in detail, people are reading the book. None of that is available, at least to the author, on any of the major platforms. (Others in this group will talk about how we can provide readers a vastly better, or at least different, experience.)
  • Corrections/additions. As I fix the current work and plan a new edition, I’d like to see, in context and in an easy to use format, the errors readers have spotted, as well as suggestions for improvements.
  • Conversation. Again, this is easy if I don’t mind creating a new space online, or using existing social media. Combining it with the above features in a more seamless way would have a fantastic value to me as an author.

These disparate features need to be part of a framework, not a monolithic product. They should be modular pieces we can fit together as part of the authoring/editing/publishing platform — and the reading platform. We need to have ways to reward the most active readers—perhaps by offering discounts or other benefits, including direct conversations (if they want them) with authors. And we need these features to be available not only as proprietary tools, but in open-source versions. If it’s a modular framework, with APIs, we can create a marketplace around the tool sets, too.

Audiences are members of communities in many genres. I see these features as enhancements not just to accuracy and thoroughness, but more fundamentally to enhancing the communities that are discussing these ideas.

For Nonfiction Writers, New Connections with Readers


Once, we manufactured books. The process—writing to editing to design to production to printing to shipping to selling—followed an Industrial Age model: create, manufacture, distribute.

That system is breaking down in the 21st Century. We still create, though increasingly we do it in a collaborative way. More important is what we do with what we create: We put it online; other people come and get it; and we all talk about it. The new model: create, make available, discuss.

by AJ Cann, via Flickr:

by AJ Cann, via Flickr:

For authors of all kinds, the new system offers incredible new opportunities and challenges. For readers, there’s so much more to choose from, and sometimes a deeper connection to the authors.

I’m convinced, based on my own work, that the opportunities for nonfiction writers vastly outweigh the challenges. The keys are conversation and reputation.

When I was working on my  first book, We the Media (2004), I’d already learned from blogging that conversation with my audience—I was a newspaper columnist at the time—was improving my work. So I published the outline and chapter drafts on my blog. The feedback was amazing, and the result was a much better book.

A decade ago this summer, the book became available, into bookstores and on the Internet. We published it under a Creative Commons license that allowed anyone to download, read and share it for free. I opted for Creative Commons in large part to make a statement: that while I strongly believed (and still do) in copyright, I also felt strongly (and still do) that the American copyright system was broken—and that it was more important to me that people be able to read what I’d written than to attempt to wring every last penny out of the process.

What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that I was exploring some new boundaries of conversation with my audience, enhancing my own reputation, and ultimately ensuring that the book would make money. By ensuring that anyone who wanted to read the book could do so, I was marketing my ideas, not just a book. Inevitably, or at least to the extent that my ideas were credible, that boosted my reputation in my relatively small literary niche: the collision of media and technology. It definitely led to more speaking invitations, some of which were for pay. (Not coincidentally, I’m still getting royalty checks for that book, because it’s been free to download since the day it went into bookstores.)

Nonfiction authors no longer have to rely on publishers’ publicity departments, not that publicists have ever been all that effective in the first place. Marketing has always been part of the author’s job, even if that’s an uncomfortable role.

Since most authors don’t have mega-bucks marketing budgets, we market our work in mini ways, and hope that everything we do adds up to creating attention. Attention spurs conversation (and vice versa) and, assuming high-quality ideas and writing, boosts reputation, which feeds back into attention. All are related to sales of books and speaking gigs, of course, but also to other kinds of benefits that accrue from reputation, including (as in my own case) offers of other kinds of paid jobs.

Where should we have these conversations? I’m tempted to answer, “Everywhere we can create good ones”—but that feels wrong given the bad behavior of some of the companies that host these conversations, Facebook in particular. I realize I’m costing myself significant contact with my own audience by abstaining from that service, but I can’t abide its corporate policies, many of which have been designed to reduce people’s privacy in a world where we need more and more control over our data, not less. Moreover, we don’t really control what we post on Facebook (and Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram et al.) because they are platforms owned by third parties that have the right to remove our work at their discretion. Yes, participate in social networks. But I tell my students they should register their own domain names, and create blogs. Every author—every author—should do this, too, and create an online home base where they can define themselves, and which they own.

