Why we don’t need to reinvent the book for the web age

Tim O’Reilly, a publisher of technology-related books and the poster boy of the Web2.0 era, has penned a brief essay, where he argues that we must reinvent the book for the Web age. At first sight, his proposal– that the centuries-old book format is no longer self-sufficient and needs to be adapted to meet the ...

Tim O’Reilly, a publisher of technology-related books and the poster boy of the Web2.0 era, has penned a brief essay, where he argues that we must reinvent the book for the Web age. At first sight, his proposal– that the centuries-old book format is no longer self-sufficient and needs to be adapted to meet the realities of cyberspace – appears quite radical. Today’s books are much like the early movies, says O’Reilly, noting that those  felt “a lot like pointing a camera at a stage play “, whereas the current cinematography features such innovations as “camera angles, pacing, editing techniques, lighting, location shooting, special effects”. As the new generation of ereaders like Kindle provide the ability to actively browse hyperlinked text directly from what used to be a static book page, O’Reilly calls on publishers to think of new formats in which books could be published.

It’s an argument that many cultural conservatives would take apart with gusto. For example, it’s easy to mistake O’Reilly’s prophecy for a solemn sign that the solitary age –- the one that allowed us to spend the entire Saturday afternoon quietly reflecting on a book lying in front of us (or what a recent Boston Globe feature dubbed “the end of alone”) -– is giving way to the age of permanent distraction, where we have to constantly hit the “search” button to understand the broader cultural context in which the book is embedded. If we were, indeed, to peruse every single online critique written in relation to the book we are reading, we would barely get enough time to ponder bigger themes contained in the book itself. I already hear some pundits lamenting that the era of the Great Argument is over and the era of the never-ending Nano-Argument has begun.  

However, cultural conservatism aside, there are other reasons to disagree with O’Reilly’s diagnosis. First of all, the book format may have already evolved (along with the web) far beyond what we would have ever expected. Just think of the great innovations introduced by word processing or the kind of research work that could now be done online. The advent of blogging, for example, has allowed authors to gain unprecedented access to the minds of people they may be writing about. Similarly, the worlds of both fiction and non-fiction writing are simply getting more democratized, for authors based in the world’s poorest countries finally get the same research resources than their peers in the developed world; one no longer has to travel to the U.S. or the U.K. to access the world’s best libraries. So, from this perspective, the book-writing experience – much like the film-making experience – has considerably changed – and most of these changes have undoubtedly been for the better (provided that one could disregard the witty maxim that “being a good writer is 3 percent talent and 97 percent not being distracted by the Internet”).  Google’s forays into book-scanning, however misguided at the movement, are poised to transform this field even further.

Whether we need to start experimenting with new forms of content delivery – and, perhaps, call them “books” to trick readers into buying them – is mostly irrelevant, for that’s a question that bothers publishers only; after all, it’s their job to experiment with formats that would sell best. One doesn’t have to know much about Wittgenstein’s writings on the private language to understand that a “book” is only what we agree to call a book; today it’s made of paper, but tomorrow it may as well be made of glass. It’s possible to argue that at the moment that threshold is set too high: few people, for example, would call a corporate annual report – no matter how long, captivating or well-designed – a “book”, even though it usually has an author (or authors), has a beginning and an end, and, increasingly, even some form of sustained narrative (“the year started on a high note, but we haven’t anticipated the mortgage collapse…hence the consequences”). The annual report simply doesn’t have the features that we currently expect of a book and fails our definition.

