What Do Notebook Computers Mean to Future of Books?

In a world where content is going digital and publishing is becoming “decentralized,” how do we ensure we’re “adequately┬áinformed?” How to we stay “up to date with what’s going on in our field”? Can we use technology to participate in the narrative?

This delightfully cheery video by IDEO helps you ┬áimagine three novel integrations between notebook computers (like the iPad) and traditional books. Rather than droning on about different examples of potential technology, IDEO presents three hypothetical companies/apps as if they’re real. Even better, they have cute names, voices and colors (and I wish they had unique musical scores). A bit better than hearing someone drone on about “what ifs” like that tired example used in the early 2000s “imagine you pass Starbucks and get a text offer for a discount venti that expires in 30 minutes.” Ugh.

Which one excites you more? Nelson, where a digital book meets Wikipedia, Sidewiki and Google news? Coupland, which uses your social network (Facebook, Linked-In) to guide your book purchases and connect with similar readers? Or Alice, which invites readers to contribute to the story (Wikipedia) or unlocks secret events or locations like FourSquare?

Now stop and imagine an even more interesting scenario that don’t rely on today’s technology. Can you? I’m seeing crowd-sourced book summaries. Like those little yellow & black books we’d read in lieu of complete novels… when we were in a time pinch in college (the smart professors designed tests around them). Every willing reader of a book would 5-star or “thumbs up” a page, and the “Kevin” could generate an audio book that wouldn’t just excerpt it like the shitty Microsoft summary tool… it would intelligently summarize the book into a logical “everything you need to know about xbook” recordnig that you can ingest in 10 minutes on your commute. For the reader so lazy that they can’t even read a summary — only listen to one. John Grisham’s latest novel in 4 minutes. Stephen King’s horrifying climax without the 75-page character tangents (we love you Uncle Stevey, but just Jaunt me to the twist). The Bible in 10 minutes (spoiler alert: the Devil did it).

Having seen my own book on Kindle via my iPad, I am thrilled at the idea of Nelson most. I’d like to invite debate about my book and have readers jump to source books or books citing it. Coupland seems the most practical since if someone I like and respect is reading a book, I’m far more interested in it than what Oprah sanctions. Alice is definitely the trippiest version ala Alice in Wonderland. I can’t imagine what a collection of writers might do to a storyline except turn it into a Zebra (a horse designed by a committee). But it’s fun to ponder like Carl Pilkington reflects on insects on classic Ricky Gervais podcasts.

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

If you’re still reading, would you like to hear the mindless observations of a newly published author? First I’m finding it not quite as climactic as I imagined. Go figure. Second, I’m struck with how many people assume it’s not a real book until a) I tell them Wiley is the publisher, and b) I tell them they can find it in any bookstore. This is interesting for two reasons: first, they assume I’ve self published and it’s available only on some obscure website and perhaps printed “on demand” by Kinkos. Second, they’re suddenly surprised and impressed when I tell them it’s a REAL publisher (Wiley & Sons is probably on the spine of many books you own). I get these approving nods that I find as perplexing as when my family saw I’d been on local Fox news (seen by fewer people than watch my videos in one day).

Perception is reality, though. Just ask Alice.

The Future of Book Publishing (or “what I found while procrastinating writing my book”)

Holy crap. Check out this former editor who’s gone all foaming-mouth, Huffington-like crazy about the digital impact on traditional media and publishing. Now sit down and read this, because you might just learn something important. Sit. Sittttt. Good boy.

Richard Nash is the kind of guy that would either enthrall you over a 2nd martini or bore you to terminal, self-induced intoxication. There can be no middle ground. I suppose for me, I’d be leaning over listening with violent interest until the third martini, at which point I’d use the gesture my kids adopted from a recent Warner Brothers classic: Bugs Bunny is confronted by a poor sap that says, “pardon me, can you help out a fellow American who’s down on his luck?” Bugs reaches into his pocket, pulls out his thumb, and shouts “hitt daaaa rooooadddd.”

Some excerpts from his “Book Publishing 10 Years in the Future” are so profound I need another cup of coffee to understand them. I added some quotes because otherwise it’s as hard to understand as a Dennis Miller rant, boasting obscure references that make you feel smart if you bat 20% (which is not how the sporting kids are scoring these days).

  • In 2020 we will look back on the last days of publishing and realize that it was not a surfeit of capitalism that killed it, but rather an addiction-to-a-mishmash of Industrial Revolution practices that killed it, including a Fordist “any color so long as it is black” attitude to packaging the product, a Sloanist “hierarchical management approach to decision making,” and a GM-esque “continual rearranging of divisions like deck chairs on the Titanic based on internal management preferences rather than consumer preferences.”
  • In 2020 some people will still look back on recent decades as a Golden Age, just as some now look back on the 1950’s as a Golden Age, notwithstanding that the Age was golden largely for white men in tweed jackets who got to edit and review one another and congratulate one another for permitting a few women and the occasional Black man into the club.
  • In 2020 the disaffected twentysomethings of the burgeoning middle classes of India, China, Brazil, Indonesia will be producing novels faster than any of us can possibly imagine.

So there’s Nash’s Dystopian third phase of publishing evolution (the first two I lift from “The Last Lecture“):

  1. Buy an Encyclopedia, written by invite-only guests and largely unedited.
  2. Democracy takes over with Wikipedia. Turns out it’s more accurate and self-healing than Britannica.
  3. Whoops. Wikipedia forgot that profit thing, but the pleas from the founder are charming. Along come the $5 per hour researchers that mass produce content, QA it on the cheap, and dollar-store dispense it (or fund it with porn ads).

I almost feel like it’s treason for me to reference his power puke on publishing since I’m working on a book with a major publisher. But what else am I going to do to entertain myself while I procrastinate? Geez I hope they don’t read this.

So here’s the thing, though. Any sap could write “Beyond Viral Video” like I am, but don’t we factor in the author when we buy content? Would I have purchased Randy Pausch’s book-on-tape without the story behind him, his death, his hope, his dreams and his family?

Damnit, Nash. I’m not going to buy a self-help book written by a guy that used to answer the phones for Dell am I?

Maybe he’d encourage me to find my inner Buddha, which conflicts with my religion-du-jour: “listen to the voice of your inner African American grandmother.”