The Future of Publishing
Writer, speaker and consultant Sean Cranbury talks to writer Hugh McGuire, co-founder of BookOven.com and founder of LibriVox.org, about ebooks, audiobooks and the possibility of a new era in publishing. The interview was conducted via email.
So, what does the web have to do with books?
Bit of a chill in the air out here in the hinterlands this morning. The cats are still sleeping soundly, coffee is brewing. A bush plane rattles and sputters overhead, probably en route to a refuel in Coal Harbour. I was really hoping that you'd start this whole thing off with a monster question, and you didn't disappoint.
So let's just get into it.
Simple answer: everything and nothing. The complex answer — if an answer is actually possible — would take an infinite amount of time and nobody has that kind of patience.
My answer: I like things that occupy space, that have a certain heft, that hurt when people hit me with them, and no one has ever hit me with a web page. At least not in the physical sense.
Books can challenge us with their thingness. The design and dimension of a book; the quality of paper stock; the floppiness, the arch-ness; the full-colour fold-out poster; the analog bleeds of ink into the fibers of a page of sloppy/endearing drawings by Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions; the smell that they accumulate over time, especially when shelved in old bookstores owned by the wily and cantankerous — all of these things are irreplaceable. The web can imitate them, showcase them, allow us to edit, discuss and read their contents, or tell us about them in ludicrous detail from every point of view while linking the book across time and space to other destinations in other remote, insubstantial digital terrains.
The physical book creates links thru memory and imagination, the web creates to electronic destinations.
And probably a lot more. I won't bother cataloging all of the virtues of the book or the web or try to treat them like banners for two competing armies each bent on total domination. Regardless of the cagey saber-rattling done by Mark Helprin in his new book, Digital Barbarism. (I've always liked Helprin. Winter's Tale and Memoir from Antproof Case are among some of my favorite books, and his writing can sometimes achieve an almost Nabokovian sheen, but this book... I just don't know. Some of the arguments are interesting and constructive — the chapter on the Espresso Book Machine, for instance — while others are just grouchy bitching. Like he's sitting around with a bunch of buddies on the porch at his cottage in the Virginian hills griping about kids these days while getting drunk on a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. (Doctorow and Lessig respond here.)
The web puts the power of book creation into the hands of anyone who is crafty enough — and who has time enough — to do it. The web offers a ridiculous number of resources to accomplish this and an almost infinite number of people who are willing to help answer questions and/or contribute content.
The real power of the web, as it directly relates to physical books, is the future sophistication of print-on-demand technologies and the ability for these technologies to take the printed word to unexplored, undeveloped, hitherto unknown markets.
But you're someone who knows a thing or two about envisioning recipes for the co-mingling of web technologies and the book. Where is the web taking the book and will the book follow or should the book care? How are the experiments and innovations in the BookOven contributing to this?
I should maybe have asked about "digital" instead of the "web." I'm using both digital and the web to mean books that are not (just) in the form of paper. But let me take on the thingness of books.
I love books. I have them stacked everywhere, and all those great things about them make me happy: the smell, the touch, the feel, the look of them piled in my office, on shelves, in stores, in libraries.
But as much as the sensual nature of books gives them great power, those things evoke sensory memories and they are secondary to — or the result of — having read and been moved by books in the past. I remember the smell of libraries because I was in libraries because of the writing in those books. The libraries, pages, print, typography all exist in order to allow me to get access to that writing. The sensual bits are all important, but they come second to the stuff that is in books.
I love physical books because I love what is in them; I don't love what is in books because of the physical objects.
So the first thing I would state is that while we might have many reasons to be attached to the physical object of a book, the primary thing a book has to do is fulfill its promise as a transmitter/inspirer of ideas, art, thoughts, story, entertainment.
And this is where digital and the web become important. Because when they make it easier for the stuff in books to get from a writer to a reader, they are helping "books" do what they truly want to do: be read.
That's not to say that physical books are not important, but digital offers advantages that physical books don't (just as physical books offer advantages that ebooks don't). There are lots of obvious advantages to digital books: they don't take up any space, you can carry hundreds around with you in your cell phone in your pocket, you can read in the dark, you can find and download a new book instantaneously. And more, the way we find, talk about, share books is given a new sphere by the web. While I may have three friends in Montreal who might like Halldór Laxness, the web, in theory, gives me a global network of Laxness lovers to connect with. That's something very powerful, the ability to dig up and find connection with other people who love the wonderful texts I love.
