Monday, May 22, 2006

The New Life of Books: New Packaging, New Features, New Channels

One of the more interesting moments in my travels last week was coming out of a conference session at BookExpo in Washington, DC and having one of those field-level promo people shove a flier in my hand for...podcasts? Yes, podcasting books was a fairly hot trend at BookExpo this year, along with a variety of packaging options. As outlined in last week's Library Journal article ideas for packaging books more effectively in digital form are beginning to include not only text but virtually any media that can be encapsulated in digital packaging, including links, comments and community features. Other tools such as Osoft's rechristened DotReader (formerly ThoutReader) emphasize the role of premium books as but one source of media that people can to share with their peers to be productive in a Web-centric distribution environment. All of these developments, though, seem to be at odds somewhat with the editorial processes that create books as we know them today.

It's still a fairly laborious process that creates a book, which in some part is responsible for their lasting value but also for their increasing challenges in meeting the needs of a content marketplace that's addicted to online content. Chris Anderson noted in his presentation at BookExpo that blogs and other forms of online content were about external context and whereas books are about internal context, capturing ideas versus exploring ideas. I think of it as the difference between a jam between jazz musicians jamming and a symphony: one form is born to improvisation and updates while the other is crafted for eternity. The question being, though: who's writing symphonies these days? The beauty of books is that they can be crafted for the ages, yet most of the money in books is from content that has much less lofty goals.

As more online "symphonies" come into being, the editorial processes that have defined the creation of long-lasting books are likely to get more in line with online production processes and leave the question of what a book is increasingly in the hands of authors and the audiences that are attracted to their content instead of in the hands of traditional publishers. Online works such as Wikipedia hint at our ability to create lasting human knowledge in a new editorial regimen quite divorced from the book industry and yet with many book-like characteristics in its overall value. We're still waiting for the debut of that first great online novel, but with the rapid development of publishing technologies that can enable the creation of new kinds of books its time will be doubtless upon us quite soon.
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