Posts about Book

Guardian column: The future of books?

My Media Guardian column this week distills many of the posts here about the future of books. (Nonregistration version here.) Excerpt:

We need to kill the book to save books. Now relax. I’m not suggesting burning books, nor replacing them with electronic gizmos in some paperless future of fable and fantasy. Instead, I’m merely arguing that the book is an outdated means of communicating information. And thanks to the searchable, connected internet, books could be so much more.

Yet efforts to update the book are hampered because, culturally, we give extreme reverence to the form for the form’s sake. We hold books holy: children are taught there is no better use of time than reading a book. Academics perish if they do not publish. We tolerate censors regulating and snipping television but would never allow them to black out books. We even ignore the undeniable truth that too many books, and far too many bestsellers, are pap or crap. All this might seem to be the medium’s greatest advantage: respect. But that is what is holding books back from the progress that could save and spread the gospel of the written word.

When I wrote this on my blog, defenders of the printed faith came after me with pitchforks and cries of, “Philistine!”

: LATER: Motoko Rich in The NY Times today writes about the digital revolution coming to publishing, whether publishing wants it or not:

Hovering above the discussion of all these technologies is the fear that the publishing industry could be subject to the same upheaval that has plagued the music industry…

That seems to assume that there’s a chance publishing can avoid the digital revolution. That horse is over the horizon already.

As a researcher and scholar, Anne Fadiman, author of “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” and “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader,” thinks a digital library of all books would be a “godsend” during research, allowing her to “sniff out all the paragraphs” on a given topic. But, she said: “That’s not reading. For reading, you have to read a book in its entirety and I think there’s no substitute for the look and feel and smell of a real book — the magic of the paper and thread and glue.”

How silly — and ultimately restrictive and damaging — to have an orthodoxy defining “reading.” But that’s where we are.

And let’s deal with that smell meme now: There is nothing in the smell of books that adds to the learning and enjoyment. We associate that smell with reading the way we associate the smell of vinyl with a new car. I’ll be our children have the same association of wonder and enrichment with the sight of a white screen or the smell of a laptop overheating.

On Kevin Kelly’s ode to the connected book in the Times Magazine:

“Does that mean ‘Anna Karenina’ goes hand in hand with my niece’s blog of her trip to Las Vegas?” asked Jane Hamilton, author of “The Book of Ruth” and a forthcoming novel, “When Madeline Was Young.” “It sounds absolutely deadly.” Reading books as isolated works is precisely what she wants to do, she said. “When I read someone like Willa Cather, I feel like I’m in the presence of the divine,” Ms. Hamilton said. “I don’t want her mixed up with anybody else. And I certainly don’t want to go to her Web site.”

How fatuous. Listen, Willa Cather is on the shelves now next to Danielle Steel. But don’t worry: Willa won’t get any on her.

I pick on the lead-type Luddite moments in the story, but it also does a very good job pointing to the enthusiasts and success stories, including Yochi Benkler’s new book on networks (which, irony, o irony, i just ordered from Amazon). And this:

For unknown authors struggling to capture the attention of busy readers, however, the Web offers an unprecedented way to catapult out of obscurity. Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer who started a political blog, “Unclaimed Territory,” just eight months ago, was recruited by a foundation financed by Working Assets, a credit card issuer and telecommunications company, to write a book this spring. Mr. Greenwald promoted the result, called “How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values From a President Run Amok,” on his own blog and his publisher e-mailed digital galleys to seven other influential bloggers, who helped to send it to the No. 1 spot on Amazon.com before it was even published. This Sunday it will hit No. 11 on the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list. “I think people who are sort of on the outside of the institutions and new voices entering will be a lot more excited about this technology,” Mr. Greenwald said. “That’s one of the effects that technology always has. It democratizes things and brings in new readers and new authors.”

Say amen.

Of course, what this all comes down to is money. I do not blame authors for wanting to get paid — any more than I blame journalists, musicians, or TV producers. But trying to make money by stopping people from what they want to do, preventing them from enjoying your work the way they want to enjoy it, won’t work.

