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.