Now that books are finally entering the world of networked, digital text, they will undergo the same transformation that Web pages have experienced over the past 15 years. Blogs, remember, were once called ‘web logs,’ cultivated by early digital pioneers who kept a record of information they found online, quoting and annotating as they browsed.
With books becoming part of this universe, ‘booklogs’ will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. (As the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly says, ‘In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.’) You'll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage's true meaning.
You might think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity -- a direct exchange between author and reader -- to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.
This great flowering of annotating and indexing will alter the way we discover books, too. Web publishers have long recognized that ‘front doors’ matter much less in the Google age, as visitors come directly to individual articles through search. Increasingly, readers will stumble across books through a particularly well-linked quote on page 157, instead of an interesting cover on display at the bookstore, or a review in the local paper.
Imagine every page of every book individually competing with every page of every other book that has ever been written, each of them commented on and indexed and ranked. A world in which search attracts new book readers also will undoubtedly change the way books are written, just as the serial publishing schedule of Dickens's day led to the obligatory cliffhanger ending at the end of each installment. Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google's results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.
Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.
What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind.
There are also those authors who are exploiting the nature of the electronic writing space available with devices like a PDA. Arguably the most popular and best known genre of electronic literature is hypertext fiction, distinguished by its many links between blocks of text known as lexias. Prior to the Internet, distribution of literary hypertext still shared many characteristics with print novels. As with a paperback copy of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight, readers of Patchwork Girl were restricted to engaging with that story in ways limited by the constraints inherent to a CD ROM: just as we can’t add or substract pages from a printed book, a CD ROM-based hypertext like Patchwork Girl is restricted to the contents that are on the physical disc. Unless a new edition is created, no new information can be added to the work. Unlike Web-based hypertext, for better or worse it cannot be updated or revised without a whole new physical product being produced, making it really just another computer program, one that lacks the interconnectedness found on the Web.
Michael Joyce has created the terms 'exploratory' and 'constructive' hypertext in order to denote the differences between pre-Web and Web-based hypertexts, and he considers exploratory hypertexts like Patchwork Girl and Victory Garden to be more in line with the 'output' readers would associate with contemporary book culture. In exploratory hypertexts, the relationship between the text and reader is not terribly different from a reader’s relationship to a novel like Ulysses or Tristram Shandy.
The economics of digital books will likely change the conventions of reading and writing as well. Digital distribution makes it a simple matter to offer prospective buyers a 'free sample' to entice them to purchase the whole thing. Many books offered for the Kindle, for instance, allow readers to download the first chapter free of charge. The ‘free sample’ component of a book will become as conventional as jacket-flap copy and blurbs; authors will devise a host of stylistic and commercial techniques in crafting these giveaway sections, just as Dickens mastered the cliffhanger device almost two centuries before.
It's not hard to imagine, for instance, how introductions will be transformed in this new world. Right now, introductions are written with the assumption that people have already bought the book. That won't be the case in the future, when the introduction is given away. It will, no doubt, be written more to entice readers to buy the whole book.
Clearly, we are in store for the return of the cliffhanger.
As the publishing industry is now in a position where devices are starting to become good enough for people to buy eBooks in significant numbers, publishers are becoming increasingly anxious to adapt to the changing scene amongst their consumers. Their concerns over which format to use and which device will be the ‘killer device’ are growing. Should the gamble on the Kindle and get into bed with Amazon, or hold out and see what happens with the rumored new Apple eReader device or even something else. Unlike the music industry, publishers have never needed to think about which device to publish their books for. The device was the paper and print. If you publish regular novels which just has text and no illustrations, there is one format for you. If you publish cookbooks, for example, then you need a format that can handle the more complex text and images.
Computer games developers and publishers have always needed a device to be purchased on which their games can be played. In the early days, it was a computer. Then specialized devices came along and the manufacturers of the devices started to battle it out for domination and Sony was the early winner with the Playstation. Microsoft brought out the Xbox and Nintendo discovered a new market with the Wii.
But the games publishers and developers learnt fairly early on that the platform did not affect their development and publishing of games. The games developers (the equivalent of authors) created ever more immersive and graphically stunning games to make the most of the power of the games consoles, which could be played on either an Xbox or a Playstation. They just developed ‘compiler’ programs and ‘architectures’ through which their games adapted to the platform for which they had been purchased. Games publishers want to be able to distribute their games onto as many platforms as they can.
The good thing about books unlike a newspaper is that they are likely to be read again. Not read as many times, perhaps, as often as a track is played on a MP3 player, but an eBook has a longer life than a newspaper article, nevertheless. A game is likely to be played several times before it swapped or exchanged. Of course, most games come on a disc. But, increasingly, games are being played online and soon they will be downloaded to consoles when broadband speeds increase. So, in that sense, publishers will be ahead of games developers.
A game can be rented from Blockbuster for a few nights, or purchased from the store or online. eBooks will need to be adaptable enough to allow different forms of ownership and payment such as borrowing from a library, renting from an online store, as well a perpetual license when bought outright.
Book publishers should think like this too. They just need to carry on finding good authors, and marketing the books well and let the device manufacturers fight it out amongst themselves on which device will be the most popular. In the meantime, they need to grow their digital capability to be able to deliver eBooks in several different formats and study how companies like EA Games work to get some idea.