Mr. Benkler, the Yale professor and author, argues that people will continue to pay for books if the price is low enough. “Even in music, price can compete with free,” Mr. Benkler said. “The service has to be sufficiently better and the moral culture needs to be one where, as an act of respect, when the price is reasonable, you pay. Its not clear to me why, if people are willing to pay 99 cents for a song they won’t be willing to pay $3 for a book.”

And some needed context:

In the context of history, the changes that today’s technology will impose on literary society may not be as earth-shattering as some may think. In fact, books themselves are a relatively new construct, inheritors of a longstanding oral storytelling culture. Mass-produced books are an even newer phenomenon, enabled by the invention of the printing press that likely put legions of calligraphers and bookbinders out of business.

: LATER: Here are comments on the column on Comment is Free.

The new role of authors and publishers

Ben Vershbow from the amazing Institute for the Future of the Book responds to some of my recent posts on the future of the tome and suggests I look at the experience they’ve had with GAM3R 7H30RY, an online book where the people are part of the process.

Since the site launched, discussion here at the Institute keeps gravitating back to the shifting role of the author. Integrating the text with the discussion as we’ve done, we’ve orchestrated a new relationship between author and reader, merging their activities within a single organ (like the systole-diastole action of a heart). Both activities are altered. The text, previously undisturbed except by the author’s hand, is suddenly clamorous with other voices, and McKenzie finds himself thrust into the role of moderator, collaborating with the reader on the development of the book….

Eventually, if selections from the comments are integrated in a subsequent version — either directly in the text or in some sort of appending critical section — Ken could find himself performing the role of editor, or curator. A curator of discussion…

Or perhaps that will be our job, the Institute. The shifting role of the editor/publisher.

See also this post quoting the head of Gruner + Jahr on the notion of the journalist becoming a moderator.

The book thing

I thought I was writing about the fates of books only lately. Then — like Dave Winer digging into the archives — I found this post from four years ago as I was doing research on a book proposal on books (irony acknowledged).

Blog or perish

Prof. Susan Crawford wonders whether blogging is a professorial endeavor — that is, whether it should count for the final exam of the teaching set: tenure. In an interview with fellow profs, she said:

I took a “law professors are people too” approach to the questions we were asked. I see scholarship and blogging as separate endeavors, and I enjoy getting the chance to speak here without footnotes. I feel as if I’m part of an enormous collaborative and creative endeavor online. I don’t expect for a moment that my colleagues will consider my posts when I’m up for tenure.

Ah, but isn’t the link the new and improved footnote? Doesn’t Technorati provide a new and open form of peer review? And isn’t it wonderful to get a professorial perspective in a timely manner? I was grateful the other day when I could go to Prof. Jack Balkin’s blog soon after the Supreme Court’s whistlestopping decision and get his learned analysis.

No — surprise — I am not suggesting that blogging should replace traditional scholarship and publishing; there is, of course, a need for research, consideration, review, and publishing (digitally, too!). But I’ll argue here — as I do in the discussion about books and in the discussion about journalists blogging — that we are better off with both. Now that the internet gives us this new opportunity to talk with and listen to the public from our perches, why wouldn’t we grab it?

If professors blog as professors, they bring their scholarship and perspective to a larger world. That is good for their scholarship — conversation yields learning as people question and challenge and add to what you say — and, presumably, it is good for the world if they contribute knowledge and perspective to the public discussion. Professors need to come down from the tower and peek through the ivy; they need to return to the public square, just as my blogging friend and teacher Prof. Jay Rosen says that journalists should end the separation they put between themselves and the public they serve. In fact, I will argue that when the restructuring that is coming to every other profession thanks to the internet inevitably comes to the academe — when people will find the learning they want in more places and the role of universities and their faculties goes through upheaval just like the role of journalists and newspapers — then the academics and the institutions that are open to the world will be in a better position to survive and prosper and matter. So MIT is right to put its curriculum online. And professors are right to blog.

