Category Archives: e-publishing

The Future of the Book is the Future of Society

I’m in Milan for the ifbookthen conference. Corriere della Serra (the leading Italian newspaper) asked me for an opinion piece they could publish in La Lettura, their weekly magazine, on the occasion of the meeting. This is what I gave them.
The Future of the Book
As someone who made the leap from print to electronic publishing over thirty years ago people often ask me to expound on the “future of the book.” Frankly, I can’t stand the question, especially when asked simplistically. For starters it needs more specificity. Are we talking 2 years, 10 years or 100 years? And what does the questioner mean by “book” anyway? Are they asking about the evolution of the physical object or its role in the social fabric?
It’s a long story but over the past thirty years my definition of “book” has undergone a major shift. At the beginning I simply defined a book in terms of its physical nature — paper pages infused with ink, bound into what we know as the codex. But then in the late 1970s with the advent of new media technologies we began to see the possibility of extending the notion of the page to include audio and video, imagining books with audio and video components. To make this work conceptually, we started defining books not in terms of their physical components but how they are used. From this perspective a book isn’t ink on bound paper, but rather “a user-driven medium” where the reader is in complete control of how they access the contents. With laser videodiscs and then cd-roms users/readers started “reading” motion pictures; transforming the traditionally producer-driven experience where the user simply sat in a chair with no control of pace or sequence into a fully user-driven medium.
This definition worked up through the era of the laser videodisc and the cd-rom, but completely fell apart with the rise of the internet. Without an “object” to tie it to, I started to talk about a book as the vehicle humans use to move ideas around time and space.
People often expressed opposition to my freewheeling license with definitions but I learned to push back, explaining that it may take decades, maybe even a century for stable new modes of expression and the words to describe them to emerge. For now I argued, it’s better to continuously redefine the definition of “book” until something else clearly takes its place.
A Book is a Place
In 2005 when the U.S. based Macarthur Foundation gave me a huge grant to explore how publishing might evolve as it moves from the printed page to the networked screen I used the money to found what I playfully named The Institute for the Future of the Book. With a group of young people, just out of university and coming of age in the era of the social web, we carried out a number of experiments under the rubric of “networked books.”
This was the moment of the blog and we wondered what would happen if we applied the concept of “reader comments” to essays and books. Our first attempt, McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, turned out to be a remarkably lucky choice. The book’s structure — numbered paragraphs rather than numbered pages — required my colleagues to come up with an innovative design allowing readers to make comments at the level of the paragraph rather than the page. Their solution to what at the time seemed like a simple graphical UI problem, was to put the comments to the right of each of Wark’s paragraphs rather than follow the standard practice of placing them underneath the author’s text.
Within a few hours of putting Gamer Theory online, a vibrant discussion emerged in the margins. We realized that moving comments from the bottom to the side, a change that at the time seemed minor, in fact had profound implications. Largely because Wark took a very active role in the unfolding discussion, our understanding at first focused on the ways in which this new format upends the traditional hierarchies of print which place the author on a pedestal and the reader at her adoring feet. With the side-by-side layout of Gamer Theory‘s text and comments, author and reader were suddenly occupying the same visual space; which in turn shifted their relationship to one of much greater equality. As the days went by it became clear that author and reader were engaged in a collaborative effort to increase their collective understanding.
We started to talk about “a book as a place” where people congregate to hash out their thoughts and ideas.
Later experiments in classrooms and reading groups were just as successful eventhough no author was involved, leading us to realize we were witnessing much more than a shift in the relationship between author and reader.
The reification of ideas into printed, persistent objects obscures the social aspect of both reading and writing, so much so, that our culture portrays them as among the most solitary of behaviors. This is because the social aspect traditionally takes place outside the pages — around the water cooler, at the dinner table and on the pages of other publications in the form of reviews or references and bibliographies. In that light, moving texts from page to screen doesn’t make them social so much as it allows the social components to come forward and to multiply in value.
And once you’ve engaged in a social reading experience the value is obvious. Contemporary problems are sufficiently complex that individuals can rarely understand them on their own. More eyes, more minds collaborating on the task of understanding will yield better, more comprehensive answers.
Our grandchildren will assume that reading with others, i.e. social reading, is the “natural” way to read. They will be amazed to realize that in our day reading was something one did alone. Reading by one’s self will seem as antiquated as silent movies are to us.
The difficult thing however about predicting the future of reading is that everything i’ve said so far presumes that what is being read is an “n-page” article or essay or an “n-page,” “n-chapter” book,” when realistically, the forms of expression will change dramatically as we learn to exploit the unique affordances of new electronic media. Ideally, the boundaries between reading and writing will become ever more porous as readers take a more active role in the production of knowledge and ideas.
Clemens Setz, the author of the literary novel Indigo watched the conversation unfold as 40 students in a class at Hildesheim University outside Berlin carried out an extensive conversation with over 1800 comments. At a recent symposium Setz said that knowing his readers would be playing an active role in the margin will effect how he writes; he’ll make room for their participation.
Follow the Gamers
And lest, you think this shift applies only to non-fiction, please consider huge multi-player games such as World of Warcraft as a strand of future-fiction where the author describes a world and the players/readers write the narrative as they play the game.
Although we date the “age of print” from 1454, more than two hundred years passed before the “novel” emerged as a recognizable form. Newspapers and magazines took even longer to arrive on the scene. Just as Gutenberg and his fellow printers started by reproducing illustrated manuscripts, contemporary publishers have been moving their printed texts to electronic screens. This shift will bring valuable benefits (searchable text, personal portable libraries, access via internet download, etc.), but this phase in the history of publishing will be transitional. Over time new media technologies will give rise to new forms of expression yet to be invented that will come to dominate the media landscape in decades and centuries to come.
My instinct is that game makers, who, unlike publishers, have no legacy product to hold them, back will be at the forefront of this transformation. Multimedia is already their language, and game-makers are making brilliant advances in the building of thriving, million-player communities. As conventional publishers prayerfully port their print to tablets, game-makers will embrace the immense promise of networked devices and both invent and define the dominant modes of expression for centuries to come.
The Future of the Book is the Future of Society
“The medium, or process, of our time — electric technology — is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life.
It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing: you, your family, your education, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your relation to “the others. And they’re changing dramatically.” Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message
Following McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis, a persuasive case can be made that print played the key role in the rise of the nation state and capitalism, and also in the development of our notions of privacy and the primary focus on the individual over the collective. Social reading experiments and massive multi-player games are baby steps in the shift to a networked culture. Over the course of the next two or three centuries new modes of communication will usher in new ways of organizing society, completely changing our understanding of what it means to be human.

