Social, Portable, and Agile: Some Futures of the Book (after Paul Saffo)

"Carrying Books" by garryknigh via Flicker. See below for license.Read an interview with Paul Saffo this morning (in Bill Moggridge’s Designing Media). He offers three ways that our media experiences are transitioning from “mass” to “personal.” And I wanted to take a second to think through these aspects of media experience specifically in terms of how readers experiences of books might be changing. Here are what he sees as the levels of difference (as paraphrased by Moggridge):

1. The nature of the experience. With mass media, you watch, but with personal media, you participate.

2. The location. Mass media came into our living rooms, but you carry personal media with you everywhere you go.

3. The nature of the dominant players. Mass media was the world of the few and the large—the big Hollywood producers, the big TV networks, and the widely circulated newspapers and magazines—but the personal media world is dominated by the many and the small.

So how can we rethink the book through the lenses of these changes?

1. Consumption vs. participation. This one is tough for me. It seems that part of what makes a book a book is its immutability. Not necessarily static. Books can have had still images for a long time. And there’s really no reason to think that including moving images would make a text less book-like. But I have to be careful here to differentiate between participate and interact. People have always interacted with books. Trading them. Turning the pages. Scribbling marginalia. Garishly highlighting. Even collecting. But I don’t think this is what Saffo has in mind when he mentions participation. I think he’s alluding to the social aspects of new media. The ability to participate on discussion boards, to share links, to contribute image and video to different sites. Mostly, I think this sort of work happens out side the scope of what constitutes a book. Discussions or reviews OF books, not as part of the books themselves. And marginalia and commentary could be added to a text, but “sharing” those sorts of markings wasn’t part of book culture. But now, with the Kindle, it’s possible to share these markings as part of the text itself. Not something surrounding it, or on top of it, but embedded within. I’ve tried it, both with the comments on and with the comments off (there’s gotta be a safe-sex joke in there somewhere), and I gotta say that it’s a feature I think could become very, very useful. For instance, what if, instead of only being able to choose between EVERYONE’s commenting/highlighting, you could choose a set of readers whose comments you’d like to have access to. You could choose classmates/students in a given section of a course. Maybe you’re reading The Tipping Point, and you’d really like to see only the comments of people who work in the fashion industry or web design. Wow. I could really get excited about this sort of functionality in our books. It’s already sort of available for websites. But it’s still got a long way to go.

2. Living Room vs. mobile. This transition is the toughest to think about in terms of digital books, I think. Mostly because the book’s mobility is one of its primary strengths as a cultural phenomenon. The rise of the printing press allowed for information not only to be reproducible, but made it far more portable. Books produced in bulk were less expensive to produce and less expensive to distribute. So there were more books, in more places, accessible to more people. That’s an oversimplification, sure, but it’s still a useful observation. The important note here is to understand the ways that digital books might be MORE portable than print books. Here, I’m thinking about ebooks again. Reading Jonathan Saffron Foer’s new book? Is it easier or more affordable to bring the print version? It’s kind of a wash, mostly hinging on how you feel about e-ink and the feel of paper between your fingers. I think the real deal breaker here is to not ask the question at the level of a single book, but to think in terms of shopping and a personal library. Instead of the living room vs. mobile, for books, the transition from brick-and-mortar bookstore (or even mail-order books) to electronic browsing and delivery is important. Readers have access to a wider selection with tools that might be more precise in suggesting books relevant to their interests or tastes. And the speed at which a reader can gain access is very different, too. Seconds instead of hours or days. I’m not just thinking of this in terms of convenience, either. I’m thinking that just like any other form of communication, the effectiveness with which texts circulate (that is their overall impact on the reader and the world at large) is largely dependent on the context in which they are consumed. More control over where and when you read a text, how quickly and conveniently you can locate it and access it, have profound affects on your experience of the text. This same concept can be applied to personal libraries either accessible via mobile device or carried on the devices themselves. Maybe you want access to a book you already own, just get it through your virtual bookshelf. These functionalities are already available on the Nook, Kindle, and Google platforms.

3. Large vs. small publishers. This is the transition I know the least about. I do know that there are lots of tools available for the production of ebooks. Whether you want to produce a PDF, ePub, Mobi, AMZ, or whatever you’re thinking suits your text best, there are tools available. And they’re getting more accessible all the time. Which has the potential to cut out the publishes all together, which intern will affect the ways that distributors do business. Amazon and Barnes and Noble are already setting up systems for people to offer their own texts directly through Amazon and B&N’s sites. This phenomenon is going to effectively increase the number of books available to readers. But more isn’t necessarily better. People will still value quality content. And as Google has shown us, people will still want help find that quality content in ways that are relevant to them. There’s a LOT that still has to be figured out here, but clearly, the small publishers are going to end up playing a much bigger role. Especially as individual authors acquire the increasingly accessible skill sets necessary to produce and circulate their texts.

NOTE: Now that I’m looking back at this entry, I’m noticing that I don’t really have much to say about the Google ebooks store. Maybe it’s most appropriate to just suggest that the points I’m making above apply to Google’s business plan just as much as the examples I’ve offered.

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(“Carrying Books” by garryknight via Flicker. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.)

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