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Excerpt from The Book Ends

Here is the first of a series of excerpts from my early drafts of a book I am writing about the future of books. Not the future of e-books, which we will eventually recognize as another dimension of recorded thought that lives within the continuity of the idea we call “books,” though outside the confines of what a book is today. These excerpts are my notes, at this point, useful for the final draft I will produce. I’d sure appreciate any thoughts you’d like to add in comments.

The concept of the book, a manifold notion of words or pictures between two covers, has come to the end of its useful life. In a digital world, the organizing principles that made a book the logical package for the ideas of a single author or collective act of authorship has come to a fork in its road. On the one hand the paper book will always be around, while perhaps not so commonplace as it is today, to be appreciated and enjoyed, passed from hand to hand by collectors and people who appreciate an object of beauty, whether that beauty comes from the packaging or the words within.

This book, however, is about the road beyond the other fork. It leads to the end of books defined by their pages and covers, it leads to communities of ideas built sometimes by one author, often by many, and always involving a conversation amongst the readers. Conceiving of something that isn’t just a book will allow humanity to begin the long experimentation with media that solves the problems of how to produce, deliver and pay for everything from the news to the next great novel. It will also lay down the highlights of a map of new regions of literature, research, poetry and more. When words on a page become exportable, can be shared and annotated by every reader, every title in the library becomes a portal to communities, discussion, argument, debate and differences of opinion. Something new is born when we stop thinking that the book or the newspaper or magazine or literary journal or poetry chapbook must start with the front cover, a single copyright date, and a static text followed by the back cover.

What is this new form of the book? Is it the e-book so many people have tried to bring to life during the past 20 years? It’s much more, because the e-book has always presumed that with digital technology behind the text nothing has changed about the text itself. It still belongs within the confines of its virtual covers. The text becomes a product, mere content that can be “perfectly copied” without any change in the quality of the experience of reading. Yet, reading is only the first step of the communication that takes place within societies and between generations. Where the author was the primary producer of the book the reader is the major contributor to the e-book, or whatever we choose to call the post-book text.

Books—for now, the word is necessary to comprehension—are being transformed from containers into conduits. Granted, they have been conduits before, but they were slow carriers of ideas. Today can convey messages that are not part of the original text instantly. An individual copy of an e-book is an end point of, a doorway to, a conversation that takes place in real-time or over years. That conversation will be richer than disconnected conversations about ideas, because the book itself will also be an evolving reference that augments the initial statements of members of a discussion by providing a direct link between text on the page and the readers, and collects the growing corpus of conversation and related information that modulate the original text. In the same way a salon develops a personality that flavors the conversation of visitors, giving it a unique flavor because of all that has been said in the room before as much as, or more, than what is being said on the particular night.

Readers bring a book to life. The activity of reading, of discussing, of critiquing and sharing books from generation to generation and from community to community or reader to reader turns what were dead words on a page into living experience. Even great works, such as Joyce’s Ulysses, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, would be like corpses in the grave without the reader who digs them off the shelf to read. Every time a book is opened the words are resurrected. They stand alone as social links between writers and readers, as well as between readers, a unique medium that carries spirits from place to place and time to time. There is a reason movies are never as good as the book: cinema presents a single vision, the dream of the filmmakers, against which our imagination must contend or to which our imagination submits, as compared to serving as a partially blank page on which readers imagine with the help of the written word. The margins and white space on a page have grown and contracted over generations as printers and church or state censors attempted to limit the readers’ range of freedom.

The keystone of literature is a double concept folded back on itself, the world that reads in the world that is described by writers. The tension of the writer’s vision against the reader’s is the foundation and provides the energy that brings words to life. Out of that experience of reading communities of interest have grown for centuries, sometimes starting like wildfire in the pages of a pamphlet and spreading across a nation as revolution, sometimes appearing quietly and slowly as a work of literature that transforms readers for generations. Just one book can give rise to entire university departments, and in the slower times of print dissemination of ideas we needed these institutions to propel ideas forward. Today, for better or worse, ideas leap beyond the boundaries of the page and the book to create conversations across the Internet, talk radio, television and the telephone networks.

Despite the connected times, today’s e-books are for the most part stories without a community. They cannot be passed along conveniently across many different devices, annotated by excited readers and reflective critics for the next person who will pick up the book, nor placed back on the shelf to be accidentally discovered by someone days or years later. Instead, e-books are highly specialized artifacts currently designed to take limited advantage of the capabilities of software and hardware readers in the marketplace at the lowest possible cost, both the demands it makes upon the underlying technology and market perceptions that the ideas contained in books are less valuable than the pages they’ve been printed on for the past 500 years.

E-books are incredibly isolated texts that rebel against an age in which communication, give-and-take discussions, angry debate, shared attention and sharing of links flavor every aspect of newly written words. Our video communication is on the verge of being completely two-way,  highly egalitarian forms of  artistic and commercial expression. An e-book that can’t be discussed from within its pages with other readers is less than a printed book that I can open, point to a passage, and share with someone sitting next to me. Most reading has been isolated experience, an artifact of a turn in publishing and society that was ushered in by Victorian sensibilities, but the web has destroyed the expectation of quiet contemplative interaction between an author who, once they’ve finished the book, remains silent, and the reader who no matter how actively they consume the written word, has no channel for responding to the author within the pages of the book. The e-book as it exists today is a book without community.