Over the years I’ve developed a few rules for my conversations. Here are a few:

  • Always answer email about your work. Even if someone is writing to tell you you’re an idiot, and explains why, you can make a fan out of a critic by paying attention. I learn more from people who think I’m wrong than from people who agree with me, after all. (And when you discover you’re wrong, say so.The only exception is pure abuse.
  • Use the social networks not just to promote, but also to engage. I don’t respond to every Twitter post with my @dangillmor username in it, but I do this enough to keep learning new things.
  • I like getting paid speaking gigs, but I often do them just for expenses if I have the time and the location and audience will be new. Kevin Kelly, a wonderful technology writer, does speaking gigs for people who’ll agree to buy copies of his books for the audience.
  • Join other people’s conversations. You don’t have to post everything you say only on your own site or in your own social media feed. Sometimes I reply to people with blog posts, but it’s a signal of respect to comment on other people’s work where they wrote it in the first place.
  • Above all, don’t do all the talking. The first rule of having a good conversation is to listen.

Why I’m Back In the Book Sprint…


The “Sprint Beyond the Book” has arrived on my turf—Silicon Valley—for a three-day session at Stanford University. I’m here to keep exploring.

As I wrote when I participated in the project last fall at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I’m here 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.

Iqra: Read by Swamibu / © Some rights reserved.

Publishing, or whatever we want to call the process of making books (whatever they are in this new era), is an ecosystem, not a a process or an industry. The creative process should be central to the production of media of all kinds, but in the traditional publishing world it was subsumed to the needs of the publishing companies. Now, it’s all about getting the creator’s ideas into the hands, and brains, of the people who are interested in the topic.

I’m especially glad that this week’s gathering is ranging beyond “authors” in the traditional sense of the word. In particular, people who focus on design are part of the mix—and we need them in a big way. Books have gone through centuries of design evolution, with the result we’d expect: a physical book, done right, is a pleasure to hold and to read.

Now that we’re moving everything into digital forms, we are all rethinking—among other things—a) what a book is; b) what kind of media it can include; c) what it should look like; d) how it should work interactively; and e) how we can ensure that at least some authors get paid for what they do.

Among the things I’m looking forward to discussing here is what we can include in the category of “book”—media of various kinds (video, games, etc.), conversations with audiences, and more—while focusing more on the “reader.” The words “book” and “reader” are in quotes because they feel inadequate to what we’re going to be doing, as creators and audiences, in coming years. Do we need new words? Probably not; we still “dial” phones even though rotary dials left the scene decades ago, and people create “films” that have never been within a mile of celluloid.

Like most authors I tend to write what interests me, figuring that if I care someone else will, too. As I work on a new project—a book (and more) about who controls technology and communications and how we can reverse what I consider a pernicious trend of centralization—I’ve been wondering what I can do to make it more useful, and compelling, to the people who are concerned about what’s happening. My last book included a WordPress installation (with lesson plans) for teachers. This one will include a MOOC, a massive open online course, that I hope will help people understand what’s at stake and do something about it.

Needless to say, I plan to do more listening here than than talking. Here we go.

Authors: Develop Communities, Not Just Audiences


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.

What Is a Book? Discuss


In the news sphere, there can be endless arguments over whether this person or that person is a journalist. It’s a pointless conversation, because the real question is: What is journalism? Edge cases are easy. The New York Times is journalism. The “BlahBlahBlog” isn’t. But it gets blurry fast, and that’s where the conversation gets interesting.

We’re starting to have the same discussion in the book world. Again, the edge cases are easy. Here’s a book:

Cover of Charlie Stross' book The Atrocity Archives


Charlie Stross’ novel comes in print — bound pages — and in several e-book formats. It’s a book, period.

Not all books in the traditional realm are based on text, of course, though I’m hard-pressed to name a book that doesn’t include at least some text. Graphic novels and the heavy oversized volumes of photography we put on our coffee tables are just as much books as Charlie’s novel or Moby-Dick. But just as a collection of blog posts isn’t a book, the latest installment in some comic series isn’t either (though we do call them comic books).

This is also a collection of bound pages. It’s not a book, at least not in the context I want to use here:



The little notebooks I carry around, and into which I write notes of various kinds based on ideas and conversations, isn’t meant to be seen by others. It doesn’t start here and end there. It’s random. Book? Nope.

What about this volume, called Between Page and Screen:

Cover of the book "Between Page and Screen"


Its authors call it “an augmented reality book of poems.” Here’s a video of how it works.

Come back when you’ve watched it.

Is this really a book? Or is it something else, even if part of it fits between two covers?