O’Reilly’s key point is that the Web age is radically reshaping how we read and learn; thus, over time, our expectations of a “book” are also going to be significantly affected. These expectations are increasingly at risk of evolving towards the kind of writing that we see in Twitter conversations and PowerPoint slides: short, snappy, modular (i.e. each page can be read on its own), and full of links to content hosted elsewhere. This is where O’Reilly’s “Twitter Book”- 240-page guide to Twitter comes in. The book simply abandons the conventional narrative structure  and relies on its readers to fill in the gaps ; in O’Reilly’s own words, it  “jumps right to points that they might not have thought about”. The modular structure of the book allows its authors to update it as often as its authors wish; new pages can be inserted without disrupting the rest of the book. This comes in handy in discussing a subject like Twitter, which is not only very new but is also rapidly evolving. By publishing this book, O’Reilly is trying to send a powerful message to other publishers: they need to embrace both linking and crowdsourcing, for “the web itself, full of links to sources, opposing or supporting points of view, multimedia, and reader commentary, provides countless lessons about how books need to change when they move online”.

While it’s tempting to agree with much of O’Reilly’s advice – after all, many publishers do face the depressing choice between innovation and starvation—it’s worth considering that the Web age might actually have the opposite impact and only reinforce our existing expectations of a book. What if, as the Internet profoundly reshapes ways in which we read and learn, demand for the good-old book format – and all of the features that we have come to associate with it – would actually increase? As we spend more and more of our time wandering around Twitter’s 140-character mazes, could it be that we soon start longing for the old ways of reading and learning, which are available in the book format only?

Now, before I launch a full-frontal attack on O’Reilly’s argument,  it’s worth pointing out that his “Twitter book” is mostly a niche product; it falls somewhere between the very smart “how-to” advice books to relatively straightforward books from the “for dummies” series. By its very nature it’s  technical rather than argumentative; O’Reilly probably knows that his book is not going to reshape the intellectual foundations of the world order. It’s simply a primer about a hip microblogging platform; this book doesn’t aim to advance a complex argument about human evolution or explain the current economic downturn. As such, it’s a very specific product – and the comparison to PowerPoint may actually be very apt; it may also be quite possible that its modular and links-rich structure is, indeed, the ideal presentation format for such books (it might be hard to see, however, what exactly was introduced by the Web here; most “how-to” books have always been written in a very modular way, many of them also had a dozen editions over their lifetime, with new pages and chapters inserted into them without any significant adjustments made to the rest of the book). However, as I read it at least, O’Reilly’s advice to publishers is not restricted to such books only; he is making a much broader point about the future of the book and the book publishing industry – and hence it’s worth trying to debunk his arguments in detail.

It would be interesting to see O’Reilly apply the same model to a subject that doesn’t yet have an extensive Wikipedia entry; I’d be very curious to see how many more days it would take him to write a similar book about such a subject. Our current Wikipedia-inspired taxonomy of knowledge dictates that ultimately all tangible pieces of important information self-assemble: i.e. if there are N fungible pieces of knowledge about a given subject, eventually they would come together, on a Wikipedia page, a Twitter stream or elsewhere. Google Search has made this self-assembly much easier and cheaper that it used to be; the proliferation of meta-data technologies is poised to make this process even more efficient.

There are two interesting transitory conclusions here. First, it’s very hard to assemble a sizable chunk of knowledge if the fungible pieces have not emerged (or been located) yet; the reason why so many Wikipedia articles have self-assembled was because Google was there to help identify and verify the pieces. However, knowledge that is not yet present on Google is, in most cases, also not present in Wikipedia. Second, the self-assembled knowledge is usually neutral and value-free; assigning value to this information is still expensive and cannot be automated (e.g. we can easily find out when Twitter was founded but there is no cheap and dirty way for us to understand the impact it has on society). So while the Web age has definitely made the self-assembly easier, it has had almost no impact on the evaluation process; there is, actually, an argument to be made that the Web has even decoupled information from evaluation, for the former is increasingly available for free on sites like Wikipedia while there is a growing desperate demand for the latter, as making sense of the growing body of information out there is becoming impossible. Under this set-up, it’s easy to imagine why we might actually want to turn back to the good old books as our only reliable guide to guide us through the information age.