the book is reading you

I just noticed that Google Book Search requires users to be logged in on a Google account to view pages of copyrighted works.
google book search account.jpg
They provide the following explanation:

Why do I have to log in to see certain pages?
Because many of the books in Google Book Search are still under copyright, we limit the amount of a book that a user can see. In order to enforce these limits, we make some pages available only after you log in to an existing Google Account (such as a Gmail account) or create a new one. The aim of Google Book Search is to help you discover books, not read them cover to cover, so you may not be able to see every page you’re interested in.

So they’re tracking how much we’ve looked at and capping our number of page views. Presumably a bone tossed to publishers, who I’m sure will continue suing Google all the same (more on this here). There’s also the possibility that publishers have requested information on who’s looking at their books — geographical breakdowns and stats on click-throughs to retailers and libraries. I doubt, though, that Google would share this sort of user data. Substantial privacy issues aside, that’s valuable information they want to keep for themselves.
That’s because “the aim of Google Book Search” is also to discover who you are. It’s capturing your clickstreams, analyzing what you’ve searched and the terms you’ve used to get there. The book is reading you. Substantial privacy issues aside, (it seems more and more that’s where we’ll be leaving them) Google will use this data to refine Google’s search algorithms and, who knows, might even develop some sort of personalized recommendation system similar to Amazon’s — you know, where the computer lists other titles that might interest you based on what you’ve read, bought or browsed in the past (a system that works only if you are logged in). It’s possible Google is thinking of Book Search as the cornerstone of a larger venture that could compete with Amazon.
There are many ways Google could eventually capitalize on its books database — that is, beyond the contextual advertising that is currently its main source of revenue. It might turn the scanned texts into readable editions, hammer out licensing agreements with publishers, and become the world’s biggest ebook store. It could start a print-on-demand service — a Xerox machine on steroids (and the return of Google Print?). It could work out deals with publishers to sell access to complete online editions — a searchable text to go along with the physical book — as Amazon announced it will do with its Upgrade service. Or it could start selling sections of books — individual pages, chapters etc. — as Amazon has also planned to do with its Pages program.
Amazon has long served as a valuable research tool for books in print, so much so that some university library systems are now emulating it. Recent additions to the Search Inside the Book program such as concordances, interlinked citations, and statistically improbable phrases (where distinctive terms in the book act as machine-generated tags) are especially fun to play with. Although first and foremost a retailer, Amazon feels more and more like a search system every day (and its A9 engine, though seemingly always on the back burner, is also developing some interesting features). On the flip side Google, though a search system, could start feeling more like a retailer. In either case, you’ll have to log in first.