Now check out “The Elements” on the iPad.

I love it. Is it a book? Probably, but I’m not sure what I’d say if I had to give a yes or no answer.

Welcome to the blurry world of tomorrow’s books — blurry in precisely the same way that some other media forms have become. It’s all about digital technology, of course, which subsumes everything that existed before, and then extends it into new realms. Things bleed into each other: The New York Times posts excellently produced video online, and the BBC publishes text-based articles.

The experimentation in book publishing today is great to see. People are using technology to push out the boundaries. At some point, though, what they create no longer seems to fit into any category with historical antecedents.

I’ve asked any number of people in recent months what a book is. The answers have ranged about as widely as you’d expect. Several zeroed in on a fairly simple but powerful notion: a book starts here, holds your attention for a non-trivial period of time and ends there. Then again, so does a walk in the woods, or a film.

I suspect a book will be anything we decide to call one. Traditional books, after all, span an enormous range of presentation methods, not just topics and styles. Maybe we’re just adding new methods.

Words take on new meanings in any case. When was the last time you dialed a phone number by turning a little wheel on a landline telephone with a wire connected to a wall plug? But you knew what I meant by dialing.

I do worry that our shrinking attention spans will make traditional reading less and less relevant. But, ever optimistic, I’ll predict that books — whatever that means — do have a future, because we need them.

GitHub for Books?


When I started writing my first book in 2003, I’d been blogging for more than three years. I’d learned the value of a conversation with my readers. Most importantly, I’d absorbed the obvious truth that they knew more than I did. So, with the permission of my publisher, I posted chapter drafts on my blog. The result was a variety of comments and suggestions, some small and some major, that in the end helped us produce a much better book.

That process was an early stab at bringing the Internet’s widely collaborative potential to a process that had always been collaborative in its own way: authors working with editors. The notion of adding the audience to the process was, and remains, deeply appealing.

The tools of online collaboration are still relatively primitive, and often discouragingly awkward. But they’re improving, and I’m seeing glimmers of hope that in a few years we’ll have vastly more capable systems.

As Charlie Stross notes elsewhere in this book, Microsoft Word, ubiquitous today for authors and their editors, needs to be replaced. I rarely use it myself, but there are times when it’s the only way I can communicate with an editor. (I prefer to write in a plain text editor and then, if necessary, format in LibreOffice Writer; however, I find Writer even less stable than Word.)

Screenshot from Poetica editing softwareThe Track Changes feature in Word (and Writer) is, of course, a primary reason we all use it. Google Docs doesn’t offer this feature. It should. The closest thing I’ve found on the web for this kind of collaborative editing is Poetica, an early version of an editing tool that recreates much of the style – and I believe value – of traditional editing.

But we don’t do just text anymore. We “write” in mixed-media formats, incorporating charts, videos and more into our work, and e-book formats still aren’t supported as well as they should be. I’m still looking, for example, for a great EPUB-native editor. The open-source Sigil is a fine start, but also very much a work in progress.

Collaboration is going to get a lot more complex. The most famous Internet collaboration is the one almost everyone uses, at least as a reader: Wikipedia. Editing isn’t terribly difficult, though not nearly simple enough for true newbies. Even if it was, Wikipedia isn’t a book with an author’s voice, and isn’t meant to be. Yet it shows many of the ways forward, including the robust discussions in the background of the articles.

Wikipedia articles are also living documents, changing and evolving over time. Could books be like that?

They could in the editing process if we use powerful tools from the software world. I’m thinking here of GitHub, the version control system used by many software teams. What might a book look like created in GitHub? A team at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study has shown us with a dense (to non-mathematicians) volume called Homotopy Type Theory: Univalent Foundations of Mathematics. As noted in a story about the project, this was more than just an enjoyable project for some reasonably geeky folks: “If they’d tried to write this book by emailing each other files or using something like Dropbox, it would have been a complete mess…. But GitHub made it fun” (McMillan).

At least one writer (with programming skills) is working on a project to make this kind of collaboration easier than it is with GitHub. It’s called PenFlip, and described as “GitHub for Writers.” I’m signing up for the beta.

If books are to become living documents after their original publication – and I believe they should in many cases – we have another major hurdle: the book-numbering system called ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, a unique identifier created for commercial purposes. But the Library of Congress insists that any significant change to a book requires a new ISBN number – and that system is controlled by a single company that charges extortionate rates for individual authors.

