Hyper(digital)book Futures

The last time I spent any great deal of time writing and thinking about e-books, it seemed like they were the thing of the future, and that with a little bit of practice, adjustment, and technological development, the digital text would be able to replace the printed one. This was to be a great thing: with production costs greatly reduced, more people could publish their work, with less overhead, and books could be sold for substantially cheeper while still increasing profit margins. Besides all of the technological benefits (searching, indexing, tranclusion), e-books had (have?) the potential to re/democratise publishing writing and reading. While we may yet see a system that will revolutionize the digital "book," it seems pretty safe to call the ebook a failure. Perhaps its the fault of the DRM efforts to overprotect text which limited accessibility, and perhaps it's the fault of the hardware developers to produce an affordable, open device. In any case, we're not there.

A few friends of mine, scoff predictably at any mention of the ebook because they "fail to understand how people read," and while this is part of the puzzle, it also seems to me that they fail to understand how we write--if you're reading this, I do indeed know that the distinction isn't that large. I don't think it's productive to retort to the argument that people's attention span flies out the window when they're in-front of a screen, because I think we have a similar attention span problem with paper, the ritual of turning pages (literally) lets us "reset," as do the blank pages and space around chapter/part breaks. It's significantly easier to "chunk" and "chart progress" a book than it is a column of text. Writers (and editors), on some level, are aware of this, and can organize books destined for print in a way that uses these breaks to help the way that a book is consumed. Even though in the loosest sense a book is just a collection of words, the materiality of books contributes/constructs our experience of the words, and when you try and take the words of the book, and put them in a different format: it doesn't work (as well). E-books fail because we keep trying to simply republish p-books electronically, and keep failing because they're not structured or written in a form that would be productive.

The truth is, I think, that no one really has a clue how write the digital equivalent of a book yet, because they aren't really books as we know them. We, both specifically at TealArt and the internet in general, tend toward shorter serializations, I think in large part because of the blog, but also because it's hard to expect (or want) the kind of devotion to blogs that people often have for books. We read books one at a time, sometimes we'll have our fingers in two or three, but rarely more than that; whereas we read dozens or even hundreds of websites concurrently. Digital writers need to be able to address the way that we approach digital reading, and while there's a lot of this that has to happen on the publication end, and though I don't have any empirical justification [1] for this it seems that there are stylistic concerns on the level of the paragraph that need to be addressed for electronic literature to "work."

At the same time, I think there is a place for another electronic writing form that isn't just a translation of a book into a digital format, or a sort of print-lite text, but allows authors to engage with a subject or story in a substantive and sustained way that has more depth than the short forms that have already succeeded on the web. I'm not sure what the format would be both from a technological and rhetorical perspective, but I can see some sort of easily serializable xml formating that allows for easy paragraphical numbering, and shorter paragraphs, perhaps we'll call it the dbook. You heard it here first.

As a corollary, I suppose, this is why I'm so interested and supportive of the PDF format: its basically universal, and it allows writers and creators to reliably control the way that a text is presented. I think if we're going to see viable electronic editions of print books, they'll have to be in PDF [2] format. This isn't the wave of the future in terms of "new media" and "new writing" but its something that needs to happen as part of a transition.

Thanks for reading, and I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on what kind of stylistic concerns long form digital writing might entail, or your thoughts on the reading/writing experience of electronic books and literature. I'll be back in a week with something else entirely, I'm sure.

cheers, tycho

[1]whadda want? it's a blog, consider it off the cuff theorizing.
[2]Project Gutenberg publishes all of their public domain texts using ASCII text, which while arguably the most accessible digital format, doesn't have a lot of the "rich" formating, or the paper-like qualities that you might want.
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