The Idea of the Author Is Facing Extinction


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”).

Book as Fluke: A Thought Experiment


What if the existence of books were a cosmic accident, not something irrevocably part of our evolution, not intrinsic to the human experience, but more or less the most profitable thing to be produced from a printing press, a function of commerce and retail and/or a function of religious or scholarly systems? What if the book perpetuated itself not out of necessity, but through a human desire for profits, ego inflation and prestige? Particularly when looking at contemporary attitudes toward the book, as Richard Nash discussed in his essay “The Business of Literature” (2013), books might be seen as culturally “important” partly because of a public relations campaign mounted by the father of spin, Edward Bernays:

“Where there are bookshelves,” [Bernays] reasoned, “there will be books.” So he got respected public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes.

There is so much mythology and self-important discussion surrounding books that we sometimes forget the book is a technology, so old a technology it has disappeared into the background. A book as set of bound, typeset pages has nothing in particular to do with the survival of storytelling, reading or writing. But the advent of the printing press and the advent of the book are so closely connected that we tie the benefits and importance of the printing press (cheap and quick distribution of information) to the benefits and importance of the book (the vessel carrying the information). Perhaps they are inseparable throughout much of their history, but now that we’re undergoing another paradigm shift – a new way of distributing information quickly and cheaply, through the Internet – one has to question whether the book, which is tied so closely to the advent of the printing press, will retain its meaning, relevance and utility in the digital age.

The great growth of reading and writing we’re now experiencing is connected to the Internet’s abundance of information and instant-publishing opportunities, not books. In fact, books have been mostly absent from the Internet (for reading and reference) because they’re closed off in separate universes, not often made available for search, and not as freely distributed, copied and subscribed to as other digital media. In Google’s attempts to bring books inside the fold of the Web, they have faced innumerable challenges and legal battles from people who wish to strictly protect the copyright and profits related to books.

But it may not matter in the end, because the book – either as a unit of commerce or as a unit of attention – may not be the best way to satisfy the needs and desires of people who can instantly access information from mobile devices and be entertained by an unlimited amount of media. As Marcus Dohle said at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair, “We want [customers] to choose books as a future, and not Netflix – and that is a big task.” Industry consultant Mike Shatzkin has also said that the biggest challenge facing publishers isn’t the digitization of books or Amazon’s retail practices but the consumer deciding to pass the time by playing Angry Birds or scanning Facebook rather than reading a book.

This challenge, as Dohle says, is a big one. Some controversial articles have argued that the best storytelling today is found on TV, not books. Some have accused literary fiction of becoming irrelevant to contemporary life. Tim O’Reilly famously said the following on Charlie Rose in 2012:

I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of the Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.

Recent innovations in delivering stories have not typically come from book publishers, but from start-ups or online-based companies that can closely evaluate reader reaction and behavior. Amazon, following the lead of other media start-ups, has launched digital initiatives such as Kindle Singles (to deliver stories between 10,000 and 30,000 words), Kindle Serials (to sell story subscriptions) and Kindle Worlds (to deliver fan fiction). None of these genres or formats really fit into the existing paradigm of the book or the legal strictures surrounding it; therefore the traditional publishing business, concerned about profits and marketability, has rarely pursued such content. Now that such areas are flourishing in the digital environment, we begin to recognize the artificial construct of the book – that its length, shape and purpose is based on manufacturing, marketing and other commercial considerations.

Yet some do effectively argue that the book has evolved to encompass the perfect unit of attention and the perfect length to expound on an idea. Maybe this is true, or maybe this is just what we’re used to; after all, attention spans appear to be changing. Still, it’s difficult to envision that a book-length work of fiction – the novel – will become extinct any time soon. It seems likely to continue, but as a less popular form. Consider how the invention of the LP once led musicians to focus on the art and craft of the album: now the digitization of music has ushered in the age of the single. Perhaps fiction is headed in the same direction, something more befitting our short bursts of attention or time when we’re seeking 5-10 minutes of entertainment while standing in line at the grocery store or waiting at the doctor’s office.

The idea actually under threat is the book as information vehicle. Much of the publishing industry – especially the educational sector – is acutely aware that the typical book doesn’t necessarily do the best job of imparting information. Many nonfiction publishers have completely stopped talking about “books” and now focus on content strategy and media agnosticism, recognizing the need to deliver information in many different channels, formats and environments. Wiley’s CEO Steve Smith has said in a range of talks that his company’s job as an educational publisher is not to deliver information or content, but to develop services. By that he means: servicing universities, students and professionals with online courses, assessment, workflow tools, communities and, yes, digital books.

