The Future of the Book

M Jane Ross

A digression this week from food writing to talk instead about the future of the book. The current economy's effect on the book publishing industry has been nothing less than dire! Even our own book, SCN's Kitchen Table Stories cookbook-anthology, has not been immune from the plunge in sales that has struck many many printed books, a drop that started in September as the housing, banking, and stock-market crises bit fiercely into the reading public’s wallet. The woes of the book publishing industry are now forcing a total rethink of the traditional model of book publishing.

For those of us who write memoir, the idea of having our writings appear in a printed book holds both allure and fear. The very idea of our own book can seem like a scary yet exhilarating way of opening up our real lives and our inner lives to the judgment or empathy of others. Imagining holding our own printed book, we expect to feel the ultimate validation of our efforts as a writer but at the same time we may worry that others will see the completed product as evidence of an unhealthy
self-absorption. Many of us are torn by but nonetheless drawn to the idea of our own work in a printed book.

Book publishing has always operated on the basis that “if we print it, they will come and buy it.” Setting a print run (the number of copies readers would be expected to buy within 1-2 years) was more art than science. The publisher printed large quantities of each title that it then needed to store in and move from its warehouses to distribute to bookstores, yielding slim profit margins. What must have seemed like realistic print runs for books published in early 2008 now turn out to have been, in most cases, disastrous overestimates. Book publishers are feeling an almighty pinch as their revenues drop and their working capital is tied up in piles of books sitting frozen in warehouses.

A 200-year-old monograph with traditional leather binding and decoration. MJ Ross

So while we lifewriters vacillated between our longing for and fear of a book of our own, the book publishing industry has suffered a debilitating body blow and the very nature of the book has been rewritten. According to Bob Stein, a founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book and a keynote speaker at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference earlier this month, the book is no longer what you thought it was. In fact, the book of the future is not an object with pages of text between attractive covers. Rather it is an online community gathered around a set of ideas! And we non-fiction authors are potentially leaders of “communities of inquiry.”   

Bob Stein’s premise is that a book (meaning the literary intellectual content) is in fact a social hub. We may think of reading a book as an intrinsically solitary act, but that is only because until recently, we had very few opportunities to connect with those who created the work or with others who are reading it at the same time as us. With the web, all that has changed. Witness blogs. The book author, through their blog, is now accessible to readers, who in turn are free to interact with the author and with other readers through the comments section of the blog.

Taking the blog concept further, researchers at the Institute for the Future of the Book have created a new blogging tool called CommentPress, that allows the commenter to add their comments alongside the text in a way that levels out the hierarchy of author and reader/commenter and can allow for a collaborative community to emerge around the author’s text. This, Bob Stein maintains, is what a book of the future may look like, a collaborative interaction between authors and readers, a place where authors and readers congregate.

So although the contemporary book in its current form is in danger, the possibilities offered by the web are wide open and the growing availability and acceptance of electronic devices focused around reading (like the Kindle and Sony eBook and even the iPhone) is changing how we read.

Looking back on how Kitchen Table Stories was produced, I'm excited by the realization that while the book was in its editing phase, we created a small and closed community of inquiry of 10 editors who worked on the stories and recipes in small teams using the collaborative online tool of Google Documents. When I set this up, I knew it was a forward-looking approach to editing an anthology; I just didn't realize at the time that we were working to a new paradigm of publishing. So the online community disbanded once the book was complete, and the final cookbook-anthology assumed the frozen-in-time immutability of all paper-and-ink printed matter.

I’d love to see the sales of the Kitchen Table Stories pick up along with a reviving economy. It remains to be seen if that will happen. But what seems clear is that a similar 20th-anniversary cookbook-anthology project by SCN will look very different from this 10th anniversary one and will likely provide ways for readers, writers, and editors to interact in new ways to create evolving meaning and content together.

Writing prompt: Whether or not you've already seen your own book published, spend some time reflecting on what the idea of "a book of my own" means to you? How do you think you would feel if that book were not a physical printed object but an online community meeting around your stories? 

Read a continuation on these ideas in my March 8 blog post here.

Read the original article by Bob Stein on which his keynote speech was based here.

One response to “The Future of the Book

  1. Jane
    This is a very informative and thought provoking post. And, I love the writing prompt!

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