E-books are a flat tire, delivering less than their analog predecessors, making extraordinary demands on the reader and doing everything they can to limit ideas to the confines of the page.  Like buying a flat tire and fixing it before you can drive on it, the e-book often requires its new owner download and transfer their copy to a device, the login to the booksellers’ website and authenticate the book before reading. They can’t hope in most cases to run the book application on another device or to share notes between devices. They can’t hand the book to a friend without losing access their device and can’t read other titles that friends may own on their reader device. Just as a flat tire is no good for driving on the freeway the e-book makes building a community an exercise and sitting by the road watching the traffic go by.

The state of text today is came about because publishers are frightened that they’ll no longer be able to earn their profits from working with authors, marketing and distribution of words on the page. Consider, for example, how the audio book market has trailed far behind even that slow-moving behemoth the music industry with regard to making books available without encryption, or digital rights management, to “protect” the contents of a book. This hasn’t happened because audio book developers such as Audible Inc. insists that products they distribute be encrypted, but as a result of the major publishers making digital rights management (DRM, a way of limiting the copying of a digital title) a requirement in any distribution agreement they offered publishers. The publishers have demanded DRM be in place before they expose their audiobooks to the public.

In publishing copyright is supposed to serve the same purpose as inertia in the physical world, enforcing a stationary condition that makes it, at best, hard to copy published works. It is fear over the loss of future profits that has held back the development not just of e-books but also of audiobooks, new forms of news delivery, and the wholesale migration of human intelligence from the printed page to the webpage.

Many writers will object that their work is not intended for a community, that it should stand alone and for itself. And that may be true, or was, for books that find no audience. A book that become a part of readers’ lives, a part of literature, is more than the isolated text on the page and authors have increasingly found themselves just one more voice in a global discussion of their work. That doesn’t diminish the importance of authorship. Writing a book, indeed writing an article, is an act of intellectual leadership. It takes some nerve to put ideas before the public, as many bloggers can attest after being flamed by critics. However, the day when, at deadline, a writer submits a manuscript and is done with the document or story for good is passing. Successful authors, even those who work in isolation during their lifetime, have always entered into dialogue with their times or with history. The contemporary work of authorship appears more complex because the Internet accelerated communication with the audience so much over the past 20 years. The work of today’s authors face the kind of scrutiny and barrage of criticism in a year that an author 100 years dead would have withstood during an entire lifetime simply because the velocity of conversation and dissemination is so much greater. E-books need to take a step, a step up, to meet the changed demands of readers in an interactive information age.

What will make e-books different? What will make the matter more than a printed book to most readers who cherish the experience of reading more than having a first edition on their bookshelves? What will also make maintaining an enduring conversation with readers a more convenient and stimulating part of the writing process? The answer to all these questions is network connectivity within the book. Delivering on this functionality will take much more than some clever hacking of e-book hardware, IP networks or software. Networking in this era of the social media has clearly become more complicated than the traditional distribution of an application, gaining users and riding the adoption curve to success—now, the content of software must earn new attention and importance for users every day, because there is always something new contending for their time and money. Nevertheless, networking is the basis of clever design and radical transformation of genres.

When authors can talk with audiences through their texts the creation, marketing and sales of books, studies, novels, coffee table books, poetry, nonfiction, historical fiction, religious titles, self-help books, and many other of the familiar forms of the printed book will change dramatically. In some cases, the participation of readers will drastically expand the scope of “a book” beyond its conception, authorship, editing and production, making a continuing discussion of the ideas the author introduced a valuable part of readers lives and a tool for debate in society. Some books will memorialize an event and their value will be in holding a static representation in place for future reflection.

The possibility that a book, or any work of writing and collecting information, could find its genesis and community action versus the mind of a single author points to the future for news production and distribution. Just as we collect books today, we might collect all the news stories—in text audio and video—that we find interesting and a personal clip book that becomes a chronicle of our own life and times. And our notes and conversation about events would become part of that collection, a kind of memoir that grows with the individual reader over the course of their life. In that case, the newspaper or the evening newscast becomes only another chapter or just a page of a book. Books in the future will not be assumed to be discrete works, they could be open repositories for the collections of many people’s perspectives about events. We might collect those perspectives as aggregated accounts of history, with each reader having a lens made of differing perspectives provided by many people who preceded them to the text. If only a fraction of this vision were to come true the idea of the “covers of a book” and what goes between will have been exploded.

So all we need is networking technology in our books? No, of course not. Just as the transition from scribal production of texts in limited numbers— and scribes were capable of producing hundreds of copies of a book—to the printed word radically altered access to information, the addition of communication to written works will change the notion of authoring and the value of readership. What will emerge from this storm of change is something new. I hope they give you a few ideas that will help inspire your thinking about the future of the book, and to establish discussion that draws writers, publishers, booksellers, critics, teachers, and readers into a growing dialogue. In many ways, this book is an experiment in a new form before that form is available.

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