Monday, October 29, 2007

Book 2.0

by Marcus Sakey

When I do speaking events, a lot of times someone asks a question which, though politely phrased, adds up to, "But aren't books going away some time soon?"

It's a fair question. The publishing system is archaic as hell, built on an expectation of waste. Without getting into the gritty details, bookstores essentially buy everything on consignment; if it doesn't sell, they can return it. Because books take up a lot of space, that means that most of the unsold copies end up pulped. And since selling 50% of the printed copies is considered a moderate success, and print runs are frequently in the hundreds of thousands, we're talking about enormous inefficiency.

The question, though, is how to do better?

One answer is the digital reader, a gizmo that can store a library of books and yet fit in your bag. A couple versions of these exist, but for my money, they are a long, long way from being a solution. Even putting aside the tactile joy of books, a digital reader needs to contend with some serious design challenges: it must be rugged enough to survive the beach, easy on the eyes and yet bright enough to read in broad daylight, with batteries that don't quit--imagine your reader dying in the last ten pages of a thriller--plus being small and light and flexible enough to just tuck in your bag, and, oh yeah, it has to do all that at a really low cost.

Suffice it to say we ain't there yet.

More realistic, I think, might be an integration of print-on-demand technology with physical bookstores. Instead of storing and shipping thousands and thousands of books, publishers could send digital files to bookstores across the globe. These stores could either exist online, or else be more like storefronts, with catalogs, samples, and staff to guide you. You pick what you want, it gets printed on the spot, you're on your way. Obviously, this model is also pretty far off, but it's consistent with what other industries are doing: movies are increasing distributed digitally, and need I say more than iTunes?

It's hard to say what will come next. However, one thing that is often forgotten is that books are just a medium. It's not really books that I love--it's story. It's experiencing someone else's world-view, being scared or cheered or filled with joy, having a moment of grace or a laugh that makes me snort my coffee. And while books are my preferred medium, they aren't the only one.

Plus, new ones are on the way. Take YouTube, which, while still specializing in fart-lighting videos, is also a forum for tremendous satire, as well as fascinating experiments in narrative structure.

Or consider video games; long an arena where the story concerns rarely went further than "those are the bad guys, go shoot them," game designers are beginning to aspire to something higher. If you want an example of what I mean, look no further than BioShock, a morality tale set amidst a crumbling dystopic extension of Ayn Rand's ideas that still allows for the highly enjoyable kicking of great quantities of ass. (For more info on BioShock and its impact, check out my brother Matt's review of it here--even if you don't game, Matt's article is worth reading.)

What do you think? Would you read a book on a digital reader? If not, what would need to change so you would? Or does it not matter, since story will always find a way?

What do you think Book 2.0 will look like?


spyscribbler said...

Have you seen the Espresso book machine? In-store or In-library POD, printed just for you within seven minutes. (You watch it work if you go here and click on the video links.)

Both cool and scary. We are going to break down and buy Sony Readers for ourselves, because we're considering a lifestyle change and I'm not going to have room for books. (Um, by not having room I mean I won't have room for more than a couple hundred or so.)

I don't know how I'd write every day if I weren't surrounded by the smell of books, or the ability to wander the aisles every hour, LOL. I love bookstores, the bigger, the better.

Barbara said...

The NYPL science and business branch installed one of those. They reportedly would print public domain books out for free.

My solution for overcrowded shelves - the public library. I can borrow books and I can donate the ones I buy but don't have room for. (And hey - good news: Jackson County, Oregon, will have their public libraries open today after being closed since last April. I'm not crazy about the fact they've been outsourced to a for-profit company, but at least the doors are being unlocked.)

Here's another book 2.0 idea - using the social networking and read/write culture approach. Looks as if they're sticking to either public domain or works that people want to share.

Then there's Kevin Kelly's idea of liquid books - a future that does not seem very convincing to me. A story needs some kind of linearity to my mind, and the idea of them morphing into one big bowl of story soup bothers me.

