Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Last week, Digital Book World published a blog post by Chris Rechsteiner about how the future of publishing depends on getting people to read again. In his article, Chris boldly states, “Four months ago, the real competition for booksellers WAS libraries… Today the real competition for booksellers, publishers, and libraries is NOT READING.”
At first read, I admit, it’s strange. After all, in the last four months, Pottermore has swept the nation with ebook versions of the books that put kids back onto reading in the first place. Luckily, the DBW newsletter that featured this article languished in my inbox for a few days before I got around to reading it: as it turns out—as I found after reading through the article’s comment thread—this may be a hasty conclusion based on incongruent data sets. (Whew.)
In short, four months ago the respondents to surveys about consumer use of digital devices were mostly people using a dedicated ereader; since then, as more and more people are using multifunction tablets, surveys are including people who didn’t necessarily buy their tablets for reading. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Or more accurately, like comparing apples to mixed fruit. Some of which is also apples.
Regardless, the article brought up a lot of discussion about developing enhanced ebooks to try to win back the non-reading crowd. And as I read the article and the comments that followed, I started to notice the use of the word “reading.” We were going to “save reading” by making books more interactive. We were going to “save reading” by creating enhanced ebooks that utilized the functionality of the tablet.
But is that really how to save reading? And is reading really what ends up being saved?
As I see it, publishing a book does two things. First, it communicates a story or a narrative (okay, excluding the book of random numbers). Second, it promotes literacy and the act of reading simply by being a book. It’s a format that requires the receiver of the message put forth in the book through decoding the written signs—i.e., reading. Usually, we think of these two things as one. I certainly did until a few days ago. However, as I explore the concept of enhanced ebooks and book apps and adapting content to multifunction tablets, I’m beginning to see how vastly different these functions actually are—and technology is forcing us to make that distinction.
It seems like television and movies should have clued us into this long ago, but moving pictures and books are well-established as discrete entities. As we move to multifunction tablets, the lines are blurring between static print and moving images, and suddenly we need to tackle these questions head-on: what is the difference between books and other forms of storytelling? Can we continue to stick up our noses at film and audio drama as forms inferior to the printed word if we want to pursue enhanced ebooks?
Technology Review recently posted about publishers’ relationships with apps. TR’s Jason Pontin gives a firsthand account of the problems with publishers’ approach to developing apps in the magazine world. In Pontin’s words:
The apps were, in the jargon of information technology, “walled gardens,” and although sometimes beautiful, they were small, stifling gardens. For readers, none of that beauty overcame the weirdness and frustration of reading digital media closed off from other digital media.
As we move forward, we’re going to need to break out of those walled gardens and out of our own walls of self-understanding. Publishers may have to redefine their purpose, and not all publishers will redefine themselves in the same way. Some will see storytelling, the communication of a narrative, as the greatest goal; these publishers will continue to develop partnerships with technology companies and will continue to investigate new ways to communicate information—not always through written text.
Others will see reading as a critical part of a person’s education and wellbeing, and that’s okay too. They will continue to publish the complex, long-form works that make us think and push us to imagine a world that comes to us from a series of signs on paper (I’m talking to you, Mr. Derrida).
In this future world, there will be room for both publishers. Which one will you be?