A book publisher's manifesto - Part II

Continuing my six part epic essay on the future of publishing. If there is one.... As digital reading devices go, Amazon’s Kindle is probably the first to at least recognise the importance of the ‘connectivity’ between our differing modes of reading, the fact that readers might like to follow up references within the text or to conduct a related search. The addition of wireless connectivity to the device and the capacity (although frustratingly limited) to connect to blogs, online newspapers and other web-based content goes some way towards recognising this as well as to acknowledging the fragmented, ‘always on’ nature of most people’s reading habits today, allowing readers to move seamlessly from reading a few pages of a novel, say, to snacking on some news, before picking up a couple of blog feeds. This is absolutely not to say that the Kindle has tied up the future of digital reading and defined what the experience should be; far from it. It signals a step change in that it connects downloadable digital units of reading matter (‘eBooks’) with the more exploratory-style online reading and researching, and it is the first device to be intrinsically connected to a commercially viable eBook platform. However, the Kindle is merely one device with one very specific agenda and, as such, it only provides one small, rather flawed element of the picture that is emerging of a future for digital reading.

Reading is not an activity that can be defined simply and it is all too often described as a solitary, immersive experience, as in the experience of reading a novel for hours at a time. This is only one type of reading, and it is important to recognise that narrative fiction makes up less than 25% of the entire book market. In any case, even if a reader spends some solitary time reading, readers have always traditionally liked to swap views and ideas about the content of books, to turn over the corners of pages in which favourite passages appear to which they want to refer again, and to write notes in the margins. Reading is a much less passive activity than it at first appears, and it is connected with many and diverse related activities. The Internet has not created a more active or proactive approach to reading but it has enhanced it, enabled it to happen across more disparate networks and allowed it to be recorded, aggregated and interlinked in exciting new ways. The way in which books might begin to ‘live’ on the Internet will perhaps be the most palpable incarnation of Roland Barthes’ theories in The Death_of_the_Author, in which the author is no longer the focus of creative influence but merely a scriptor, and every work is “eternally written here and now,” with each re-reading, because the “origin” of meaning lies exclusively in “language itself” and its impressions on the reader.

Publishers need to provide the tools of interaction and communication around book content and to be active within the digital spaces in which readers can discuss and interact with their content. It will no doubt become standard for digital texts to provide messaging and commenting functions alongside the core text, to enable readers to connect with other readers of the same text and to open up a dialogue with them. Readers are already connecting with each other – through blogs, discussion forums, social book-marking sites, book cataloguing sites and wikis. Publishers need to be at the centre of these digital conversations, driving their development and providing the tools for readers to engage with the text and with each other if they are to remain relevant. Bob Stein at the Institute for the Future of the Book talks about "the networked book." … the book as a place, as social software - but basically .. the book at its most essential, a structured, sustained intellectual experience, a mover of ideas - reinvented in a peer-to-peer ecology.”

I like Chris Meade’s not drowning but waving illustrating how publishers should not hold on too tight to the shores as we set sail into future waters:

“We (a novelist friend and I) visit(ed) a fish shop by the river that was flooded out. They’d only just opened an extension built at a height recommended by a local fisherman who had told them, “That’s as high as the tide went nine years ago – you’ll be all right.” They weren’t.

Bloggers mix text with still images with moving pictures embedded from YouTube etc. – young people take that media mix for granted, and as consumers we all do, watching tv adaptations of favourite books, using the web to research more about the author to discuss at our reading group. A new generation of more consciously transliterate reader will take it as read that the text is surrounded by researches, images, networks of reader response to the point where these become an entirely integral part of the work of art, the author’s creative voice distinct but no longer so alone. The flooded fields are rather beautiful and it’s already hard to recall what the landscape looked like before. Nature can adapt instantly to change; it takes longer to redraw the maps.”

Not all books need to be networked books. There will still be a place for that deeply immersive, solitary reading, I hope, in the future. But publishers had better be the ones defining what the shape of a ‘networked book’ should be nonetheless, because if they are not someone else sure as hell will be.

A book publisher’s manifesto for the 21st century

Over the next few days I am going to blog a piece I have written for a US-based library journal, Library Trends, on how traditional publishers need to position themselves in the changing media flows of a networked era. It's a very long article so I'm gonna serialise it and blog it in six 'bite-sized' chunks over six days. Here's the introduction, which aims to set the picture. Scary. Print sales are falling. According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2007 report To Read or Not to Read both reading standards and voluntary reading rates of traditional print material amongst young people are falling. Textbook publishers are fighting for sales; campaigning to alert students to the necessity of using their products. Hardback fiction has almost gone the way of the dinosaur. The open access debate rages on. Publishers and retailers have consolidated. More and more books are produced, but there is less and less choice on the high street. Leisure time is transferring away from books and reading, away from television even, to the Web; to social networking sites, blogs, instant messaging, video and music file sharing sites. The attention economy is shrinking, fast. Academic research is – for many students – all about search. Let’s face it, for most students, actually, it’s all about Google. Who needs books anymore? More to the point, who needs publishers?

