A brave new world of super store POD hubs and Frankenstinian books


Let’s ignore eBooks for bit. We can all prognosticate as much as we want how electronic publishing will dominate the future of how books are produced. Or not.

The printed book is the real paradox of the future of books. Like radio, printing is not going to perish any time soon. The way printed books are produced though will change dramatically. Mainly as a factor of how printed books will get sold in the future.

There are three main players that deliver printed books to the end consumers:

  1. The online vendors which provide cheaper prices and infinite availability, but delayed gratification (like Amazon);
  2. The large chains which provide immediate availability for most books but typically at full price (such as Barnes and Noble); and
  3. The small independently owned bookstores that neither provide a wide spectrum of availability nor competitive prices, but an emotional hub in the community for people who are passionate about books. There are of course varying degrees of intersection amongst these three categories, like the medium-sized chain. The small book store that does lots of business online. And so on and so forth.

Like most people, I am guilty of walking into a Barnes and Noble, browsing for the books I want. Then even before stepping out of the store I usually place my order on Amazon using my phone. That is if I can afford to wait a day or two at the most to receive them. If I can’t, I pay the full price at the store.

The large bookstore chains are doomed, there is no question about that. It’s just a matter of when. Not simply because the online vendors are delivering books even faster, but because the number of books in print is increasing exponentially.

Barnes and Noble cannot and will not survive the Amazon threat.

But what if the future could provide an amalgamation of both the large book stores in in every neighborhood, and the competitive prices of online providers? The answer lies in a three letter word that’s so far has been an insult and telling of what sort of writer you are, but quickly gaining more respectability: POD. Print-on-demand.

Imagine this. You walk into a massive Barnes and Noble-like store where there are no physical books on display for you to buy. Just electronic pods as far as the eye can see where you and other customers can browse for books. Maybe there are no pods. You can use your own mobile device to browse. Even before you get to the store. When you’ve decided, you click on your screen or speak to a sales associate to place an order. Five minutes later after you’ve had a coffee or a bite to eat, the book or books you’ve ordered are ready for you: Printed, trimmed, laminated, packaged and ready to go back home with you. Even a little hot of the press. Just like a fresh baguette. At highly discounted prices.

I am talking any book you can dream of. In any language. In your choice of font size. You even get to choose the stock. Want to save a little money? Then print the cover in gray scale rather than color.

Behind the scenes, highly-automated, advanced print-on-demand futuristic robots do all the work. And the price of each book is based on complicated formulas that calculate royalty, your choice of physical specs, and how much stock and ink are used.

Still not convinced the printed book will last long enough for any corporation to invest heavily in the POD super store model I describe above?

Then let’s dream further and braver into the future.

Why do people love printed books? Mostly because they love flipping pages, and seeing each printed leaf visible in the same dimension, rather than a virtual one as in the case of eBooks. They love the artwork, and to hold a book in public and silently tell the world what they are reading. Readers also love to gauge how much they’ve read and how much they have left. It gives them an incentive to continue reading. And the progress bar of eBooks just doesn’t cut it.

Imagine if in addition to our eReaders, a new sort of book “vehicle” is invented. It looks and and almost feels like a printed book, but it isn’t quite so. It’s a hybrid between the printed and the electronic book. Let’s call it the “Pelectronic Book.” An advanced book shell made of an indestructible paper-like membrane with tiny electronic vascular circuits. Every time you want to read a specific book from your collection, you load it on your Pelectronic device through a USB like port on the back. Maybe even wirelessly. Within milliseconds the 400-500 blank pages of your device get populated with electronic ink that’s virtually indistinguishable from real ink.

Have a particularly long tome like War and Peace that will not fit in your standard 400 leaf Pelectronic book Frankenstein? Have no fear. You can buy page expansions in modules of 50-page units. Install them for the duration of your long read, then remove them when you are back to standard length books to avoid lugging around a heavy device.

The future of book production is coming. And it will be in far more shades of excitement than what the proponents of eBook vs. print would like us to think. We just have to be open and ready for it.

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.

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.