From this perspective,  the “Twitter book” is the very opposite of what publishers need to be thinking about. The very concept of a book as a simple compilation of URLs and bullet points appears quite misleading; perhaps, this model works in tech publishing, where there is a huge demand for “tell me how?” kind of questions. But books that change history rarely answer the “who and where?” type of questions; they are, instead, about the “how and why?” – and this knowledge is hardly searchable, not to mention linkable. Even with such a widely-covered subject as Twitter, there is still a lot to be said about its impact on the information flows, authority, trust, and cognition that may not yet be widely discussed anywhere in the “Twittersphere”. This is why we have traditionally prized original and fresh thinking; what makes it original is precisely the fact that these points haven ‘t yet been addressed before. 

This may also explain why sales of serious books haven’t plummeted in the age of free and ubiquitous content. With so many free resource materials available on the Web, it does seem strange that anyone would still want to pay 20 bucks for “a compilation of links” that most non-fiction books are (at least, according to O’Reilly). But the likely explanation here is quite simple: compiling links in meaningful and readable ways is exactly the kind of premium value that we are willing to pay for when we buy a book. It’s becoming obvious that in the age of information abundance the value of curation rises dramatically. As the number of available resources that writers and readers could consult rises, it’s actually quite normal that we would place more and more value on the process of synthesizing rather than simply aggregating information. From this perspective, if I want to read a book on a subject that is slightly more complex than the world of Twitter, I expect that authors would actually read all the available resources (rather than just a sampling of a few hundred 140 “best” Twitter status updates), take a principled stand, and actually try to compress the very boring 30,000 pages they read while researching the book to much more readable 300 pages – precisely “so that I don’t have to”.

Good books – unlike buggy early releases of software – are meant to be finite intellectual products; good books are not supposed to be never-ending and self-updating streams of consciousness. Nor are they supposed to be interrupted by a constant flow of references to other books; if you cannot move to the next page without having to consult a reference work cited in a footnote, the author has probably failed at synthesizing. Granted: everyone is building on someone else’s shoulders. But this is is exactly the point of a talented author: to synthesize by compressing millions of links, facts, and opinions  into a readable guide to the subject. The reason why we often turn to the best book in a field that we do not yet know well is exactly to avoid reading twenty books instead. Do not get me wrong: I do have an ereader and I am an avid consumer of ebooks; yes, I do like the ability to navigate from the index page to any page I want. But  – and this is a big “but” – I don’t really feel any need to compress the text even further; nor do I feel any need to extend it beyond what it is; most good books I’ve read are good precisely because offer “just enough” information and arguments.

The finiteness of a book also has vast intellectual implications. There is a reason why we, for example, think of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as a cultural artifact; it’s because this is a finite product that encapsulates Smith’s own thinking at a particular point in the world’s economic history. Has it been a living organism composed of thousands of self-updating links that would generate new facts, opinions, and conclusions on a daily or monthly basis, it would surely not play the cultural role that it has played over the years. In other words, culture needs stable reference points to advance; books, even those that see several editions published  by their authors, have traditionally been very good at  consolidating the intellectual zeitgeist and enabling others to build on it; making the cultural points unstable might thus result in a certain intellectual cacophony. After all, books are usually snapshots of their authors thinking at a given point in their life and career; observing how an author’s thinking progress from one book to another is what fuels the work of most cultural historians. However, a book that has very little fixed content and a lot of variable content is not only an ultimate exercise in cultural nihilism, it’s also a poor way to convince the reader that there is something genuinely new or valuable in its author’s insights.

Of course, there is an argument to be made that the digital space would help to preserve and compare all earlier editions; however, it’s also likely that this proliferation of easily produced (and often unnecessary) new editions would significantly fragment our already fragmented cultural discourse—perhaps, to a degree where new editions would simply be cluttering the intellectual space. Plus, if one’s thinking has really evolved so much that a book needs a significant update, well, why not simply write another book? Were it not for this, we may not have had books like Darwin’s Descent of Man: it would simply be another chapter in the updated edition of the On the Origin of Species.