I wouldn't object to using a digital reader if it didn't bother my eyes too much and if it wasn't tied to a single vendor or device and wasn't burdened with clunky DRM. Though in this case, I'm really wondering about the future of the wonderful indie bookstores that cater to mystery addicts. I would hate to see them - and all their expertise - go away.

Mark Terry said...

Hey Marcus,
Watching the video of the Espresso machine, I'm thinking it would be the death of book impulse buy. You know, the one where I went to Meijer's last week to pick up an iTunes gift card for my son's birthday, then strolled by the book section and noticed a book titled "Allah's Scorpion" by David Hagberg that seemed promisingly lurid in the genre I write in and since it was there and it only cost $7, I grabbed it on my way out. No waiting around for a machine to print and paste it.

If a digital reader could be made eye-friendly and inexpensive, I'd be game, especially if you could download more than books to it--magazines, for instance, or even individual articles, say, I want everything from Smithsonian except the art history articles and, oh, skip the letters to the editor, thanks.

But in order for an e-reader to work for me it would have to be smaller than my laptop, easier on the eyes, a hell of a lot cheaper, and have more than 2.5 hours battery life. I'd also prefer to be able to see an entire page at once.

Maryann Mercer said...

I don't know what it would take to get me to a Digital Reader...someone would probably have to give it to me as a present (ala the iPod I got from my daughter). I do so love walking into bookstores, big box or otherwise, and just inhaling the scent of the ink. That's what started me on the reading track early on, and inspired me to try my hand at the craft of writing as well.
That said, digital readers and other future enhancements lessen the cost of publishing and allow otherwise unpublished but talented writers to be read by more than just a few. That might be a good thing...or not. Right now, I'm still more apt to buy a book than even download one, and I wonder... as someone who likes popcorn with her mysteries...what would happen if you spilled something on the reader?

Barbara said...

This New Yorker article is worth a read ... hot off the press.

Rob in Denver said...

I don't disagree that electronic delivery of books is a good thing and likely the logical direction of where things are headed.

But to be honest, the talk about digital delivery replacing a physical item any time soon, I think, is wishful thinking.

I ran record stores throughout the 1990s and every time we turned around there was a story in Billboard about the death of the record store... that on-demand kiosks would replace bricks and mortar. Just pick the songs or album you want, print the liner notes and disc, swipe your credit card, and away you go.

Then, once we stopped spinning from that, there were stories about how digital delivery would soon make CDs obsolete. Like, "better cut your hair, polish up your resume, and find a new job now" soon.

Last I checked, we still have record stores.

Don't get me wrong, digital delivery has changed the music-buying experience dramatically, both in terms of sales and consumer shopping habits. It's made try before you buy the norm and re-energized single buying in ways the industry hasn't seen in years.

But the thing that the death knell sounders always forget---and others have mentioned it here---is that people love to mingle with the books/CDs and talk to the people who sell them (because they presumably love mingling with books/CDs, too).

What's more, they enjoy the sensory experience that comes with opening a new CD or book, and then letting it pull them inside, as if to say, "Come on... you're gonna love this. I promise."

Against that, digital delivery doesn't have a chance.

Marcus Sakey said...

Some great thoughts here, and I don't say that just because they mirror my own. ;)

Spy, that POD machine is fascinating, and I do think it's part of what the future holds. And while I share the concerns that Mark and Barbara raise about the impulse buy and the joys of independent booksellers, I actually think that once this technology is perfected, neither will be a big concern. The impulse buy is easily satisfied if the machine is fast, and if certain titles always have a couple pre-printed. And the need for independent stores will be all the greater as the browsing process changes, because those of us who want that guidance, who cherish the expertise of a bookseller, will need that all the more as selection grows.

Rob also nails it--the sounding of death knells is a human hobby, and it's been going on forever. When TV came along, people predicted the death of books. The internet was first going to kill newspapers, and now will kill TV. Sooner or later, something will bve here to kill the internet.

