Ebooks Are Boring? So What?

Nick Atkinson has an interesting post over on FutureBook this morning. In it he asks three questions he feels people aren’t asking about ebooks. The ones he hits on are:

EBooks  aren’t actually that exciting, so why are people buying them?

Why am I rubbish at selling books online?

Where the heck is my audience? They used to shop at Borders.

he’s got a refreshing perspective on some of those:

So why are we struggling so much to make a digital book look and feel like a book? I remember the overwhelming sense of disappointment, anti-climax and resignation that I felt when I first looked at an eBook, way back when, on the Iliad – a device thankfully confined to myth and legend (it had a STYLUS for god’s sake). Even now, working with a conversion supplier I’m proud to partner with, who does a good job of stretching the ePub and Kindle formats, whenever we get our eBooks back, we still often gaze misty-eyed at the print edition and wonder where the design went and that’s just on text-based product. If you are honest, you’ve felt the same way. We’ve had moments where we’ve tried to shoehorn full-colour books into reflowable epubs to see what would happen, got the files back and laughed out loud at ourselves for even bothering.

via 3 important questions about digital that nobody is asking. | FutureBook.

Not that he’ll be put out, but I disagree with the first half of his post pretty strongly in that I actually like ebooks as they are, simple text files. I don’t want enhancements.

There’s a peculiar, and seemingly pervasive, fear among publishers that the written word just isn’t compelling enough for their readers (one well addressed by James Bridle here) in the digital age. It’s something I just don’t understand. Afterall text is fine in print, why not in digital form?

The rest of it though, I’m mostly on board with and it speaks to the quick presentation on Niches & Communities I gave to publishers during the Pecha Kucha session at TOC Frankfurt in 2009.

Not, I stress, that I think ebooks are the end of all things book related as I myself wrote for Publishing Perspective some time ago:

THE critical concern should be developing an expertise in how to sell content in many different forms and at many different prices to different audiences. Publishers should be platform agnostic, selling wherever readers are willing to buy and not focusing if it is an e-book, an app, online access, segments, chapters, quotes, mash-ups, readings, conferences, or anything else (a point made Friday on Publishing Perspectives by Clive Rich).

Rather than expend their energy focusing on one format that may be fleeting, publishers need to focus on two long-term objectives: audience development and content curation. Neither of these are specific to digital activities, meaning that they will only serve to bolster the print side of the business as well, whether it declines rapidly or gradually.

Still, a good post that will no doubt generate discussion!

Go Read This | The New Value of Text | booktwo.org

A powerful piece by James Bridle, I agree with most of it, though some grates a little:

Finally, the text still requires context. As publishers spin up their digital and print-on-demand backlists, more and more is published with less and less context. These efforts amount to land-grabs and rights-squatting, without adding value. Works without TOCs, indexes, author bios, footnotes. Placing work in context is one of publishers’ primary tasks, stretching out to commissioning introductions, assembling background material, supporting biographies and critical studies. Design belongs here too: good book design, appropriate book design, as important now as it has ever been.

via The New Value of Text | booktwo.org.

Go Read This | Travel guide gurus open new chapter in publishing career

I’m intrigued by this news on many levels. There’s much to admire in Text. I can see how the ending of the Canongate link up may present challenges but opportunities too, especially when the new owners are possessors of deep pockets like the Wheelers. It’s the hint that the move on Canongate’s part might be a defensive one, a move to retrench back to the UK market that intrigues the most.

The Wheelers bought their stake in Text from Jamie Byng, the head of Edinburgh-based publisher Canongate with which Text entered a partnership in 2004. Negotiations took place over the past few months, with the deal sealed last Friday. Mr Byng said he sold to refocus on the UK market.

Text Publishing was established about 20 years ago by former McPhee Gribble publisher Di Gribble as part of Eric Beechers Text Media. Michael Heyward has run the company since publishing its first book, Shane Maloneys Stiff, in 1994. He, his wife, senior editor Penny Hueston, and Mr Byng bought the publisher in 2004 from John Fairfax, owner of The Age, which had bought Text Media in January of that year.

via Travel guide gurus open new chapter in publishing career.

FutureText Part One – Books and a changing social consciousness

Eoin Purcell

Emma over at Snowblog set some homework. She asked people to read this piece by Mark Booth over at The Independent online and to discuss it. I’ve much to say on it but for today I’d like to hit on CONSCIOUSNESS. To give you a good idea of what it’s about here’s a quote:

The great new literary form that will replace the novel will, I believe, arise on the net and will take on its wild frontier spirit, its intellectual risk-taking, its two fingers at academic control-freakery. But it will also help forge a new form of consciousness in a much more fundamental way that has to do with the form of the internet.

There really is much more to the piece, a lot of which I agree with. For instance Booth talks about the impact the internet is having on reading and the nature of our leisure time. There is truth in that. We are spending more time reading online and that is changing the form. But how far does that go?

Let’s ask Stephen Fry
A man who up until two months ago I’d have thought as unknowledgeable about these things as most but how wrong has he proved me and anyone else who thought like me (just read this post to confirm his wonderful geekery).