What I think O’Reilly should have included in his analysis is a much more sober evaluation of the current unfortunate position where most publishers – and especially those selling technical literature – find themselves.  As the reader is being empowered by Google and Google Book Search, Amazon reviews, sites for book-lovers and a plenty of other innovative reading initiatives,  it’s exactly the books that sell technical advice that face the risk of extinction.  One doesn’t have to be a new media visionary to realize that the Web age has made reference material very cheap, while making sharp analysis and well-written and informed commentary – the kind that comes with sustained narrative – more expensive. Packing a lot of reference material while removing the narrative structure that would help provide  the desperately needed analysis – while also charging 20 bucks for this product – does not look like a very appealing business proposition. To think that a reference source like “the Twitter book” would carry much favor with, for example, the digital natives out there is to greatly underestimate how they learn about new subjects. They already have a snappy, constantly updating, and crowdsourced point of reference on subjects like “Twitter”; it’s called Wikipedia (more to the point, it’s also free). If O’Reilly is really such a passionate believer in crowdsourcing as he claims to be, it is strange of him to expect that he and his co-author could do a better job at explaining Twitter than the thousands of tech-savvy Wikipedia’s contributors. Fancy graphical design aside, why should most people turn to the “Twitter book” and not to Twitter’s Wikipedia entry?

From a strictly business perspective, I can understand why Tim O’Reilly the publisher might be excited about getting a “book” out in a day or two;  production costs associated with publishing a modular and bullet-points heavy book are so low that breaking-even is easy – and selling even 100 copies may already bring in a profit (especially if done electronically).  In the comments to his original blog post, O’Reilly has qualified his position by saying that his real objective with the “Twitter book” has been to push publishers to “think more broadly about what constitutes a book and what constitutes reading, in the age of the web”. Well, let me add one more thinking exercise: why not push his fellow publishers to think what constitutes a “publisher” in this new age. It may be particularly helpful to some of us, for I fail to see why anyone producing the Twitter-like book would actually need to go through the traditional publishing route at all. I am yet not convinced that there are some insurmountable barriers in this whole publishing process that authors wouldn’t be able to bypass on their own; in the age of the Twitter book, publishers add considerably less value than they ever did. If the best comparison of the Twitter book is to a PowerPoint presentation, the reasoning here gets even more blurry – PowerPoints have (some would say unfortunately) flourished without publishers.

So, in an age where anyone could produce and charge for a technical book – and that age has arrived with the advent of Lulu and other similar sites – what’s the real value that old-school publishers add? Supposing that there is, indeed, an audience that would pay for niche books like this, chances are that its authors would be able to sell it quite successfully without having to share their profits with O’Reilly Books. O’Reilly’s respite – again in comments to his own blog post – has been that successful e-book initiatives would eventually be folded into profitable enterprises, much like successful blogging ventures have now become profitable enterprises. May be so, but this whole experiment looks more like old-school publishers of technical materials trying to find relevance in a world where few people actually need them.

I am sure that sales figures would soon reveal the real appetite for experimental projects like the “Twitter book”. However, as the diminishing difference between a “book” and, say, an “extended blog post” gets really blurry, it’s strange to see technology enthusiasts like O’Reilly give advice to the struggling news media while facing similar, if not bigger, threats in book publishing.  Given the current consensus on the future of the news media, it doesn’t seem that forcing anyone to pay for short-form content like news articles is a viable option. I am wondering why the situation with “Web-age” books would be any different. After all, why would I want to shell out 20 bucks for the “Twitter book”, if I know that it was probably “written” in a few days and is just a compilation of well-known truths compiled from a few dozen web-sites? This is exactly the kind of argument that is often used by the sharpest new media minds to explain why charging for news is never going to work. Let’s wait and see if the new generation of “Twitter books” would prove the opposite; as for myself, I remain rather skeptical  of the whole enterprise.

photo by zsita/Flickr

Evgeny Morozov is a fellow at the Open Society Institute and sits on the board of OSI's Information Program. He writes the Net Effect blog on ForeignPolicy.com

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