Books capture knowledge, hold fossilised thoughts, document romantic stories, explore scientific theory, collect together poems and codify philosophy. Books are repositories of wisdom and love. We used to use books to access knowledge, we gathered them together into collections, themed, classified, coded, captured within libraries for research and pleasure. We read them for enlightenment, for titillation, for support and for learning how to fix the car. Publishers scoured the world for new ideas, for storytellers, for new material, and so it went for hundreds of years. But no more. As our relationship with knowledge is changing, as technology permeates ever further into our formal and social lives, the book is evolving. So what is the future of books in the Social Age? How will publishing evolve?
There’s knowledge, and there’s the conversations that surround it, the conversations where we create meaning. The future of books must surely be intimately tied up with the social spaces that surround them. Let me tell you a story: in writing my new book, ‘music and learning‘, Marie recommended that i read Dan Levitin’s book ‘The world in six songs‘. It’s one of those books that i know i could never have written: beautifully worded, intelligent and accessible, challenging and enlightening. Just superb. So i found him on Twitter and told him so, and he replied. Within minutes, we were able to connect, to communicate. That’s the Social Age: technology facilitating conversation, letting us connect, allowing us to weave layers of meaning around the knowledge.
You’re unlikely to make your living writing books any more: the value of content is driving towards zero. It’s the meaning that surrounds it that has value, the conversations, the exploration, and that’s going to mean more than just providing eBooks or ‘enhanced‘ books. It’s not about turning books into e-learning. It’s about evolving the concept of what books do, what they are for.
Let me nail my colours to the mast: i love books. My books are some of my most treasured possessions. When i carried Daniel’s book onto the plane and accidentally jammed my keyboard through it, tearing some pages, i felt upset, almost violating something sacred. But even for me, books are changing. They are changing from being somewhere i find knowledge, to artefacts that i treasure for their associated knowledge. They are finding new meaning within my life. I treasure books as objects of beauty, as icons for the knowledge they contain, the stories they tell. I love the feel, the texture, the colour, the weight and the content: they are more than just the words.
The music industry is adapting rapidly in this space: initial movement was towards digital downloads, the drive being that we wanted convenience, we wanted volume and access and, indeed, that need has been met. I can now access my entire music collection right here in the coffee shop, through my phone, on iTunes Match. That problem has been solved. So why have i started buying vinyl again? Why am i spending six times as much on a physical artefact that is less convenient and more vulnerable to loss than a digital copy? Well, it’s because i love vinyl albums too: the gatefold case, the lavish artwork, the feel of the 180 gram record when you slide it out of the sleeve and, best of all, getting it signed at a gig. You just don’t get the same effect on CD and you can’t sign or have a limited edition coloured vinyl digital copy. So i’m a fool, poorer and happier for it.
The record industry is seeing this, with the huge resurgence of interest in vinyl, that there is a space for beauty, for limited edition, creative, varied and collectable physical records. Not to mention the community space of the physical record shop, where chance encounters provide access to new material, to inspiration.
Part of the future of books will lie in this space: objects to collect, objects of beauty. Partly we will retain books forever because of their weight, smell and feel. But there is more to it than that. I can talk about a band producing a new record and it means two things: the physical product and the sounds themselves. You can produce a ‘digital‘ record and the word relates to the curated collection of sounds that come together to form the album. Or you can use the word to relate to the physical form. Books are the same: there is the physical ‘book‘, and there is the notion of the book as a curated snapshot of information at one point in time.
My own books are just that: snapshots of my thinking, forever captured in one time and place. The blog is an evolutionary space, evolving daily, advancing and iterating ideas. Once they feel fully formed, i capture that story in a book. Books take longer to write and are more considered, they are further along the scale from synchronous Tweets and blogging through to asynchronous books. They are static, but highly considered.
So let’s take this notion of ‘book‘ and consider how it will evolve in the future. I am sure that there is still a central space for books. Blogs, wikis, Google and Twitter are all well and good, but books as curated collections of writing stand at the pinnacle of our academic and intellectual achievement. But there is still space for them to grow, and to grow in two ways: enhancement and expansion. We enhance books by introducing new layers of content, often through different media, and we expand them by introducing social spaces that surround them.
At a simple level, to enhance a book we are adding hyperlinks, layers of data: taking key phrases and concepts and linking to deeper and alternative storytelling forms to retell the story in a different voice. So in a history book, we may link to first hand audio accounts, or photographic evidence, or alternative viewpoints. This is what we see with enhanced eBooks on the Apple store, or most of the offerings from major publishers. But this enhancement shouldn’t come at the cost of the depth and validity of the core concept of ‘book‘. Books are not e-learning: they are of a length and depth that validates the work and thinking that has gone into them. E-learning is a snapshot, a book is an authoritative account and, at heart, requires a detailed narrative. The experience of ‘book‘ should always be a single linear narrative, in my view.
I feel that the enhancement of books should always be driven by storytelling, by strengthening and deepening the narrative, not by the need to entertain. We should enhance them with an understanding of how people learn and how we can reinforce and support that, for example, by creating space for alternative views or primary evidence, giving people more information to play with and reflect upon. We learn by listening, but also by playing, by reconciling new knowledge against that which we already know to be true.
And what about expansion? How do we expand the nature of a book? Social learning is about creating spaces for conversation where the meaning is created by the group. This is the key difference: the story within the book is curated and moderated: the meaning within social learning spaces is not. It’s both created and owned by the community. Publishers need to be able to get into this space in meaningful ways, but not try to own it. It’s about facilitating the dialogue between authors and audience, enabling the conversation, building a layer of meta knowledge upon the core, codified knowledge within the book.
Of course, not all authors will be comfortable with this, but it’s the nature of learning in the Social Age: we need to be agile in our thinking and reasoning, we need to explore and create meaning, in the moment, evolving our own thought process as we do so. For me, it’s a circle: i write, people interact, i evolve my thinking and write again. If i want to be an author, i have to have the humility to listen.
We see many new books with accompanying websites, but this is about both creating the spaces for conversation, but also reaching out to find the conversation where it’s already happening.
The future of books is not about technology: it’s not about publishers building platforms to churn out yet more books. It’s not about replacing the printing press with a digital platform.
The printing press was a mechanism of control, as well as of production and distribution: the whole model of publishers sitting between authors and audience is redundant. Anyone can publish: i’m doing it right now. The role of publishers is evolving, from one of gatekeeper in an operational context through to storytelling partner and knowledge management. Some older skills are outdated, but other, particularly the ability to facilitate social discussions, are emergent. Technology will facilitate this transformation, but it’s not the answer. Technology will not save the publishing industry, but it may enable the industry to save itself.
Self publishing has not wrecked the industry: sure, there are a million books out there, but instead of being lost in a sea of rubbish, the community is self organising: i don’t have to trawl through it, i look to hubs of expertise, i look to people who curate the space, and i rely on them to find the gems. This is the heart of personal knowledge management: instead of interacting with everyone, interact with the effective filterers, the people who add layers of interpretation and value. Publishers still have a core role, but it’s an evolving one: their ability to curate a space, to define collections of work, to help authors create compelling and peer reviewed stories is vital, but they have to move beyond that.
The book is not dead, indeed, it never will be. But it’s evolving. Publishers have a role to play, but within a new ecosystem of knowledge and distribution. They need to evolve.