Future of books

One of the things I did read on my mini-vacation was the now-famous New York Times Magazine article by Kevin Kelly – “Scan This Book!”. In it he lays out the case for the end of the physical copy as the dominate feature of what we call the “book”:

Authors and publishers (including publishers of music and film) have relied for years on cheap mass-produced copies protected from counterfeits and pirates by a strong law based on the dominance of copies and on a public educated to respect the sanctity of a copy. This model has, in the last century or so, produced the greatest flowering of human achievement the world has ever seen, a magnificent golden age of creative works. Protected physical copies have enabled millions of people to earn a living directly from the sale of their art to the audience, without the weird dynamics of patronage. Not only did authors and artists benefit from this model, but the audience did, too. For the first time, billions of ordinary people were able to come in regular contact with a great work. In Mozart’s day, few people ever heard one of his symphonies more than once. With the advent of cheap audio recordings, a barber in Java could listen to them all day long.
But a new regime of digital technology has now disrupted all business models based on mass-produced copies, including individual livelihoods of artists. The contours of the electronic economy are still emerging, but while they do, the wealth derived from the old business model is being spent to try to protect that old model, through legislation and enforcement. Laws based on the mass-produced copy artifact are being taken to the extreme, while desperate measures to outlaw new technologies in the marketplace ”for our protection” are introduced in misguided righteousness. (This is to be expected. The fact is, entire industries and the fortunes of those working in them are threatened with demise. Newspapers and magazines, Hollywood, record labels, broadcasters and many hard-working and wonderful creative people in those fields have to change the model of how they earn money. Not all will make it.)
The new model, of course, is based on the intangible assets of digital bits, where copies are no longer cheap but free. They freely flow everywhere. As computers retrieve images from the Web or display texts from a server, they make temporary internal copies of those works. In fact, every action you take on the Net or invoke on your computer requires a copy of something to be made. This peculiar superconductivity of copies spills out of the guts of computers into the culture of computers. Many methods have been employed to try to stop the indiscriminate spread of copies, including copy-protection schemes, hardware-crippling devices, education programs, even legislation, but all have proved ineffectual. The remedies are rejected by consumers and ignored by pirates.
As copies have been dethroned, the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work. Authors and artists can make (and have made) their livings selling aspects of their works other than inexpensive copies of them. They can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions — in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the ”discovery tool” that markets these other intangible valuables. But selling things-that-cannot-be-copied is far from ideal for many creative people. The new model is rife with problems (or opportunities). For one thing, the laws governing creating and rewarding creators still revolve around the now-fragile model of valuable copies.

Kelly has got it right – but many will dismiss, criticize and misinterpret his central point. Apparently at last weekends BookExpo America conference here in Washington, the backlash had already begun. According to the Washington Post – “Explosive Words”:

The clash is between what you might call the technorati and the literati. The technorati are thrilled at the way computers and the Internet are revolutionizing the world of books. The literati fear that, amid the revolutionary fervor, crucial institutions and core values will be guillotined.

Heading up the literati was John Updike who “heaped scorn on Kelly’s notion.”
While I understand the fear and concern by authors and publishers, these critics dismiss the transition at their peril. For authors, the states are not as high as it may seem since for them the important feature is the words, not necessarily their physical embodiment. Publishers are much more vulnerable, since they have a huge stake in the form in which the words are disseminated. Literary forms have followed the type of published materials (for example, short stories thrived in the heyday of magazines) and authors have adapted. For authors to link themselves to a particular media seems to me to be creatively short-sighted.
The “book-as-copy” will always be with us – it will be one of many physical embodiments of ideas and words. But there will be other forms of “books” – such as the ones I already carry around with me in my laptop.
So let the cry go forward – the book is dead, long live the book!
And as Kelly points out, we will all have to adjust to the new regime.

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