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Silicon Valley Won’t Save Books

30 December 2017

From The New Republic:

The Kindle might be the most important publishing object since the printing press, but its ten year anniversary passed with little fanfare two months ago. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who in 2008 mused that the e-reader could be the key to rebuilding our shrinking attention spans, marked the event with a tweet noting the device’s modest design change, rather than its cultural impact.

. . . .

But last week brought the first real consideration of the Kindle’s legacy. “The Kindle Changed the Publishing Industry. Can It Change Books?” asked Wired’s David Pierce. As he noted, the introduction of e-books transformed the publishing industry in a matter of only a few years, solidifying Amazon’s dominance over publishers. Technologically speaking, the initially clunky device was rapidly perfected, mimicking and sometimes improving an analog experience that had existed for centuries. Having achieved these goals, though, the Kindle has stopped evolving in substantial ways.

. . . .

“The next phase for the digital book seems likely to not resemble print at all,” he wrote. “Instead, the next step is for authors, publishers, and readers to take advantage of all the tools now at their disposal and figure out how to reinvent longform reading.” It’s high time, Pierce argued, for a new kind of book to emerge, one that accurately embodies the complex audio and visual possibilities technology offers. That’s an exciting possibility: the book, after hundreds of years, is finally on the verge of entering the twenty-first century. But it’s not going to happen.

Pierce’s argument should be familiar to anyone who has talked to someone who works on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley about book publishing, or who has had a conversation about the future of books with an uncle at Thanksgiving. “As platforms change, books haven’t,” Pierce argues.

. . . .

Electronic books, meanwhile, still look more or less the same as they did in 2007 because books are fundamentally out of step with the digital era.

. . . .

Writing two years after the first Kindle was produced, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg shrugged at the possibility that e-books could destroy the publishing industry, arguing that “reading without paper might make literature more urgent and accessible than it was before the technological revolution, just like [printing press inventor Johann] Gutenberg did.” Author Steven Johnson argued that the Kindle would make books populist again: “Expect ideas to proliferate—and innovation to bloom—just as it did in the centuries after Gutenberg.”

Publishers, authors, and agents, were similarly obsessed, but took on a more millenarian spirit. The rapid rise of e-book sales after the Kindle’s introduction caused panic in America’s most anxious, hidebound industry.

. . . .

Others have tried to push the book into the twenty-first century. Pierce proposed that readers be able to “participate in the book by texting with characters, going to important locations, and even helping write the narrative.” Sony’s Wonderbook“turned a hardback book into an augmented-reality surface,” while Google’s Visual Editions has explored the possibility of “unprintable books.” But only Amazon, with its practically unlimited resources and deep experience in publishing—it is both the largest retailer and, if you count its gigantic self-publishing operation, the largest publisher in the country—can accomplish the goal. By focusing its energies on experimenting with literary production, Pierce wrote, Amazon can inaugurate a new literary era. “Only Amazon has the clout to really drive what could and should come next,” Pierce concludes. “Not by making pixels just like paper, but by embracing the difference.”

The problem with this analysis, which Pierce never really seems to consider, is that this book of the future—a participatory, augmented-reality experience that blends a number of different kinds of media—is not a book.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

Random responsive thoughts bubbled up through the primordial ooze that is PG’s mind this morning, but the ooze seems incapable of turning them into any cohesive narrative regarding the OP, so here are some oozy bits and pieces.

Hidebound is a lovely word PG hadn’t  thought about for awhile and it is the perfect adjective to describe traditional publishing.

The original meaning was based upon having skin so tight it was incapable of extension. It applied to animals, e.g. an emaciated cow with hide stretched tight over the animal’s bones, implying inflexibility, the opposite of young supple skin.

Metaphorically applied to people, hidebound describes inflexibility, rigidity, parochialism, obstinacy, lack of imagination, pigheadedness, narrow mindedness, intransigence, obduracy.

PG could go on, but he won’t right now. However, keep a watch for future appearances of hidebound.

– Big thinkers always want to add video, sound, music, interactivity, etc., to improve ebooks and bring them into “the modern era”. (Note: “The modern era” always sounds like the 1950’s to PG.)

The OP argues this blend of media is not a book. PG agrees.

It is not a book because it is a video game. While PG does not play, he is occasionally interested by what he reads about video games. One of the latest interesting developments in videogames is professional e-sports.

In e-sports, skilled participants in online videogames are recognized as athletes and spectators will pay money to watch teams of e-sports stars compete against each other on a screen, ranging from small to theater-sized (but mostly the bigger, the better).