the future of academic publishing, peer review, and tenure requirements

There’s a brilliant guest post today on the Valve by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, english and media studies professor/blogger, presenting “a sketch of the electronic publishing scheme of the future.” Fitzpatrick, who recently launched ElectraPress, “a collaborative, open-access scholarly project intended to facilitate the reimagining of academic discourse in digital environments,” argues convincingly why the embrace of digital forms and web-based methods of discourse is necessary to save scholarly publishing and bring the academy into the contemporary world.
In part, this would involve re-assessing our fetishization of the scholarly monograph as “the gold standard for scholarly production” and the principal ticket of entry for tenure. There is also the matter of re-thinking how scholarly texts are assessed and discussed, both prior to and following publication. Blogs, wikis and other emerging social software point to a potential future where scholarship evolves in a matrix of vigorous collaboration — where peer review is not just a gate-keeping mechanism, but a transparent, unfolding process toward excellence.
There is also the question of academic culture, print snobbism and other entrenched attitudes. The post ends with an impassioned plea to the older generations of scholars, who, since tenured, can advocate change without the risk of being dashed on the rocks, as many younger professors fear.

…until the biases held by many senior faculty about the relative value of electronic and print publication are changed–but moreover, until our institutions come to understand peer-review as part of an ongoing conversation among scholars rather than a convenient means of determining “value” without all that inconvenient reading and discussion–the processes of evaluation for tenure and promotion are doomed to become a monster that eats its young, trapped in an early twentieth century model of scholarly production that simply no longer works.

I’ll stop my summary there since this is something that absolutely merits a careful read. Take a look and join in the discussion.

last week: wikipedia, r kelly, gaming and google panels, and more…

Here’s an overview of what we’ve been posting over the last week. As well, a few of us having been talking about ways to graphically represent text, so I thought I would include a mind map of this overview.


As a follow up to the increasingly controversial wikipedia front, Daniel Brandt uncovered that Brian Chase posted false information about John Seignthaler that was reported here last week. To add fuel to the fire, Nature weighed in that Encyclopedia Britannica may not be as reliable as Wikipedia.
Business Week noted a possible future of pricing for data transfer. Currently, carries such as phone and cable companies are developing technology to identify and control what types of media (voice, images, text or video) are being uploaded. This ability opens the door to being able to charge for different uses of data transfer, which would have a huge impact on uploading content for personal creative use of the internet.
Liz Barry and Bill Wetzel shared some of their experiences from their “Talk to Me” Project. With their “talk to me” sign in tow, they travel around New York and the rest of the US looking for conversation. We were impressed at how they do not have a specific agenda besides talking to people. In the mediated age, they are not motivated by external political/ religious/ documentary intentions. What they do document is available on their website, and we look forward to see what they come up with next.
The Google Book Search debate continues as well, via a panel discussion hosted by the American Bar Association. Interestingly, publishers spoke as if the wide scale use of ebooks is imminent. More importantly and even if this particular case settles out of court, the courts have a pressing need to define copyright and fair use guidelines for these emerging uses.
With the protest of the WTO meetings in Hong Kong this past week, new journalism forms took one step forward. The website Curbside @ WTO covered the meetings with submissions from journalism students, bloggers and professional journalists.
McDonalds filed a patent which suggests that it intends to offer clips of movies instead of the traditional toys in their kids oriented Happy Meals. Lisa pondered if a video clip can successfully replace a toy, and if it does, what the effects on children’s imaginations might be.
R. Kelly’s experiments in form and the “serial song” through his Trapped in the Closet recordings. While R Kelly has varying success in this endeavor, Dan compared the experience of not only the serial novel, but also Julie Powell’s foray into transferring her blog into book form and what she might have learned from R. Kelly (its hard to make unified pieces maintain an overall coherency.)
The world of academic publishing was challenged with a proposal calling to create an electronic academic press. This segment seems especially ripe for the shift to digital publishing as many journals with small circulations face raising printing and production costs.
Sol and others from the institute attended “Making Games Matter,” a panel with contributors from The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, edited by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. The discussion covered among other things: involving the academy in creating a discourse for gaming and game design, obstacles in studying and creating games, and the game “industry” itself. The book and panel called out for games and gaming to undergo a formal study akin to the novel and the experience of reading. Also, in the gaming world, the class economics of the real and virtual began to emerge as a Chinese firm pays employees to build up characters in MMOGs to sell to affluent gamers.