I also wonder about the feasibility, particularly in the nonfiction realm, of culture continuing to deify the author, according him great respect, authority and prestige for producing a book. For writers that subject themselves to the wisdom of the crowd, whether through an agile publishing model that collects reader feedback or a series of blog posts, they’re deeply aware that their own knowledge and perspective, without the knowledge and input of others, often falls short. Case in point: Nature found that Wikipedia is about as accurate as Encyclopædia Britannica. Wikipedia of course has its weaknesses (mainly in structure and style), but the resource is still in its infancy when compared to Britannica.

As far as the role and primacy of the author in storytelling, I can’t help but refer once again to the strength of current TV writing, where a room of writers debate and produce a story arc collectively. While there is usually a creator or visionary, someone who has come up with the premise (as in the case of Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad), most show creators are quick to give equal credit to the many writers they work with.

Bottom line, we forget that the idea of authorship – and the creation of copyright – came along with the printing press. Before the printing press, there really wasn’t any such thing as an “author.” There were scribes and historians, but authorship is a relatively new idea. With the digital age, we may see the role of the author start to disappear or diminish. Futurist David Houle has predicted this and said in an interview that the younger generations are not as concerned with control as they are influence. They are more interested in completing projects in a collaborative manner, rather than the ego- and identity-centered “I’ve got to go off by myself and create my work of art.” This latter attitude pretty much nails the primary mode and concern of novel writers today, who find themselves in dramatic opposition to the technology surrounding them. (See: Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers.)

The Future of Editing: Beta Readers and Agile Publishing


Perhaps it is my personal history as an editor that leads me to believe that no computer or algorithm can successfully replicate the role and work of a professional development or content editor. Regardless of how publishing changes, editors who offer valuable editing and feedback will always be in demand, at least until such a time that telepathy or brain downloads are invented.

That said, there could be considerable transformation in what it means to be a “professional” editor. With the rise of self-publishing (a 60 percent increase in 2012 alone, according to Bowker data), we’ve only seen the demand for editors increase, with authors more acutely aware of the need for some level of assistance in rewriting and polishing their work. But very few authors can afford professional-level, deep editing. Given how writing processes are evolving – with more online and collaborative work, more serializations and more works-in-progress being undertaken – one can envision a world in which smart readers serve as an author’s first editors.

While some career authors – who likely had to improve on their own and struggle for approval from the gatekeepers – may believe that emerging authors are publishing too early and too quickly without regard for quality, a new model is emerging that allows for those first manuscripts to be published, and for authors to improve as they go, with the feedback of beta readers.

We see this model already in progress in the fan fiction communities. The bestseller 50 Shades of Grey started as work-in-progress within such a community, and was a riff on the Twilight series. Wattpad, with more than 18 million users, provides a sandbox for many authors to experiment, practice and gather early readership. (Even Margaret Atwood is giving it a shot with zombie fiction.)

As authors gain experience and titles under their belt, they may progress from beta readers to more formal, paid editing teams, which may consist of trusted content editors, copy editors and proofreaders. In some community and digital publishing models that already exist, editors are rewarded by receiving a percentage of book sales, which presumably makes them more invested and incentivized to do their best work.

Another possibility, particularly for nonfiction, is crowdsourcing as a replacement for some level of development and content editing. Sourcebooks, a trade publisher, is experimenting with this type of authoring and editing process, which they call their “Agile Publishing Model.” People coming from the technology world would be very familiar with this type of iterative process and framework, which makes content available faster, gets real-time feedback from the target audience and shapes the final product based on collaboration. CEO Dominique Raccah says, “The traditional publishing model – long schedules, creating in a vacuum, lack of involvement with the readers of the end product – drives some authors crazy. This model is a great fit for experts who are highly immersed in their field and where the field is evolving rapidly” (“Sourcebooks Announces”). (Hopefully it’s not lost on readers of this essay that the very thing being read right now is a collaborative, multimedia project that is iterative and crowdsourced, and similar to the agile model used by Sourcebooks.)

A final thought: Future editors may struggle to hang onto their gatekeeping role, and only remain tastemakers if their name carries currency with readers, meaning they become brands that signify something important to both authors and the target audience. Are editors open to marketing and publicizing themselves as brands? It may be a difficult future for today’s editors to accept, since the predominant view in publishing is that good editors “disappear” and are not spoken of; the attention goes to the writer.

