More on books: fiction v. nonfiction

In the continuing discussion about books, Eoin Purcell, who has had a number of interesting posts on the matter, adds a fascinating speculation:

:It would be excellent if you Biology textbook were hyperlinked to bring you relevant text and images as you cram for some final exam, brilliant indeed to have the entire resources of the web organised for you and connected to from a single source.

I do wonder though at what point the book as such ceases to exist and becomes simply an access point to information rather than the source itself. I am not saying this is a negative rather that at some point you the amount of linking and directing changes the book from the product offering the information to one pointing you in the general direction of the information.

This echoes what the head of Gruner + Jahr said about journalists becoming moderators.

Purcell and one of his commenters also quite rightly challenge me on whether my own speculation about books applies to fiction. I think much of it doesn’t. I was never one of those who believed that technology would allow us to create our own endings to movies or books. Stories are the creation of an author; they do have their own beginnings and ends.

And so Purcell takes this one step farther and suggests that the future of books may have two separate trajectories: fiction and nonfiction. He writes:

Are we then creating a twin track of books, Non-Fiction which will whiz ahead and, by the sounds of the current discussion, become something new (I think calling it a book will become redundant if the features discussed become reality) and Fiction tied to the format that has seen it through so many changes already? And if we are is that such a bad thing? I am sure Fiction authors will avail of the possibilities of the new offerings when they emerge.

Yes, I don’t think that most fiction would benefit from links and discovery through tagging and other such wonders of the modern age. But one benefit of the internet novelists are starting to discover is that they can now have a direct relationship with their audiences, which will at least help them sell their next books and perhaps will let them go around or strengthen their positions with the middlemen: the publishers and booksellers.

  • Thanks for the shout out Jeff.

    One minor quibble I do have with your perspective is a concern that although, as you say, authors have a new relationship with the audience, this is mediated by search engines and sellers like Amazon. I fear greatly that these services will become the new gatekeepers. Certainly the profit motive would encourage them to do so. It is the reason big Publishers are so jealous of the likes of Google Book Search, it could directly affect their profits and control of content.

    It would be a shame if the internet and technology liberated us from one set of gatekeepers and prepared the path for another set to take up where the last few left off.

  • Eoin,
    I think it’s a chicken-egg matter. Authors who have audiences now can use their books to create and maintain relationships with readers. But, you’re right, in a world without marketing by publishers — oh, we’re there already, aren’t we? — then others will act as middlemen. Or then again, maybe not: Maybe in fiction, if authors are online, links (recommendations from friends and real people) can become a powerful force as well….

  • There are many thriving online communities and sites devoted to spreading the word about little-known works of fiction, non-fiction, works by foreign authors (not translated into English), etc. There’s a huge conversation about books taking place online. The lit world has yet to acknowledge it.

    The same lit world has yet to acknowledge that Bush is president, that computers make your life and your job easier, and that the world isn’t flat, however. Plus, they’re not the ones who are holding back the revolution. It all revolves around licensing issues: who’s gonna get paid for the content, how much, and how. And digitizing your back catalogue is a huge investment. Google has the money. Publishers don’t.

    Yes: hands-off fiction. But I think you’ll find that you want to keep hands off many non-fiction books as well: everything from the big biographies to nonfiction narratives to memoirs to popular histories, etc. Also, authors will want to keep their works whole. Don’t underestimate that, or their reasons. Some of it really is art, and not meant for mashing-up. And it is their work, and the decision should be theirs.

    Which doesn’t mean all of it shouldn’t be available digitally, in various formats, and that there shouldn’t also be value-added stuff (maybe like the supplementary materials PBS offers on its Frontline website) and that people shouldn’t start to apply themselves and start thinking about and creating the book world they want to inhabit in the future.

    Apparently, Carly Fiorina had many choice words for publishers, telling them that they will not be able to hold back the tide and should stop trying. She also said some really stupid things about the editorial process, though, so she may have shot herself in the foot.

  • Shalom Jeff,

    In general I agree with you. Books that are storage media for information are a waste of paper, recycled or otherwise. I don’t know how any of the encyclopedia/almanac publishers expect to stay in business.

    In discussing this with some friends over the weekend we talked about the reasoned work of non-fiction; the book that is about something, but is not about facts. You cannot cherrypick information from such a book.

    Points of view, observations and realities remain subjective. I think it is only that universe of books that deal in objective information that can truly be said to be in danger.

    One of the reasons I say that is because paper remains the most stable information platform we have. And with the increasing paranoia surrounding information piracy, we can expect distributors to make in increasingly difficult to migrate information across media, dooming in some cases information not deemed valuable enough to transfer by the distributor.


    Jeff Hess

  • Works of fiction are books in themselves and generally do not need external links. However, I can see a use for them, particularly in older books. Sometimes meanings change and references which would have made sense at the time no longer make sense. It would be nice to have a dictionary of sorts to help get the most out of the books.

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