Our Friend the Book D.J.


In the future, book producers will not produce books. They will manage brands.

Authors are already told they have to behave like brands. They need to run their own web sites, have a presence on popular social media sites, cultivate reader communities and market their own books (publishers won’t bother). Under such conditions, who needs publishers? Aren’t they little more than parasites on the reputation and income stream of authors? Won’t publishers wither away?

No, they won’t. They’ll become more important than ever. Paradoxically, as it becomes easier for authors to establish direct relationships with readers, publishers will become more significant, not less. This will happen for two reasons, both related to their essential future function as brand managers. Because these likely future entities won’t resemble contemporary publishers, let’s stop calling them publishers. Let’s call them Autonomous Literary Imprints, or imprints for short.

Readers will want imprints. Imprints will help them navigate the confusing, effectively infinite digital graphosphere. In my previous essay, I evoked the farcical figure of the Book DJ. Well, he’s back, and he’s here to stay. In his function as an embodied imprint, he may even be the same person running your local pop-up book retailer. His job is to have good taste. His livelihood will depend on his reputation. He will make – and break – canons. His stock will rise and fall with literary history. His culture will be his capital. He may, of course, be part of a multi-person imprint. Imprints may consist of one person or one million. They may interlock or be nested within each other. The point is, you will have a relation with the imprint. You will trust it as much as you trust your friends on Facebook or the people you follow on Twitter. Imprints are people too, not only legally but also as vibrant presences on social media.

Writers, too, will need Autonomous Literary Imprints. In your role as a writer, you will look to imprints because they have the power to confer upon you a slice of their accumulated cultural capital. Earning the brand mark of the right imprint will shape your career. It will launch you toward fame or disrepute. It’ll determine whether you can get that university teaching gig that’ll pay your rent. Whether you’re invited to that posh writer’s retreat. Whether you can generate income streams from speaking engagements. Whether you’re invited to write essays for prestigious magazines and book collections. Whether readers will even (yes, it’ll still be possible) buy your books and (who knows) maybe even read them.

More importantly, in your role as a writer, you will need imprints because you won’t know who to believe in the shark-filled marketplace for author services. Do you trust that freelance editor? That book designer? In the future, the imprint will be a kingmaker and a node of trust for various literary actors. The imprint will be an orienting map in a confusing supply chain of authors, agents, editors, designers and academics.

In a field of production populated by a ragged surplus army of desperate, hungry, fame-seeking writers – in a world where more pretty good books will be published in one second than any reader can read in a lifetime dedicated to nothing other than reading – mediators will become more, not less important.

So a popular techno-utopian buzzword like disintermediation is deceptive. It suggests that we’re moving into a world of no limits or controls. Instead, we’re moving into a world of total branding. Whether this new world is desirable or not is another question. I’m ambivalent about this likely future, but I’m sure our friend the Book DJ is pretty stoked.

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.

Feral Spambooks


In the future, readers will not go in search of books to read. Feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their e-book libraries and leap out to ambush them. Readers will have to beat books off with a baseball bat; hold them at bay with a flaming torch; refuse to interact; and in extreme cases, feign dyslexia, blindness or locked-in syndrome to avoid being subjected to literature.

You think I’m exaggerating for effect, don’t you?

Today, roughly 40-50,000 books are published commercially each year in the English language. But the number is rapidly rising, as traditional barriers to entry are fading away. Meanwhile, the audience for these works remains stubbornly static. The limits to reading are imposed by its time-rivalrous nature, in conjunction with the size of the English-reading population and the number of hours in the day. Tools that make writing and publishing easier work to increase the volume of work because the creation of books is to some extent an exercise of ego: we are all convinced that we have something of value to communicate, after all. It therefore seems inevitable that in future, there will be more books – and with them, more authors who are convinced that the existence of their literary baby entitles them to prosper from the largesse of their readers.

A burgeoning supply of books and a finite number of reader-hours is a predictor of disaster, insofar as the average number of readers per book will dwindle. The competition for eyeballs will intensify by and by. Many writers will stick to the orthodox tools of their profession, to attractive covers and cozening cover copy. Some will engage in advertising, and others in search engine optimization strategies to improve their sales ranking. But some will take a road less well-trodden.