But in a way these are just the obvious advantages.
I think the wider question is what happens when books are truly accessible in this way: when we start to lose our notion of a book as such a fixed thing, which really is an accident of history, an accident of technology. Does that mean that the lone genius writer will disappear in the future? I doubt it, but it will mean that how we interact with books is going to change. I certainly believe that it means the way many books are made will change — because the fixed model of a publishing house needn't be so fixed any more. There are perhaps better and more sensible ways for books to get edited and marketed than having a publishing house filled with topic generalists; we may start to see groupings of book makers brought together more because of specific expertise and interest in topics, than by general assignment of an editor to a book, as is often the case now.
But again, these are more obvious changes. But I wonder about the stranger things that might happen as books go digital.
If you could speculate, what would be some radical changes we could see in our notion of the "book" as it migrates to become native to the web?
I love a number of things about your last message, but invoking Halldór Laxness and the notion of "accidents" — of history or technology or whatever — that become adopted standards which we are reluctant to relinquish, are especially invigorating ideas.
Thingness aside, let's move into more speculative territory.
Nothing will prevent or smother the occasional flare-up of individual genius in any creative pursuit, and I don't think that anyone should be too worried about the loss of strong independent voices as the highly collaborative digital mediums develop. Talent and vision will always be present in situations that encourage such things. And the future of books, the creative expression of ideas through language regardless of the delivery mechanism, will always have room for talent and vision.
But, if we're gonna speculate, let's speculate...
* P2P file sharing/bit torrent technologies and whatever subsequent advances occur that offer even greater efficiencies for trading digital information are going to eviscerate current publishing models and provide new platforms for expression, sharing ideas, mixing and remixing narratives across a huge range of interconnected media and re-engineering texts in ways that make our current flap about how inviolate copyright is look like an elusive curbside conversation between two sputtering drunks.
Digital content will have a universal currency rate of 0. It will simply be given away, shared, remixed and reconstituted, and the only way to determine anything like our common sense of "worth" will be by its buoyancy and popularity on the P2P networks. Whether it translates to some commercial creative medium like film will be interesting as well.
People are going take text that they like or want to use for a specific purpose from wherever they can find it, and they are going to manipulate it to whatever ends they desire. Then they're going to slap it into some kind of digital container and probably cross-pollinate the work with video, stills, music, scans of random junk found lying around and then they are going to share it. That content will then be reconstituted by others who have picked it up somewhere in the digital aether.
In this ridiculously dystopic Mad Max/Blade Runner world, the great Icelandic ballads are mixed together with a Kigali street-slang reawakening of The Faerie Queene and cut up with non-sequitur injections of scanned foreign fast food containers, tabloid ragas, personal histories, rude limericks and the latest photographs of Tokyo hipsters torn from graffiti magazines.
Books, released from the tyranny of their covers, physical dimensions and coordinated distribution networks will transcend themselves into a place where pure creativity and collaboration can exist without the burden of commerce.
Of course there will be a lot of truly sublime and amazing stories told in the classic narrative mode, but where's the fun in speculating about that?
* Collaboration on the Micro-Payment Plan. The worldwide ubiquity of handheld digital reading/writing devices will awaken an infinite number of collaborative narratives that allow for unique individual voices of the community to be heard while simultaneously embracing the inclusive but singular vision of an "author."
The "author" will have the vision for the story, provide the initial narrative seed, some characters, a setting, rules of engagement, the opening chapters that set the story in motion and then will turn the plot, characters and narrative stream over to the community of people who are interested in helping to develop it. The author will remain a significant part of the creative process by coordinating, filtering and directing content. The current notion of the individual genius will transform into the future notion of the collaborative genius: the person who can summon and direct that great collective creative flow while delivering a satisfying narrative experience. Much like what one imagines a movie director to do on set.
These stories will be parsed into "bite-sized" serialized chapters delivered at semi-regular intervals via cell phones to readers all over the world who will then respond with their narrative additions to the story to be filtered by some network of editors who deliver the best threads to the "author" for guidance.