The Atomization of Publishing


What gets published in 2013 can be divided into three broad categories:

  1. Traditional publisher output: represented by all the publishers that exhibit at events such as Frankfurt Book Fair, Book Expo America, etc.
  2. Self-publishing output: represented by the many distribution and publishing services available to authors, such as Amazon KDP, Smashwords, Lulu, CreateSpace, etc.
  3. Custom publishing output: represented by the vast number of businesses and institutions outside the traditional publishing industry who might produce one or many titles per year.

In the future – assuming the container or attention unit of the book has not disappeared or become anachronistic – I believe we’re going to see vast expansion in the third category, given that the function of publishing is now far less difficult and specialized, and book distribution and production pose less of a challenge and expense than ever before. Any business or institution can feasibly start their own press or imprint and publish works that are in line with their mission and values, and distribute or sell them to a target audience they likely know better than a traditional publisher. This doesn’t preclude the possibility and likelihood of partnerships between traditional publishers and institutions (as there are now) – nearly a necessity for widespread bricks-and-mortar distribution – but certainly it’s not a requirement for success to have such a partnership, particularly if the content works best in a digital environment. Industry expert Mike Shatzkin has called the trend “atomization”:

Publishing will become a function of many entities, not a capability reserved to a few insiders who can call themselves an industry. […] This is the atomization of publishing, the dispersal of publishing decisions and the origination of published material from far and wide. In a pretty short time, we will see an industry with a completely different profile than it has had for the past couple of hundred years. […] Atomization is verticalization taken to a newly conceivable logical extreme. The self-publishing of authors is already affecting the marketplace. But the introduction of self-publishing by entities will be much more disruptive.

If the publishing function does in fact disperse across many entities, then what will the so-called traditional houses focus on? One imagines the realm of fiction will remain a mainstay and focus, but I’d also like to propose that publishers will turn increasingly to analytics, data, and consumer research to make publishing decisions – for both fiction and nonfiction – since this would produce more profitable publishing decisions and might not be pursued by other, new competitors.

Research-driven publishing decisions aren’t exactly new. During my tenure at F+W Media, we had a very strong consumer research component to every acquisition because we were (in part) publishing to satisfy our homegrown book clubs, where consumers were automatically sent a new book every month unless they proactively declined it. Of course, the book-club model has all but died, but F+W, as well as other direct-to-consumer publishers, often use research to ground their acquisition decisions.

Now that research often takes the form of SEO and keyword analysis, publishers can identify what people are searching for and quantify demand for a particular book concept or title. Online publications and magazines already use SEO and keyword analysis to determine what gets published, and as such analytics become more rich and detailed. And as purchasing continues to move online, we can expect that trade publishers focused on profit will be gathering all the data they can to make the best acquisitions decisions. (F+W now keeps an SEO specialist on staff who assists with book titling decisions, to ensure discoverability.)

In other media industries, consumer research has long been part of the process, whether for good or ill. Movies, TV and music are all extensively market tested and modified based on consumer reaction. It has become a widespread cliché in the movie business how little creative control a director retains if the test audience reacts negatively. There has even been software development to help predict blockbusters, which Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in The New Yorker in 2006.

Such a proposition likely sounds deadening and offensive to anyone who works in publishing, which is seen as an aesthetic pursuit (even an elitist or snobbish one, if compared to movies or TV) focused on producing important work or creative work, without concern for demand. Yet because the function of publishing is now more like pushing a button and less like a specialized process, there is less and less reason for publishers to dominate the playing field. We can already see how both new and established authors (especially when they band together) can successfully self-publish and produce their books with as much sophistication as their publisher. And for any institution that reaches its audience directly, the value a publisher provides is fairly minimal; it would make more sense to hire a consultant or freelancer, or hire someone away from the publishing industry if a long-term program is envisioned. This is happening already, in fact.

Will traditional publishers lose their “best” books and authors? Perhaps some can hang onto their business if they retain a brand or prestige that remains desirable to authors. This seems an unreliable strategy, and publishers certainly can’t depend on distribution and production services to provide value. To survive in an era of atomization, general trade publishers will likely have to focus on other ways they add value to the process, which probably involve their editorial function and their marketing function. One thing the mainstream publishers can do beautifully, if they put the money behind it and fire on all cylinders, is launch, package and place a book with impeccable presentation, so that no one can possibly not know about its existence – a marketing and promotion campaign of global proportions. That’s something you won’t find a self-published author or most institutions capable of pulling off.

