Thursday, February 12, 2009

Would you like that book with or without links?

I swear, Christopher, this is *not* "doom and gloom." I won't even mention layoffs, at HarperCollins or elsewhere.

So a lot of people are buzzing about O'Reilly's Tools of Change conference, which is all about the changing face of books as we move our culture online. The energetic folks over at the Future of the Book Institute have obviously been front and center, with the executive director, Bob Stein, opening the conference with the institute's usual song and dance:

“A book obscures the social relations that underlie a book. They are much more a social experience than we realize,” he said. In this conception of the book, writing is a collaborate event. Authors will no longer sit alone conceiving of a book entirely on their own. Nonfiction authors “become leaders of communities of inquiry” and fiction writers will be “creating a world together with their readers.” Books will, he suggests, be created transparently and collaboratively, largely online, with the participation of readers.

In this brave new world, the key role of publishers “is to build and nurture vibrant communities for authors and tend to their readers.” They will be judged on their ability to “curate and build communities for their authors around their readers.”

I'm warming to this idea, readers, I swear I am. I'm comin' around, slowly but surely. I really appreciate the idea of an activist putting a book out there in this sense, creating a community around it or inside it I suppose, and linking to the world outside, and updating the information. But I'd like us to proceed with some caution.

Where my interest in this movement hits resistance is more visible in comments by Jeff Jarvis, author of the new What Would Google Do? (nice title!) and founder of one of my favorite sources of "news," Entertainment Weekly. On this latter accomplishment alone, I feel confident saying this is a very wise man.

Galleycat quotes Jarvis at the conference, since he caused a bit of a ruckus by boldly announcing, "Content without links is content without value." But they also link to this mediabistro interview with him, by Jason Boog, in which he's not quite as extreme. Here's an excerpt:

In your book, you explain that "middlemen are dead." How has this philosophy influenced your career as a book author? You chose to follow the traditional publishing model for this book, but last year saw massive problems at big publishing houses. How much longer do you think new writers can trust this model?

As long as the traditional model works, I'll choose it. In publishing, they add value. A middleman isn't a middleman if they truly add value. My agent clearly added value in the current marketplace. She gave me great advice on developing the book and formulating the idea. We got to the publishing house, and I learned a lot about the middleman's value there -- my editor improved the book immensely. I wanted the public to be involved in the ideas, pushing me in peer review. My editor is Ben Loehnen, a brilliant line editor. They are promoting relationships with booksellers, which still exist, by god.

In some ways, I say hyperbolically that middlemen are dead, but there are some ways that they are alive more than ever. We have so much content, we can't find the
content we want. Clay Shirky calls it "filter failure." The solution is to help curate or aggregate the content -- that's a value added. The opportunity is saying, 'How can I help?'

Jarvis leaves me wanting more. Or maybe I'm just seeing that I'm more in line with his thinking - I'm all for including links and making books friendly to readers who prefer a different format. But I question whether reader involvement will disrupt the authority of a book to the point that it loses its attraction altogether. I don't mind comments on news articles as long as I can avoid reading them - because sometimes I just want the news, not the opinion of some moron in Los Angeles with too much time on his hands, who is ill-informed and cocky. And then there are times when places like don't edit their comment sections and you have racist, sexist speech happening all over them until someone on Morrissey Blvd has time to glance at them and start removing some of the language - and we're not talking racist-based-on-opinion, we're talking you-are-a-racist-and-don't-even-mind-showing-it type language. Bad news. (And before you get all free speech on me, let me remind you it isn't public space, it's private space owned by the good corporate board over at the Boston Globe... er the New York Times now... Jack Welch? Who knows these days.)

Like Jarvis, I don't want to overlook the people who help us, readers of news or books or whatever, sort through the information. And I hope as we move forward to a heavily networked landscape, we as a readership, as consumers, continue to show our appreciation of the folks editing out the chaff so that we don't end up inundated with celebrity biographies and tell-alls from the mother of those friggin' octuplets.

And that is *not* doom and gloom, thank you.

1 comment:

Vince Montague said...

Good post. I'm coming around to some of the same ideas; however I don't think they physical properties of the book can be overlooked. A book is designed well. An ipod is designed well. But a kindle is not designed well.
I think the idea of eliminating the middle man could actually happen; but probably what will happen is that the big publishers will not be in the business of small books. Small publishers will print small books (literary and academic books) using POD.

But honestly, who knows? Some of this is hyperbole.