Saturday, November 26, 2011

Diatribe on "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto"

As the title states, this "Book" from the O'Reilly collection is a compendium of dissertations covering some of the challenges and changes facing the publishing industry today, with commentary on how those changes might (or should) take place, ranging from overall conceptual shifts to specific issues of implementation.

The book itself was produced using (and as a test platform for) the new PressBooks utility, an online ebook creation and conversion tool that allows for outputting to multiple formats, including ePub, Kindle, HTML, InDesign-ready XML and print-ready PDF. While this efficient workflow is admirable in principle (and is discussed in both theory and detail in the book itself), the ebook editions I downloaded each suffer from some inconsistent (or just poor) formatting, broken external links, and at least one garbled graphic on the Kindle Fire (double tapping to zoom produced an image with full width but squashed to just a few pixels in height). I viewed the book in ePub format in iBooks (on the iPad2) and Adobe Digital Editions (PC), as well as Mobi format on both Kindle 3 and the Kindle Fire.

Currently the book contains only the first of three parts, with the next two said to be forthcoming as free "updates" for anyone who purchases part one. As each part is added the initial price will increase from its current $7.95, so getting in now guarantees the best value. However, you can also read the entire thing online for free. A print edition will be forthcoming once the book is finished.

Part 1: The Setup

As with most collections of essays, this one is a mixed bag, being aimed for the most part at medium to large scale publishing houses whose outmoded production model is currently in flux. While much of the content is of little use to indie authors and other content creators, the overall discussion of the changing landscape of publishing is informative and enlightening (if often pedantic and heavy-handed).

The opening essay in particular - "Context, Not Container" - while conceptually interesting, is nearly unreadable due to the utter tedium of its writing style and lack of a clearly stated thesis. It's a typically long-winded academic dissertation aimed at an unspecified target audience, filled with repetitive arguments and undefined terminology, which could have been said more clearly in a fraction of the space. Ultimately, it's as if we're reading an extract from a conversation for which we are not privy to the beginning, and in which a large number of us ultimately do not belong, since the subject applies only to a subset of content creators (a distinction made far more relevant and interesting in the final essay of this section by Craig Mod).

The overall concept of a broader content ecosystem that exists beyond the confines of its container makes great sense and is highly relevant to the future evolution of electronic texts; but the essay seems to place the content author at the bottom of an infinite pile, forgetting that without an artist's vision there can be no art at all. While the elements of the author's palette now extend far beyond the borders of the visible canvas, one must remember that these are all tools for the artist to use, and constitute a broader new "container," rather than the lack of one. The interconnected world is the new container.

To my mind this is an underlying flaw in the focus of the whole collection, which is aimed not so much at what can be done by content creators, but how e-production houses and aggregators can gain the most by implementing a workflow which creates the greatest efficiency and widest possible distribution to all platforms. Certainly this is a valid goal for all content, and is particularly relevant with respect to content that reflows easily, as much content does. But one of the foremost challenges facing content creators on the "bleeding edge" is in the areas where this is either undesirable, or simply not possible without destroying what the content is (i.e. as a work of art); some content simply requires a fixed state to retain its essential nature. Rethinking the container (or the canvas, as I prefer to think of it) is a fundamental shift which will be far more difficult for some than others.

However, that fundamental shift in perception is one we all will need to make, from seeing ebooks as a re-creation of what print books have been, to what ebooks can be in their new environment: the interconnected, interactive world without borders. The idea of an "infinite canvas" that stretches out endlessly in all directions from the e-reader viewport was a great revelation. Imagine, for example, the screen as a magnifying glass positioned over a giant globe - like Google Earth - that can travel in any direction endlessly, both horizontally and vertically, as well as in and out, with links like transportation hubs between distant points (this might be a great concept for an adventure novel, for example, with directional travel "paths" like an Indiana Jones vignette rather than mono-directional page turns). And those dimensions of travel are not limited in time or space: the reader's own input and interaction can effect the outcome, and alter the content itself by, for example, adding commentary or participating in an interconnected network of readers who each input information in a Wikipedia-like way. It's in ways like this that the "container" has been shattered.

These are just examples of what an ebook can be. But it's not necessarily what they should be (certainly not in all cases, at any rate). Just because the borders of the canvas can be transcended doesn't mean they must be. The iPad, for example, is a device with a specific dimension and resolution, a canvas with a frame if you will, and that in itself is a medium many artists will make great art on (and are with fixed layout epubs), entirely within those boundaries. Just because you can morph the Mona Lisa's nose doesn't make it better art than what daVinci created. And I can't imagine he would appreciate it much in any case, or think it an improvement.

So even though the lid is off, there must still be a "box" where the core content resides. Otherwise, there is no longer an author or artist, and the readers themselves become the content creators, a conceit which is flawed in its very nature, since there is no longer a place for individual authors and artists in that world, and content without a guiding creative force can only become dissipated and, ultimately, forgotten. Great works are created by great minds, not by common consensus or collating the voices of the multitudes. Art by committee is not art but socialism. By the laws of the bell chart this can only result in reduction to the average.

As for the remainder of the essays in this section of the book, most of them were only relevant to large production houses facing a major restructuring of their workflow in the digital age. There are chapters covering topics from aggregated distribution to the history of metadata and the usual concerns with DRM. Interesting, and useful to know, but nothing that hasn't been written and discussed elsewhere already.

Of most value and interest to my mind (as an author and independent publisher) were Liza Daly's essay on 'What We Can Do with "Books",' which discusses the malleable nature of the digital medium and how interactive elements can give readers a chance to participate and explore a more immersive text in a real and focused way. The idea of a book as a living document, for example, that can be updated automatically in revised editions like software upgrades is intriguing. This very book is an example of that, with additions coming later this year. I recently read about an author who is selling the first chapter of her book for .99 cents, with additional chapters to be added as completed for no additional charge, simply by updating the retailer-hosted file. This not only gives her an income during the writing process (sort of an advance for the self-pub ebook era), but also allows her readers to offer feedback that she can incorporate into the story as it progresses. That's very much the idea I had in mind as I've posted up the pages and completed chapters of my current Ring Saga project for readers to peruse (albeit without any real feedback aside from friends so far, so at this point it's pretty much a failed experiment, but it may yet grow as time goes on).

Very much related to this is Craig Mod's insightful analysis of the "post-artifact" landscape of content creation. As mentioned earlier, I found this of particular value, with its discussion of the more direct interaction that can now be had between the author and the reader (theoretically at least, although he mentions more successful examples than mine), due to the narrowing and overlap of creation and distribution phases of content creation itself. The book is worth purchasing (or reading online at any rate) for this essay alone. It is a well-crafted piece of analysis with clearly defined concepts, into which a lot of thought and originality has gone. Would that all the essays included were as well written.

The overall impression the "Book" gives is not just of an industry in turmoil, but of a cultural icon and symbol of human progress undergoing a fundamental change. And that says a lot about who we are, and where we're going.

Book Rating: 3/5