The Importance of Metadata in Book Discoverability


Since late 2012, one of my favorite infographics on publishing came out of Bowker, showing the percentage of book sales by major distribution channel:

Graph from Bowker showing retailer share of books bought by US consumers

In this graph, “eCommerce” represents book sales (both print and digital) happening through online retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, etc. In roughly a two-year period, the percentage of books sold online jumped from 25.1 percent to 43.8 percent. Meanwhile, large chain bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, fell from 31.5 percent of book sales to 18.7 percent of book sales.

The large decline from 2011–2012 in bricks-and-mortar bookstore sales is attributable to the Borders bankruptcy. Barnes & Noble’s future is far from certain; they plan to close about 10 percent of their stores in the coming years, and one wonders if it will end up being more.

All this to say: the bookstore has long been the primary means of book discovery, but soon it will be a minor player in how books get marketed and sold. As sales increasingly move online, very different dynamics take hold, such as search optimization, algorithm-driven recommendations and social conversations. Probably the biggest buzzword these days in publishing insider circles is “metadata,” particularly ever since Nielsen released a study showing a dramatic increase in sales for books that satisfied the industry’s core and enhanced metadata requirements.

Graph from Nielsen showing a correlation between metadata usage and book sales

Core metadata includes: ISBN, title, author, category, price and publisher. Enhanced metadata includes: cover, blurb, author biography, sample chapters, quotes and reviews.

Metadata has different purposes depending on the context. For now, I want to primarily focus on the importance of metadata for a population of readers who are more likely to be discovering books online rather than in a store. In the online shopping environment, a reader has no personal guidance, but there is an unlimited selection of books. Results are based on recommendation algorithms, search algorithms driven by keywords and the book’s metadata.

In a talk by Ronald Schild at Frankfurt Book Fair’s CONTEC 2013 conference, called “The Future of Metadata,” he emphasized the need for semantic analysis, which relates to identifying the “core concept” of a book. Without semantic analysis, recommendations are less valuable; people do not search for books by ISBNs, but by themes (e.g., gay coming-of-age story set in Communist Czechoslovakia) and emotional topics.

What’s most fascinating about the metadata discussion thus far is how much it can affect the sales of fiction; conventional wisdom might’ve led us to believe that it would be most important for information-driven books, but Bowker’s data indicates just the opposite. In a talk at 2013 BookExpo America, Phil Madans from Hachette said, “If you don’t want your books to be found ever, use the Fiction: General category as your BISAC code.” Perhaps historically publishers have been less detailed with fiction metadata, thinking it doesn’t matter, but they have now changed course, delivering dramatic lifts in sales. The same discussion has also been happening in the self-publishing community, where authors have discovered that being very careful and intentional with their categories, keywords and summary descriptions have resulted in better visibility and thus sales.

The metadata discussion doesn’t just stop with filling out the fields appropriately when cataloguing a book. Veteran book marketer Peter McCarthy has argued that there are far more potential readers for each book than is ever reached, and that if publishers are to keep their value to authors, they need to be the best at connecting authors and titles to the most right readers. When he develops a marketing campaign, he uses a subset of 100 tools to triangulate, plan and execute, including a range of social analytics, search-engine optimization and other support tools, to help him understand how “ordinary” readers (not publishing insiders) go about searching for things – and to make sure those people find the right book. A good part of what McCarthy suggests amounts to uncovering and analyzing how online conversations represent potential markets for a book.

This falls in line with a keynote talk that journalist Sascha Lobo recently gave on how the Internet will change the book. His argument is that selling books has always been social, and – in fact – the social element has always been most important. People buy books that are talked about, and his contention is that the bestselling tool for books, on the Internet, is buzz. And buzz is exactly what McCarthy is attempting to quantify with his subset of 100 tools, and what metadata experts want to see captured, analyzed and displayed with book search results.

But the one question that often bothers more astute industry observers: Do readers really have trouble finding books, or is discoverability a problem of the publisher (and/or author)? If you take a look at the magazine/periodical world (or other media surveys), you often find that people’s biggest problem has nothing to do with finding stories, information or entertainment, but with having time to consume everything they find. One strategy in the self-publishing community, which has been a double-edged sword for authors, is keeping their prices very low (even free), and posing a low risk, to encourage a large volume of readers to buy. However, this can have the unintended effect of encouraging readers to download or buy many more books than they could ever read, with no or reduced consequences for not consuming what is bought.

