Exploding books II: Person v. paper

Authors are breaking free of paper.

Note: Harper Collins started changing the book yesterday, announcing that it would now create and sell audio content with and around authors and books. The publisher is also making it possible to browse inside books on its own site and elsewhere. “We want to reach consumers wherever they are, however they wish to experience our authors and their words,” said Jane Friedman, President and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide. Now that’s the ticket. Next add to this New York Times story about publishers making videos — trailers — about books and authors to promote them. And we start to hear authors’ voices beyond print.

The audio deal is with iAmplify. Yesterday its cofounder, Jack Hidary, called to talk about it. He said this is not yet about audio books but instead about hearing the authors in new ways — and making money from it. So when an author gives a lecture, you can now buy it. Or they will have stars — Blythe Danner, Meryl Streep, Jeff Goldblum — reading bits of authors’ work. Some of it will be promotional and free but Hidary said the primary goal is new revenue.

Now this may start to look like what Kevin Kelly proposed in the New York Times magazine — to which John Updike so strenuously objected: the notion that authors may make their money from performance over print, that books become — like CDs for some acts — the value-added that sells the tickets. Now I do understand Updike’s objection from his perspective: He worked hard to write a book and now he still has to sing for his supper?

But look at all this instead from the audience’s perspective: What if I do want to hear the author and what the author says but don’t necessarily want to read the book? Isn’t it good to have options? And isn’t it good for the author to be heard by more people — and make money from it?

This is not really new. The real reason I read much of what I do in book reviews is not to decide to buy the books but instead to find out enough about them that I don’t have to buy them. No, I’m not using reviews as cocktail-party CliffsNotes, avoiding books I’d otherwise read — cheating, in short. There are plenty of books I don’t want to read but I do want to know what they say, hear some of the ideas in them. Book reviews help answer that need.

Lectures do, too, and thanks to podcasts, I now get to hear more authors. I listened to lectures at the Hay Festival in the UK on my iPod — bought a half a dozen of them, even. I just described to a series of talks at the National Constitution Center and heard the author of American Gospel, Jon Meacham, talk about his ideas. If I had time, I’d certainly like to read his book. But frankly, my backlog is too great; I won’t get around to it. At least I have heard some of what he has to say and I’m glad.

So why not give the audience these options? Buy the book in print, if you like. Buy the book on demand or online. Buy the audio book. Or don’t buy the book and hear the author. Go to a lecture. Buy the lecture online. Listen to a podcast talk with the author. Read the author’s blog. Subscribe to the author’s feed. Watch the video.

If the ideas get out there, isn’t that the goal, no matter the medium? I think in our worship of the book, we end up valuing the form over the substance, the page over the ideas on it. So I am glad to hear authors’ voices and ideas in new ways. It’s not about the book. It’s about the knowledge.

: AND: This advice from Seth Godin:

Understand that a non-fiction book is a souvenir, just a vessel for the ideas themselves. You don’t want the ideas to get stuck in the book… you want them to spread. Which means that you shouldn’t hoard the idea! The more you give away, the better you will do.