Books, Books Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink


A significant impediment for a reader considering whether to enter into the world of a book is that it is resource-intensive. As C. Max Magee discussed, books are expensive in “time and emotional energy.” The overall commitment is significant, and perhaps even more importantly, the commitment required to sample is high too. Spending an hour and a half reading a book you decide you don’t like is a deeply unpleasant experience, and frequently the reader quantifies that loss in terms of dollars than time: “I can’t believe I wasted $15 on this piece of crap.” A book you don’t want to read is worse than the absence of value, it destroys value (subjectively, of course).

One ramification is that the price of a book has to be radically discounted in order to persuade a reader to take a risk on something that could prove to be a negative experience. Dollar for dollar, a book is the cheapest form of narrative cultural experience there is, cheaper than music or film, and the perceived value, in the consumer’s mind, of content in digital format exacerbates the situation, putting even more downward pressure on pricing. The shift in consumption patterns away from ownership towards an access model, one driven by companies like Netflix in films, and by Spotify, Pandora,, etc. in music creates yet more pressure. Indeed, in one respect, piracy means that all content is now, in effect, free, if you know how and where to look.

Nevertheless, the cost denominated in time and emotional energy remains as high as ever, higher if you consider that we are now swimming in content. Almost all platform innovation around content in the past five hundred years has occurred at the level of supply, whereas relatively little effort has been expended figuring out how to integrate all the stories we’re now actively telling. Probably the greatest effort has been expended by search engines around finding things you know you’re looking for, and social networks in seeking to organize the output of social activity, whether than activity is expressed in short bursts of words, or in pictures and short videos. But little effort has been expended on the largest and most demanding agglomerations of words, and on considering how to permit serendipity. Serendipity seems to require a sense of an encounter with the unexpected which is difficult to engender when we expect to have stories flowing by us throughout space and time.

The primary new platform innovation in books in 2013-2014 has been the subscription service, which seeks to apply the film/TV/music paradigm shift: a shift toward paid streaming subscription and away from both advertising-supported analog streaming from broadcast radio and TV and away from pay-per-download models like iTunes.

Currently, however, these services—the most discussed are Oyster and Scribd—focus on acquiring the latest possible libraries of content (each tout 100,000+ titles) and the lowest price ($9.99 and $8.99 respectively). However, with so much content in the world, more than any human alive could even name, never mind consume, and with most of it available either for free already or easily hackable, what value could such services possibly provide a reader?

My belief is that the power of any such service will inhere less in its ability to make more reading available more cheaply, and more in its ability to help us integrate reading into our daily lives. How this will happen is probably the determining factor in both how these platforms will evolve and the extent to which people will migrate to these reading services from other modes of of acquiring content for reading. I’m now working for a service called Byliner which shares with Oyster and Scribd a library model and a monthly subscription fee. However, it is also exploring ways to structure the library in a manner than enables a satisfying journey through all the stories. In this regard it has one advantage over Oyster and Scribd which is that it began life as a publisher of stories that can be read, typically, in 30-40 minutes, with stories (fiction and narrative nonfiction) ranging in length from 5,000 to 20,000 words. As such, the reader is not called up in each instance to embark on a long, potentially unpleasant journey—the fact that the stories are shorter than full-length books allow the reader to nibble her way through and, if we are able to serve her up successive stories that appeal, we’re able, ideally, to bring about a progressive sense of depth. A different experience we’re exploring is to select five stories, around a particular theme, say Genius, or Hustle, or Lust, and send those to subscribers once a week. So the first structure is akin to a reader journeying through the City of Stories, while the second operates more like a wine club, delivering weekly a set of new stories to read.

Regardless of how these various enterprises evolve, their existence signifies a positive development in the business of digital content, in that they do not require the enormous number of users that large-scale advertising-driven corporations need to survive. Stories of a significant length do not interest advertisers, since an individual serious narrative is never going to attract millions of readers. So a model wherein there is predictable recurring revenue, based on readers looking for precisely that, is a positive outcome for the reading-writing ecosystem overall.

Setting the Demons Loose


Many of the interventions offered to book culture or to what you could call the reading-writing economy are currently coming from start-ups, entities described by one entrepreneur-cum-academic as organizations formed to search for a business model. As such, they may fail to find that business model even though they succeed at finding outcomes. One that I worked with closely, Small Demons, found that fate. What we did find, while not a business model, is a tacit cultural map, one formed by the culturally resonant details set jewel-like within books, one which, when illuminated by a kind of UV light, glows so as to allow one to navigate through the storyverse—our term at Small Demons for the universe that exists parallel to the “In Real Life” one in which we live. A Borgesian world, then, a planet-like library with paths that may be traversed to allow a richer life for us humans.

The company created a taxonomy of keywords grouped as persons (fictional and/or real), places (fictional and/or real), and things (encompassing songs, movies, other books, events, sports, drugs, foodstuffs, cars, and so forth) and managed to use entity extraction software  to highlight those words in books, collect useful information about them, and link them to one another. One might then travel from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity to Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore via Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” Unlike the typical recommendation engines explored by C. Max Magee, these paths are not designed to lead from one recommended cultural artifact to the next but merely to offer an alternative mode of browsing. However, much like those services, it does offer signal amidst the noise, a heat map that offers clues to those artifacts, much like how surveying the restaurants in a urban plaza allows a prospective diner to gauge the vibe of each restaurant, see how the diners are dressed, the music playing, check out the decor.

In this respect, what Small Demons envisioned is books not just referring to one another but to entire cultural tapestries, situating these narratives within and around all other narratives, actual and imagined. From a commercial standpoint books transcend their ghetto, without abandoning their edges, they become permeable—which is in fact what they’ve always been. As such, the books become more truly themselves. As Rick Joyce, Chief Marketing Officer at Perseus, a consumer books company, likes to remark: “There are lots of books about shoes, but no shoes about books.” Books, by their very nature, contain worlds.