The Blurring Line Between Reader and Writer


When I consider how reading will change in the near term, two questions immediately come to mind:

  • To what extent is the future of reading social?
  • How much involvement will readers have in the writing process and final product (to the extent there is a “final” book)? Or: how much of reading will become part of an interactive process with the author or other readers?

Let’s start with the question of social reading. Some of the most interesting work in this area has been pioneered by Bob Stein, at the Institute for the Future of the Book. His argument is that reading has always been a social activity, and that our idea of reading as a solitary activity is fairly recent, something that arrived with widespread literacy. Furthermore, he says, as we move from the printed page to the screen – and networked environments – the social aspect of reading and writing moves to the foreground. Once this shift happens, the lines blur between reader and writer. Stein writes:

Authors [will] take on the added role of moderators of communities of inquiry (non–fiction) and of designers of complex worlds for readers to explore (fiction). In addition, readers will embrace a much more active role in the production of knowledge and the telling of stories.

Going a step further, it has even been suggested by Stein (and others) that the future of reading might look like gaming. One can see an example of this in the Black Crown project, a work of interactive fiction produced by Random House UK. The story begins with a series of questions, then the reader is put into a number of predicaments, as in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel. There is an author behind it, Rob Sherman, who said in an interview, “It’s a scary thing because you need to relinquish control and allow for readers to have an experience different from the one you’re expecting. […] I think pretty much all authors have to accept now that readers are going to take things and manipulate them and make them their own. Whether you give them permission to or not. And they’re going to share them with other people.”

One area where this phenomenon is strongly apparent is in the genre of fan fiction, which represents one of the earliest social reading communities. The bestselling novel 50 Shades of Grey was fan fiction based on Twilight, and written in progress on a public fan-fiction website; it gathered fans and feedback over time before being formally published. Amazon, recognizing the potential in fan fiction – which is not readily monetizable due to rights issues – launched Kindle Worlds to allow fan fiction writers to start publishing and earning money from their fan works through formalized licensing deals.

This begs the question: How many readers really want to be involved in the writing of the story, and how many would just like to be passively entertained? It’s true that the digital era has changed the nature of passive entertainment—we no longer have to accept what media corporations produce for us, we can create our own media, we can engage in active consumption (e.g., live-tweeting a TV show). But sometimes it’s nice to simply escape into a story, without any further obligation.

This reality has been illustrated by Ross Mayfield through his excellent diagram, “The Power Law of Participation.” Reading without interaction is classified as a “low threshold activity,” which engages the highest number of users. Social reading, on the other hand, involves writing, moderating, collaborating and possibly leading (depending on the context), and represents high engagement. Yet only a very small percentage of the community will have that level of engagement; most users will remain on the low threshold side. Mayfield’s point isn’t that one mode is more valuable than the other, but that these two forms of intelligence co-exist in some of the best communities we see online, such as Wikipedia.

Power Law of Participation line graph

But even for readers who don’t wish to be involved in creation, there are ways for them to be unintentionally involved. Amazon collects untold data through their Kindle reading platform, and probably now calculates exactly how people read a particular book: how fast, how slow and the exact paragraph where readers abandon the story. Kevin Kelly described what he thinks the future holds in a blog post “What Books Will Become”:

Prototype face tracking software can already recognize your mood, and whether you are paying attention, and more importantly where on the screen you are paying attention. It can map whether you are confused by a passage, or delighted, or bored. That means that the text could adapt to how it is perceived. Perhaps it expands into more detail, or shrinks during speed reading, or changes vocabulary when you struggle, or reacts in a hundred possible ways.  […]

Such flexibility recalls the long expected, but never realized, dream of forking stories. Books that have multiple endings, or alternative storylines. Previous attempts at hyper literature have met dismal failure among readers. Readers seemed uninterested in deciding the plot; they wanted the author to decide. But in recent years complex stories with alternative pathways have been wildly successful in videogames. … Some of the techniques pioneered in taming the complexity of user-driven stories in games could migrate to books.

If not already apparent, it’s important to differentiate between the evolution of narrative-driven books and information-driven books. We have already seen information-driven materials flourish and make more sense in online environments. It is now highly unusual to refer to a book when researching basic facts or making travel plans, for instance. Most information is superior when presented in hyperlinked, interactive forms that can be continually updated, as well as customized and modified by the reader for her specific purpose.

When we seek to be entertained, however, how much do we want to customize and modify to our satisfaction? Fan fiction indicates that some percentage of readers enjoy this, but that has so far remained a fringe activity when considering the universe of readers out there.

Why I’m Here – Jane Friedman


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.