The New Arts of Book Building: Challenges for Authors, Editors and Producers (Part One)
This two-part essay attempts a survey of electronic media developments in the book industry and their impact on the creative talents and skill-sets required of authors, writers, editors and production people in order to produce new forms of content organization and media mix.
Part One: What's in a Word?
Book industry professionals are increasingly asking themselves to define the term “book.” For many, that is like asking us to define a commonplace such as “hat.” For, like “hat,” the term “book” denotes an artifact and heralds an experience. In all literate cultures, you will expect the definition to be self-evident.
Because of the multiple media formats now emerging in the trade markets, especially through the iPod and iPad, the definition of “book” no longer seems to the industry advance guard to be self-evident, and is subject to question.
It is fascinating as well as timely to consider the implications of this conversation in charting the future skill sets required, and the opportunities open for those professionals engaged in making what we now call the book, especially authors, editors and production people.
If you are a book industry professional, how will changes in the form of the book affect your career and avocation?
Launching New Formats in New Ways
As a framework for this conversation here are three dynamic developmental currents:
1. Hardware and software readers. For example, the widespread publication of books as “apps” and of Nook and Kindle apps in the Apple store; the iPod and iPad as readers; the forthcoming Copia line of readers with social networking tools embedded; full color and graphic books adapted for reading with Scrollmotion and the forthcoming Blio software readers.
2. Publisher initiatives. These range from cut-and-paste links and add-ons of author interviews, resources and supplementary text, to the creative synthesis of video, audio, computer graphics, animation and dimensional and rotational effects, look inside, external links, and QR matrix bar code links.
Innovative independents are carving new niches and charting new pathways: Sourcebooks paved the way from within for the creative marriage of audio and video with books. New ventures have emerged: Open Road Integrated Media, Vook, Touch Press (see their magnificent reference work "The Elements"), Nosy Crow (“Appiness” multi-media books for children) Oceanhouse Media in licensing arrangements with Hay House, Chronicle Books and Dr. Seuss Enterprises ("Green Eggs and Ham"); MagicBlox.com (an imaginatively executed community-based publishing center for kids and parents).
Mainstream publishers have begun to enter the market with enhanced or extended e-books in adult and children’s trade: e.g., Simon and Schuster ("Nixonland"), Harper Collins ("Getting the Pretty Back"), Random House (“Book and Beyond” e-books), Grand Central ("Deliver Us From Evil"), Penguin ("Pillars of the Earth").
3. Self-publishing major authors exploring “re-born” e-book options (Stephen King, Steven Covey, Ryu Murakami), and author estates (William Styron). The game-changing event is the Enhanced Editions launch of Odyssey Editions, a project produced for The Wylie Agency. “Odyssey is a new, digital-only imprint set up to publish beautiful and digitally native e-book editions of some of the modern literary classics that TWA represent,” according to the company. As a first step, Odyssey has published the first digital editions of 20 literary classics on Amazon’s Kindle platform.
We still call what they all are doing “making books.”
Do New “Book” Formats Need a New Name?
But are they making books in the classic sense? Are these new forms “books” in the common meaning of the word? And, more importantly, do we need a new name for these new forms?
How does the name we use define your expectations and what you will be doing in the future?
The issue was discussed at length recently in an online forum. With their permission, I would like to quote from the insights voiced by three of the professionals taking part (italics are mine).
One view that addresses the blending of media types was voiced by Bob Stein, a pioneer developer of electronic media applications and co-founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book;
“While I think it will take some time to deeply understand the long-term implications of this flattening of all media types and experiences into varieties of apps, I don't think it's too early to suggest that 'app' is on its way to linguistic hegemony.
“In the past, we had books, movies and songs. Now they're all being bundled into one category—apps—to be further delineated by a descriptive prefix. … Consider the word 'book.' On its own, 'book' usually refers to a minimally defined material object, a generic container. It's not until there's a qualifier that we know much about what's inside: fiction or non-fiction book, cookbook, textbook, art book, children's book, how-to book, illustrated book, history book, religious book, and so on.”
On the other hand, highlighting the continuing value of referring to books as “books”, John Conley, vice president, publishing, the Xerox Corp., observed.
“I tend to think that like 'games' the word 'book' will not disappear from the lexicon. We will have genres of the 'Book.' This keeps the transition for users simple and direct. All the marketer has to do is make sure the consumer understands what the words in the new genre communicate as it relates to the original base word 'Book.'
“It also simplifies what you do on a world wide basis as this is an issue for not just the techno savvy, as the word and expectation of 'book' is as close to ubiquitous as any word in the world no matter what language. No small matter of importance for marketers who are looking for the easiest and least confusing way to communicate a message with the broadest possible impact."
Both Stein and Conley emphasize the importance of terminology in arousing expectations.
Matthew Bernius, co-director of the Open Publishing Lab at the Rochester Institute of Technology, gets to the nub of it as it affects the process of building a book when he writes on his blog (http://www.waking-dream.com/), in what I feel is a synthesis of both Stein’s and Conley’s perspectives:
“What does a name do? It enables conversation and creation by creating/coming to stand for the concept of a category. And the creation of that category allows the construction of families and hierarchies. The category allows us to qualify resemblances and differences across multiple members, providing us with boundaries about 'what is' and 'what isn’t.'
“Thus, a category effects what consumers expect to get when they buy an 'X.' And, more importantly, the category has a profound influence on creators, bounding their notion of what they are setting out to make, and helping decide what tools and techniques they are going to use.”