Appropriate sound effects, music, etc., will accompany the action to keep the audience riveted to the screen. (Commercial e-sports theaters will include gangs of the largest sub-woofers on the planet and cause lights to dim in the neighborhood during competitions.)

E-sports athletes and teams and leagues and theaters will make lots of money.

In PG’s mind, any sort of interactive max-action super ebook does not seem likely to arise from a hidebound industry like traditional publishing.

Obduracy is not your friend in the e-sports world.



Amazon, Ebooks

24 Comments to “Silicon Valley Won’t Save Books”

  1. Big thinkers always want to add video, sound, music, interactivity, etc., to improve ebooks and bring them into “the modern era”.

    They do, indeed. They never seem to consider that the book (and the development of its typography, which is part of what makes a book so readable – paragraphs, indentation, punctuation marks, etc.) is a format that has undergone improvement for centuries. Perhaps it is very close to perfection, and the more closely an ebook can come to it, the better.

    The OP argues this blend of media is not a book. PG agrees.

    As do I. Adding video and sound to non-fiction reference books might be very useful, but adding it to fiction merely creates an experience altogether different from reading a novel. There may well be an audience for such a product; in which case: go forward with it, but acknowledge that it is something different.

    The developments that interest me – as a reader – for the ebook would be improvements to the e-reader, which I gather are in fact under investigation: durable e-paper (so that the e-reader becomes even lighter and more portable), and clearer visual cues that indicate where the reader is located in the book (perhaps holographic representations of the pages read at the left and pages to be read at the right).

    • Adding video and sound to non-fiction reference books might be very useful

      It is, and not only that, but people who have done it have found this great easy way to distribute their work – it’s called the Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP). You just put what you’ve created onto a web server and voila, everyone has access to it.

      In many ways, the book has already been recreated. You’re looking at it.

  2. Fiction books/e-books do not need to change regardless of how they are made. They depend on the ability of the author and the imagination of the reader.

    Non-fiction books are a different breed. An enhanced e-book could add video to a cookbook, a sound bite to historical text, a demonstration to a math problem.

    One type of book does not need to be brought into the 21st century, while tbe other can be improved by it.

    • The second kind of book has already been “improved”. Twenty years ago. You can even buy them at B&N.


      The problem then is the problem now: the market for those books is not proportional to the production costs. Demand is non-zero so the pundits aren’t totally wrong buy they are wrong about the viability of the concept as a commercial product.

      Now, some would argue that the enhanced ebook of their dreams is a pure digital product but that too already exists. In no less than three forms:
      1- appbooks – their popularity on iOS peaked early this decade and have been fading since because of limited sales and developers shifting to:
      2- epub3 – the spec is seven years old going on eight. Anybody interested in using it can. Few are. Not many are buying it. To a large extent it is because of:
      3- server-based multimedia apps – the educational markets that can most benefit from the enhancements are already benefiting by combining Chromebooks, Winbooks, and regular PCs to access those educational resources.

      Enhanced ebooks exist. They just don’t vome from the publishing establishment but rather from the software world.

      I would not hold my breath waiting for epub3 enhanced ebooks to displace the deployed solutions.

  3. “One of the latest interesting developments in videogames is professional e-sports.”

    My daughter spends much of her time online at places like Stream, where she’s watching people play video games and interacting with their audience. One she loves in particular accepts donations in Bitcoins. He streams for several hours a day, longer if he’s given donations.

    He’s got about a thousand hardcore fans, so he’s obviously entertaining them. He’ll be doing a New Year’s Eve special (she told me last night) at a local restaurant in Texas.

  4. It’s high time, Pierce argued, for a new kind of book to emerge, one that accurately embodies the complex audio and visual possibilities technology offers.

    Sorry, Mr. Pierce. Television has already been invented.

    • Exactly! Books are books. Why do some people see the need to change them? I don’t consider using an ereader or tablet to have changed books, by the way. Only the medium I hold is different. The reading experience is the same.

      Frankly, I’m tired of people insisting I need to add other content to my books. I don’t need nor want music lists, video clips, interactive content, or whatever the latest “thing” is. I simply want a good story to lose myself in. If I want anything else, I search the Internet.

  5. I want to add a thumbs up to PG and all the commenters!

    The OP clips made my eyes cross. Short attention spans aren’t due to the ereaders or the internet – it’s caused by writers like this one who can’t hold a reader’s interest.

    • Consider how many times you’ve plowed through a book and thought there was enough content there for a pamphlet, or a short story, but the book had to be padded out to make it a book. That format restriction is what the web has freed us from. You can look for a single recipe, or how-to-fix article, or information about a single technique or tool. You don’t need to buy a whole book, and even a fiction writer doesn’t need to make it 200 pages if 80 pages is more suitable. In many cases, books aren’t being replaced by ebooks – they’re being subsumed by – shorter – internet content.