Now, how might Small Demons live on, not as a business but as a vision? During our existence what became clear was that there was an intense appetite amongst some (though by no means all) of the people who visited the site to actively participate, not just marvel (or frown). All the data we generated was generated in-house via automated entity extraction and a small group of editors tweaking the data. Users wanted to add data, both stuff that the computers missed and stuff the computers couldn’t ascertain. We could tell you that Dewar’s appeared in a book, but not who drank it, and what the role of the whiskey-drinking was in the plot. Was the protagonist drowning his sorrows? Was it spiked? Did she order Glenmorangie and was told nope, all we’ve got is Dewar’s? And so forth. As Erin Walker wrote, books are props in people’s lives, and so are the details within books, and people want to share those details, just as they like to share the books that contain them.

So if we are going to create tools to foster and support that impulse, the key thing will be to build into the system from the beginning the ability for users to add, amend, clarify, correct, and connect details they themselves see. We were not unaware of this need, we just didn’t move quickly enough to respond to it, and ran out of resources before we could deploy those tools.

Further to this principle, this data—from both an output and input standpoint—should live on the entire web, not just within the site or app. In other words, a read-write API. Again, this was something we were aware of, as there was a real appetite from web media companies large and small to integrate our data into their user experience, interest from libraries, interest from geo-location apps, interest from e-commerce retailers, from textbook publishers. But we ran out of time, in part because we didn’t prioritize it early enough. From a revenue-generating standpoint, this appetite for the API is clearly a major opportunity, if not the major opportunity, and would apply both to a for-profit or nonprofit entity.

That said, if it were a nonprofit it would be particularly wise to be aware of the larger context of linked open data. In other words, it should play well with others. Just like books do.

Proscenium and Thrust


The traditional mode of book publishing maps cleanly onto the dominant mode of theatrical performance of the last 19th century, one that has with some exceptions carried forth into the present day: a mode we could call Proscenium Realism. The proscenium first appeared in 1618 at the Farnese Theatre in Parma, Italy. However, it was not until the 19th century that it fully came into its own. It provided quite literally a frame for the performance as if it were a photograph, or an aperture through which the audience could peer into some actual “real” scene unfolding before their eyes. The Realist playwrights of the time wanted to create a sense that there was no artifice, that life as actually lived was occurring before the audience’s eyes—the proscenium enabled that. The more fantastical performances, including opera and ballet, could benefit from the picture window effect, that the audience was witnessing a complete and total illusion, that of a painting come to life.

In both cases, of course, there was an elaborate apparatus undergirding the entire performance. Actors running off-stage to get props, gas and then electric lights dimming as night falls, trees moving on and off, angels being lowered by winches, all carefully hidden by the walls and (when necessary) by the curtain closing and reopening to a new vista no less real than the one that preceded it.

Meanwhile, the world of publishing had been building a machine not dissimilar from the apparatus for producing the theatrical illusion. Theatre has its playwrights, yes, but also stage managers, lighting designers, scenic artists, actors, and composers, its lights, its rigging, its costumes, its sleight-of-hand around forced perspective, the clacking of coconut shells mimicking the clip-clop of horse’s hooves, and so forth. So too with publishing, though in that black box the machine was a manufacturing and distribution apparatus. As with the theatre there were wordsmiths yes, authors yes, at the beginning, but also agents to help frame and contextualize the authors for the editors, editors to evaluate the authors, but also to ensure the author’s writing fit style guides that wouldn’t trip up the ultimate consumer with anachronisms and inconsistencies, designers to create covers to serve partly as images to represent the book, in the manner of classical architecture, but also to help sell the book, like the tried-and-true maneuvers of the strip tease, showing a little of what’s there but suggesting that more, oh so much more is to come. Sales reps, whether the door-to-door snake oil peddlers of the 19th century selling subscriptions out of a bag, or the 20th century model of showing up at the retailers persuading them to stock that publisher’s inventory. Then too over the course of the second half of the century, all the innovations around distribution, often using computing power of the mainframe and PC variety—just-in-time inventory, demand forecasting, tighter product cycles, granular sales data.

And the writers and readers, opposite ends of the supply chain, in a strict producer-consumer relationship, stand at either end of the machine, marveling as its mysterious processes, selecting a handful of writers and magically transforming them into bestsellers, consigning readers to gape slack-jawed at its marvelous outputs, then rushing, after it was all over, the magical words THE END, read, to the stage door, where they hope to catch a glimpse of the creator before s/he is hustled to a waiting car.

In the theatre along comes Brecht and to rip down the curtain. While that is, and what is to follow is, a radical simplification of very complex processes, Brecht, for reasons combining the political and the aesthetic, proposed to blow up the entire architecture of illusion and realism, to show how things are actually made, to show why things were the way they were. Stage hands walked around, handed props to people, brandished the coconut shells, proudly ate the banana the peel of which would be dropped just in time for the actor to slip on it, actors changed costumes in full view, the lights turned around, no longer mimicking the dawn rising, instead turned onto the audience, now suddenly busted for being Peeping Toms. The means of production had been laid bare.

And to book publishing now enters the Internet, stage left, stage right, stage center. The fluorescent lights now turned on. Freelance cover designers now available as guns-for-hire since everyone has Photoshop now, agents trawling Wattpad for the popular writers, forums discussing royalty structures, kerning and leading. Short-run digital printing via Lulu, Lightning Source, Blurb, CreateSpace. Retail access via Amazon and Amazon and Amazon and Amazon. Tablets, phones, and E Ink devices rendering almost all the foregoing optional. The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even. The world is now the stage.