Thoughts on The Future of Books

March 14th, 2007 · 5 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

We find that we’re having some difficulty synthesizing the “Future of the Book: Dead or Alive” panel we attended on the final day of the hectic, overwhelming 2007 South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Perhaps it’s because the topic requires far longer than a one hour session. Perhaps it’s because we’re still wrapping our rain-soaked mind around the definitions of “future” and “book”. Or perhaps it’s because there wasn’t a single representative of today’s publishing establishment on the panel.

It isn’t about the future of books; it’s about the future of reading.

We will acknowledge that this particular panel was not named “Future of the Book Publishing Industry”, but, well, you know, seems to us that if you’re going to talk about the future of the book, you might want to look to the thoughts of major and independent publishers. Not only do they have a vested interest in the topic — they probably also have more than a few articulate thoughts on the topic.

We don’t wholly blame those who pulled this panel together; we’ve noted the dearth of mainstream publishing professionals at the conference (though, we will happily acknowledge that we found several well-qualified and appropriately connected attendees to take the stage; even our modest contributions on this topic would have been welcome). That, of course, is no excuse. The panel, moderated by Peter Merholz (Adaptive Path), who holds a long-time interest in this topic, consisted of Brewster Kahle (Archive.org), Terri Ducay (Cheskin), and Eileen Gittins (Blurb.com). Also in attendance, or rather sitting in the audience, was Adam Mathes, the associate project manager for Google Book Search.

Merholz started the panel with the very real question of what makes a book a book. Ostensibly it’s the ideas contained in the work, but his own work* on this subject suggests that books are far more than the words inside. He chose, rather deliberately, the word “fetishize” to describe some reactions by readers to books (you know, you know, the smell-of-books crowd), acknowledging that moving beyond this issue is more complex than one would imagine. It was helpful when Kahle asserted that the future of books is, without question, digital.

Fair enough. We imagine that with very few exceptions, all books submitted and published in the past ten years are already in digital format, if only for the publisher’s in-house use. That leads to one issue; the other, as noted by Kahle and Mathes, is the vast, messy library of human knowledge known as the undigitized masses. Far more books are analog than digital, and it’s hard to see the point where that balance changes, despite the fact that decent scans of books run about ten cents a page or $30 a book (give or take). Such are the thoughts that one has as one grows older.

Once a book is digitized, what then? Kahle comes from the school where information must and can be free. Mathes argued that monetization allows Google to achieve some sort of return on investment (this would also go for Microsoft, who didn’t seem to be in the room despite the imminent launch of their own book search/scan project). Nobody argued on behalf of the publishers who are using proprietary systems for in-house projects, but we’ll conjecture that they fall more on the side of Google than Kahle. This is only a guess.

While Archive.org makes it easy to repurpose work any which way one can, Google doesn’t exactly stop people people from grabbing items from their public domain library. He noted that Google is requesting that users observe a certain netiquette that recognizes the investment being made by the company, saying “We would not like you to scrape the entire collection and put them elsewhere. That would not be good for Google, which is a public corporation.”

One business model relies on general public goodwill, including corporate donations, while the other is good old-fashioned business. This interesting (and, by interesting, we mean you can feel the tension between the two men) interaction between Kahle and Mathes about the public’s freedom to reuse the public domain works in Google’s library highlighted the fact that our discussions about this topic will be very different five years from now. Incredible effort is being put into digitizing the world’s knowledge (ye olde Library of Alexandria thing), but it’s unclear if either model is sustainable in the long run. Even at the low price of $30 a book, that’s a lot of money being spent.

As the actual digitization, the scanning, if you will, of books was being debated, Professor John Slatin posed an interesting question to the panel: what of the blind readers (and with an aging population, not to mention record numbers of war wounded, this is a very good point). Scans aren’t necessarily readable by blind consumers — they require access to text that can be read by screen readers. While Kahle indicated that his products are made available in text format via Project Gutenberg and LibraVox (audio books), Mathes noted that there are contractual restrictions to this.

Which provides an opportunity for us to tell the publishing industry: get over the DRM hurdles! We have heard the rather lame argument that allowing screen readers to read the text out loud violates contractually defined audio rights. This is a gross misreading of what these rights represent (can you see our blood pressure rising. Again.). We’ve also heard the “piracy” argument. Digital books that are inaccessible not only lock out potential readers — readers who have embraced this concept because it allows them to actually, well, acquire and read books at a reasonable price — but it also increases the potential for discrimination lawsuits. This is America, and suing other people is our national right.

As Ducay noted, the one thing she hears little about when these topics are discussed is user experience. So much of the discussion revolves around marketing and market share, yet the actual users are left out of the equation. The future of the book depends largely on how well publishing entities are able to offer readers the experience they (the readers, not the publishers) want. Whether it be loading audiobooks on an iPod, sitting down at a computer to read long or short text, or curling up with a good book, it’s important to let the consumers define how they want to interact with their reading material.

This reminded us that we’re still not seeing enough of the book people talking to the technology people. We often mention the importance of search as a tool for finding and reading books and other information. The comments from Slatin show that book people would do well to listen to other voices — it’s not just the blind who benefit from accessible reading materials. At the very least, the choices being made by the book people regarding the technology should be, at least somewhat, informed by that which is sustainable and usable.