I can just imagine a tech-savvy Tuareg standing on some wind swept sub-Saharan plateau punching furiously at his cell phone, tears streaming down his face, little specs of sand moistening on his cheeks. The rest of his band prepare the camels and wait for him to finish writing his latest installment in the collaborative reimagining of The Arabian Nights, knowing that his favorite character, a character that he had modeled after one of his esteemed forebears has likely died in some unpredictable narrative twist. Tonight's journey will be longer than usual.
Is this too ridiculous? Does any part of this seem plausible?
There are a couple of different speculations on the possible future of creation and interaction around narratives and ideas expressed in written language, but surely there are so many others.
It is difficult for me, who grew up and worked with the thingness of books since forever, to imagine that any of these situations don't have some aspect of them that directly relates to some physical bookish component. Even if it is the thing that comes at the very end and is not even a small consideration during the creation of the stories, or the building of the ideas online.
With your hands in the Oven Mitts of Digital Experimentation, have you felt the heat of any future potential in this way? What do you think might happen? Are these notions of new input, fresh ideas, radical change part of what motivated you to bring BookCamp from London to Toronto?
All right, so we have two big predictions:
* the value of straight "content" goes to zero
* people will remix things like crazy
Let's take the first one on. I think you are right. Or at least, that the notion of "purchasing a book" is going to change dramatically, and — as Andrew Savikas of O'Reilly says often — publishers won't sell "content," but rather the "services around content." That is, people are willing to pay for various things: good selection, ease of access, packaging, added connections. Savikas uses the example of The Economist magazine: all that content is available for free on the web, but the printed magazine packages it and delivers it in such a way that he is willing to pay for it.
I think he's right, and publishers need to spend lots of time thinking about what service they can offer beyond "transferring text from one place to another." Because I don't think that's enough to hang you business on when transferring text from one place to another now has a value of zero. Publishers will say, rightly, that their costs have little to do with this particular act: their investment is in advances, and in editorial and marketing. All fair enough, but they still built their businesses around a fundamental fact: transferring text from one place to another used to be expensive. It is no longer.
I don't have clean answers to what publishers will do in this new world. But I think it's clear that if you build a business around a fact of the universe that suddenly disappears, you're going to run into troubles.
Still, we want writers, we want publishers, we want editors. But "we" is subjective. The problem for the publishing industry is that the population at large isn't going to support a $50B business out of romantic notions of what "we" want.
So, we all need to start thinking about different ways in which the publishing industry could be organized.
Try the following experiment: imagine there are no more publishers in the world. No more book stores. No more libraries. But you know that there are many writers and many readers, and a big opportunity to bring them together.
Imagine I've just given you $500,000 to build a business that "brings long-form writers and long-form readers together."
What do you build? How do you start?
I guarantee it looks nothing like Random House.
Now, on to your second idea: People will remix.
I'll be brief on this. I agree for certain kinds of writing: for non-fiction mainly, there is a huge advantage to mixing & matching, and I think publishers and individuals will do it, in certain circumstances.
For fiction, I am less sure. The great advantage of the book over all other media, is the long, sustained connection a reader has with the writer. Breaking this up is a curiosity, but it is not nearly as compelling as the good old book. It's an enduring form, has lasted since Homer, and surely before Homer, in various ways. We've seen countless innovations since then: iambic pentameter, paper, ink, printing press, typewriter, internet — and the long-form story has endured every new development.
I don't think it's going anywhere, and while we'll see variations on the long-form story, and experiments with it, I think it'll stick around much as it is.
What's going to change is how it is produced and how it is transmitted. I think we're about to see a real renaissance of writing. That's my opinion anyway; but
what excites you most about the future of books?
Andrew Savikas is one of the smartest and most creative people in the book industry right now, and O'Reilly Publishers is doing the best work in terms of determining what the present and future of the book trade will look like. Let's remember that Tim O'Reilly's classic essay "Piracy is Progressive Taxation" was written in 2002, and yet only now are people in the publishing trade starting to think about what it could mean. Tim's essay also contains the famous and prescient phrase: Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.