Historically, publishers attempted to use cheap paperback novels as advertising sales vehicles. Books incorporated ads, as magazines and websites do today: they even experienced outbreaks of product placement, car chases interrupted so that the protagonists could settle down for half an hour to enjoy a warming dish of canned tomato soup. Authors and their agents put an end to this practice, for the most part, with a series of fierce lawsuits waged between the 1920s and 1940s that added boilerplate to standard publisher contracts forbidding such practices: for authors viewed their work as art, not raw material to deliver eyeballs to advertisements.

But we have been gulled into accepting advertising-funded television, and by extension an advertising-funded web. And as the traditional verities of publishing erode beneath the fire-hose force of the book as fungible data, it is only a matter of time before advertising creeps into books, and then books become a vehicle for advertising. And by advertising, I mean spam.

The first onset of bookspam went unnoticed, for it did not occur within the pages of the books themselves. Spam squirted its pink and fleshy presence into the discussion forums of Goodreads and the other community collaborative book reading and reviewing websites almost from the first. And we shrugged and took it for granted because, well, it’s spam. It’s pervasive, annoying and it slithers in wherever there’s space for feedback or a discussion.

But that isn’t where it’s going to end. An EPUB e-book file is essentially an HTML5 file, encapsulated with descriptive metadata and an optional DRM layer. The latest draft standard includes support for all aspects of HTML5 including JavaScript. Code implodes into text, and it is only a matter of time before we see books that incorporate software for collaborative reading. Not only will your e-book save your bookmarks and annotations; it’ll let you share bookmarks and annotations with other readers. It’s only logical, no? And the next step is to let readers start discussions with one another, with some sort of tagging mechanism to link the discussions to books, or chapters, or individual scenes, or a named character or footnote.

Once there is code there will be parasites, viral, battening on the code. It’s how life works: around 75% of known species are parasitic organisms. A large chunk of the human genome consists of endogenous retroviruses, viruses that have learned to propagate themselves by splicing themselves into our chromosomes and lazily allowing the host cells to replicate themselves whenever they divide. Spammers will discover book-to-book discussion threads just as flies flock to shit.

But then it gets worse. Much worse.

Authors, expecting a better reaction from the reading public than is perhaps justifiable in this age of plenty for all (and nothing for many) will eventually succumb to the urge to add malware to their e-books in return for payment. The malware will target the readers’ e-book libraries. The act of reading an infected text will spread the payload, which will use its access to spread advertising extracts and favorable reviews throughout the reader communities. You may find your good reputation taken in vain by a second-rate pulp novel that posts stilted hagiographies of its author’s other books on the discussion sites of every book you have ever commented on (and a few you haven’t). Worse, the infested novels will invite free samples of all their friends to the party, downloading the complete works of their author just in case you feel like reading them. Works which will be replete with product placement and flashing animated banner ads, just in case you didn’t get the message.

Finally, in extremis, feral spambooks will deploy probabilistic text generators seeded with the contents of your own e-book library to write a thousand vacuous and superficially attractive nuisance texts that at a distance resemble your preferred reading. They’ll slide them into your e-book library disguised as free samples, with titles and author names that are random permutations of legitimate works, then sell advertising slots in these false texts to offshore spam marketplaces. And misanthropic failed authors in search of their due reward will buy the ad marquees from these exchanges, then use them to sell you books that explain how to become a bestselling author in only 72 hours.

Books are going to be like cockroaches, hiding and breeding in dark corners and keeping you awake at night with their chittering. There’s no need for you to go in search of them: rather, the problem will be how to keep them from overwhelming you.

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.

The Future of the Bookstore


Is there a future for the bookstore in a digital age?

Despite the death of independent bookstores, despite the failure of major booksellers like Borders and Barnes & Noble, I think the answer is yes. Bookstores may well survive, if we’re open to the possibility that they may not, strictly speaking, be stores or physically house books. It might be better to say that the function of the bookstore will persist, albeit in a new material form.

