Sunday, October 31, 2010

Harvard's "Why Books?" Conference, Pt I

We have some new followers at our Twitter account thanks to Christopher's expert - by which I mean "snarky" - live-tweeting from Harvard's "Why Books?" conference itself on Friday. I sat next to him for most of it and we shared nods and notes (not all of which are blog-appropriate) and eye-rolls. It was an interesting day, as was the one afternoon panel I attended the day before. Let me start with the Thursday afternoon panel.

I attended a panel on Thursday titled, "Challenges and Opportunities in the Emerging E-book Age." Alexander Parker did a fantastic job setting up this panel as the kind of host and first speaker, introducing a lot of basic terms that were then referenced later by the other speakers. He explained how we are seeing the "doubters versus the touters" in this world of e-books, struggling with "the shock of the new." He explained that perhaps we are in an "e-Incublar period," starting in 2006 with more sophisticated e-readers, which are now hitting the market too fast and furious for even him to follow. He offered some hope for people like me, perhaps like Christopher, by saying this technology adapts to what we want and need, once that shock of the new wears off. Here he referred to radio, which were once a central entertainment object in a home but which have now settled as kind of background noise, still used commonly but not as prominently. At the same time, Parker did bring up issues still being explored that have not settled down - rights management, for example (agents being careful in giving options to film studios, only allowing dramatic but not digital, which suggests new things may fall under "digital" as technology develops), the "out of sight, out of mind" danger as book collections become virtual rather than physical, the endangered parts of books, including indices, works cited, and appendices, and what that might mean for the Table of Contents, which may in fact become more descriptive as they become more important for navigating a book.

Liza Daly of Threepress Consulting brought up a somewhat troubling issue: text changes when put into a venue in which text flows, and is "reflowable," rather than being page-based. The reader now has control of the text, and can re-format to allow for bigger text, different orientation, etc... This has been a major concern, for obvious reasons, for poets. I was rather surprised to hear Daly dismiss these concerns from authors and publishers in general by suggesting that readers aren't bothered by these challenges, by poetry lines being broken up when 4 lines are used as an epigraph. As publishers, I don't want our goal to be producing books - e or p - that the readers can tolerate, can still read despite inconsistency or sloppiness. Daly later mentioned the potential for projects on handheld devices to create narratives that take into account where the reader is and what the reader is doing - a mystery is now set in West Somerville, in her example, and the narrative unfolds as the device moves. This to me sounds like the ultimate in narcissistic reading. It's one thing to want to see something you recognize in a narrative, but to demand your own experience turned into fiction as you have that experience? Someone pointed out to me later that this is similar to the recent Arcade Fire video that went viral, for "The Wilderness Downtown," in which you put in the address of your childhood home and it uses Google images of that home in the video itself. (I admit it, it kind of blew me away, but put into this context, I found it in retrospect icky.)

Similarly, she brought up a chart that showed how ebooks were most commonly purchased at around 9pm at night. She explained this data by having us imagine that we're in bed and we finish our book, but we're not quite ready to go to sleep. We then order up a new book for our Kindle or what have you, and it instantly is on the device and ready to go. She touted this convenience, which is so superior to having to wait and get to a bookstore later. Maybe I'm sounding like some kind of New England puritan here, but this convenience is kind of... well, as Christopher might say, dumb. I mean, most of us have plenty of books lying around waiting to be read, so I can't imagine finishing a book at 9pm and having to order a new one for immediate deliver. But hey, she made a point of saying how most books read on these devices are very trade fiction - romance, thrillers, etc... This is exciting reading, page-turners. We've all been caught up in those kinds of books now and again, and sometimes you need that sequel. But this is one of those times when I feel like those in favor of these emerging technologies are telling me I want something that I'm not convinced I want - the ability to buy a book instantly at 9pm. She was saying "this is about you," and that sends some red flags up. Anytime people push such convenience, I feel like a targeted market.

Emily Arkin of Harvard University Press talked about, amongst many other things, the potential for additional curatorial roles out there, as more books become available digitally and even created with the digital more purposely in mind. There is only going to be more of a "glut of information" coming at us, so who is going to help readers decide what to read? Arkin feels the imprimatur on a book will become more important - something those of us in publishing hope is true.

This hope was somewhat dashed when an audience member asked about self-publishing, but as the panelists started to answer, she said, "Look at the time - you can just tell me what website to go to to self-publish." This goes back to my larger concern that the industry is being shaped by folks desperately trying to capitalize on what readers want, with the most base taking the lead at times. Should we make decisions based on who can make the most money by catering to reader narcissism, or should we find smart folks curating a smart list and taking risks going forward with a collective mentality, in terms of employees and in terms of writers? My preference is the latter, obviously.

I don't have time to go over the full day on Friday just now, but I'll return to it soon. Until then, you have Christopher's tweets to give you a sense of the day.

1 comment:

Brian said...

To make my point here further regarding the industry being propelled forward with only reader's wants (not needs) in mind, Shelf Awareness today quotes Aaron Talwar of Dark Coast Press, the youngest person on a recent panel about the future of publishing, who said, "My generation wants everything now and fast, which will dictate the kinds of books that come out in the future. Readers of the future will be the people who text." I really hope we don't make decisions based on readers who don't have attention spans wide enough to read beyond a TEXT MESSAGE. []