As part of the research that I did for my recent presentation at Simon Fraser University's Digital Publishing Workshop — entitled Digital Rights Management vs the Inevitability of Free Content — I interviewed Andrew Savikas. We spoke at length about his essay, "Content is a Service Business" — which you did an excellent job of summarizing above — and what some of the challenges that this kind of change in the relationship with the consumer means for an industry that sees itself as a producer of cultural products or book things and not as a service provider based around dissemination of free digital content. Of course, certainly in the short/middle term (and to my archaic mental mode, long term), we'll still have physical books to augment, support and justify these efforts.
Brian O'Leary's work, Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales, also published by O'Reilly, is an excellent companion to Savikas's writings and is an essential text for anyone interested in the ideas of piracy, free content and the huge leveraging power of P2P networks.
— Commercial break for a heretical thought: Your books are not relevant to contemporary/future audiences until they're freely shared on P2P networks —
Now back to the interview:
What excites me about the future of publishing is the growth and enthusiasm surrounding the idea of books and publishing among those people who have nothing to do with the publishing business but who just simply love books.
We can see evidence of this in BookCamp Toronto and what we're seeing in terms of reception, participation and anticipation for BookCamp Vancouver. BookCamp Toronto was a hugely inspiring event. You guys did a great job of organizing and preparation.
What were some of the challenges and successes of BookCamp Toronto? Would you do it again, if so, would you keep the same format?
What is the future of the BookCamp idea?
Yes, for all the talk about the death of books, could there ever have been a better time in the history of the universe to be a book lover? Just look at the wealth of information, writing, podcasts, resources of all kinds about books and writing available on the web now. There are fewer book review pages in newspapers, sure, but hundreds of booky bloggers writing about books, writing, literature, design, typography. I have 238 book blogs feeding into my Google Reader, there are about 500 posts a day, sometimes more, all about books. I could never read them all.
We have all sorts of creative companies and groups and individuals rethinking how interactions between readers and writers might happen in the future. There's my company Book Oven, we're building a web space to allow groups of people to get the work done needed to publish a book; not replacing the traditional publishing model, but providing a kind of parallel, distributed, book-making space that plugs into digital distribution channels. Bookglutton has come from the other end, looking at the reading process and taking advantage of the social nature of the web. Liza Daly is doing great stuff with the BookWorm reader and epubzengarden and other projects. Richard Nash promises to shake things up with his new publishing house, Cursor. Quartet Press just launched as an exciting digital publisher. There's Protagonize, Storybird, Fictionaut. Another of my projects, LibriVox. Everything James Bridle does is fantastic, including Bookkake. Stanza built a great reader for your iPhone, got bought by Amazon, and has been followed by many other great apps, including the lovely Eucalyptus. Bigger publishers are experimenting, too: HarperCollins UK with Authonomy, HarperStudio in the US, Penguin UK's We Tell Stories. Bookmooch, Bookcrossing, LibraryThing, Shelfari. Not to mention the big guys: Amazon with Kindle, Indigo's Shortcovers, Google Book Search, Sony Reader. I could go on and on and on.
So, death of publishing? No, sorry, not for me.
Rebirth of publishing, transformation of publishing, renewal of publishing, perhaps golden age of new publishing? Yes. This is the world I live in, and it's thrilling. I don't think we've seen such a flurry of creative activity happening around the book in decades.
As for writing itself, there are more good books published every year than I could possibly read. Are there great books? I've read some of them, and some of them are new. Are we writing as many great books as we used to? Who knows, and I don't know if it even makes sense to ask. Even if we aren't, I have a huge backlog of great books I haven't yet read, and get this: I read War and Peace and Moby-Dick, for the first time, both, on my iPod Touch.
So all that to say: yes, of course, we will have BookCamp again!
The challenge will be to manage the numbers. I expect even more interest this coming year than last, since there was an overwhelmingly great response to the event last year.
So from my end, everything looks rosy. But things aren't so simple, of course. Where are the dangers in all this digital mania? What could we lose? Can we do anything about it? Does it matter?
Great summary of some of the creative people, companies, blogs, etc. serving to percolate the coffee in our brains.... Nick Bouton, mastermind behind Protagonize.com, is one of the organizers at BookCamp Vancouver — along with Monique Trottier, Morgan Cowie, John Maxwell and Crissy Campbell — and his site is excellent. Also very excited by Cursor, Quartet Press, Bookkake and Penguin Digital UK's We Tell Stories among many others.