In an ‘always on’ world in which everything is increasingly digital, where content is increasingly fragmented and ‘bite-sized’, where ‘prosumers’ merge the traditionally disparate roles of producer and consumer, where search replaces the library and where multimedia mash-ups – not text - holds the attraction for the digital natives who are growing up fast into the mass market of tomorrow, what role do publishers still have to play and how will they have to evolve to hold on to a continuing role in the writing and reading culture of the future? Will there even be a writing and reading culture as we know it, tomorrow? Is the publishing industry acting fast enough and working creatively enough to adapt to the new information and leisure economies?

Publishing is an old and established industry with its foundations firmly rooted in print culture. The publishing model has evolved over history in a very slow, organic fashion. The sedate pace of change has suited publishers. Stated simply, the journey of a text from author to reader has been a linear one, with publishers traditionally fulfilling the intermediary roles of arbiter, filter, custodian, marketer and distributor. There has been some blurring at the edges, some tinkering with the process, but little radical change. In the literary world, agents have, at least partially, usurped the arbiter and filter roles. Retailers have become, to some extent, marketers and, occasionally, have even become publishers themselves. However, by and large, the stages in the process have been clearly delineated and the role of the publisher clearly defined. From a print perspective at least, publishers have offered one key, relatively unique set of abilities: to produce, store and distribute the product to the market. The rise and rise of the Internet has begun to disrupt this linear structure and to introduce the circularity of a network. More challengingly, perhaps, it has raised the distinct possibility of publisher disintermediation by more or less removing as an obstacle the one critical offering previously unique to publishers - distribution.

Publishers – and, importantly, authors - will need increasingly to accept huge cultural and social and economic and educational changes and to respond to these in a positive and creative way. We will need to think much less about products and much more about content; we will need to think of ‘the book’ as a core or base structure but perhaps one with more porous edges than it has had before. We will need to work out how to position the book at the centre of a network rather than how to distribute it to the end of a chain. We will need to recognise that readers are also writers and opinion formers and that those operate online within and across networks. We will need to understand that parts of books reference parts of other books and that now the network of meaning can be woven together digitally in a very real way, between content published and hosted by entirely separate entities. Perhaps most radically, we will have to consider whether a primary focus on text is enough in a world of multimedia mash-ups. In other words, publishers will need to think entirely differently about the very nature of the book and, in parallel, about how to market and sell those ‘books’ in the context of a wired world. Crucially, we will need to work out how we can add value as publishers within a circular, networked environment.

One of the key perception shifts that publishers need to make, then, is about the book as ‘product’. Whilst the book continues to be viewed as a definable object within covers, as a singular ‘unit’, publishers will continue to limit their role in its production and distribution, and this is a sure fire way for publishers to write themselves out of the future of content creation and dissemination. There are two areas of activity in the linear progression of a text between author and reader which have previously remained hidden to the reader: the development of the text itself; the writing and editing process, and the sales, marketing and distribution of the text. Readers have traditionally had no role in the former and only a limited role in the latter, through word of mouth recommendations or viral marketing. It is likely that today’s digital natives, who have become ‘prosumers’ (producer / consumers) with alarming speed and perhaps even more alarmingly different levels of proficiency, will expect a great deal more involvement in both of these areas of activity if they are to be engaged by texts. Witness two main stream examples, the Star Wars films and the Harry Potter books and films, both of which have developed massive prosumer (or ‘superfan’) followings, and both of which have seen conflict between the film companies and the fans that are creating content.

A minority of publishers have begun to experiment with the blurring of these traditionally distinct boundaries already. Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail was of course written ‘in public’ via a blog, allowing readers to post comments and to be involved in the very act of writing the book. O’Reilly’s Rough Cuts make a virtue of the concept of developing a book online first and have established a business model for combining pre-publication and post-publication access. McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory was also blogged before it was produced as a book, allowing readers to post comments and to make suggestions about the shape of the book. GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 was “a first stab at a new sort of “networked book,” a book that actually contains the conversation it engenders, and which, in turn, engenders it.” At http://www.futureofthebook.org/mckenziewark/ readers can read the original version (v1.1), view the fully annotated version with all the reader comments alongside the core text, read v2.0, join a related discussion forum or view visualisations of theories within the text.

The locked-in perception of the book as a unit or a product has also led to digital ‘strategies’ which largely consist of the digitisation of existing print texts in order to create eBooks. This in turn has led to an obsessive focus on the reading device and a perception that the emergence of a ‘killer device’ will be a key driver in unlocking a digital future for books in the way that the iPod was, say, for music. This is a flawed perspective in a number of ways, not least because it fails to recognise the enormous amount of online or digital ‘reading’ that already takes place on non-book-specific devices such as desktop PCs, laptops, PDAs and mobiles, but also because it fails to recognise that the very nature of books and reading is changing and will continue to change substantially. What is absolutely clear is that publishers need to become enablers for reading and its associated processes (discussion; research; note-taking; writing; reference following) to take place across a multitude of platforms and throughout all the varying modes of a readers’ activities and lifestyle.