I’ve been thinking about this not only in the context of journalists who blog but academics who blog because I’ll soon be — or will attempt to be — both, when I start teaching at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism in September. My own blog will continue to be me — that is, a mix of blatherings about media and journalism but also rants about Dell and personal notes about 9/11 and Howard Stern moments like the post directly below. Think of it as my end of a college cocktail party: some collegial debate about professional topics and some personal chatter, the more of the latter the later the night gets. I would not require students to read my blog (though I suppose that’s not much different from making them buy your own book for a class). But I will be aware that they may see what I say here and if they do, I hope they challenge me on it. I’ll also be aware that fellow faculty may read it and may have cause to argue with it. I’d relish that, and I’d bet the students would … if that were a discussion via links among mutual blogs.

So, yes, I think that journalists should blog because it is good for them to open the process of journalism, to meet and respond to the public they serve, and to invite that public into that process to improve it.

And I think that professors should blog — should take advantage of this new form of publication, that is, if it’s appropriate to their specialties and styles — because they should be generous with their knowledge and they would benefit from the conversation and because their institutions would benefit from building a new relationship with the public. So, yes, I think that blogging can and should count toward tenure, if universities are smart.

And I say that not just because I despair at finding the time to write one of those old-fashioned things called books.

: LATER: See, too, Ryan Sholin.

Humbug

John Updike, old fart, is turning out to be no ally of modernity. Last week, he took to the podium at BookExpo and railed against the mere notion of making books digital.

Today, he tells the the Times about understanding a cuddly Islamic terrorist in his new book:

When Mr. Updike switched the protagonist’s religion to Islam, he explained, it was because he “thought he had something to say from the standpoint of a terrorist.”

He went on: “I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system. Nobody’s trying to see it from that point of view. I guess I have stuck my neck out here in a number of ways, but that’s what writers are for, maybe.”

He laughed and added: “I sometimes think, ‘Why did I do this?’ I’m delving into what can be a very sore subject for some people. But when those shadows would cross my mind, I’d say, ‘They can’t ask for a more sympathetic and, in a way, more loving portrait of a terrorist.’ ”

Ahmad is lovable, or at least appealing; he’s in many ways the most moral and thoughtful character in the entire book, and he gains in vividness from being pictured in that familiar Updikean setting, the American high school….

“Terrorist” even includes some Koran passages in Arabic transliteration; Shady Nasser, a graduate student, helped Mr. Updike on those sections. “My conscience was pricked by the notion that I was putting into the book something that I can’t pronounce,” he said, but he added: “Arabic is very twisting, very beautiful. The call to prayer is quite haunting; it almost makes you a believer on the spot. My feeling was, ‘This is God’s language, and the fact that you don’t understand it means you don’t know enough about God.’ “

The end of booksellers. Long live, uh, Wal-mart?

Iain Dale writes that the continuing consolidation in the British bookselling business — which has long-since happened here — means:

The only way publishers can give this discount is to concentrate their efforts on bestsellers and to put all their marketing resources behind comparatively few books. The publishing sector has reflected its bookselling counterpart and seen many smaller publishing houses gobbled up by the bigger ones, as they struggle to compete. In turn this has meant fewer books being publishing and a contraction in range. So although the consumer wins on cover price, it loses out on choice. Some independent booksellers don’t even bother to sell Harry Potter books because Tesco is selling it more cheaply than the bookseller can buy it from the publisher. It’s not uncommon to see small independent booksellers piling up their supermarket trollies down at Asda, looking slightly sheepish as they do so. This is because the publisher gives Asda a 60-65% discount, while the small bookseller will get 40% if he’s lucky. And on top of that Asda is likely to sell the book as a loss leader.

Amazon offers a standard 30-40% discount on most non-academic titles, so it has been able to establish a dominant market position in online bookselling. It has been so successful that 80% of people who buy anything online, buy from Amazon at some point. So there’s the background – now for the prediction. I foresee that within ten years the independent bookshop will have disappeared from our town centres, all bar a few retired individuals who have got money to throw down the drain. Even second hand bookshops are disappearing at a fair old rate, as most people now buy their used books through Abebooks.

All the more reason for all the more writing to come online. [via Clive Davis]

Irony is not dead

I quote in full from Ironic Sans:

This cliché is dead. Long live this cliché!