In effect, Bernius reminds us that what we call “books,” with whatever the prefix, will arouse the expectation of a text-based narrative work, where all else is added on in support of the text-based medium.
What Are the Current Skills Expectations of Creators and Producers?
So far, we seem to be heading toward the new forms with the expectations that the term “book” itself provides—whether e-book, enhanced e-book, extended e-book, multimedia book—building new features on the conventional structures of theme and content that shape the reading experience as we know it.
For starters, the case for using the generic term “book” in the electronic era as it has been defined by actual practice is strong. The preponderance of e-books of various kinds are either replicas of the print versions or replicas with other material attached but not synthesized into the exposition of the content.
Creators and producers still think developmentally in terms of front matter, back matter and main body structures and leave it to marketers, media directors and publishers to attach later features. These features are viewed by the creators as dressing and not substance. Not too different from the CD-ROM days of yore—not so long ago in the 1990s.
(Many will recall the heavy industry investment in designing and programming for the search and effects potential of the CD—to which the consumer response never took off. [Microsoft’s Encarta is an iconic survivor of that era.])
Consider that, as popular blogger Kassia Kroszier commented dryly on Booksquare in January, referring to trade, that, “Right now, most commercial e-books are treated as exact (but not really exact, which is a problem when it comes to value perception) replicas of the print version.”
Consider also that when we talk about the “industry,” 55 percent of sales are accounted for by professional, reference, scholarly and textbook markets—in some cases almost now completely born digital. For over 15 years, their e-book versions have been brought into page form through traditional book-organizing conventions.
Lastly, consider the fact that the most popular dedicated physical readers are Kindle, Nook, Sony and various PDAs, not to speak of desk and laptops using Adobe Digital Editions or Microsoft Reader—all of which are basically providing digital replicas of the conventional book, with add-on search, note-taking and other linking features. (We’ll get to iPod, iPad and PDAs later).
Under the foregoing circumstance, it is no surprise that we see that authors are still writing, editors are still editing, and production people are still delivering books for which quality control can said to have been exercised when in conformance with "Strunk and White" and the "Chicago Manual of Style" or equivalents—surely, more than 90 percent of print and e-books are still content developed in traditional structural forms.
There seems to be no waning of this traditional development even as informed industry prognosticators such as Mike Shatzkin assure us that e-books in various forms will comprise more than 50 percent of sales in a few years—and mainstream publishing seems now to agree. Random House Chief Executive Markus Dohle predicts 25 percent to 50 percent by 2015. That much conceded by Dohle suggests to me that Shatzkin may be too conservative.
The now almost mythically cited explosion of more than 1,000,000 new titles into the marketplace last year is an index of content development opportunity and challenge to creative and production expectations. They are far beyond the bounds of the conventional 60,000 a year of 10 or more years ago. And increased numbers are coming out simultaneously in print and e-book form as well, or are born digital.
How many of these titles are not authored and edited with traditional notions of narrative and content structure in mind?
Where Do We Go From Here?
“We saw the future, and it is us,” the younger of the generations today might very well claim. Brewing for the past 10 or 15 years, the electronic book has exploded upon us in full force. Practical and popularly accepted E Ink reading devices—the Kindle, Sony Reader and Nook are now being overtaken by full color and interactive devices such as the iPad and the soon-to-come Copia, among others. They enjoy extensive media coverage and online and brick-and-mortar retail store presence; they have passed early adopters and are reaching towards the early majority stage in the United States—possibly by next year.
Lightweight and easy-to-carry and use laptops and notebooks, as well as pocket-size iPods, PDAs and intelligent phones are also serving a large market as readers. Not to speak of desktops and portables—all of which serve substantial e-book reading populations. For all of them, reading software is available ranging through the “legacy” Adobe Digital Editions and Microsoft Readers, and the newer more graphically and media grounded interactive Scrollmotion and Stanza for handhelds, and the forthcoming Blio for all devices.
So, how will “books” for these media be built in the future? Currently, it seems that publishers are repeating the script of the 1990s CD-ROM bubble: A) contracting with outsources to add features to conventionally developed content; B) licensing outsources to develop apps from existing titles or alongside publication of new titles; or C) inspiring collaborations of media specialists to start new firms that will, in turn recruit authors and editors as outsources.
In all of the foregoing scenarios, authors, editors and production editors/managers develop text- and image-based content in the traditional modes of structure. Other than possibly graphic novelists, how many are thinking of—or are able to bring “books” into being who can synthesize their narratives or elements with the audio, video, animation and other media effects now being employed in “enhanced” e-books?
Theodore Gray, author of “The Elements," on the O’Reilly Tools of Change blog is paraphrased in saying, “Truly useful interactivity requires skill sets beyond those commonly found in publishing companies: videography, audio, programming, etc. If you want to produce a great e-book (or app), you need to bring in people who can make that happen. Programmers need to be treated as top talent, just like authors."
In Part Two of this essay, to be published on this blog, I will explore how these skill sets are needed by some of the new interactive and enhanced book products coming on the market.
Eugene G. Schwartz is editor at large for ForeWord Reviews, an industry observer and an occasional columnist for Book Business magazine. In an earlier career, he was in the printing business and held production management positions at Random House, Prentice-Hall/Goodyear and CRM Books/Psychology Today. A former PMA (IBPA) board member, he has headed his own publishing consultancy, Consortium House. He is also Co-Founder of Worthy Shorts Inc., a development stage online private press and publication service for professionals as well as an online back office publication service for publishers and associations. He is on the Publishing Business Conference and Expo Advisory Board.