Commenting on the strange beast that is Facebook (which I like for status updates, Warbook and the odd photo but otherwise use it very little) he wrote the other day a most apt line:

But let the rise of social networking alert you to the possibility that, even in the futuristic world of the net, the next big thing might just be a return to a made-over old thing.

And therein lies the rub
The assumption that Mark Booth makes is that when there was no way of recording it, there was no internal narrative in peoples’ minds, that they were somehow not at the same level of consciousness or at least that that narrative was different:

In the esoteric view, consciousness has changed in a much more radical way than historians generally allow, and the importance of the great novels of the 18th and 19th centuries is the role they played in forging the sense we all have – and take for granted – that we have an interior narrative. If people experienced this before the novel, if they earlier saw their lives as micro-histories with turning points, dilemmas and meaningful structures, they left no record of it, and, according to the esoteric account, they had no inkling of it except in sermons.

I’d suggest strongly that this is not the case
Just think it through with me. For that to be true we have to assume that people in the past were not like us. That their consciousness was somehow of a different nature. And that situation was caused by their lack of access to the written word, and specifically the novel.

You’d have to accept too that the epics of Homer didn’t build an internal narrative for those who heard them or the folk tales that have gone unrecorded had no role to play in building consciousness and the oral histories or the plays, or even Beowulf with its powerful messages and its heroic themes offered no grist for an internal narrative mill.

Funnily enough Nassim Nicholas Taleb has some excellent stuff about exactly this type of situation in The Black Swan, he calls it Silent Evidence and offers the Phoenicians as a great example of it. It was long believed that they were commercially obsessed and did not use the alphabet they invented for creative purposes. Of course it now appears that they simply used perishable materials to record their creative impulses.

if we can mistake destroyed art for no art, then I suspect we cannot be sure about the hidden consciousness of oral cultures and pre-text cultures. I suspect that the internal narratives we take for granted now existed in those cultures. Perhaps the priorities were framed by different horizons and paradigms, perhaps experiences were more important than knowledge in building that consciousness. There is simply no way to know how they formed, how different they were or indeed how similar.

So you see, I don’t think Mark Booth’s new consciousness is anything other than an old consciousness ‘made-over’ as a new thing*.

I’ll think this through again but I’m pretty sure I won’t change my mind.

*That’s not to invalidate any of his thinking on the direction of publishing technology! But more on that tomorrow.

The future of online text

Eoin Purcell

A million undirected penguins
What do Wikipedia and A Million Penguins have in common? At first glance little. But on thinking it through there is one feature that makes them almost identical. They are created by a distributed authorship model. One is one of the most useful sites on the internet (its scale is huge admittedly but a million penguin’s is not tiny either), the other to all intents and purposes was much more interesting for the journey it involved then the destination. From the blog:

But clearly opening this experiment up to ‘the whole world’ caused problems – we had vandals, pornographers, spammers and any number of people who had such differing ideas about what would make a good novel that a real sense of cohesiveness was always going to be hard to achieve.

Don’t get me wrong this is by no means an attack on that project, on the contrary I think it was inspired, exciting and necessary, not to mention a very brave act by a mainstream publisher. But what is behind the different outcomes in these projects. After all Wikipedia opens itself to the world to write and edit much like the Wikinovel experiment. From About Wikipedia:

Wikipedia (IPA: /ˌwikiˈpiːdi.ə/ or /ˌwɪkiˈpiːdi.ə/) is a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopaedia project. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world. With rare exceptions, its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet, simply by clicking the edit this page link.

Could it be that limitation works?
Perhaps the reason why Wikepedia is useful and relevant is because it recognises the limitations necessary to make collaboration useful. It may sound stupid and very basic but there is a reason why we have rules and limitations. For instance in a group discussion it is vital to ensure that only one person speaks at a time even though everyone is capable of speaking at the same time. If everyone speaks no-one is heard and discussion descends to mere shouting. You might say that another reason why Wikipedia works is that it is Non-Fiction, or more accurately FACT (though this is something constantly monitored and policed and with just cause).

The people behind 37signals have an interesting perspective on the value of limits. In their book Getting Real* they say:

Let limitations guide you to creative solutions

There’s never enough to go around. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough people.

That’s a good thing.

Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.

Another example of using limits to enhance usefulness and effect is Ficlets which has really caught my attention recently. It is structured and rule based but the creativity displayed there is superior to the mish mash of A Million Penguins. Some of the stories demonstrate exciting imagination, skilful use of the 1024 characters that the format limits authors to and the sequels and prequels allow others to add ideas or themes that the original author had not intended. All in all it works much more effectively than an undirected effort.

Where are we then?
Online text authoring and editing has enormous advantages and offers incredible possibilities. Not least of these is collaboration amongst co-workers but most interesting for our purposes is artistic and creative uses. One just has watch the video below to be converted. It is important to test and experiment the limits of text in a digital age when nearly anything you can think of can be done to text. Sometimes the edge will be interesting but sometimes too it will show us the importance of self-limitation. I think that is why A Million Penguins is important, perhaps more so than Wikipedia in some ways. The bravery to risk and fail is so rare and yet the lesson learned so rich that we need people to make those crazy attempts.

Suitably impressed

* I have highlighted this book before encourage everyone to read it (even non software/web/geek types).