Future of Books article in Sunday Times

Naomi Alderman, Perplex City lead writer, author of Disobedience, etc, wrote an article in the Sunday Times about the future of books. I’ve talked to Naomi often about eBooks and was quoted in the article:

Imagine, for example, a novel designed to take advantage of the features of the new must-have geek hipster accessory: the iPhone. When you download a new novel to your iPhone, the calendar might automatically remind you it’s the birthday of one of the characters in a few days’ time, or you might get access to the appointments schedule of the missing journalist in your thriller. The weather-forecast widget could give you the option to view the weather in London in 1880, the setting for your historical romance. Or your purchase of one of those classic Harry Potters could add The Daily Prophet to your automatic newspaper subscriptions. Stories could become pervasive: when you’re lost in a good book, your whole online world could blend seamlessly with it. The technology to do all this doesn’t exist yet, but it’s far from impossible.

Of course, all that additional content will have to be written. Therein lies one of the problems. As Adrian Hon, chief creative of the online games company Six to Start, says: “Authors don’t need to be great artists or programmers right now. They ‘just’ need to write. To make anything more advanced than a normal story, though, you need more skills.” Most authors aren’t also computer programmers, and most programmers aren’t novelists. As Hon says: “Web people come up with cool ideas, such as telling stories by web 2.0 series, wikis or e-mails. Twitter, but it fails because they can’t write a good story for it.” This needn’t be an insuperable hurdle. We may see a new partnership added to the traditional artist-and-writer combination for illustrated books, or musician-and-writer team for songs. Writers could work with programmers in this new form of storytelling.

Obviously my position is a bit more nuanced than this, but the quote gets the point across. While a lot of ‘stories on the web’ today involve some interesting technology, unfortunately, they’re just not very interesting stories. This leads a lot of people to conclude that the format of a book is superior. Of course, I disagree; we need to put a lot more thought into designing stories for the web, and that needs to be a collaborative process between not just writers and programmers, but also people who design interactive experiences on the web, who we might as well just call game or ARG designers.

The article also has a few tidbits about what we’re doing with Penguin (then again, you’ll find out much more early next week), and a review of the Amazon Kindle. The reviewer, a novelist called Stephen Amidon, has a rather plaintive lament about what eBooks and, I imagine, technology in general, holds for the future of his vocation.

In the future, when the [Amazon Kindle] is fully connected to the internet, one can imagine having access to all manner of unregulated content. The prospect might be exciting for readers, but it is daunting for the writer, who is in danger of losing control of his work, just as musicians are losing control of theirs. The Rolling Stones might be able to take that hit; most working novelists cannot.

It is also possible to envision the Kindle causing a change in the nature of the literary text itself. Instead of the traditional flat accumulation of letters, one can imagine a page that is riven with all manner of links to Google or Wikipedia. The novel will wind up looking like your average blog. For instance, the novelist mentions that his hero is peering down into the Grand Canyon, and the reader need only click on those words to be given the same panoramic view. Or listen to a snippet of a symphony, or watch archival news footage. Or even, perish the thought, text a question or a critical response to the author.

Prospects such as this, rather than in the actual experience of reading the Kindle, are what have caused my reservations to grow. The beauty and genius of the traditional book is that it is a thing unto itself. It is self-contained. Its limitations are its strength. It has covers, and between them is an entire world created by the interplay between the author’s imagination and the reader’s. Once you connect that autonomous world to the shifting, boundless, hyperactive universe of cyberspace, you run the very real risk of severing that magical bond of imagination. Give the reader a photographic vista of the Grand Canyon and he no longer has to imagine it. By opening up the book to the limitless possibilities of the digital age, Amazon just might be risking closing it for good.

It is evident from this passage that Stephen Amidon either hasn’t spent a lot of time on the internet, or he hasn’t thought this argument through. The invention of television did not kill radio, and nor did radio kill books. In fact, nothing has killed the traditional linear, ‘non-interactive’ form of books for several thousand years, and I wouldn’t expect Amazon or anyone else to dampen our interest in reading them. So Stephen can probably rest easy in the knowledge that people will be buying books for many decades to come.

However, each technological invention – radio, TV, games, the web, and yes, eBooks – has offered us a new way of experiencing stories. No-one would suggest that books are inherently better than movies simply because they require imagination; they’re two different media, and they have their own strengths and weaknesses. When we step into the brave new world of interactive eBooks, it would be wiser to see them as an entirely new medium, rather than one that is some bastard child of ‘proper’ books.

3 Replies to “Future of Books article in Sunday Times”

  1. Hey Adrian – I couldn’t agree more … we have just launched bookhabit.com which is basically the long tail of ebooks. Many of the books that are being uploaded would have never made it into main stream publishing. And they don’t need to – we’ve got the technology to make them accessible to lots of people.

    Stephen’s position is essentially fear based, in an “the earth is flat” kind of way. Well – the publishing industry is the next one to finally experience the effects of disintermediation. The music industry has just gone through it and realised that DRM was a waste of time … instead they are now focusing on making it easy for people to do access what they are after legally. If you make it easy to instantly download something someone is after and you don’t rip them off – they will just do it and you can still earn your share.

    Isn’t better to get $1 per download from a million readers than $5 per copy (in the case of mainstream publishing) from a thousand?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s