The iTunization of Books

Good piece in yesterday’s NYT about the future of books. Yes, we’ve been there before but this piece by Motoko Rich does a good job of bringing new elements and old elements to play, from MarK Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions to Yochai Benkler, a Yale University law professor and author of the new book “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom” (Yale University Press), [who] has gone even farther: his entire book is available — free — as a download from his Web site.

So what is the future of books. I think the important distinction to be made first is between books that are read and books that are referred to. The latter is anything with an index. Sure, people read them cover to cover too, but they are retained in libraries and on your shelves when you need to refer back to something, and you usually do that via the index. Indexes are old hat, and ripe for innovation. That innovation is digitization. Once the information, previously locked up in analog format, its accessibility dependent on the agility and diligence of the indexer, is free, the full potential of the book is realised. That’s why I think all reference books should be digitized, and offered in digital format by their publishers. It’s as simple as the way Google liberated the Internet.

So the real issue is about the first category: the books that are read for their own sake. This is more difficult. Such books offer us not just a bit of reading pleasure, but an invitation to enter a universe created by the author. And it doesn’t have to be fiction; travel, history, even economics — any subject where the author has embraced the form that books offer to emerge with a body of work that is designed to be digested as a body of work. If you get my drift.

Now I’m a bit of a conservative. I think this format works because it is the best delivery mechanism for this thing. The book has been proven to work better than all other forms of delivery and writers have, over the centuries, explored the format and made it the success it is. This, I believe, will continue to work.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other kinds of “book”. There’s no reason that the “iTune-isation” of music — where the music industry has had to adapt to the rise of the single digital music track download and the demise of the “album” (and presumably the “concept album”) — can’t continue to make inroads to reading (although a whole other subject here is the possible collapse of concentration, focus and flow that arises from this).

And then there’s the idea of “book mashing”, where books are no longer the result of one person’s creative genius, but the combination of a writer and her fans’ comments and contributions, or simply an online collaboration a la Wikipedia.

Then there’s the economics of book publishing. This need to be addressed elsewhere, but publishing definitely needs the shakeup other media are experiencing, and Print on Demand and digital books are providing that. Can only be a good thing, so long as it leads to, or continues to offer, compensation for the creator. A creator needs to eat. (Really. We’re not just skinny through lifestyle choice.)

The final word in the NYT piece goes to Mr. Danielewski, second novel, “Only Revolutions,” will include hundreds of margin notes listing moments in history suggested online by fans of his work. He reckons that “the bar that the Internet is driving towards: how to further emphasize what is different and exceptional about books.” In the end this is what we can hope for from the Internet’s rude bumping up against entrenched ways of doing things.

3 thoughts on “The iTunization of Books

  1. Coming from the far side of conservative, and being rampantly against digital books (although I would agree with you on the reference side – indexing is far easier and faster in a digital format) I just can’t see the majority of digital books ever being popular. Whatever the improvements in tablet / reader technology, it’s just not the same experience as having a real book in your hands, reading and actually turning pages.

    I’m curious – why do you think that publishing needs to be shaken up? What’s wrong with the current model?

    I also think that book mashing would be the one of the worst idea ever conceived. Allowing fans to have a say in what is written is surely a slippery slope towards sloppy fiction, shoddy writing style, and really, really bad stories. You’ve only got to look at what happened to Jasper Fforde’s novels post-The Eyre Affair – he started taking advice from his fans, and the quality of the books plummeted.

    I love technology, but it has its limits.

  2. Christian, I’m with you on this. But my desire to see the publishing industry shaken up is based on the highly objective observation that they didn’t fall over themselves with excitement about my as yet unpublished, unrepresented opus. Clearly an industry in need of change.

  3. Well perhaps you should rethink the synopsis. I’ll be honest – I couldn’t muster much excitement about the adventures of Octagon Jewel and his young sidekick Datavision on their epic quest to implement LGX Info and escape the evil clutches of JewelVision ERP…

    Maybe children’s fiction just isn’t for you?

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