Problem with that logic is that it isn't true. New trends change the marketplace, sometimes drastically, but it adapts. And there will always be people, me among them, who want to hold the book in their hand, who want to browse the CDs and hang with the staff, who prefer a professionally scripted drama to an amateur's uploaded project.

Funny, the thing I think least likely, the digital reader, is the one that seems to get most of the press. I think it's because people look at the iPod. But there's a fundamental difference. Music always required electronics, much of it bulky and expensive. In contrast, the iPod is truly an improvement--cheaper and far more portable than a decent stereo.

Books, on the other hand, take nothing but a pocket to stuff 'em in. They can survive sand and popcorn and even a dunk in the bathtub (I've got more than a few books that have turned double-wide with crinkles.) They require no batteries. And they are relatively cheap, from a consumer's point of view.

Personally, I don't think the digital reader is going to stick until I can literally fold it up and sit on it, until battery life is simply not a concern, and until the price drops to a competitive level.

guyot said...

Uh, do you have that link to the fart-lighting videos...

ab said...

No electronical gizmo over my threshold! They are sterile. A book I can love; letters in cyber space lack that tangible quality.

I use a computer for writing, I'm used to it now - but I miss the special feeling of using an ordinary typewriter. I mean one that wasn't even electrical.

Sarah said...

I'm going to disagree with the purists. I love hardcover books, and a few paperbacks--the larger ones with the good paper. However, I loathe most paperback books. They are hard to see/read, require too much attention to keep them open to the right page, smear if you touch the pages, etc.

So, when I see a story I want to read, and it's in mass market paperback, I bring it home and scan it into my laptop, and then I can have a good read. The size of the print is under MY control, as is the way the page is presented. I can read late at night w/o a lamp, which is good for my spouse who is sleeping. If I want to lie on my side as I read, I just rotate the image 90 degrees.

My bookcases can be filled with hardcover books and books of lasting value. And I don't have to explain those (often) dreadful covers to the kids.

Now, when we're talking about a good quality hardcover book, yes, that is a pleasure for sight, touch, and even smell.
I do miss the older bookstores, the ones operated by their owners. They were crammed with books, and the owners showcased local authors. My local bookseller would often just walk with me through the store, handing me books she knew I would like. Or, books she thought I needed to read. But that bookstore didn't survive the death of the owner.

I'm enthusiastic about the idea of smaller, e-book publishers, and have purchased and downloaded maybe 10 or 12 books, fiction and non-fiction. Anything that widens my choices is good. I have also bought books straight from authors' websites. I don't need agents & editors to get between me and the stories. In a lot of ways, all this is back to the future. I've heard of traveling minstrels and show troupes. Hey, maybe all the authors could put on a show in the barn!

ab said...

Buying books directly from the author's website - how does that work? You pay by credit card or paypal and then you get the book by e-mail? Or do you just download and then pay what you like afterwards?

Sarah said...

Someone has asked about buying a book from an author's website: how does that work?

In my experience it has worked one of four ways.
1. The author is selling his copies of books published by regular houses. PayPal is a good way to go, though some sites take credit cards which are then routed through PayPal. The books come by mail or other delivery.
2. If there is a download involved, as when an early book of a long series is out of print, the PDF may come as an email attachment.
3. The author's website may be set up to accept credit cards or paypal and then offer downloads, kind of like iTunes. The author may also go through something like Lulu, with a deep link from the author's site to the exact link for the book, which I believe is printed after it is ordered.
4. The last way, and the least handy, is when an author's site touts a book and offers a link to the publisher, but the link goes to the homepage rather than straight to the book.
5. Oh, and some authors' sites link right into Amazon or B&N, straight to the book in question.
I've never seen an author offer his books for "whatever you think it's worth" but I've downloaded music from composers' sites with that kind of arrangement.
My teenaged grandkids can't wait till they get their own PayPal or credit card. I avoided PayPal as long as possible, because of all the phishing, but eventually, I caved.