Things that are proclaimed dead yet hailed to be long living:

Devo • The book • The internet • DEC • The Designer • Economics • Java • Email • Eminent Domain • The Human Rights Council • Layout • Clint the chimpanzee • Grokster • Environmentalism • Tax reform • Television • The Assessor • The peace process • The wolf • Yahoo! • PageRank • The kiosk • Microsoft Bob • Robin Hood • Camper Van Beethoven • Internet radio • Romanticism • Firefox Help • Wikipedia • DVD • PGP • Microsoft • AllofMP3 • Documentary • The King

And irony.

The book of the future

In the continuing discussion about the future of books, Infotainment Rules points us to Galleycat‘s discovery of a Library Journal interview with Ben Vershbow of The Institute for the Future of the Book, where he’s working on a project called Sophie:

This summer, it will release the first version of Sophie, an “all-purpose tool” for creating multimedia texts. Like the institute itself, Sophie’s mission is both simple and complex: to help authors easily create books that use any medium…. It’s a key goal, because the future of the book lies in the hands of authors first. Give them the tools they need to deliver dynamic, digital books, and dynamic digital books will flourish.

From the Q&A with Vershbow:

Q: You write about the “social life” of books, and I know you don’t mean where books go to hang out and cross-reference. What do you mean?

A: Well, to a certain extent, I do mean that books will be able to go hang out and cross-reference. I think digital libraries will be in constant communication with each other, sharing patterns of use, exchanging user-created metadata, building maps of meaning out of the recorded behaviors and interests of readers. Parts of books will reference parts of other books. Books will be woven together out of components in remote databases and servers. So, in some ways books will have a life of their own. But you’re right, what I’m getting at primarily is the social life of readers and authors that will exist around and inside of books.

Q: How do you see that developing?

A: Soon, books will literally have discussions inside of them, both live chats and asynchronous exchanges through comments and social annotation. You will be able to see who else out there is reading that book and be able to open up a dialog with them. You already see evidence of this in Wikipedia’s “discussion” pages and revision histories where the writers and editors negotiate the collaborative development of articles. Wikipedia is a totally new kind of book in that it is never static, always growing. It has boundaries, but these boundaries are always shifting and are highly porous. We also see social interaction in the reading and interpretation of texts-on blogs, for example, discussion forums, social bookmarking sites, Amazon reader reviews, and thousands of nonpublic venues like [discussion lists] and email. Again, this sort of interaction is not inherently new, but the Internet allows it to be recorded, aggregated, and woven together in astonishing new ways that defy geography and time.

Q: Is blogging a good example of this?

A: In many respects, the blogosphere is a society of readers, all publishing their notes and reflections in real time and linking to fellow readers….

At the institute, we talk about “the networked book.” This involves many of the things we’ve talked about already-the book as a place, as social software-but basically we’re talking about the book at its most essential, a structured, sustained intellectual experience, a mover of ideas-reinvented in a peer-to-peer ecology. The structure part is crucial, though. Whereas the web is a massive, diffuse array, more like a library than an individual book, a book provides some sort of shape, even if that shape is malleable and the boundaries porous, even if the edges of books overlap. A good future of the book is one that combines the best qualities of physical books with the best qualities of the network….

Q: What future for the print book? Is it even conceivable that future generations will eschew the benefit of multimedia?

A: It’s really impossible to predict exactly what will happen to print books. Of one thing, though, I am pretty certain: the main arena of intellectual discourse is moving away from print to networked, digital media. That doesn’t mean that certain forms of print books will not persist. In fact, the mass migration to computers and the Internet in some ways serves as a foil for print, dispensing with its more circumstantial uses and highlighting its most essential virtues. There are certain kinds of books I’m convinced will cease to exist on paper: directories, reference works, textbooks, travel guides, to name a few. But deep, linear narrative works read for pleasure like novels, biographies, and certain forms of history may persist in print for some time. Then again, this could simply be a generational question. People raised with high-quality electronic reading devices, using only multimedia electronic texts in school and forming little or no attachment to dead-tree media, may consider paper books at best fascinating antiquities, at worst, inert, useless things.

I want visit their laboratory!