There’s actually a good reason for this. If we cite a passage from a book, we need to know what version of the book we’re citing, not just what page (or URL if it’s posted online). Wikipedia archives every edit made to an article, and you can cite any version of the article you choose.

It will get complex, fast, to apply this notion to books. But in an era where some books can and should evolve, we should try. We should hack ISBNs, with or without the Library of Congress’ help (preferably with), and create a system that lets us constantly update our e-books and print-to-order physical books in a way that doesn’t break citations even as it gives readers the most current versions.

An Author-Centric Ecosystem


A new production and financial ecosystem is emerging in book publishing, and it’s no longer centered on the publisher. The new ecosystem, more than ever, is author-centric.

Consider the people and institutions involved in a nonfiction author’s career. They include a literary agent, editor, publisher, publicist, speaking agent and more. They work to help create and promote various products that derive from the author’s ideas and writing: books, speaking/consulting gigs, websites and consulting, among other things. These produce different revenue streams, in distinct silos, and they oblige the author to make a variety of separate deals.

Graph of financial deals between authors and a variety of others

Graph of financial deals between authors and a variety of others

The relationships get complicated fast.

A graph depicting relationships between authors and other publishing stakeholders

It’s an inefficient system, and needs updating to reflect today’s realities.

What realities? For one thing, most authors should regard their books as elements of a larger career. For me, books are at least as much about promoting ideas that have made me more interesting, hence more valuable, as a speaker, teacher and short-form writer. Speaking/consulting agents and managers regard books as excellent calling cards for their clients.

How can we align these interests more efficiently? Other creative businesses have tried, with varying success. The music industry’s “360″ deals of recent years have been one of the more notable attempts. In this model, a company (usually a record label) provides all management – including booking and promoting tours, not just recording and selling music – in return for percentage of all revenues the artist generates in record sales, live shows and ancillary sales. As The New York Times reported in 2007:

Like many innovations, these deals were born of desperation; after experiencing the financial havoc unleashed by years of slipping CD sales, music companies started viewing the ancillary income from artists as a potential new source of cash. After all, the thinking went, labels invest the most in the risky and expensive process of developing talent, so why shouldn’t they get a bigger share of the talent’s success?

Critics of this approach called the advantages for musicians dubious at best. Why cede even more control to an industry that has demonstrated vastly more concern for its own bottom line than its artists?

What should the new ecosystem look like? It’s not this:

Graph depicting a situation in which authors' books do not relate to their other activities

It’s this:

A graph depicting how ideas authors develop in books feed into their other activities

The publishing industry has made forays into this field in small ways. Many publishers have in-house speakers bureaus for their authors, but this isn’t the publishers’ specialty, raising questions about the value of the exercise.

I’m proposing new kinds of business arrangements where everyone involved in this collaborates and takes risks. Everyone needs an incentive to make the overall project a success. Each party should get a cut of all revenues, but at a lower percentage than they do today for their single slice. Done right, if everyone’s helping to promote the author’s career, there should be a bigger pie.

Authors may decide to take more control themselves. They may farm out the overall management to a single person or firm. Among others in the current system, agents (literary and speaking) will have to rethink their roles.

We’ll see new kinds of business arrangements and contracts, where all participants see value in helping the other parts of the project. (If some of them say, “Aha, free money,” this won’t work.) We’ll need to see lots of experiments, many different kinds of deals. Some will fail despite the best efforts of all concerned, but that’s the nature of trying new things.

Above all, changing the ecosystem will require a willingness to experiment – and a decision by authors to take more control of their own lives.

What Are You Reading? Reading and Reputation


In the legacy publishing world, an oligopoly of gatekeepers decided what books would be available. Publishers chose which authors deserved attention. Reviewers, librarians and bookstores winnowed the field further. (If you could get Oprah Winfrey to recommend a book, its future was golden.) The system assured a certain level of quality at the top of the ladder. But discovery, apart from recommendations from friends and colleagues, was largely a top-down method.

Reputation was integral to that system. Publishers put their own reputations on the line by choosing their authors. Similarly, we learned to trust reviewers and their organizations, or not. And when our local bookstore owner recommended a book we hated, we were much less likely to take his word in the future.

The digital revolution hasn’t done away with the top-down recommendation model, even though news organizations have dumped book reviews, traditional bookstores are disappearing and the big publishing companies focus as much as possible on books they already know will sell. The most important recommender today may be Amazon*, which makes some corporate editorial judgments but mostly suggests books based on what “people like you” buy according to complex and proprietary algorithms.

