The changes we’ve seen in the music industry, and those starting to happen in film and books, are part of a much larger shift in the way we craft and share ideas in a digital age. It’s happening in fits and starts.
As William Gibson once said: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”
On Friday, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud did a show on the future of books. Listening to the parts I missed over the weekend, it seemed like a good time to pull together some thoughts on this transition.
First, what about the naysayers like Siva Vaidhyanathan, the University of Virginia professor who was a guest on the show? I have some of my own concerns about e-books, which I’ll address in future posts. For now, a general comment about those who tend to focus on the gloomier aspects of disruptive technologies.
Go back to the 1990s, and I’m sure you will have no trouble finding academic screeds against the horrors of DVDs: The players cost thousands of dollars, the discs are too expensive, the region-control scheme too onerous, the compression makes the video look awful, etc. There were, and are, some real downsides.
But think of the net effect: DVDs made visual culture vastly more available.
Where I went to college, a few video stores in town had a meager selection of foreign and underground films, and the student association occasionally played a foreign film, but that was it. The vast majority of film culture was inaccessible. If I lived in the same town today, the situation would be entirely different: I could watch more Iranian films in a week than all the foreign films I saw in four years of college. DVDs made that possible.
They have also allowed small filmmakers and film companies to distribute their ideas in ways that would have been far more cumbersome with VHS tapes. Video streaming, though still in its infancy, is changing this equation yet again.
Those decrying DVDs didn’t predict Netflix or understand the way a service like it could broaden exposure for even small and obscure films. While it’s essential to ensure that new formats increase opportunities for audiences and creators rather than simply empowering incumbents, we should also remember that we can’t envisage everything.
The Promise of E-Books
Layout: Many bibliophiles seem to grumble about layout and design of e-books, and it is rudimentary — so far.
But printed editions have their own shortfalls. There are 1775 poems in the paperback edition of the Collected Emily Dickinson, crammed onto 770 pages. It’s not uncommon for a four-line poem to be split over a page turn. Doesn’t each of these gems deserve its own setting, rather than being fractured into two sides the reader’s mind must reassemble?
Presenting each poem in its own space in a paper edition would likely require multiple volumes. With an e-book version, it would be trivial.
On the other hand, the Shakespeare app for iPhone displays 12 lines of text per screen by default — not exactly optimal for 14-line sonnets.
Supplemental materials, in situ: Imagine reading that well-formatted edition of Emily Dickinson, with a reference like the Emily Dickinson Lexicon a finger-tap away. Imagine flipping over to a scan of the original manuscript. Or reading Herodotus, with every place name connected to ancient and modern maps.
Portability: On trips longer than a few days, I typically travel with 8-10 books. How can I know what I want to read in a week’s time, or longer? Maybe I’ll need to read something by W.H. Auden next Thursday morning, and I just don’t know it yet?
E-books offer the promise of the kind of portability that’s now possible — and even expected — with music.
I’m under no illusion that listening to mbira music through tiny earbuds amidst the roar of a jet engine is the same as it is in a quieter environment with real speakers, or remotely comparable to being in the presence of the musicians.
In the same way, e-books don’t have to be seen as wholly replacing other formats. They could be just a convenient alternative in some situations. However awkwardly those sonnets are formatted, I still have them in my pocket while sitting on a cliff overlooking the ocean, without the inconvenience of carrying the paper version around.
Making notes: Searchable annotations and highlighting that let readers create their own idiosyncratic index of a work are just the first steps. What about dated annotations, so that I could see the notes I made when I read Brave New World in high school, and compare them to the notes I made when I re-read it two years ago?
And what about shared annotations? We should be able to see what a friend underlined or annotated, and view several sets of annotations at a time. Imagine how that would benefit study groups and book clubs. BookGlutton is already starting to build distributed communities around group reading and note-taking.
Extending this further, could difficult and complex works be made more accessible and enjoyable by overlaying sets of underlines, glosses, scribbles and marginalia by different authors and scholars, which could be turned on and off at the reader’s will?
Variable Length: Try to get a book deal with a paper publisher for a 38-page book, no matter how good it is. You’ll have about as much luck as you would have had trying to release an 8-minute pop song in the 1950s.
Turnaround: E-book authors are writing editing and publishing, from idea to final product, in weeks. The paper-based publishing industry isn’t set up for that. It takes months or years. (Obviously larger scale works take longer in both formats.)
We don’t think of books as a broadcast medium, but they have been. Author writes, editor shapes, publisher approves, and books are deployed. Marketing teams make deals for the most prominent places in the bookstores, and the rest struggle in obscurity.
For e-books to be revolutionary, they must be read-write-share. They must facilitate and strengthen culture as a conversation, in all directions: author to reader, reader to author, reader to reader.
All those dreams of making your own mix-and-match anthologies, of enterprising teachers creating curriculum mashups, of pulling together the perfect travel guide from ten different books and a dozen novels?
None of that’s on offer — yet.
However logical and obvious it seems, such hybrids upend so many business models that it probably won’t be offered voluntarily: it must be persistently demanded, both by readers and authors.
Pricing and Value
There has been lots of discussion about e-book price points, and this is a complex issue.
I’m actually working on another post about the way we price culture, so I’ll save most of my thoughts for that.
The transition to e-books is an opportunity to reconsider who provides the value in the process of getting an idea out of an author’s head, crafted into a great book and into the hands and minds of readers. E-books change so many aspects of the journey from final edit to audience that it’s not just an opportunity to rethink pricing, it’s an imperative.
For the most part, current media pricing is based on physical objects and formats. A CD costs x. A paperback book costs y. A hardback book that’s been remaindered costs z.
Does such a pricing scheme reward thinkers and creators for the value of their ideas and the quality of their contributions? Or is it based on the size and wrapping of a pile of paper?
If we encounter low-grade corn oil and high-quality extra virgin olive oil, we don’t expect to pay the same for each just because they are both sold in bottles.
As readers, why would it make sense to pay roughly the same amount for a low-mental-nutrient book you skim in a few hours and a book that you read and re-read and refer to for years? Wouldn’t it make sense to pay significantly more to the author and the editor of the second book?
I know there are complicated reasons for the current pricing structures, and my hunch is that many of those complexities have to do with the distribution of physical formats.
The inevitable transition to e-books gives us a chance to rethink how we value ideas, and and change the way we pay for culture so that it sensibly and fairly supports both the physical infrastructure of distribution and — more importantly — those creating and crafting the ideas that change our lives.