Bookstores had an important mission: They physically distributed books to readers. They curated the books that they stocked. They guided individual readers to new books. They were (and still are) community centers, hosting readings, effectively serving as reading rooms, at their best creating not only readers but also reading publics. In what follows, I will assume the continued value of print books (see my previous essay, in the chapter “How will people read in the future?”).

Beyond existing modes of distribution — indies, big booksellers, and mega-retailers like Costco — how will we find new p-books in the future? How should we? Here are a few suggestions.

AMAZON STORE FOR BOOKS. Just as Apple has an Apple Store where it displays its sleek wares, Amazon might consider creating a bricks-and-mortar establishment meant to showcase its papery products. It’s possible, just possible, that customers will come into such stores, browse through physical books, and then decide to, you know, buy them. It’s a crazy idea, but if any innovative forward-looking technology company can make it work, Amazon can.

BOOK POP-UP. As physical bookstores increasingly go out of business, we might imagine a version of pop-up retail for the book sector. Such pop-up stores would by necessity be small, but they could colonize existing retail spaces, either legally or (what would be neater) extra-legally. With the aid of social media we might organize flash bookstores, which feature curated collections of the very coolest books, past and present, all handpicked by what we might call Book DJs (let’s all agree not to call them Book Jockeys, for obvious reasons), whose reputations will depend on their meticulous taste. No self-respecting hipster should buy his or her book from any other sort of store.

POD MACHINE. Some independent booksellers, like McNally Jackson in New York, have brought Espresso Book Machines into their store, allowing the printing of public domain books on demand. Such machines could populate many different retail locations, or even in time be part of every home. There’s also no technical reason that every book, both public domain and private, shouldn’t be available via POD Machine. Until technologies like 3D printing make it possible to print a high-quality book on demand in the home, let’s install a fast POD machine in every café in the land (Starbucks: I’m looking at you), set them up among vending machines wherever fine sugar drinks and fatty snacks are sold, and incorporate them into every airplane, where airline carriers can take their predatory cut from text-hungry frequent fliers. The whole human library should be available on demand, as a beautiful physical print-off, at any time.

PUBLIC LIBRARY. A radically socialist scheme, the public library is a place where stuffy government bureaucrats purchase books using tax dollars, store these books and then make them available to the general public. In the future, public libraries may become a key resource for preserving literary culture, if rapacious capitalists don’t kill them off first.

These are all ideas that could be pursued now, with a little bit of will, either on the part of private or public organizations. The future of the book is in our hands. We should make sure that readers can find the books they want, and that our institutions of book discovery work in their (that is, our) interests.

Reading Machines


One of the key attributes of reading is that – with very few exceptions – nobody else can do it for you. You have to plough through the whole thing yourself, or bounce from chapter to endnote, as is your wont: but nobody else can absorb the information on your behalf. (If a text can be reduced to a pre-digested summary, it was too long to begin with: or the digest is an incomplete representation.)

Reading is a rivalrous activity. You can listen to music or watch TV while doing something else, but you can’t (or shouldn’t) read a book while driving or mixing cocktails. Listening to audiobooks is only a partial work-around; studies suggest that knowledge retention is lower. Furthermore, they’re slower. A normal tempo for spoken English language speech is around 150-200 words per minute. A reasonably fast reader, however, can read 300-350 words per minute; a speed reader may absorb 500-1000 words per minute (although issues of comprehension come into play at that rate).

So, what kind of environment facilitates reading?

About fifteen years ago, I stumbled across my perfect reading machine – and didn’t buy it. It was on display in the window of an antique shop in Edinburgh, Scotland: a one of a kind piece of furniture, somewhat threadbare and time-worn, and obviously commissioned for a Victorian gentleman who spent much of his time reading.

