Radical Publishing: Taking Apart the Book at Books in Browsers IV
A book is a book is a book—is it not? Not in the hall at the former Church of Christ, Scientist, now turned into the magnificent home of the Internet Archive on Funston Avenue at the edge of the Presidio in San Francisco. The Archive, established in 1996 with the goal of offering permanent access to records that exist in digital format, is the venue for the annual Books in Browsers conference, which took place on October 24th and 25th. This reporter attended this year for the first time, and had her mind blown.
I confess that I expected a kind of techy geeky atmosphere and a round of talks much of whose substance would go right over my lit crit head. Instead I found presentations of poetic beauty that drew on literature, history, anthropology, robotics and, yes, programming, to intrigue and inspire, to pose questions and offer possible solutions.
Sitting in the back row, next to Corey Pressman of Exprima Media, whose wry asides added to the enjoyment of the material being presented, and surrounded by familiar faces—Len Vlahos of BISG, Bill McCoy of IDPF, Angela Boles of IBPA, and numerous other non-acronymous FOBBs (friends of Book Business), columnist Andrew Brenneman, Editorial Board member Brian O’Leary, Publishing Business Conference speakers Kirsty Melville, Jason Merkoski, Peter Balis, Richard Nash and Joshua Tallent—we listened to a parade of forward-thinkers take apart the book and, in an un-Humpty Dumpty like way, put it back together again in intriguing new configurations and combinations.
Hosts Peter Brantley of Hypothes.is and Kat Meyer, now officially of Frankfurt Book Fair, kept things rolling on stage in friendly fashion, and, while offstage, kept the Twitter feed lively. Kudos to them for collecting a roster of speakers with diverse viewpoints, and for also providing ample time for networking breaks filled with excellent bluegrass music. If an overall theme had to be identified, I would say one thread I heard was a non-corporate lean toward open source and collaboration, or interconnectivity, as they might phrase it, but in large part these presentations went in a multitude of directions.
The constraints of this blog format will keep me from going into great length about any one of the 32 plus speakers. I hope, in future posts, to have the chance to write more and interview some of the speakers. What follows here is a highlight reel of Books in Browsers 2013.
Manuel Schmalstieg, Head, Geneva and Greyscale Press, kicked off the presentations (his was entitled “A Book Isn’t a Book Isn’t a Book”) and taught me several things. The first is that Jorge Luis Borges is buried in Geneva, which I hadn’t known. (The Argentinean writer spent much of his childhood in Switzerland.) The second is “very strange phenomena that not many people have noticed:” book SPAM. Spam books are “harvested” (by bots I think) from content that already exists on the web, such as Wikipedia entries. As a result of this phenomenon, some publishers of digital books now apparently say: “we will not accept copy that is freely available on the web unless you are the copyright owner.” Imagine that (note sarcasm in my comment)!
I was also amused when Schmalstieg said that POD has enabled us to “do projects that would have been completely suicidal for an editor to put in the world.” A lovely way to express the challenges editors have taken on since time immemorial – risking death indeed – let’s hear it for editors!
Jason Merkoski, ex-Amazoner and Kindle designer and author of the book Burning the Page, uses data he collects from within his books to gauge reader response and evaluate the popularity of various chapters. He asks what’s wrong with altering your text based on reader response. Merkoski also suggests the use of ads in ebooks to “make books free.” He complimented the gathering by describing attendees as “curators with a long term vision of literacy.”
Steve Woodall and Clifton Meador of Columbia College in Chicago inspired the title of this post; they run the The Radical Publishing Project, which promotes discourses, critical thought and new relationships in digital publishing through discussion, conferences, publications, and more. Meador says: “Books have design problems rooted in the behavior of material stuff. Hacking the technologies of the book,” he explains, “produces new ways of looking at the book, visual and textual exploration that creates new reading.” Their work with artists making innovative book forms is “envisioning the future of the book.”
Peter Armstrong of Leanpub described a book as a start up: “a highly creative endeavor… with a low probability of success.” He would appear to side with Merkoski in the reader feedback department, saying that publishers should “focus on improving and retooling the product [that would be the book] based on reader feedback.” Armstrong called on Dickens to buttress his argument, as did other BiB speakers. The serial nature of Dickens’s writing and publishing enabled him to incorporate reader feedback, judge the popularity of various characters, and adjust the text accordingly as he progressed through the story.
“Serial was how you built traction for the book,” says Armstrong. “Writers and readers are necessary—the rest of us are optional. There are no gatekeepers anymore. We need to create our own value.” The “seize the hall the gatekeepers are gone” mentality certainly prevailed at this conference! Wattpad was mentioned as one place to go gatekeeper-free and publish serial fiction. And Leanpub, of course, as a model for a new kind of agile publishing where the typical pattern is write, release, receive feedback, revise, republish, and repeat as necessary.
Baldur Bjarnason of Unbound says that “interactivity is what you do” and that “interactive media is composed of the meaningful actions the user takes while interacting with your work.” James Bridle of Booktwo.org is “constantly searching for literatures that reflect changes in narrative mode” and has published, among other things, a book made up entirely of tweets entitled, fittingly, My Life in Tweets.
Next Anna von Veh of Say Books described “the distance between the reader and the writer” and “the limits of certain conventions,” i.e. the book. The Internet, she says, is “the perfect technology to address this.” Von Veh referenced Brian O’Leary’s oft-cited “Context, Not Container” about considering content separately from form and, like many other speakers, among them ex-Anthropology professor Corey Pressman, she referenced an oral storytelling tradition that “has a direct connection between audience and storyteller” and which is collaborative and social.
It is the return of the immediate connection back and forth between storyteller and listener, between writer and reader, that the internet enables, according to this forward (and also, apparently, backward) thinking group of literary deconstructionists, that enables the (welcome) return to a culture that values interactivity, or what Pressman calls “secondary orality.”
I have not yet told you about Adam Hyde, Book Sprints, and the “transition from reader to collaborative knowledge producer.” I haven’t mentioned CKP: Collaborative knowledge production, nor have I touched upon what Peter Haasz of OverDrive calls the Publisher’s dilemma: figuring out which technology to choose or his suggestion for “publisher-controlled books as a service,” which would put technological choices into the hands of distributors and other middlemen and lead to “inter-book operability.”
Speakers addressed standards, workflows, spreadable media, the novel as an ongoing project, a future that includes newspapers like the kind read by Harry Potter, the multi-media storytelling, paratext, in-text annotation, privacy law, transclusion, and books, according to John Maxwell of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, as “the refuge of all the arts against the nexus of time.” I could spend pages telling you about systems that exist to annotate books, like the method used by Hypothes.is, in which books become a shared community of commentary (that secondary orality again). And I’m only just beginning!
I spent two days in a book-lovers’ Shangri-La where the possibilities for re-envisioning the known literary world were endless. I thank the hosts of Books in Browsers for an inspiring experience, and I offer our platform—this newsletter and Book Business magazine—as a forum to continue the discussion. I will write more about what I heard and learned in the coming weeks, and invite you to share your thoughts by posting comments or sending them to me for posting at [email protected]
Recordings of talks are available here.
- San Francisco