You're right, there's so much awesome and creative stuff happening these days that it's impossible to track every thread. What that means is that people can jump in and participate, and they'll be welcomed and supported by a huge network of people with enthusiasm. And enthusiasm is the straw that stirs the drink at this particular cocktail party.
The enthusiasm and support for BookCamp Vancouver took us a little by surprise. At our first meeting, Monique, Nick, John and I wondered whether we were crazy to think that we'd be able to get even 150 people interested in a day dedicated to something like discussing the future of books, publishing and writing. But our online registration was red-hot from the get-go, and by a week after our registration URL was leaked on Twitter we'd completely maxed out our dream limit of 200 registrants. We've since opened it up to allow more participants, and we're hoping that through natural attrition our actual attendance numbers will settle in at around 175 to 200 people.
Which is amazing! Seriously. It's going to be a ridiculously good day. We have great sessions on almost every aspect of books, writing, publishing and technology, and I think I can speak for all of the BookCamp Vancouver organizers when I thank Simon Fraser University's Suzanne Norman and Rowly Lorimer for supporting the idea and donating the space. Had to get that plug in there; SFU has been really good to us.
And you're right about managing numbers. Here's a little check list: enthusiasm and interest from all over the place? Check. A wealth of great topics and talented contributors? Check. Means for getting the message out far and wide? Check. Limited space to work with? Check. Uncertainty as to who will actually show up vs. registration numbers? Check. Guarantee that whoever shows up will leave with a few new thoughts? Check.
As for the dangers of the digital mania and what we have to lose, I come from the point of view that we have nothing to lose by exploring and experimenting and engaging the technologies. I think that there's far more to lose by not adapting to and/or ignoring the technology and what it is capable of doing.
Digital technology is an indifferent thing. It doesn't care what we do with it. It's in our hands to shape it to our needs and to explore what it can do and how it can help get creators' work into the hands and minds of people all over the world. But it presents awesome challenges to traditional publishers and creators, who are accustomed to more control over the message and the distribution and monetization of those messages or materials.
How does one wrap one's mind around the idea that digital content will be freely shared? It's anathema to the standard publishing business model.
So we're going to lose some businesses within the publishing food chain that can't/won't adapt or whose relevance is simply over.
As a bookseller who came up through small independent shops in Southern Ontario and a few out here in Vancouver, a big part of me worries about what the future looks like for bookstores, the former "heart and soul" of the publishing industry in Canada.
Do you feel that the days of brick-and-mortar stores are over? Will the future be strictly digital? Will ebooks completely cannibalize print, leaving its papery carcass on a sun scorched beach for digital vultures to pick down to the spine?
I feel that free (as in libre, not gratis – not my quote, that one’s from Monique Trottier) digital content is inevitable and beneficial for writers, artists, publishers, etc., and that print books will occupy a more focused, better designed and more strategic place in the marketplace. Much of this will occur through print-on-demand services for small presses.
What do you think? Is this just my being sentimental about the idea of bookshops?
You have seen some dangers, which puts some real tension into the mix: what happens if all the bookstores disappear? My predictions:
* an increasingly large percentage of books will be bought online: in 2014 it'll be 50%
* an increasing percentage of books will be bought as ebooks: in 2014 it'll be 35% of the market
If I'm right, that means, roughly speaking, that brick-and-mortar shops will have their market share drop by 85%, compared with the pre-web days. Bookstores will be hurting. Big bookstores will consolidate and start shutting stores.
Smaller shops will continue to disappear as well, and the survivors will cater to a more retro, hip, high-end, book-fetishist crowd.
Small craft publishers, I think, will do well and open retail spaces to sell their books and the books they support (if you want to bow down to greatest book fetishists in the world, visit the store run by graphic novel publisher Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal — it's heaven for book lovers, whether or not you have any interest in graphic novels).
In short: the big guys will feel the squeeze. The middle guys will disappear. And the niche, book-fetishists will survive and maybe even thrive.
But to shift from the commerce around books, here is something that makes me nervous: given all this digital soup mixing in the analog world, the one thing I worry about is concentration. Will readers simply lose their ability to read long texts? I have been suffering this fate for the past five years as my web-based reading has gone into overdrive: RSS. websites, blogs, Twitter, links, scanning one story and on to the next, not to mention email, IM, YouTube and a million other interruptions.
