Earlier this week, I was part of a book fair organized by the Harvard Club of New York. The club solicited participation from members who had published a book in the last few years, in the end choosing 37 authors and about 50 books for this inaugural event (a follow-on fair is planned for next spring).
The fair featured many types of books, mostly non-fiction but not entirely so. I went to talk about Book: A Futurist's Manifesto, the title I co-edited with Hugh McGuire, but my table included a book on the origins of business, money and markets as well as a title that presented a liberal's argument in favor of the United States Constitution's second amendment.
Before the fair started, I had a chance to talk with a cross-section of the authors, all of whom were surprised to learn that I actually work in publishing. Curiously, several asked me a variation on the same question: "The book is going away, isn't it?" I kept saying, "No, not really."
After the doors opened, I had a number of similar conversations with people who'd come to meet the authors and talk about our books. It surprised me that people who wrote and read books, the kind of people who take time on a weekday evening to come to a book fair, could be so pessimistic about the future of the book.
In each of these exchanges, I kept pressing to better understand what people meant when they talked about "books". Although authors and readers agreed that they loved the narrative, a structured argument – a story – they still saw the book as a container, a physical or digital object, a defined way to obtain and consume content. There's the problem, and the opportunity.
Last Friday, I wrote a summary of Baldur Bjarnason's call to "make eBooks worth it". Bjarnason doesn't see eBooks as just a set of EPUB files; he imagines an eBook ecosystem that can "support a diversity of content and interfaces". Indeed, the first element of his "digital manifesto" is "a diversity of new modes of reading".
On reflection, I can better understand why even the most passionate readers aren't thinking outside the box. We have a 500-year history with the book. It has served us well, and for a subset of use cases, it will continue to do so.
But there is more than one way to engage a reader. My recent post about Random House and its use of Flipboard to extend the narrative for two of its authors points out one option. So, too, does the notion of opening up the traditional newspaper to make it a locally oriented dataset, a resource as much as a provider of news.
It's hard to re-imagine our world, but it is overdue. Next Thursday and Friday, Peter Brantley and Kat Meyer will kick off the fourth installment of Books in Browsers, now billed as "a small summit for the new generation of internet publishing companies, focusing on developers and designers who are building and launching tools for online storytelling, expression, and art." Its sessions include:
- A book isn't a book isn't a book
- Artists books reborn
- Annotation, data and the living "e" book
- Interactivity is what you do (this, from Baldur Bjarnason)
- Mobile screens and artistic practices
And that's just part of the first day.
Three years ago, at the first iteration of Books in Browsers, I got to deliver a talk that asserted:
Clearly, we’ll need new skill sets to compete in an era of abundance. We’ll probably have to add a lot more training than we have ever done internally. But those aren’t the toughest challenges. Changing workflow is.
I still think changing workflow is a significant challenge, but I wish I'd said more plainly then what I still believe today: we have to change our metaphors. Limiting ourselves to the container robs us of a chance to lead. We need to become fluid enough to tell stories, not just efficient enough to fill books.