So What IS A Book, Anyway?
What's a book? Let's start with a few current definitions:
- Merriam-Webster: A set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together into a volume
- dictionary.com: A written printed work of fiction or non-fiction usually on sheets of paper fastened or bound together within covers
- Wikipedia: A book is a set or collection of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side.
Hmmmm... You think so? Not me.
It always has been, and always will be, about the content first and foremost. It doesn't matter if that content is text, still image, audio, video. But HOW we read that content keeps changing, and these definitions, and the definition that most people still hold, don’t seem to cut it.
A couple of recent events have brought forward one of my obsessions— the need to open ourselves up to a different definition of what we now call "book" and how we will define it in the not-distant future.
First, I was asked to comment on the question that absorbs everyone in this industry—the future of the book. Unfortunately, that question tends to be interpreted as "will print go away?" A legitimate question for those involved in, you know, printing books. But it’s too limiting. When talk turns to rate of change, the conversation often focuses on pre-press due to the changes wrought by desktop publishing. But the world of book manufacturing has changed incredibly in the last 20 years—custom, digital, 4-color digital, on-demand, more focus on "green printing," global printing, and oh yeah, e-books. That said, as I don't manufacture books, I can step back and say that I think it's short-sighted to only interpret the question that way. I know, I know, easy for me to say.
Second, the Brooklyn Book Festival recently took place. As the title implies, it's a celebration of books and writing; a terrific event that gathers authors, readers, etc. A feature of the festival is a day of meetings/sessions on specific topics featuring a bevy of really interesting local and nationally known authors.
Looking over the day's events, I was struck by the fact that with very few exceptions (a session about 9/11, for example) this day of meetings could have happened in 1970 or 1990 or most any other time. The good news is that the discussions were all about content and the writing process. And content IS king/queen/prince/princess, after all. The bad news, it seems to me, is that there was nothing to acknowledge the changes for both author and reader in how that content is delivered. This is already so different from 1970 or 1990 or last week (for that matter, with Amazon offering Kindle files to libraries) for both. I understand that the focus is on content and authoring, but I can't understand how any "book festival" or "book show" can fail to acknowledge the ever-evolving way that content is already being delivered.
So what is the definition of "book"? If we can agree upon a very broad starting point of the book as a delivery mechanism for content, then we can move forward.
I think we start by acknowledging how strong the link is between available technology and the definition that society uses for the term "book." For a long time book has meant some variation of the definitions at the top of this post—printed pieces of paper bound together. But this was not always so. At one time, this was a revolutionary concept. Content was on papyrus and scrolls and was not necessarily available to, or read by, the masses. Along came Guttenberg and typesetting and better and better presses, and the world changed in one of the most profound ways.
You think this scared people, and there was resistance to it? Damn straight. Did people learn to get used to it and adapt? You bet.
Fast forward to SGML and XML, and the book is redefined. At one time allowing customers to custom create their own books was a brand new way of looking at the book. Some of you will remember that this forced the industry to revisit standard practices involving author royalties, manufacturing, distribution, etc.
You think there was resistance to this from say, authors? Damn straight. Think everyone figured this out and got used to the idea of custom books? You bet.
Fast forward again to the Internet, and early generations of e-books and e-book readers. A whole different way for readers to receive their content. But in terms of the content, it's the shell of the printed book format delivered differently. Book content delivered as a flat PDF in the same structure as the printed books—a series of chapters containing content. A file instead of ink on paper.
Do we even need to talk about resistance to e-books from readers and the industry, and the lack of a plan from publishers?
Fast forward again to the iPad and tablets. New technology that takes the ability to merge different types of content (text, audio, video) far beyond putting a video in a PDF file.
This is the next evolutionary shift—freeing us from that traditional shell that content is poured into. The ability for readers to have "multimedia" as part of their content in ways that had not existed; plus the ability to use the same reading device to pull all types of content simultaneously, plus the ability for the reader of that "book" to go where they will—not necessarily where the author intended...
And we haven't even touched on the possibilities created by social media. No, I don't mean 140 characters on "I just cut my big right toenail. Wonder which one I should cut next." I mean integrating content that's created, pulled from the web and placed in an app that 750 million people already use and share.
All of this forces us to open up the definition of that word "book." It’s not the physical method of delivery. It’s not, necessarily, a collection of chapters or stories.
Of course the printed book is going to be around, as it should. And, of course, this is not all going to happen tomorrow. However, it is long past time that we all start getting used to giving up defining a book by old terms and thinking. Not talking about it, or pretending that it's not going on only prevents us all from doing a better job of figuring things out and moving forward as an industry in the best possible way.