It's a great way to hoover up vast quantities of surface information. It's a terrible way to spend a sustained amount of time with ideas, with the long, complex thinking process that underpins a book. For five years, I watched my concentration on longer texts fade. I would search for the link to my email program while reading novels. I would impatiently look things up on Wikipedia. My brain was trained for the instant info fix of the web, and paper books got harder and harder for me to read.
And here is the great surprise that I, personally, have lived: the problem of digital overload eclipsing my book reading was solved by the holy grail of digital devices. The iPhone.
And I have not felt as comfortable concentrating on a long text in years. I have read long novels on my iPhone, it was a wonderful reading experience, totally digital; in fact totally irrelevant: the mechanism of reading disappeared, and I was connected just with the text. The text and me in communion. I missed countless bus stops because I was so immersed in the text.
And in the end, that, to me, is the most important thing about books, writing, reading. It's not the stores, it's not the typeface and paper, it's not the nostalgia of the library, or the memories of reading on the beach. The real thing about reading, the most important thing, is readers getting immersed; the connection of minds, the creation of worlds and universes, the sustained, deep, shared process of building and understanding that happens when a reader connects with the text a writer has written and shared.
Question: what do you think about audiobooks?
Interesting numbers. I certainly don't have the means or inclination to argue them.
Audiobooks have always been a non-starter for me for whatever reason. I guess they seemed like the eight-track of publishing — occasionally interesting, like say when a story by Don DeLillo is read by Laurie Anderson, for example, or anything that's read by Tim Curry — but mostly I've mostly managed to avoid them. I collect vinyl records — books and records are the analog roots that keep me from drifting into outer space as I explore the possibilities of digital — and am a bit of an audiophile in some ways. I wonder whether that has anything to do with my lack of uptake on the audio book?
Sure, it would be great to listen to a novel or whatever, but usually I'm thinking, "Spoon has a new record out and I should really listen to it and/or I'm really in the mood for some Black Sabbath," and the poised cadences of Sharon Butala just ain't gonna cut it.
But that's just me, although I received a copy of the Raw Shark Texts on CD the other day with someone named Jack Davenport reading, and it will be my first foray into audiobooks in many years.
It's funny that the mention of audiobooks in this conversation connects that most ancient means of story-telling — the oral tradition of speaking stories to people and keeping thousands of narratives and ideas alive in a community by the fierce act of memorizing them — to the end of my part of this awesome interview. Funny because the connections between the current presence of digital, the history of paper and the opaque future of books is in the end connected to two pure things: voice and memory.
Basic human fundamentals. End of the day, that's what we do.
Going forward, regardless of what happens technologically and whether digital uptake is this or that or something else, the people who survive and do meaningful work will remember that it's all very basic.
Find a voice, find a good story, release it into the world in whatever form it desires to take.
Thanks very much for doing this, Hugh! It's been a great experience for me. Props to Amy and everyone at Open Book: Toronto.
I think we're out of time, but I'm going to kick this one anyway.
It was a good coincidence that (a) you don't care for audiobooks, and (b) that you came around to the (subconscious) reason I asked about them.
The oldest form of creative story-telling is me sitting beside a friend and telling him or her a tall tale. This form has evolved into many other forms: poetry recited aloud, the court jester, plays, books, movies, radio, television.
But ultimately the important thing that must happen is that someone must tell a story; there must be some mechanism of exchange; and someone must hear/read/see that story.
Audiobooks are in fact a throwback to an older form of storytelling, more conservative than books are. Many books were written to be read aloud — Dickens, for instance — when the cost of books meant that a prosperous family might only have a small library, and Uncle would read to everyone by the fire. And many of our modern greats, Conrad and Ford Madox Ford for instance, wrote specifically as if they were telling the story aloud.
All that to say that the means of transmission of stories have meandered throughout history, taking different forms, but the stories have never disappeared. Our need to tell them, our need to hear them are as strong as they ever were. And when we think about the future of the book, the future of publishing, we should remember that we are really talking about the future of the story.
And so the real question ought to be:
* How can we get more people "taking in" stories that move them?
* How can we get more people creating stories that move them?
* What wonderful new ways can we find to connect story-makers with story-lovers?
It seems to me there are more ways than ever, and that can only be a good thing.