I would like to point out that I have made my peace with emerging re-definitions of the concept of a "book," and I have no beef with the clever, very active folks at The Institute for the Future of the Book. Having said that, I was amused by the way Alice Waugh wrote about them in this post over at MobyLives, the blog of independent Brooklyn-based publisher Melville House. Even more amusing, perhaps, is the article she links to from the UK Telegraph, by Granta editor Alex Clark. (Mind you, the Telegraph is known to skew toward conservative politics in the UK.)
Waugh and Clark are both talking about the ideas of Bob Stein, the executive director of The Institute, as portrayed in Publishers Weekly following his presentation at O'Reilly's recent Tools of Change conference. In this PW link I've included the comments the article received, which Clark points out is kind of Stein's ideas in action: readers can respond to the text and the author can respond to the reader, flattening (as Stein characterizes it) the hierarchy between author and reader. There are some good comments in which people explain what they feel are the limits to Stein's theory. Put quite simply by reader Cheryl Peebles, "if everyone weighs in on how sue grafton should make kinsey milhoune respond to a situation, her books (and any book) would be infinite and impossible to read to a satisfying conclusion." Fair point. Maybe comments are useful then?
Again, I fall back on a concern of economics, and that's what Clark points out in part in his Telegraph piece. How can writers make money in this situation, or how can publishers? I can see the value in publishing more projects and getting them online, saving money on production costs and therefore being able to reach fewer (but more dedicated) readers. But will readers pay for something that's changing, that they can then contribute to and watch change? This does seem quite tedious. Waugh envisions revisions coming and coming and coming, so "the poor old writer has to go back again. And again and again and again -– until he is sick with boredom and ready to murder anyone who has a single word to say about his masterpiece. It sounds like a Borgesian nightmare." Another fair point!
I'm still thinking through this future of publishing and can see possibilities with emerging technology, but I fear we are putting it to the lowest common denominator if we go forth with books as social spaces, where anyone can add input. I already can't stand newspaper articles with a bunch of inane comments underneath, do I want to see that in my books too? And won't the author's voice get lost in the cacophony? And if there is not enough money in the system, who will continue to contribute voices? The people who can afford it. Madison McGraw who has her own project online on the PW article says outright: "I'm not worried about the decline of the publishing industry - I''m motivated by it. I have two things that the publishing industry lacks: a sense of humor and nothing to lose." People have jobs to lose, and have lost them, and that's enough to make one lose their sense of humor.