    • Thanks, Deb.

  6. The problem with adding all the media etc. to a ‘book’ –
    beyond the fact that it ceases to be a book but instead becomes a multi-media product – is that the production costs skyrocket taking it well beyond the reach of the self published beginning author. Perhaps that is part of the desire of Pierce, make books once more into something that only the big 5 or multinational corporations are capable of creating and remove those annoying upstarts from the mix.
    There is a market for movies, and games and multi-media AND books.

    Frankly, considering the horrible track record of translating books to the screen, I’m not sure I want to only see some actors and CGI creating the story for me, I’d rather see the movie I make in my head as the words flow past my eyes.

    • Which is why the OP is tooting it – it requires ‘more’ to do, thus trying to give writers a reason that they still ‘need’ trad-pub. As an actual book type story doesn’t need all the hoopla, there’s no need for trad-pub to produce it (so no cut of any earnings to trad-pub or that agent and all the other middle people skipped when going indie/self publishing.)

  7. “…the next step is for authors, publishers, and readers to take advantage of all the tools now at their disposal and figure out how to reinvent longform reading.”

    Nope. The only addition to the one writer/one reader intersection that is a book is for it to be in real time (in which case we couldn’t do it with Tolkien), and that is impossible, because the writer’s commitment and involvement with a book are incredibly heavy and slow compared to what a reader can process.

    NOBODY would want to do it with me; that’s fine with me – I rather they waited until it is cleaned up, like a newborn.

    • Agree. Books have been perfect for thousands of years. The Chinese Book of Songs (Shijing) was written some 3000 years ago and is still captivating.

      Reading devices– I won’t say a Kindle is better than a paper book, but I appreciate their advantages. I could appreciate the Shijing on a Kindle.

      Still, Kindles are technology and they can improve and I hope they do.

  8. As a side note, we already have what the OP is talking about with “modernized” books. They’re called visual novels, and they’ve never really gotten anywhere outside of Japan.

  9. I made a Resources Page for my latest book and refer to it often in the chapters. Just a simple page on my site with links to buy the book at different retailers on top and below, all sorts of links to websites, videos, products, etc. In short, the things you can’t include in a book: http://www.wimdemeere.com/books/legkick/
    The feedback from readers has been extremely positive. So I plan on doing the same for my upcoming ones. No need to bother the reader with fancy bells and whistles when there is an easy and practical way to offer them that “media content.”

  10. Add video and sound to a script and we have a movie.

    I think these guys are confusing presentation technology with the story.

  11. Re: the title – Since when do books need to be saved? From all I can see, books are doing perfectly fine all on their own.

  12. My grandson, age 10, was born the same year that the first iPhone appeared. He loves to read. He loves to click. He and his comrades will invent the new book, if such is to come. Just as it took a high school kid to invent Napster, a college kid to invent Facebook, it’ll take these kids to re-invent the book in ways we can’t imagine. Nobody in Big Pub can do it. No journalist can foresee it. Just sit back. Wait. Watch the kids.

  13. Once you have a book that depends on networked outside content, you can limit the useful life of the book by controlling access to or turning off that content.

    • Yeah, I fail to see how these enhanced books will fare well, once you consider that the sites providing all this stuff tend to not stay around forever. You can’t put it all in a book file without making a huge file, which costs the publisher money to deliver.

      People have been touting enhanced books for years now, and yet, they still aren’t a thing in any significant way. It’s like all that mess about computers writing books and putting us out of a job. I don’t think so.

  14. I wonder if the writer of this article has spent much time recently with young people.

    In my observation, millennials (I have a few in my family) already augment books to suit themselves. They listen to streaming music while reading and read on whatever device suits them (phone, laptop, iPad, etc), free to adjust the font and background as they wish.

    I agree with previous comments. Digital books have greater flexibility as to length and other aspects, but they don’t get up, sing, dance, play cutesy videos, etc. If they do that, they stop being books.

  15. publishers including sony with its reading device did that back in 1992. It failed completely. Why? Because readers/ viewers except for youtoobers want quality film, art, animation… and that costs a bundle, plus the audio book could be taken anywhere while doing most anything. Multimedia requires focus of eyes and ears on only one thing at a time.

    on the other hand if someone figures out how to create books that can be read on colorbacked ghost screens that hover on the very air we breathe, and turn with the reader’s turns and steadify when the reader walks or runs, and without a device to lug around, that would be remarkable

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