the net as we know it

There’s a good article in Business Week describing the threat posed by unregulated phone and cable companies to the freedom and neutrality of the internet. The net we know now favors top-down and bottom-up publishing equally. Yahoo! or The New York Times may have more technical resources at their disposal than your average blogger, but in the pipes that run in and out of your home connecting you to the net, they are equals.
That could change, however. Unless government gets pro-active on the behalf of ordinary users, broadband providers will be free to privilege certain kinds of use and certain kinds of users, creating the conditions for a broadcast-oriented web and charging higher premiums for more independently creative uses of bandwidth.
Here’s how it might work:
So the network operators figure they can charge at the source of the traffic — and they’re turning to technology for help. Sandvine and other companies, including Cisco Systems, are making tools that can identify whether users are sending video, e-mail, or phone calls. This gear could give network operators the ability to speed up or slow down certain uses.
That capability could be used to help Internet surfers. BellSouth, for one, wants to guarantee that an Internet-TV viewer doesn’t experience annoying millisecond delays during the Super Bowl because his teenage daughter is downloading music files in another room.
But express lanes for certain bits could give network providers a chance to shunt other services into the slow lane, unless they pay up. A phone company could tell Google or another independent Web service that it must pay extra to ensure speedy, reliable service.

One commenter suggests a rather unsavory scheme:
The best solution is to have ISPs change monthly billing to mirror cell phone bills: X amount of monthly bandwidth any overage customer would be charged accordingly. File sharing could become legit, as monies from our monthly bills could be funneled to the apprioprate copyright holder (big media to regular Joe making music in his room) and the network operators will be making more dough on their investment. With the Skypes of the world I can’t see this not happenning!
broadband ad blocks text.jpg
It seems appropriate that when I initially tried to read this article, a glitchy web ad was blocking part of the text — an ad for broadband access no less. Bastards.


Kathleen Fitzpatrick has put forth a very exciting proposal calling for the formation of an electronic academic press. Recognizing the crisis in academic publishing, particularly with the humanities, Fitzpatrick argues that:
The choice that we in the humanities are left with is to remain tethered to a dying system or to move forward into a mode of publishing and distribution that will remain economically and intellectually supportable into the future.
i’ve got my fingers crossed that Kathleen and her future colleagues have the courage to go way beyond PDF and print-on-demand; the more Electrapress embraces new forms of born-digital documents especially in an open-access pubishing environment, the more interesting the new enterprise will be.

NYPL ebook collection leaves much to be desired

I just checked out two titles from the New York Public Library’s ebook catalog, only to learn, to my great astonishment, that those books are now effectively “checked out,” and cannot be downloaded again by anyone else until my copies time out.
It boggles the mind that NYPL would go to the trouble of establishing a collection of electronic titles, only to wipe out every advantage offered by digital texts. In fact, they do more than simply keep the ebooks on the level of print, they limit them further than that, since there are generally multiple copies of most print titles in the NYPL system.
The people responsible for this catalog have either entirely failed to grasp the concept of infinitely accessible, screen-based books, or they grasp it all too well and are trying to stunt it at its inception, perhaps out of fear of extinction of the print librarian. More likely, they are under heavy pressure by a paranoid copyright regime. Whatever the reason, the new ebook catalog shows a total lack of imagination and offers nearly no tangible benefit for the reader.
Beyond that, the books themselves are poorly designed and unpleasant to read. My downloaded copy of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which, by the way, I found in the “Romance” section) evidences no more than ten minutes worth of design work, and appears to be simply a cut-and-pasted ASCII file from Gutenberg with a garish graphic slapped on the cover. My copy of Chain of Command by Seymour Hersh was a bit more respectable – more or less a pdf facsimile of the print edition.
On an amusing note, the “literary criticism” section is populated almost entirely by Cliff’s Notes.

microlit looms large

We’ve been hearing more and more about the phenomenon of books downloaded to a cell phone screen, so much so that even the mainstream press has been talking about a resurgence of e-books – a topic they almost entirely dropped after the efforts of Microsoft and Gemstar failed to take off a couple years back. And people are doing more than simply reading books on their phones – they can surf the web, watch soap operas and, of course, play video games as they throttle through the subway or break for lunch.
Perhaps most interesting is that while many cell phone readers are downloading conventional print texts – novels, popular nonfiction etc. – there are many more, especially in Asia, who are downloading literature that is being written exclusively for this new medium, particularly serialized novels. These stories are intended for bite-sized consumption, peppered throughout the day, week or month. And they often employ the new technology as literary device – SMS romances, mysteries spun from a single errant text message. Once again, the medium proves to be the message..
It’s hard to tell where this is going, but it’s certainly more interesting than the prefab model promoted in the first generation of e-books. There is something totally original, totally native, about this new wave of digital reading.
Take a look at this piece from yesterday’s New York Times…