In form, it was an armchair – but not a conventional one. Every available outer surface, including the armrests, consisted of bookshelves. The backrest (shielded from behind by a built-in bookcase) was adjustable, using a mechanism familiar to victims of badly-designed beach recliners everywhere. Behind the hinged front of the chair was a compartment from which an angled ottoman or footstool could be removed; this was a box, suitable for the storage of yet more books. A lap-tray on a hinge, supporting a bookrest, swung across the chair’s occupant from the left; it also supported brackets for oil lamps, and a large magnifying glass on an arm. The right arm of the chair was hinged and latched at the front, allowing the reader to enter and exit from the reading machine without disturbing the fearsome array of lamps, lenses and pages. The woodwork was polished, dark oak: the cushion covers were woven, and somewhat threadbare (attacked either by moths or the former owner’s neglected feline).

While the ergonomics of the design were frankly preindustrial, the soft furnishings threadbare, and the price outrageous, I recognized instinctively that this chair had been designed very carefully to support a single function. It wasn’t a dining chair, or a chair in which one might sip a wee dram of post-prandial whisky or watch TV. It was a machine for reading in: baroque in design, but as starkly functional as an airport or a motorway.

I knew on the spot and of an instant that I had to own this reading machine. For that is what this thing was: an artifact designed for the sole purpose of excluding distractions and facilitating the focused absorption of information from books. Unfortunately, in those days I was younger and poorer than I am today – and the antique store owner, clearly aware of its unique appeal, had priced it accordingly. I went away, slept uneasily, returned the next afternoon to steel myself for expending a large chunk of my personal savings on an item that was not strictly essential to my life…and it had already gone.

Chair and ottoman designed by Charles EamesThese days, I do most of my reading on a small and not particularly prepossessing sofa in one corner of my office. I’m waiting for the cats to shred it sufficiently to give me an excuse for replacing it with a better reading machine. When the time comes I will go hunting for something more comfortable: an Eames lounge chair and ottoman. Combined with an e-ink reader (with an edge-lit display for twilight reading), it approximates the function (if not the form, or the bizarre charm) of the eccentric Victorian reading machine that still haunts my dreams to this day.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Reading and Our Addiction to Distraction


My name is Lee Kon­stan­ti­nou, and I’m an addict. I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, diver­sion and inattention.

I haven’t reached bot­tom yet, but I’m still embar­rassed to be mak­ing this admis­sion in pub­lic. After all, as an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor, it’s my job to pay atten­tion. You could say that hav­ing a lit­er­a­ture Ph.D. means claim­ing to have a capac­ity to pay atten­tion. It’s called close read­ing for a reason. An addic­tion to dis­trac­tion is extremely inconvenient for aspiring close readers.

How­ever, I’ve increas­ingly become con­vinced that my strug­gle against dis­trac­tion isn’t inci­den­tal to my job. As dis­trac­tions esca­late, cul­ti­vat­ing close atten­tion only grows more impor­tant. It’s my job to teach stu­dents how to focus, how to over­come the same distraction-addiction I strug­gle with daily. This is why I ban lap­tops – and grouse when stu­dents ask to bring e-books – in class. They get in the way of clear think­ing and sus­tained atten­tion, I say.

Which is true. But I’m also skep­ti­cal of nar­ra­tives that vil­ify tech­nol­ogy. If online media weren’t dis­tract­ing us, some­thing else would get in the way (a lovely sum­mer day, for instance). Before the Inter­net stoked my dis­trac­tion addic­tion, TV did a fine job of keep­ing me away from what some second-order part of me wanted to be doing. Complicating matters further, the Inter­net has become a vital part of my lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship, a nec­es­sary tool for writ­ing. Google Books and Google Scholar are the great­est resources ever invented for aca­d­e­mics. If any­thing, these ser­vices haven’t gone far enough in mak­ing text elec­tron­i­cally available.

