A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books

This post, from Bob Stein, originally appeared on the if:book blog on 9/24/09.

The following started out as a set of notes to various colleagues suggesting that successful digital publishing involves much much more than coming up with a viable form for networked books. rather unexpectedly this led to the question of how bookstores might evolve to give publishers a way to reassert their brands and strengthen their position vis a vis Amazon (as well as Google and Apple). This is very much a work in progress but i thought i’d post it and bring others into the discussion along the way.


The idea that "a book is a place (where readers, sometimes with authors, congregate)" arose out of a series of experiments investigating what happens when the act of reading moves from the printed page to an online space designed for social interaction. as we expanded the notion of a work to include the activity in the margin, in effect we re-defined "content" to include the conversation that a text engenders. Put another way, locating a text in a dynamic network brings the social aspects of reading to the fore. (see Without Gods, Gamer Theory, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Golden Notebook projects)

In an earlier set of notes ("A Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Networked Era") I suggested that as discourse moves off the page onto networked screens, the roles of authors, readers, editors, publishers will shift in significant ways. For example, the author’s traditional commitment to engage with a subject matter on behalf of future readers will shift to a commitment to engage with readers in the context of a subject. Successful publishers, i posited, will distinguish themselves by their ability to build and nurture vibrant communities of interest, often with authors at the center, but not necessarily always.

The purpose of this new set of notes is to expand the thinking beyond how a specific text is presented or interacted with. Reading (and writing) do not happen only at the level of the individual work. There is a broad ecology of behaviors, activities and micro-environments that surround each work and our relationship to it — how things come to be written, how we choose what to read, how we make the purchase, how we share our experience with others. Currently (i.e. toward the end of age of print), that ecology is defined by agent/editor mechanisms of acquisition, sharp delineation between authors and readers, top-down marketing, heavy reliance on big mainstream media to get the word out, the bookshelves that make our books part of our daily life, bookstores and — yes — Amazon. Much more than not, Amazon is a product of the same DNA that underlies the still-dominant mode of the print-book read by the solitary reader. Everything about the Kindle, from its interaction design to its draconian DRM provisions, underlines its conservative role in preserving the ecologies of print.

The current e-book business (the buying/selling bits) was designed (or at least evolved) to minimize friction with the legacy business; pricing, release schedules and DRM all structured so as not to challenge print, which is still the predominant source of revenues.

To succeed at publishing in the networked era, it won’t be enough just to re-conceive the work as a "networked book." If we accept that social interaction will be paramount, not just at the level of the individual work but throughout the ecology of networked reading and writing, then it’s important also to ask the question "if a book is a place, what is the place for books? (or, more accurately but less forceful, "what are the places for books?")

Currently the predominant place(s) for books are bookstores, libraries, classrooms, cafes (as a stand-in for the general category of informal brick-and-mortar gathering places), living-room reading groups, and the infoweb (mainstream media + internet) where books are reviewed, promoted, and on sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari, discussed. Each of these places has its own culture, its own social fabric that determines how people relate to each other, what their transactions are like, how you meet "new" people, how you come to trust them or not, and how you manage ongoing connections/relationships.

The bookstore, The Library and The Cafe
Brick and mortar bookstores are much better for (un-directed) browsing than online stores. This is probably mostly a function of bandwidth, i.e. I can see so much more in a bookstore than I can on my 2D screen. This will change as the web and its attendant hardware/software develops over time, but my guess is that a satisfying browsing experience of the order i can get in a great bookstore is many, many years away from practical. On the other hand if you know what you’re looking for, online shopping excels at simplifying the process of making the transaction. In fact, in every sense except immediate transfer to the buyer of the object they’ve purchased, online buying is vastly more efficient. When the bulk of our book purchases are in electronic form, and therefore delivered instantly, the significant advantages left to the bookstore will be the superior browsing experience, the help desk and the cafe.

[And before you say "oh, it will be years before the bulk of what we’re buying is in electronic form," think about how many iPhone apps or iTunes purchases you or your friends have made in the past few months (including the books you’ve been reading on your phone or Kindle) compared to how many print books you/they bought. This part of the future seems to be near-now.]

Read the rest of the post on if:book.

Comments are closed.