Those highly customized online recommendations, in a variety of media formats such as video (Netflix) and audio (Spotify), suffer from their own imprecision. Sometimes the results are utterly laughable. They can often be amazingly right. They are based on deep dives into data, and over time the recommendations become more refined as we use them. But they rely much more on correlation than reputation.

In a system where readers’ choices are part of the formula, their own reputations can and should carry more weight. Some of those readers are our social media contacts. Others are bloggers whose work we’ve come to admire. They are part of an edge-in rather than top-down recommendation engine where readers make more or less explicit choices about who to trust. This is how I find much of the news I read (listen to/watch/etc.), but much less so when it comes to books.

That will change in coming years as we combine human and machine intelligence in more sophisticated ways. Here’s an extremely simple example: Suppose I could designate three people whose work I trust in a specific arena to tell me what they’re reading – as well as any three people each of them recommends in that arena. That would aggregate expertise and recommendations in ways I can’t easily do today. Someone will build a big business by creating better reputation-based tools for discovery.

How can we avoid finding out mostly (or only) about books we’re predisposed to liking, and thereby missing out on books we didn’t know we’d enjoy? I worry about the fact that Amazon tailors recommendations based on what it thinks I want. One of the joys of traditional bookstores is serendipity: the discovery of a nearby volume that I browse through and then decide to buy. This isn’t entirely random; the bookstore manager decided what books to put on the shelves, and a clever jacket design can entice me to check out a book I wouldn’t otherwise notice.

At some level we’ll need to create our own serendipity in the e-book era. This won’t be difficult, but we’ll probably need to do it more consciously, by going outside our zones of comfort and the recommendations of people we trust. Discovery can’t be a passive act.

Readers and Anonymity


You can walk into a random bookstore, browse through the shelves, buy a book with cash, and take it home to read. No one but you and your family will know. You can visit a library and read to your heart’s content, and you’ll be the only one who knows.

When you buy a book with a credit card, in a store or online, you become part of an ecosystem that has data at its core. This means, as we move into a digital-first era, that you are giving up anonymity. We need to fix this.

Data has enormous value for everyone (including readers at times) in the emerging publishing ecosystem. As an author, I would love to know more about how my readers use what I write, including what passages they find difficult or boring, what words they look up in a dictionary and how they annotate. For publishers, sellers and middlemen, increasing amounts of data in all parts of the publishing process means vastly better understanding of supply chains, internal systems, sales, readers’ preferences and so much more. Readers can benefit from the data-ization of books, too; for example, I rather enjoy knowing how much time it will take me, at my current reading speed, to finish a Kindle book.

But readers’ privacy shouldn’t be just an artifact of an analog era. We may, in a general sense, have no objection to others knowing what we’re reading, or even how we’re reading it. But there are times when we want to keep such information to ourselves. This is just as true for books as for web searches; if you or someone you care about contracts a socially awkward virus, for example, you are wise to keep your research about that as closely held as possible. And it’s downright dangerous to hold politically unpopular views, or even read about them, in some societies. What you read may not be who you are, but you should always have the right to read what you want without fear of it being used against you.

We can’t trust the middlemen – old or new – with this information. They may sell or trade it. They may be forced by lawyers with subpoenas to hand it over to third parties. Governments will just collect it, in bulk, for analysis later. The need for anonymity in reading has never been greater.

One of the most obvious impediments to getting this right is digital rights management, or DRM, which at some levels is designed as a user-tracking system. But it’s far from the only one.  We need to create systems that restore anonymity and privacy. If they’re software-based, they can’t be bolted onto the platform after it’s built; they need to be part of the building process.

A few months ago I asked Richard Stallman, the free software leader who’s been thinking about these issues for a long time, for suggestions on how we could buy e-books (and movies, magazines, newspapers, etc.) anonymously. He had four off the top of his head:

1. Pay with a money order.  (You write a code on it and use the code to get your purchase.)

2. Buy them through bookstores (or other suitable stores) where you can pay cash.

3. If Paynearme manages to become usable for smaller companies, that would do the job.

4. Set up a system of digital cash for such payments.

The sooner the publishing world takes this seriously, the better. If we create only systems that abrogate our right to privacy, we are creating a society that breeds conformists, not free thinkers.

Why I’m Here – Dan Gillmor


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.