After writing through our thoughts on the panel (far more coherent than we anticipated when beginning this post), we’re still not sure what the future of the book might be. We do know there will be books because, well, people like books. We like books. We like books so much that we resort to underhanded deception to mask our like from the husband. But it isn’t really about the future of books, is it? It’s about the future of reading, and we haven’t even begun to have that discussion.

(Yes, we failed to talk about the Blurb.com concept; honestly, it’s very cool and has some fascinating application, but it didn’t quite fit into this discussion. We’re saving it for another post.)

* – We can’t seem to find the original article being discussed here; if anyone has a link to the piece, we would be eternally grateful. No, our eternal gratitude will not buy you a Porsche, but, brownie points are just as much fun.

[tags]books, publishing, drm, sxsw 2007 sxswi 2007, future of books[/tags]

File Under: The Future of Publishing

5 responses so far ↓

  • Morris Rosenthal // Mar 15, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    Love to get some brownie points, but not sure which article you were referring to in the link to the discussion from 1999 on Greenspun’s board. Merholz refers to the Drucker article in Atlantic and Small’s “Rethinking the Book” dissertation, both of which are available through Google Scholar (links too big to paste in).

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 15, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    I’m free and easy with the brownie points (also I think I owe you an email, argh, so far behind). I was actually referring to the article written by Merholz himself. I believe it’s on the archived version of his website and I didn’t see a search function, and, well, you know, so little time, so many links to track down.

    Enjoy the points — they’re low cal. Mostly.

  • Morris Rosenthal // Mar 17, 2007 at 6:15 pm

    OK, I’m guessing you mean his essay “What makes a book a book?” from 1999, that was lost and then found by a mysterious “Lindsay” and republished by Merholz on September 14th, 1999 on his blog (down near the bottom):

    http://www.peterme.com/browsed/browsed090899.html

    It reminds me of something I wrote myself on returning from the Electronic Book 2000 conference put on in D.C. by the National Institute of Standards. Needless to say, everything was resolved and all in e-book land has been hunky-dory since:-) That article is title “What’s in a Name” and starts about halfway down the page at,

    http://www.fonerbooks.com/naming.htm

    I ended with a definition of terms:

    “Post Office” – 1. Coming after the office. Usually refers to the period of time coming after the “information age” and before ” Aquarius.”

  • Robert Nagle // Mar 21, 2007 at 7:41 am

    (a response to this post and your other one about SXSW).

    I was at SXSW and probably attended several of the same panels as you–although I haven’t the foggiest idea who you are 🙂

    The print world doesn’t know what to make of the interactive conference. It has more of a workshop feel than a commercial feel.

    SXSW is more about indie media and promotion/marketing and cross-pollination. For example, three of my most interesting/useful sessions I attended for me as a writer was the lonelygirl panel and one on remixing video and gamer Richard Garriot’s panel on storytelling.

    One thing publishers are doing at SXSW is using the lure of free book copies to interest SXSW organizers to start panels around their “media celebrity.” When a panel description contains a messsage that “100 free copies of this book will be handed out to the audience,” you know you are becoming an unwitting part of a publicity campaign.

    BTW, I attended a future of the book panel. The panelists had interesting perspectives, but really had little idea what was going on in the digital publishing world (although the audience seemed to). I (who write for teleread.org , a site that covers the ebook world) was particularly astonished that Kahle went on record as saying that ebooks were unlikely to amount to anything anytime soon.

    Interestingly last year, they had a literary conference next door going on at roughly the same time as SXSW. Writers had no idea SXSW even existed, and interactive people had no idea the literary conference was going on. (I would have attended but never heard about it–I would have liked to meet Mumpsimus, for example, who was there).

    Literary pursuits are moving towards collaboration (see for example http://ficlets.com/ ), so it only makes sense that the interactive sessions would be useful for people trying to start stuff. SXSW has been particularly good about providing pointers about cultivating an online community. Publishers don’t know how to sell an “online experience” or experimental storytelling. They are more comfortable selling conventional forms of storytelling. On the other hand, this is a really good crowd for lulu and blurb.

    BTW, I am happy to report that I did not blog once about any of the panels I attended this year. (I blogged about it for my city paper last year as was exhausted).

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 21, 2007 at 10:13 pm

    It’s okay, Robert, my mother isn’t sure who I am. She knows I’m one of the whiny ones, but it’s hard to tell, specifically, where I fall in the queue (I resent this, of course, being the oldest and her favorite, but, well, what can I do?).

    I would like to state for the record that I have met Mumpsimus more than once, and, yeah, you want to know him. He’s great. He’s lovely. He’s my kind of guy. I met him last year when the AWP was inadvertently holding their conference at the same time SXSW was happening. Another litblogger and I snuck out of the “how to blog when you don’t wanna” session to watch the AWP blog session.

    As for publishers “knowing” the online culture, well, a few do. Jeremy from Penguin gets it, absolutely. He’s not an editor who thinks about what the web can do for him; he actually uses the web as part of his life. Now I’m not suggesting that I know anything about his secret activities, but…

    Did you hit the fictional characters blog? I haven’t had a chance to write about that yet, but it was great. Too short. Too much information to digest in a half hour, too much information to cover. I wanted more — and I rarely say that about conference panels.