So which is it? Is the Inter­net a scourge or a boon for the reader? By say­ing that I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion rather than some­thing more amor­phous – like “the Inter­net” or “social media” – I hope my view is plain. Our dis­cus­sions about the future of the book often devolve into a com­par­i­son of so-called e-books and p-books. This dis­course is apoc­a­lyp­tic in tone, often zero-sum in its logic. P-book par­ti­sans such as Sven Birk­erts and Jonathan Franzen fear the diabolical reign of e-books. Others argue for the supe­ri­or­ity of e-books. In The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas claims that e-books can help us exam­ine “unex­am­ined assump­tions about the moral, intel­lec­tual, and archival worth of paper and print” (xiv). P-books, mean­while, are his­tor­i­cally impli­cated in per­pet­u­at­ing “cus­toms of exclud­ing, intim­i­dat­ing, defil­ing, and behav­ing vio­lently toward those who are per­ceived as social or eco­nomic infe­ri­ors” (xii).

This way of talk­ing incor­rectly assumes that books are some­how autonomous. It isn’t ever books – whether e- or p- – that exclude or defile. It’s peo­ple or groups of peo­ple who do, with technological assistance. This means that any dis­cus­sion about the future of read­ing needs to think not only about the form of new read­ing devices but also about the con­text or sit­u­a­tion of reading.

The real divi­sion isn’t between e- and p-books, but between read­ing plat­forms that facil­i­tate long-form atten­tion and those that don’t. When I say I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, what I mean is that my cur­rent read­ing habits don’t mesh well with exist­ing reading plat­forms. That’s why peo­ple want soft­ware like Free­dom or Anti-Social. Internet-enabled readers make it hard to resist the temp­ta­tion to divide our focus.

If this is the case, why not just stick with good old p-books? They’re quite good at keep­ing us on task. It’s true. This is why lap­tops, mobile devices and (when pos­si­ble) e-books ought to be banned from class­rooms. This is why, when I moved into my cur­rent apart­ment, I decided to con­vert a large walk-in closet into a ded­i­cated read­ing room. I put in a book­shelf, an IKEA Poäng and a foot­stool, and I made a pact not to allow elec­tronic devices into the read­ing closet. Free­dom requires lim­i­ta­tion. Fulfilling our second-order desires depends on our ability to regulate our less enlightened impulses.

The prob­lem is that I’m not only a reader but also a scholar, and my schol­ar­ship would be impov­er­ished if I didn’t have access to online resources. To do my job effectively, I have to sit in front of a temptation machine for hours at a time, which makes it hard to treat my dis­trac­tion addiction.

What I want is a book that tran­scends the dis­tinc­tion between e- and p-. I want a book – maybe I should call it a book sys­tem – that trav­els with me into dif­fer­ent con­texts of read­ing with­out los­ing its iden­tity. Some­times, I want to sit down with a book, walled off from the Internet, and just read it. At other times, I want to be able to anno­tate a book, to search it, to write a com­men­tary linked to spe­cific pas­sages in it, to link my com­men­tary to a com­mu­nity of dis­course on the book, to con­struct longer-form reflec­tions on it. Some­times I want my book system to help keep me focused on reading; some­times I want it to allow me to access larger net­works. Dif­fer­ent form fac­tors – and read­ing con­texts – facil­i­tate dif­fer­ent stages in this process. At the moment, we live in an ecol­ogy of incom­pat­i­ble, often poorly designed devices and read­ing plat­forms. A bet­ter read­ing world would allow seam­less move­ment between con­texts and plat­forms. A bet­ter sys­tem would help read­ers do the kind of read­ing they need to do at the times they need to do it.

My read­ing closet has more to teach us about the future of read­ing than any par­tic­u­lar new e-reader plat­forms. It’s my machine for man­ag­ing atten­tion. It’s a space – I might go so far as to say an insti­tu­tion – within which new read­ing habits can emerge. In A Room of One’s Own, Vir­ginia Woolf argued that women very lit­er­ally need room to facil­i­tate writ­ing. Read­ers too, just as much as writ­ers, need a room, a mate­r­ial infra­struc­ture, to facilitate reading. A read­ing closet is one tech­nol­ogy for doing this. If I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, it’s my recov­ery program.

So: ignore the gadget-obsessed, platform-mongering tech­nol­o­gists. The future of read­ing is the future of sit­u­a­tions, insti­tu­tions and habits of reading.